Why Christie and Cuomo kneecapped reform of Port Authority: Moran

By Tom Moran Star Ledger Editorial Board

When governors act righteously, they hold televised news conferences at noon. When they act deviously, they issue written statements on Friday evening and scurry home for cover.

But when they act indefensibly, and sink into the company of serpents and snakes, they make their move on Saturday night of Christmas weekend, hoping the odor passes before the new week begins.

And so it should come as no surprise that Gov. Chris Christie and his slithery partner, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.), chose that time to kneecap a sensible reform of the Port Authority.

“This was a spineless move,” says Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle (D-Bergen), one of the sponsors.

The bills the two governors killed in their Saturday night massacre was a modest bit work, full of apple-pie reforms like requiring commissioners to follow standard rules on ethics, hold open meetings and release public records.

They won unanimous approval in the legislatures of both states. This was supposed to be the easy part, the first step towards a bigger reform next year.

But do these governors even want reform? They have used the Port Authority to their own benefit for years, neither of them lifting a finger to reform it during their collective nine years in office.

To them, the Port Authority is a pot of gold in tough budget times, and a source of patronage for political friends. Its budget is bigger than 26 states, and the money is spent without legislative approval, just the signatures of the governors themselves.

Why would they want to change that? Christie has avoided raising the gas tax by diverting billions of dollars in toll money for projects like rebuilding the Pulaski Skyway. He set records for patronage, putting more than 50 of his friends in cushy Port Authority jobs.

Cuomo could have stopped any of this, and so bears exactly half the blame for it. He apparently likes this arrangement, too. The Port Authority, after all, approved a budget that includes a $1 billion kitty for the governors to draw on as they see fit, a petty cash fund on steroids.

Both governors know they can’t possibly justify this, or Bridgegate, or the unfathomable $14 tolls that means the average Jersey commuter to New York City now pays more to cross the Hudson River than he or she pays in state income taxes.

What to do? How can they delay reform without looking like a couple of hacks? And at a time like this?

Christie is preparing to learn if federal prosecutors will bring indictments in the Bridgegate scandal. With his hopes for the White House still alive in his own mind, he can’t afford another hit on ethics.

And neither can Cuomo, whose decision earlier this year to disband his own commission on corruption appalled even his supporters and prompted its own federal investigation.

The two governors had a private lunch Tuesday at Il Villaggio in Carlstadt, no doubt putting the final touches on their strategy. They would call for more ambitious reforms, and embrace the findings of a commission headed by John Degnan, a respected figure who was appointed as chairman of the agency after Bridgegate, and who has begun the cleanup.

Degnan’s reforms are bigger. He would drain $600 million from the governor’s slush fund, for example, and devote it to transit projects. He would empower the agency’s board appoint a single executive director, ending the two-headed-monster structure that has created rival camps from each state. He would wean the agency from its real estate business.

“The two governors are on the side of core reform, not biting around the edges,” Degnan says.

Here’s the tricky part: Those bigger reforms are more contentious, and so were put off to be part of Round Two in each legislature next year. And since no reform can pass without identical bills in each state, that will be a heavy political lift that could take years.

So why veto the first round of reform? Why hold the apple-pie reforms hostage to the uncertain success of the larger reform?

My guess is that these governors don’t want to reform an agency that gives them more money and power. They want instead to appear as reformers.

That kind of cynical stunt is not beyond either of these two. Remember their game over the toll hikes: They secretly got their people at the Port Authority to propose a hike that was even bigger so they could appear to be heroes when they scaled it back.

These vetoes have all the markings of another cynical stunt like that. Which explains why they did it on Christmas weekend, with no TV cameras in sight.

Tom Moran may be reached at tmoran@starledger.com or 
(973) 836-4909.