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No Easy Answers for Port Authority Reform on Either Side of the Hudson

NJ Democrats are pushing for a veto override, while some Republicans favor a new compromise bill -- and the outcome here will affect reform efforts in the Empire State

port authority bus terminal

Lawmakers have tried numerous times to force reform on the embattled Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, most recently in the wake of the significant toll and fare hikes rushed into effect in 2011 and then again after the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal played out last year.

All of those efforts have failed.

Yet Republicans and Democrats in the New Jersey Senate -- in the wake of vetoes handed down late last year by both Gov. Chris Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo -- say that change still needs to come to an agency that spends more money each year than many states.

The legislative leaders from both parties are pitching their respective strategies as the best path to finally achieving the type of reform at the Port Authority that’s been long sought by commuters frustrated with soaring costs, wasteful spending, and long-bus terminal lines.

For Democrats, who control the Senate by a 24-16 margin, that means putting the vetoed Port Authority reform legislation up for an override vote. Identical reform measures passed both houses of the New Jersey Legislature last year and were also approved by lawmakers in New York’s as well.

But that bill -- which no legislator voted against in either New Jersey or New York -- was vetoed by both Christie and Cuomo days after Christmas, killing the reform effort. Now, an override is necessary in New Jersey, where lawmakers have yet to successfully override the governor since he took office in early 2010.

Override vote scheduled in NJ

The first override vote is scheduled for March 16 in the Senate, where a top Republican has also proposed a competing measure that takes material from both the Democrats’ bill and a list of recommendations put forward late last year by a task force the governors impaneled to closely study the Port Authority.

In New York, which started a new legislative session at the beginning of the year, lawmakers have reintroduced the reform measure and are working to send it back to Cuomo.

A successful override in the New Jersey Senate and eventually in the Assembly, where Democrats also hold a wide majority, would overcome Christie’s veto and apply new pressure on Cuomo and lawmakers in New York.

The way the New Jersey Democrats see it, Republicans here who voted unanimously in favor of the same bill along with them last September should stick to their original votes.

“When the governor is wrong or the governor is trying to hide something, we have to step up and speak out,” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) during a conference call with reporters yesterday.

They also don’t think it would be smart to pass a new measure such as the one proposed as a compromise by Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) because that would mean starting the process all over again in New York. Kean Jr., who says he’s reached out to officials in New York, has already had to tweak his proposal once in response to criticism from one of the key lawmakers across the river, who called his first draft a “nonstarter.”

“I think they’re really desperate for any kind of cover,” said Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen).

The Democrats here also say their GOP counterparts should have a sense of urgency when it comes to the Port Authority.

And with Christie, a Republican, now turning his attention to a run for U.S. president in 2016, they want the Republican lawmakers to consider what’s best for their state and not just the governor.

“The Republicans in the Senate have the ability to step up and reconfirm their vote,” Sweeney said. “This issue is too important to back away from.”

Tighter ethics rules, more openness

The Democrats’ bill would put a number of new policies in place to tighten up the agency’s transparency and ethics rules. For example, there would be new standards established to require annual, independent audits and to prevent “sweetheart” real-estate deals.

“I think we have a rare window of opportunity,” said Gordon, a leading sponsor of the legislation. “I think there is a window of opportunity that we need to take advantage of.”

But Kean Jr. said it’s the bill he’s introducing as a compromise, pulling ideas from the both Democrats’ measure and the proposals put forward late last year by the governors’ task force, that has the best chance of reaching the finish line.

“What I have offered is the best common-ground approach,” Kean Jr. said in an interview.

And though Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Warren) has already said he will vote with the Democrats to override Christie, Kean Jr. declared Republicans would not provide all three votes needed to override the governor in the Senate later this month.

“My caucus always votes for the best solutions,” he said.

The bill Kean Jr. has proposed -- it was to be formally introduced yesterday but a snowstorm forced the cancellation of a planned Senate session -- includes some key features of the Democrats’ legislation, including creating with the force of law the positions of chief ethics officer and inspector general.

His bill would also create the position of chief executive officer, a feature of the report issued by the governors’ task force. That would replace the current leadership arrangement, which involves an executive director and deputy executive director serving as political appointments of the governors.

Kean Jr.’s bill would also force the agency to refocus on its core transportation mission, another key component of the task force’s recommendations.

“My approach is the only one that truly reaches into the Port Authority,” Kean Jr. said.

His measure also won praise yesterday from Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts.

“The governor believes Sen. Kean's bill contains many of the best elements of reform that have been discussed by both parties,” Roberts said. “The governor's office looks forward to playing a constructive role as the Legislature considers this important bill.”

Democrats, GOP differ on some details

But the Democrats picked through Kean Jr.’s bill yesterday nearly line by line, pointing out areas that they said are still lacking. Transparency and capital-project monitoring standards set in their bill would effectively be eliminated, and it would be harder for lawmakers to compel Port Authority officials to appear before them, they argued.

And, since any reform measure will need to be passed again by both houses of the Legislature in New York to get to Cuomo’s desk, they said starting over there with a new bill jeopardizes the entire effort.

“If we start over with the Kean bill as the foundation, we have to start over with New York,” Gordon said.

Kean Jr. counters that the Democrats’ legislation has already stalled in New York as lawmakers there seek more input from Cuomo, a Democrat whom he doubts will change his mind. Kean Jr. said he believes his bill is “the only piece of legislation that will pass all four chambers and be signed into law by both governors.”

In terms of the politics, Matthew Hale, a Seton Hall University political science professor, said both the Democrats and Kean Jr. are pursuing winning strategies.

For Sweeney and the Democrats, it makes sense to hammer away at the governor and the notion that backroom deals are preventing meaningful reform.

“All of that is good politics for the Democrats,” Hale said.

He also said Kean Jr. could win points as well for proposing what looks to be a meaningful compromise on an issue currently at an impasse.

“Kean could end up looking pretty good in all of this,” Hale said.

But he added their efforts assume the Port Authority can be effectively reformed, and that both governors would allow meaningful reform to go into effect.

“I think the powers that the governors have with the Port Authority, the revenue that comes in, that’s just power you don’t want to give up,” Hale said.

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