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Can Any Good Come From the Christie/Port Authority Scandal?

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What's intriguing about the biggest political scandal of the last year is how small it is. Taken at it's worst, it's a tale of petty revenge and mindless insensitivity. The effects on real people were not small to be sure. But the motives and schemes were worthy of a bad sitcom, not the entourage of the leading Republican candidate for president.

Nobody has covered themselves in glory, not Christie's dopey defenders including Rudy Giuliani and not that part of the press delighting in the scandal for its political consequences. Personalities, gotchas, and speculation are rampant.

There's actually a lot at stake, at least for the real people who live under the vast and powerful shadow of the Port Authority, which is rebuilding the World Trade Center site, erecting bridges, and running economic development projects in two states. Those interests need protecting too. New Jersey needs to change the rules the Port Authority operates under, not just change the personalities operating it.

The Port Authority is both important and frightening. It is a "Soviet-Style bureaucracy" in every sense of the word. It has enormous power, it operates in secrecy, it flips and flops at the whim of commissars (whoops, commissioners) who report back to their political leaders. Now that's something worth changing.

American government has been quietly transformed over the last 50 years by a plethora of "public authorities." Originally popularized by New York's famous builder/bureaucrat Robert Moses, they're outside the control and observation of our system of checks and balances. Nobody, no legislative body, oversees their budgets, hiring, contracts and policies. They issue billions of dollars in tax-free public debt, build baseball stadiums that no one needs, evade laws that control most government activity: All in all, "Soviet-Style Bureaucracies."

New York has made a real stab at changing that. We enacted the "Public Authorities Reform Act of 2009," David Paterson's major accomplishment as Governor. It set up an independent Authorities Budget Office to investigate and discipline our hundreds of authorities; it required creation of a website that has all the contracts, debt issuances, personnel info, regulations and laws for each of them. It created a "fiduciary duty" for authority officers so that they can't (legally) do things like create traffic jams in retaliation for bad politics.

New Jersey refused to adopt the same reforms. Is this the sole cause of the Christie debacle? No. Would it have made it much harder to do what they did? Absolutely.

The investigations now underway are useful and responsibility needs to be parceled out. Assemblyman Wisniewski and Senator Weinberg, who are leading the investigations are smart and decent people. But if Jersey doesn't fix the institution it will happen again and not just as a matter of petty revenge, but on big important deals. How about it, Assemblyman Wisniewski and Senator Weinberg, can we get something done which helps real people too? Pass the reform bill, and see how the Port Authority perks up.

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