Sen Lautenberg (Dem, NJ) reduced to near incoherence by PANYNJ's Bill Baroni in senate transport committee session
By Peter Samuel
Bill Baroni, deputy chief at the Port Authority of NYNJ gave such a feisty performance in the senate transportation committee hearing Wednesday observers are saying he may have single-handedly defeated a federal power grab over tolls. Baroni repeatedly bested the chairman Senator Frank Lautenburg (Dem NJ) rendering him speechless, stuttering and incoherent, and completely lacking the kinds of answers he had planned to get - to make his case for the so-called Commuter Protection Act.
At the outset Lautenburg read a statement in which he tried to justify the assertion of federal power over toll setting with the statement: "It is our job to ensure that existing tolls are just and reasonable and that future tolls are imposed with proper protections in place to protect commuters."
Lautenburg went through the criticisms of the PANYNJ raised by the Navigant study and in repeated exchanges with PANYNJ's Baroni attempted to get him to say the last toll increases were unfair. The senate chairman called the increases from $8 to $12 "out of control." (These are one-way cash tolls.)
Baroni vigorously defended the PANYNJ's decisions in the context of a financial crisis in which it was unable to fund important core projects including the Bayonne Bridge raise, the Goethals replacement, the rehab of the Lincoln Tunnel helix, new suspender ropes for the George Washington Bridge and a couple of train stations. Under the Cuomo-Christie administration, Baroni said, there had been three straight years with a stable operating budget, and staff numbers were the lowest since 1940.
He described the new toll structure as designed to incentivize better use of the toll facilities by giving discounts to those who placed lower demands on the system. As opposed to the 50% increase in cash tolls there were much lesser increases taking into consideration discounts for E-ZPass users, off-peak and carpoolers.
But the PANYNJ rep really had Lautenburg in a shambles when he said, in effect, that he, Lautenburg, was party to rackets there which were recently stopped.
"You senator only started paying tolls recently. For years as a former commissioner of my agency you received a free E-ZPass."
Baroni waved a copy of a documents showing the Senator's acceptance of a free E-ZPass.
And when Lautenburg said he hardly used it Baroni said he had the numbers. He fumbled a bit to find the numbers in his papers but then said it was 284 free crossings NJ-NY in the last two years (tolls only apply in that eastern direction.)
And in response to another Lautenburg question on fairness Baroni responded: "Senator, it is impossible to argue fairness in tolls if you don't pay them."
And when Lautenburg said this was "silly" and "I don't even think about using it (the free E-ZPass)" Baroni shot back: "No of course not because we took it away."
Lautenburg said weakly: "It was there and we took it. I'm not going to defend it."
Far from the last toll increases being a decision behind closed doors, Baroni said the last PANYNJ toll increases went through unprecedented public discussion and review including ten meetings: "We did it in the most transparent and open manner in the history (of the PANYNJ.)"
Attempting to put the toll increase on Gov Christie
Lautenburg attempted to get Baroni to reveal discussions beforehand with NJ Governor Chris Christie. Baroni laughed at him and said he wasn't going to get into any confidential discussions. Baroni said the toll increases were the decision of the Port Authority board and the governors went along with it since they did not exercise their veto powers.
The senator was reduced to asserting that the governors "knew what was coming" by way of toll increases, and after a pause: "The decision to raise the tolls was of course the governors' decision."
It was an attempt to put words in Baroni's mouth. Baroni didn't comment.
Lautenburg called on Baroni to commit to deferring the next toll increase (planned to take the cash toll to $15 in 2015) until an independent auditor had reported the Navigant study's abuses had ended. It was an effort to put Baroni on the spot but Baroni easily avoided it by pointing out that it was a board of commissioners' decision and he couldn't commit them.
Navigant right - we were dysfunctional
Baroni said it was "impossible to argue with" the Navigant report's conclusion that the Port Authority had become "dysfunctional."
For decades the Authority had moved away from its core mission, spending money on other ventures, over decades it had done "wasteful, reckless spending" and had developed a system of compensation and benefits for staff that was "completely out of whack with" the rest of the public sector and certainly the private sector.
