Christie, Cuomo urged to sign Port Authority reform bills

By John Steasley The Record

Politicians and advocates from New York and New Jersey urged governors Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday to approve two bills reforming Port Authority procedures.

The two bills hold the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to higher standards of transparency and accountability. They were passed unanimously by both states’ legislative bodies. Cuomo and Christie must now decide the bills’ fates. The bills will be sent to Cuomo by mid-December. Christie has until Dec. 28 to act. Both governors must approve the bills for them to take effect.

“I’m confident he’s going to sign it,” New Jersey state Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle said of Christie, after remarking that she had recently raised the issue in person with the governor. Sen. Robert Gordon wasn’t as confident, but still hoped Christie would sign.

“Governor Christie said he was going to usher in a new era of transparency and accountability. Here’s a chance for him to do that,” Gordon said.

The bills enforce laws about open meetings, financial disclosure and public records. Currently, the Port Authority, as a bi-state agency, is exempt from public records laws. The bills also require the agency to submit detailed budgets, undergo annual independent audits and hold at least six public hearings before voting on proposed toll increases.

The debate over how to reform the Port Authority comes as a panel appointed by both governors is expected to propose its own reforms in the coming weeks. It's unclear if those recommendations will affect the proposed bills before the governors, or if they will cover the same ground.

In 2011, the Port Authority was widely criticized when it held all eight public meetings to discuss proposed toll hikes on the same day. Under these bills, public meetings must be much more accessible.

State Sen. Raymond Lesniak, who was not at the press conference, supports the bills, but also feels that more reform is needed. He has called for the dissolution of the agency’s Regional Bank for Economic Development, a fund that governors of New York and New Jersey have used to funnel money to their pet projects or causes. Since the mid-1980s, $1.5 billion in contributions has been withdrawn from the fund and given to projects that sometimes have little or no connection to the Port Authority’s mission statement.

“It’s misuse of toll money, and it’s used for political purposes,” Lesniak said. He also criticized the governance of the Port Authority, another aspect that is not addressed by either bill. “There needs to be independent members on the board [who] are not just tied to the two governors,” he said.

Elected officials said Tuesday that it was a tactical decision not to include language about governance.

“There is no doubt that the governance structure of the Port Authority cries out for change,” Gordon said. “There’s certainly no shortage of issues to deal with. We thought that transparency and accountability was sort of a rational collection of subjects to deal with in one bill, and once we got that done we’d move on to other things.”