Pennsylvania House votes to give Governor Wolf veto over Port Authority board

In a rare move of bipartisanship in Harrisburg, the state House voted unanimously to empower Governor Tom Wolf with a new veto power.

Okay, it is just a veto power over decisions by the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) Board of Commissioners; a power New Jersey governors have enjoyed since 1992, right after the last bi-state compact governing the DRPA was signed.

It’s a small move, but still: bipartisanship! Who knows, maybe this is just the first step in breaking up the logjam blocking a real budget from making its way down the mighty Susquehanna and out of Harrisburg. (Okay, probably not.)

The Pennsylvania House voted 182-0 on Tuesday to pass House Bill 1087, which was introduced by Montgomery County Rep. Mike Vereb (R-150). The DRPA board only votes on major purchases, strategic decisions and authority policies; day-to-day decisions would not be subject to a gubernatorial veto.

Sen. John Rafferty (R-44) says he will introduce an identical bill to Vereb’s before the Transportation committee meets again in early February. Rafferty expects the Senate version of Vereb’s bill to pass before winter’s end, noting that a similar, but not identical, bill of his had already passed the Senate.

Unlike the U.S. Congress, where differences between House and Senate versions of a piece of legislation can be ironed out in a conference committee, both chambers of the General Assembly must pass exactly identical bills.

A spokesman for Gov. Wolf said he supports HB 1087.

Both Rep. Vereb and Sen. Rafferty have also introduced legislation for more sweeping reforms to the DRPA charter to ban economic development spending, mandate biennial audits, and require public disclosure of political contributions from political vendors. The DRPA ended economic development funding for projects linked to politically connected insiders in 2011, but not before racking up $1.6 billion in debt and inspiring federal prosecutors to launch a criminal investigation.

The reform bill would also give the Pennsylvania Senate confirmation authority over the governor’s picks for the DRPA board. Rafferty pointed to Wolf’s appointment of Whitney White, who resigned from the DRPA board shortly after the Daily News revealed White’s series of questionable business dealings, to support the proposed Senate oversight.

Rafferty’s bill passed the Senate 50-0 in 2014, but a House version didn’t reach the floor before the legislative session ended. In addition to Pennsylvania legislation, both the New Jersey legislature and the U.S. Congress would need to pass reform legislation to amend the bi-state authority’s compact. The reform legislation has languished in Trenton, where Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney decides which bills make it to the Senate floor. Sen. Sweeney’s brother, Richard Sweeney, sits on the DRPA board.

The DRPA board consists of sixteen commissioners, eight from each state. New Jersey’s eight commissioners are selected by the Garden State’s governor for 10-year terms; all of the current New Jersey representatives on the DRPA board were selected by former Gov. Jon Corzine. Six of Pennsylvania’s commissioners serve at the pleasure of Pennsylvania’s Governor. The Commonwealth’s treasurer and auditor general also sit on the DRPA board as by virtue of the offices they hold.

Given the veto imbalance, it has been an informal tradition on the DRPA Board to select a Pennsylvania commissioner as chair and a New Jersey commissioner to be vice-chair. The DRPA by-laws require the chair and vice-chair to come from different states, but does not specify which state gets to sit at the head of the boardroom table. Currently, Ryan Boyer, Business Manager for Laborers’ District Council for Philadelphia and Vicinity, serves as chair, and Camden County Freeholder Jeffrey Nash as vice-chair.

It’s unclear whether that tradition will change to counteract the Commonwealth’s power shift. While gubernatorial vetoes have been rare, they aren’t unheard of: Gov. Chris Christie used the veto in 2010 to kill a proposal to restore some old DRPA employee perks.

Speaking of employee imbalances, the DRPA overwhelmingly hires more New Jersey residents than Pennsylvanian. As of January, 606 DRPA employees (including PATCO employees) called the Garden State home, whereas just 198 hailed from the Keystone State. (Another sixteen, largely forgotten, employees hail from Delaware.)

DRPA Commissioner John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty Jr., the IBEW Local 98 leader sitting on the board as Auditor General Eugene DePasquale’s representative, has consistently railed against this imbalance at board meetings.

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