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Will Governor Clear the Way for Next Stage in Reforming Troubled Port Authority?

At issue for bill awaiting Christie’s signature: more legislative oversight over the agency, a key concern supporters argue with multibillion dollar projects in the pipeline

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Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen

The next move in the ongoing efforts to reform the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in the wake of the Bridgegate scandal is up to Gov. Chris Christie.

A Port Authority reform bill sponsored by New Jersey Democrats that has passed both houses of the state Legislature is now sitting on Christie’s desk. The governor has endorsed much of the bill’s language, yet he’s not expected to sign it. And he’s already vetoed another attempt by lawmakers to reform the Port Authority back in 2014.

Further complicating matters is the fact there is another bill introduced by a top Republican that Christie appears to favor more. This measure has not yet come up for a vote.

The legislation before Christie, a second-term Republican, is the latest wrinkle in a long and tortuous argument over what to do about the agency in the wake a series of unpopular toll hikes in 2011 and 2013’s lane-closure scandal. Democrats feel strongly that lawmakers in New Jersey and New York should have more direct oversight of the agency. New Jersey Republicans have argued that reorganizing top Port Authority jobs and requiring more transparency and financial accounting is enough to do the job.

What remains to be seen now is whether Christie rejects the Democrats’ measure outright, or issues a conditional veto with changes that would turn it into the less stringent bill that Christie has previously signaled he prefers. That bill has also already been signed into law in New York, which is important because the Port Authority is a bistate agency, and any legislation rewriting its guidelines must be approved by the legislatures and governors in New York and New Jersey.

Many expect Christie to issue a conditional veto, though his office did not tip its hand when asked about the issue on Friday. Doing so would put new pressure on New Jersey lawmakers to consider getting at least some reform in place before the agency takes on several large projects, including a new Manhattan bus terminal and the planned Gateway tunnel under the Hudson River.

The version of the reform bill now sitting on Christie’s desk won final approval in the New Jersey Legislature last week when the Assembly voted 67-0-6 in its favor. The same bill cleared the state Senate in February by a 25-9 margin.

The New Jersey bill incorporates the version passed by New York lawmakers and signed into law last year by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is a Democrat. But it also goes several steps further, adding a provision that would give lawmakers in each state the power to compel top Port Authority officials to appear before them.

The New Jersey bill would also require more independent oversight of capital projects. And it removes a change impacting union contracts and collective-bargaining rules that was inserted at the last minute into the New York bill. Specifically, that addition would upset the internal-affairs process that Port Authority police officers are now subject to under their labor agreements with the agency.

“This legislation is comprehensive in nature and tackles the key elements that we have been concerned with -- incorporating legislative oversight, fiscal safeguards, transparency, and accountability,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen).

“Cumulatively, these provisions will help transform an agency once mired in waste, abuse, and scandal into one that operates with the best interests of tri-state commuters in mind," said Huttle, a sponsor of the bill and one of the lawmakers who served on the special legislative committee that probed Bridgegate.

But the New Jersey legislation also contains key features of the original New York bill, including a requirement to rotate the agency’s influential chairman’s position every two years between the two states. Further, both bills would install a chief executive officer to run the agency on a daily basis, replacing the current executive director-deputy executive director leadership structure that’s been blamed for ramping up the tension and conflict between the two states as they fight for the agency’s transportation dollars.

Financial reporting, accountability, and transparency rules would also be changed under both bills. But the bill that adds in legislative oversight isn’t the only reform measure that’s been introduced in New Jersey. Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) has also crafted a bill that mirrors the New York version, but it has not been posted for a vote.

Christie spokesman Brian Murray pointed to the Kean Jr. bill when asked Friday about the governor’s consideration of the reform legislation that’s now on his desk.

“The governor has been strongly supportive of Senator Kean’s legislative effort to enact the standard of reforms outlined by Gov. Christie and Gov. Cuomo nearly two years ago,” Murray said.

The push to put such tight controls on the Port Authority has come in the wake of what federal prosecutors say was a plot carried out in 2013 by two former Port Authority officials with close ties to Christie and a former member of Christie’s inner circle in Trenton. The three Christie allies, prosecutors allege, used the George Washington Bridge to settle a political vendetta against the mayor of Fort Lee, who did not endorse Christie’s 2013 reelection campaign.

Christie has denied any involvement or prior knowledge of the lane closures, which caused massive traffic jams for several days in Fort Lee. A trial of his former allies is scheduled for later this year.

Lawmakers from both parties in New Jersey have said the reform effort picked up new importance this year as the agency has moved forward with plans to replace its flagship bus terminal in Manhattan. The Port Authority is also playing a major role in the federal government’s Gateway tunnel project, and the total cost of the two projects combined could be $30 billion or more.

The sponsors of the reform bill that’s now on Christie’s desk say those pricy projects underscore why the increased legislative oversight they’re seeking remains worth fighting for.

“These projects are critical to New Jersey’s future, and it is crucial that we have the ability to monitor the cost and progress of these and other projects on an ongoing basis in the years ahead,” said Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen).

“The fact is that legislative oversight is public oversight, and history shows that no agency needs oversight more than the Port Authority,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen).

Recent comments by New York Assemblyman James Brennan (D-Brooklyn), the primary sponsor of the legislation that’s already been signed into law in New York, should give them some hope that lawmakers across the river could see merit in their version of the reform bill. Brennan said in a news release last week that the New Jersey version now deserves to get a serious look from Christie and Cuomo.

“These additions to the bill add value and Gov. Cuomo and Gov. Christie should consider and acknowledge the added value as this legislation progresses,” Brennan said.

But Kean Jr. issued his own statement that said the current New Jersey version of the reform bill has “zero chance of becoming law” because Christie and Cuomo have both already indicated their support for the other version. He favors putting his own version up for a vote in New Jersey, which could come soon if Christie ends up issuing a conditional veto.

“There is broad, bipartisan agreement on both sides of the Hudson that we need to implement S-355 to increase transparency, improve efficiency, and prevent abuses at the Port Authority,” Kean Jr. said. “Despite this, New Jersey Senate and Assembly Democrats remain a roadblock to enacting this critical Port Authority reform legislation.”

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