Republicans and Democrats in the New Jersey Senate may have just fought to a stalemate on Port Authority reform, but the sponsors of competing legislation say they will push ahead with the same goal of bringing more transparency and accountability to the bistate agency.
Whether they can put political differences aside and work together remains to be seen.
Democrats in the Senate tried unsuccessfully yesterday afternoon to override Gov. Chris Christie’s rejection of their reform legislation. That bill had won unanimous approval from both houses of the legislatures in New Jersey and New York last year in the wake of the George Washington Bridge lane -counterpart, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat.
Holding a 24-16 advantage in the Senate, Democrats needed to convince only three Republicans to stick to their original votes to get a successful override yesterday. But the bill’s sponsors were only able to muster one, from Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Warren).
“Obviously, we are very disappointed at the result,” said Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen) afterward.
Because any Port Authority reform bill passed in New Jersey also requires approval in New York to go into effect,
Gordon said lawmakers here will now resume talks with their legislative counterparts across the river. But he made clear the bill that has already won approval from lawmakers in both states will serve as the starting point, and that they’re in the fight for the long haul.
“Even if we have to wait for some new governors, we’re going to get this done,” Gordon said.
Another sponsor, Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), also pledged to keep going on an effort that she said began in the wake of toll and fare hikes that were approved by the Port Authority in 2011 after only limited opportunities for the public to weigh in.
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.
“We will work to do anything and everything that we have to do to get a strong accountability and transparency bill,” Weinberg said.
But Republicans have thrown their support behind a measure sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) that’s been billed as a compromise. The Kean Jr. bill — which was not posted for a vote yesterday — combines ideas from the Democrats’ legislation with a host of recommendations that were put forward late last year by a panel convened by the governors to find ways to fix the Port Authority.
During the debate on the floor yesterday, Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth) called both the bridge scandal and the toll hikes “outrageous,” and conceded he was tempted to vote to override Christie, a one-time ally who has never seen any of his vetoes overcome by lawmakers since taking office in early 2010.
But Kyrillos instead called for consensus, praising Gordon for seeking input from Republicans and Kean Jr. for his efforts to find a way to merge the Democrats’ goals with those of the gubernatorial panel.
“The real goal is to get reform over an agency that needs it,” Kyrillos said. “Let’s get it done right.”
The bill Kean Jr. has proposed 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 appointees of the governors.
Kean Jr.’s bill, which has been praised by Christie’s spokesman, would also force the agency to refocus on its core transportation mission, another key component of the task force’s recommendations.
He said yesterday if Democrats would work with him “we can get this done in weeks.”
“We should focus on the best of efficiency, the best of transparency, the best of oversight,” he said.
Republicans, meanwhile, also had to navigate yesterday the difficult topic of having at one time approved as a group the exact same piece of legislation that this time only one of them voted for.
Some Republicans explained their change of heart by saying the override effort, even if successful, would have been futile. New York has already started a new legislative session this year, taking away the option of an override across the river. And though the reform bill has been reintroduced there, they said it would likely draw another veto from Cuomo if it made it that far again.
Others, citing the new ideas raised by the task force months after the original reform bill was passed, called for more cooperation between New Jersey senators toward the common goal of reforming the Port Authority.
“This is about getting the best of all the bills that are out there,” said Sen. Joseph Pennacchio (R-Morris).
And Doherty, the lone Republican vote to override Christie, said he will be voting in the future for any measure that seeks to clean up the Port Authority, an agency he repeatedly called “corrupt.”
But Democrats said Kean Jr.’s bill doesn’t go far enough when it comes to transparency and monitoring standards. They also argued it would be harder for lawmakers to compel Port Authority officials to appear before them in the future.
“We had the right bill in front of us and we couldn’t get the extra two votes,” Weinberg said.
They also questioned yesterday whether Republicans would keep up their interest in the Port Authority, saying it took the bridge scandal and not Christie’s 2012 veto of another piece of reform legislation sent to him in the wake of the toll hikes to finally get them to pay attention.
Gordon accused his Republican colleagues of catching “acute spinal insufficiency.”
“To stand here almost four years later and hear about this interest in reforming the Port Authority, somehow I don’t have a lot of confidence in it,” Weinberg said.