N.J. top legislative leaders: Vetoes won't stop Port Authority reforms

BY DUSTIN RACIOPPI The Record

Two days after Governor Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed legislation to reform the Port Authority, a clear lack of consensus reigned among New Jersey lawmakers trying to plot their next move.

One Democratic senator said Monday that an attempt to override the veto was “not completely off the table,” while another said there just wasn’t enough time to act. A Republican assemblywoman said she’s already started writing new reform legislation, but the leaders of both houses have not committed to a strategy going forward.

The only agreement so far seems to be that the Port Authority is high on everyone’s State House agenda in 2015.

“This is very complex,” Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto said. “It takes two legislatures and two governors to get it done, and we thought, given it had bipartisan support, it should have gone through, but we may be just starting from square one at the beginning of the year.”

Earlier Monday, Prieto and Senate President Stephen Sweeney issued a joint statement saying both houses “will consider all options as we weigh our next steps and plan to reach out to the legislative leaders in New York to discuss their plans and continued cooperation.”

While lawmakers in New York did not return calls Monday, several said in recent published interviews that an override would not happen in their chambers. Such a vote would be unlikely, since the legislative session expires at the end of the year. However, they believe legislation is still needed to hold the Port Authority accountable for its actions.

Legislatures in both states unanimously passed a package of ethics, administrative and financial reforms at the Port Authority and sent them to the desks of each governor this month. While lawmakers crafted and voted on those bills, a panel formed by the two governors was drafting its own set of reforms, which is much more ambitious and, they say, more comprehensive.

An override vote in the New Jersey Legislature, which is heading into the second year of its two-year session, would be required to begin in the Senate. Sen. Robert Gordon, D-Fair Lawn, the majority conference leader, said he had to “make a decision on that.”

Prieto said he would support such a vote but only if it happened in both states; otherwise “it becomes kind of a futile effort.”

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood, a primary sponsor of the reforms, said an override vote would be worth the effort.

“Both governors ignored the people,” she said, “and we represent the people as legislators.”

Most important, lawmakers agree, is keeping momentum on reforming the Port Authority.

Assemblywoman Amy Handlin, R-Monmouth, spent the weekend going through the 103-page report released by the panel formed by the two governors to study reform at the Port Authority. Handlin has sponsored legislation in the past to make changes to the bi-state agency, and she resurrected portions of it on Monday.

“We reconvene in 15 days, and at that time I have every intention of showing up with a pile of new bills,” said Handlin, who is also on the joint committee investigating the George Washington Bridge lane closures of 2013.

“Hand-wringing will get us nowhere. It is a new year. This time we’re very close, we’ve come a long way and all the voices have been heard,” she added. “Now it’s time to look for points of agreement and begin negotiating on points of contention.”

Sen. Loretta Weinberg, who is also on the investigative panel, said she still isn’t clear how to proceed or what measures would satisfy the governors. The two men said Saturday that they endorsed the spirit of the legislation, but they instead offered the panel’s recommendations, including a number of organizational changes, divesting the authority of its real estate holdings and creating a chief ethics and compliance officer.

Weinberg, D-Teaneck, said those types of changes are largely structural and the two legislatures’ reforms were mostly procedural: whistle-blower protections, strict guidelines for toll and fare increases and tougher rules on conflicts of interest included.

“They have not said one word about anything that’s wrong with the legislation,” she said. “They think this was a clever way to undermine open accountability and transparency. I don’t think it was clever. We’re going to have to keep an eye on them.”

New Jersey Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. said that while the legislation sent to the governors “was a good first step,” the panel report “is a better, more holistic approach.”

“This is a time-sensitive issue,” Kean, R-Union, added. “I think we can get this done in a timely fashion.”

Email: racioppi@northjersey.com