Dem-backed PA Reform Bill Clears Senate Committee

By David Cruz

Today’s meeting of the Senate government committee started in the hallway outside the committee room as lawmakers tried to hammer out a compromise Port Authority reform bill that might make its way to the full Senate on what promises to be a long, possibly fruitless, journey across the river to begin a similar journey — in New York. Sen. Jim Whelan, of Atlantic City, still angry from the news this week about a potential state takeover of his hometown, seemed not too pleased to have to go break up the hallway confab in an effort to get the ball rolling.

“Admittedly, coming from my section of the state, when I hear Port Authority, I think about the Walt Whitman and the Ben Franklin, which is, you know, a different universe,” snarked Whelan to open the session.

The Port Authority of the north has been the subject of heated rhetoric in the Legislature since the toll hikes of 2011, and you’ve probably heard about all the GWB lane closure business that happened after that. In the wake of all that, lawmakers in both houses in both states passed PA reform legislation, which was then vetoed by both governors, sending everyone back to the drawing board.

“Last June, without any hearings, New York passed a bill in one week that contained many of the ethics and transparency reforms contained in our original bill but completely left out legislative oversight, project management and capital budgeting provisions we felt were absolutely essential,” noted Sen. Bob Gordon.

Since both states have to pass identical bills, and the New Jersey Democrats’ version (S-708) differs from the New York version, Republican Tom Kean implored the committee to approve his bill (S-355), which matches the New York version and wouldn’t require another vote in New York.

“S-355 has common ground support by Republicans in New York, Democrats in New York, in the Legislature, Gov. Cuomo of New York and Gov. Christie of New Jersey,” countered Kean. “We’ve been pushing these reforms for a year now. Let’s focus on this common ground and if we need to move forward on additional pieces of legislation, let’s do that in a subsequent bill.”

But Democrats say their bill — among other things — requires more stringent oversight of large building projects and formalizes the Legislature’s power to subpoena Port Authority officials.

“Legislative oversight is public oversight and no agency in the United States needs more public oversight than the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, an agency with a budget bigger than 26 states,” she said.

But Republican Sam Thompson called Democrats out for what he said was an effort to try to wait out the governor. “We passed legislation before and then you tried overrides on it, etc., and quite frankly I’m getting tired and resenting your comments and the media’s comments suggesting that the members of the Republican Legislature are just lackeys waiting for the governor to tell us what to do,” he snapped. “I’ll suggest that maybe you’re just lackeys of the Senate president because 24 of you keep going uniformly in one direction.”

To no one’s surprise, the Democratic version of the bill emerged from the Democratically-controlled committee, a new Port Authority reform bill, with a lot of good intentions, but not, it seems, enough support on the other side of the river.