Governor Tom Wolf will veto a bill passed Tuesday aimed at reforming the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) over a single provision that would give the Pennsylvania State Senate confirmation power over gubernatorial appointments to the authority’s board.
“We agree with every aspect of the bill but one: the part that would make the Governor’s appointees confirmable” said Wolf spokesperson Jeffrey Sheridan. “This is another attempt by the Republican-controlled legislature to erode the authority of the executive.”
Senator John Rafferty (R-Montgomery), Senate Bill 286’s sponsor and Republican candidate for Attorney General, said the veto “demonstrates to the citizens of this great Commonwealth that he is more interested in continuing to cloak the [DRPA] in secrecy, rather than supporting transparency and effective reform measures to transform the system of political patronage, excessive spending and long-term scrutiny.”
The DRPA is a bi-state agency overseen by a board consisting of 16 Commissioners. Currently, the Pennsylvania governor can unilaterally appoint six Commissioners, with the other two Commonwealth seats held by the Auditor General and Treasurer, ex-officio. In New Jersey, the Governor eight nominees require confirmation from its state senate.
According to Sheridan, Wolf told Rafferty that he would sign the legislation if the confirmation provision was removed, but Rafferty refused. “They don’t care about reform when they do this—it’s only about eroding the authority of the Governor,” said Sheridan
“That’s absolute bunk,” said Rafferty, who pointed out that the bill passed the Senate 37-13 with Democrats in leadership positions in support. The Pennsylvania Senate passed an identical bill unanimously in 2014, but it didn’t make it out of the House before that legislative session ended. Wolf’s Lieutenant Governor, Mike Stack, co-sponsored the bill when he was still a state senator.
In addition to the Senate confirmation provision, the bill would ban economic development spending, mandate biennial audits, and require public disclosure of political contributions from political vendors. The bill would also ban employee perks like toll exemptions.
The bill’s largest reform targets economic development activities by the DRPA. 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.
DRPA Chairman Ryan Boyer described the bill as "unncessary," saying that the agency had already voluntarily adopted most of the proposals. "It's talking about audits–we do audits," said Boyer. "We no longer do economic development." Boyer was appointed by Wolf, and echoed the Governor's concerns about senate confirmation.
Rafferty pointed to Wolf’s appointment of Whitney White last year to support giving the PA Senate confirmation authority. White resigned from the DRPA Board shortly after his appointment following reports detailing a series of questionable business dealings.
Another Wolf appointee, Rohan Hepkins, resigned from the DRPA Board in February only to get hired to $140,000-a-year executive position at the agency a few months later.
Last month, a federal judge in New Jersey lambasted the DRPA’s process for awarding contracts, calling it an “undocumented process shrouded in mystery and obscured from public scrutiny.” The bill contains several provisions aimed at making the DRPA’s bid process more transparent.
The bill passed the House along party lines, 117-73, with every Philadelphia Democrat voting in opposition or abstaining. In the Senate, Senators Larry Farnese, Robert Tomlinson and Anthony Williams supported the bill, which was opposed by the remainder of the Philadelphia Senate delegation.
Wolf has ten days to formally execute a veto, which could only be overridden by a two-thirds majority in both houses of the General Assembly. Even if Rafferty could find the votes, it’s unlikely the legislature could squeeze in an override before the current legislative session ends.
The fight in Harrisburg may be much ado about nothing: Before the DRPA’s bi-state compact can be amended, Trenton must also adopt the reforms. Amendments to the bi-state compact also require U.S. Congressional approval. Neither Governor Chris Christie nor Senate President Steve Sweeney responded to requests for comment.
Now in his sixth year as Governor, Christie has yet to nominate a single DRPA Commissioner, even though he has had the power to do so since 2014 and even though there are currently only six New Jersey Commissioners on the DRPA Board instead of the full complement of eight.