While the Port Authority is moving forward with plans to approve $32 billion in capital spending later this month, several key reforms proposed in the wake of Bridgegate are still stalled in the New Jersey Senate with little hope for a breakthrough.
A conditional veto of Port Authority reform legislation issued by Gov. Chris Christie eight months ago has yet to be put up for a concurrence vote or for an override by the Senate’s Democratic leaders, effectively leaving the reforms in limbo.
The Democrats say they prefer the stricter management and transparency included in their original version of the bill, even as top Republicans have criticized them for delaying reform. But the Democrats have a new reason for standing pat – keeping Port Authority Chairman John Degnan of New Jersey in the bistate agency’s powerful top spot as the 10-year capital plan moves toward final approval. Simply put: As long as the new bill crafted by the Democrats remains stalled, Degnan remains in the chairman’s position.
Degnan has used the chairman’s position to advocate forcefully for billions of dollars in funding for a new Port Authority Bus Terminal and other projects that are considered to be top priorities for New Jersey commuters. But once the Port Authority reform bill is enacted it will trigger a rotation policy for the chairman’s position. That means Degnan would be replaced by an official appointed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has shown little interest in the bus-terminal project and has received no public pushback for ignoring it from Christie.
“John Degnan is the only thing that stands between a complete New York takeover of that place (the Port Authority), or a complete Andrew Cuomo takeover of that place,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen).
Lawmakers have been trying to pass reform legislation ever since the 2013 lane closures at the Port Authority’s George Washington Bridge, which were carried out by Christie’s allies at the bistate agency. An initial bill was approved unanimously by the legislatures in both states in 2014 in the wake of the scandal, but that version was vetoed later that year by both Christie, a Republican, and Cuomo, a Democrat. Because the Port Authority is a bistate agency, major changes must be passed by lawmakers in both states and signed into law by both governors to take effect.
The governors — who also have veto power over Port Authority actions — instead pitched recommendations from a report drafted by a panel of experts that they asked to look at the agency in the wake of Bridgegate. In 2015, New York’s Legislature passed what was billed as a hybrid measure incorporating the panel’s recommendations and some of the original reforms sought by the lawmakers; Cuomo later signed that bill into law but it does not take effect unless New Jersey follows suit.
The hybrid bill would, among other changes, create the position of chief executive officer to replace the current leadership arrangement, which involves an executive director and deputy executive director serving as political appointments of the governors. It would also fill the chairman’s position on a two-year rotating basis, meaning Degnan, who currently fills the role, would immediately be supplanted by a New York appointee.
Democratic lawmakers in New Jersey initially balked at the hybrid effort because it lacked the direct legislative oversight that they sought to codify in the original reform measure. They pitched a new bill giving lawmakers subpoena power, and the updated New Jersey measure easily cleared both houses of the New Jersey Legislature in early 2016 before going to Christie for consideration.
But Christie’s conditional veto sent the issue back to the New Jersey Senate in May 2016. A host of his proposed recommendations sought to effectively turn the bill back into the hybrid measure. In the CV message, the governor also said tougher oversight requirements could force the Port Authority to spend millions on redundant outside audits.
“This and similar provisions that increase the costs of Port Authority projects and operations through duplicative oversight, notice, or hearing requirements are detrimental to the toll-paying public,” Christie wrote in the veto message.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) has thus far refused to put Christie’s conditional veto up for a vote. If it were approved by the Senate and Assembly in New Jersey, it would mean the reforms would be enacted virtually right away because they’ve already been approved in New York.
“There are still a lot of issues at the Port Authority,” Sweeney said during a recent interview. “I feel strongly about the bill that we passed that the governor vetoed.”
Degnan, a Christie appointee and a Democrat, has drawn praise from lawmakers from both parties in New Jersey for advocating for $3.5 billion in funding for the new bus terminal and other New Jersey priorities in the capital plan, and also for resisting calls from New York officials to move the bus terminal out of midtown Manhattan.
Though it’s not the full $7.5 billion to $10 billion that will be needed to finish a new bus terminal in Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan, the $3.5 billion still represents a substantial commitment to replace the agency’s existing 1950s-era facility, which is already over capacity and has long been a source of frustration for New Jersey commuters. The Port Authority has been holding public hearings to review its proposed $32 billion, 10-year capital plan, with the latest scheduled for tomorrow from 5:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m. at 2 Montgomery Street in Jersey City. A vote to approve the plan has been scheduled for February 16.
But Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) said that when it comes to enacting the Port Authority reforms, the Democrats have done a disservice to the taxpayers of New Jersey by not seeing the bigger picture and putting Christie’s recommendations up for a vote. Though many of the proposed changes have already been made as a matter of policy at the Port Authority, the only way to make them permanent is through law.
“They’re standing in the way of reform, they’re standing in the way of transparency, they’re standing in the way of what’s in the best interest of the taxpayers,” Kean Jr. said of the Democrats.
Weinberg, a sponsor of the original bill, said under different circumstances she’d likely agree with Kean. But with Christie seemingly uninterested in standing up to Cuomo on Port Authority issues, it’s become critical to keep Degnan in the chairman’s seat for as long as possible, she said.
“Degnan is a man of integrity and courage,” Weinberg said.
Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen) agreed, calling Degnan the “first line of defense for New Jersey.”
Christie’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.