Baroni said the Cuomo-Christie board has reacted by getting rid of "all of" the special benefits, which he said will save $41m over the next 18 months.
Other reforms he cited were the first new outside auditor, making staff contribute to health care insurance, and "getting out of these bad real estate deals, and starting to get out of deals we should never have been in in the first place, and selling... and getting rid of wasteful spending."
Baroni spoke in a sneering tone about the PANYNJ investing in a teleport and to create industrial parks... He was cut off by Lautenburg for whom many of these had been pet projects.
Cut off when begins alluding to Lautenburg rackets
Baroni shot back that "You can't call us dysfunctional and not let me explain why we became dysfunctional."
Lautenburg said: "You've blamed it on everybody else."
The senator cited the Bergen Record newspaper in saying that Governor Christie had offered 50 Port Authority positions, many with 6-figure annual salaries, to people with close ties to the Governor including a blogger, a campaign manager and former mayors.
Lautenburg: "I want you to supply this committee with the names and positions and their qualifications. I'll give you 2 weeks to do that."
Baroni said the Bergen Record number included 11 interns and one was the son of Democrat Senator Menendez. But he said that governors have the right to place people in the agency "who share their values and interests".
In the eight years before Baroni got there (he is a Christie appointee) he said there were 68 political appointees by NJ Democratic governors Cody, McGreevey and Corzine.
A campaign worker of yours...
Baroni said one of Lautenburg's own campaign workers had been given a position at the PANYNJ as "an energy specialist."
When Chris Christie and Republicans bring someone on "it's political" but when Democrats do it "it's good government."
Baroni asked if Lautenburg wanted "to go through the list (of hires) now, I'm happy to."
He flicked through the pages of a folder showing he had come prepared to discuss them one by one.
Lautenburg knew he was outmatched and resorted to the retort that Baroni's "impertinence was barely tolerable."
Flustered the committee chairman forgot he had given him two weeks he said he'd give him three days to produce "the list." Baroni said he had the list with him, and was "happy to discuss it."
A "funny game of table tennis"
Lautenberg was reduced to gibberish asking twice "What's the significance of that?" then cutting Baroni off when he started to answer and saying Baroni was "trying to play a funny game of table tennis here."
Lautenburg tried again to get Baroni to talk about conversations with the governors on the increase to $15. When Baroni said he "wasn't going to comment on who said which and when" Lautenburg said loudly: "You are going to comment. You have a responsibility to comment, my friend, whether you like it or not."
Lautenburg: "You are at the table here and you are compelled to tell the truth." He obviously meant to say: "You are compelled to answer our questions," but Baroni ran with the Lautenburg mis-speak going on the offensive: "Of course I'm telling the truth, the whole time. The implication that somehow I have not told the truth, senator, is offensive to me."
Lautenburg, distracted, instead of returning to his question switched to attacking Baroni about "this game you are playing picking out the past..."
We are cleaning it up
Again Baroni countered: "You are saying that somehow the Port Authority became dysfunctional in the (time) since Chris Christie became governor. We are cleaning it up."
"It was because Gov Christie and Gov Cuomo called for the Navigant report that someone at last called the agency dysfunctional."
Back to the list of 50 political appointees
Lautenburg asked whether bringing 50 political appointees in was helpful, to which Baroni said: "We brought in 50 people passionately committed to reforming it."
And they took the places, in many cases, of Democrat political appointees, Baroni said.
"Apparently it's political when Chris Christie does it but it's good government when John Corzine does it. And the dysfunction, we are cleaning up and we are passionate about cleaning up..."
With Baroni starting out again on the reforms, Lautenburg said twice "Just get me the list" to which Baroni said "No problem senator."
The exchanges which went for over 20 minutes start about 53 minutes into the session.
NOTE: Other witnesses gave significant testimony which we'll review Thursday. None however could compete with the drama of the Lautenburg-Baroni exchanges.