Acting DOT Commissioner Gets Grilling, Bipartisan Support in Senate Hearing

Richard Hammer appears to be on track for confirmation in spite of transportation funding impasse

Acting state Transportation Commissioner Richard Hammer is sworn in by lawmakers yesterday at the beginning of the Senate Judiciary Committee's confirmation hearing on his nomination.
It looks like Gov. Chris Christie’s top transportation official will have no problem winning full confirmation even as the governor and the Senate’s leader remain locked in a stalemate over funding needed to pay for transportation projects.

Richard Hammer, acting commissioner of the state Department of Transportation, received unanimous support from the Senate Judiciary Committee during what turned out to be a relatively ordinary hearing in the State House yesterday — held amid some pretty extraordinary circumstances.

For starters, the committee took up Hammer’s nomination as state-funded road, bridge, and rail projects have been stopped throughout the state thanks to an ongoing impasse over renewing the Transportation Trust Fund that has pitted Christie against Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester).

The two men remain at odds over tax cuts that Christie and other Republicans are seeking to help ease the impact of a 23-cent increase of the state gas tax that all sides agree is needed to renew the TTF, which only has enough cash left to get through the end of the month. Sweeney said yesterday that he’s waiting to hear back from the governor after offering up some new proposals for him to consider earlier this week.

The ongoing dispute over transportation funding, and how tightly agency spending will be monitored if the gas tax does go up, were key concerns raised by lawmakers during the afternoon hearing on Hammer’s nomination.

But their grilling of Hammer also came as news broke yesterday afternoon that his predecessor, former state DOT Commissioner Jamie Fox, had been charged in a federal bribery case that also involves David Samson, the former chairman of the Port Authority who led Christie’s 2009 transition team. Though Fox served as Christie’s DOT chief, he held the same position during the administration of former Gov. Jim McGreevey and is a Democrat with close ties to Sweeney and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen). Sweeney issued a statement later in the day expressing disbelief that Fox could have broken the law, calling him “the ultimate statesman.”

Hammer is a longtime employee of the DOT and has risen to become its leader after more than three decades of service. His approval by the Judiciary Committee yesterday now sets up a vote before the full Senate that will likely be held on August 1. By all indications, it appears he should have little problem clearing that final hurdle, with several senators from both parties praising him during the hearing.

“Obviously we’re facing some big challenges in the years ahead, and I’m happy you’re going to be there,” said Committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari (D-Union).

But Hammer also faced some pointed questions as the senators wanted to know more about a seeming about face by the Christie administration on the TTF issue. For months, Christie and Hammer had downplayed concerns raised by lawmakers that the lack of a deal to renew the trust fund was creating a crisis. But when the fiscal year ended on June 30 with no deal in place, Christie issued an executive order beginning an emergency freezing of all non-essential transportation projects that aren’t funded with federal dollars or toll revenue to preserve “health, safety and welfare.”

“What about the impact of shutting down a project on the health and safety of the people of New Jersey?” Weinberg asked Hammer.

Since many of the projects that have been stopped involve state-funded repairs administered at the local and county level, Sen. Robert Smith (D-Middlesex) asked if the state is concerned that contractors could now sue those governments for breach of contract.

“I’m not an attorney, sir,” Hammer said in response. “That’s not the type of question that’s in my purview to answer.”

Lawmakers from both parties also pressed Hammer to keep tight control of agency spending, especially if the 23-cent gas-tax hike that’s backed by Christie, Sweeney, and Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson) is eventually enacted.

Recent reports in the Asbury Park Press have questioned the rebuilding of Route 35 in Ocean County in the wake of significant damage caused by Superstorm Sandy. The paper has reported the project ran $76 million over budget.

A recent nationwide study of roadway spending by the conservative Reason Foundation also ranked New Jersey among the most expensive states when it comes to maintaining highways. But another study by Peter Philips, a University of Utah economics professor, questioned that analysis.

Sen. Mike Doherty (R-Warren) pressed Hammer during the hearing yesterday to offer up any examples of spending that he’s personally questioned or changes he’s sought to make projects come in with a lower price tag.

Hammer cited ongoing work on the Pulaski Skyway that is occurring during a partial road closure. He said that has inconvenienced an estimated 40,000 motorists but helped to hold the line on costs, savings millions.

“Cost is something, as I said in my opening remarks, that is very important to me,” Hammer said. “I treat these dollars as if they are my own.”

Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Bergen) also asked Hammer if he thought it might make sense to let the TTF go bankrupt. The fund is deep in debt, and nearly a third of the proposed 23-cent gas-tax hike will be needed just to help the state keep up with the payments. But Hammer defended the use of the off-budget trust fund to pay for transportation projects, and he made a strong case for it to be renewed.

“I think the TTF is a good tool,” Hammer said. “I think there’s an opportunity here to set the trust fund back on the right path.”

Sweeney, speaking before the hearing, said it’s now up to Christie to respond to the several options that he put on the table during a meeting earlier this week. Christie has thus far supported a renewal plan that’s cleared the Assembly that would pair the 23-cent gas-tax hike with a one percentage point reduction of the state sales tax.

Sweeney has criticized that plan and refused to post it for a vote in the Senate, saying it would blow a $1.6 billion hole in the state budget. Instead, he supports a phasing out of the estate tax and several other targeted tax cuts along with the 23-cent increase.

“I’m waiting for him to come back with a response to what I offered. I said a few days ago, everything is on the table as long as we don’t bust the budget as the Assembly did,” Sweeney said while speaking to reporters yesterday.

“We’ve made some offers, and he’s supposed to get back to me with something,” Sweeney said. “Once he gets back (to me), we’ll look at it and see where we go, but I’m not going to negotiate in the press with it.”