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Fine Print: Can Kean's Proposed Bill Bring Real Reform to Port Authority?

Bill incorporates best of legislation vetoed by Christie and Cuomo, as well as suggestions from their Special Panel on the Port Authority

tom kean jr.
Credit: NJTV

What it is: A bill proposed by Sen. Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) aims to break an impasse over Port Authority reform by incorporating elements from two documents: a bill passed by the New Jersey and New York legislatures last year but vetoed by Govs. Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo, and a set of Special Panel recommendations endorsed by the governors.

What’s in it: Like the vetoed bill, Kean’s proposal would require Port Authority commissioners to hold several public hearings before raising tolls and to testify before legislators upon request, and it would make the bistate agency subject to the state Open Public Records Act and open-meeting requirements. Like the earlier bill, it would establish the positions of chief ethics officer and inspector general in law, and create governance, finance, and audit committees for the board.

Other borrowed elements include a fiduciary oath by commissioners; commissioner recusals from voting on matters in which they have a conflict of interest; whistleblower program and mandate that employees report misconduct to the inspector general; subpoena power for the inspector general; and financial disclosure statements by commissioners. The Port Authority would have to publish its capital plan and budget, and undergo audits.

What’s new: Kean’s proposal would also incorporate changes suggested by the governors’ Special Panel on the Future of the Port Authority. It would establish a single CEO, rather than having an executive director chosen by the New York governor and a deputy executive director chosen by the New Jersey governor. It would also require the Port Authority to focus on its core transportation mission, ending noncore real estate developments and forbidding “regional development” spending on governors’ pet projects.

What’s different: The new bill, which Kean has not yet formally introduced, tinkers with the proposed requirement that commissioners or the CEO testify before the New York and New Jersey legislatures. Kean would require them to appear only if the request is approved by both the presiding officer (such as the Senate president) and the minority leader of the legislative body.

Kean’s bill does not address the Port Authority board’s practice of having a chair from New York and a vice chair from New Jersey. The Special Panel recommended having cochairs or rotating the chairmanship annually. The board voted recently to rotate the position, though that decision is not legally binding.

Already in place: The Port Authority board has already adopted many of the changes outlined in the vetoed bill and the Special Panel report. The board follows public-records and open-meeting rules, has an inspector general and a whistleblower program, and is planning to hire a CEO and a chief ethics officer. It has ended “regional development” spending and pledged to divest its non-transportation-related real estate holdings, though the process could take years.

Creating a law: If passed by both the New York and New Jersey legislatures, and signed by the governors, Kean’s bill would create binding, court-enforceable requirements on the Port Authority. The similar rules already approved by the commissioners do not have the force of law and could be changed by a future board.

Tentative support: Sen. Bob Gordon (D-Bergen), a sponsor of the vetoed bill, reportedly said Kean’s proposal could provide the foundation of a compromise, though he and New York legislators said they wouldn’t support it unless it was clear the governors will sign it. Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) was more skeptical, saying she needed to know whether the new bill was adequate and could pass in New York. Christie and Cuomo have not signaled their positions.

Override in play: New Jersey Senate Democrats are still planning to try to override Christie’s veto of the older bill on March 16. Though that bill passed unanimously last year, Republicans have never supported overrides of Christie vetoes, and an override will require three Republicans in the Senate. New York legislators have also reintroduced the bill with the aim of overriding Cuomo’s veto.

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