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Christie makes extensive use of vetoes over state authorities

TRENTON When he took office in 2010, Gov. Christie made liberal use of a previously little-employed tool to exercise control over state authorities, including the Delaware River and Bay Authority.

TRENTON When he took office in 2010, Gov. Christie made liberal use of a previously little-employed tool to exercise control over state authorities, including the Delaware River and Bay Authority.

Three times in 2010 and 2011, the Republican governor vetoed meeting minutes of the bistate authority, which operates the Delaware Memorial Bridge.

Last week, he took out the veto pen again - this time, to nix pay raises for the authority's employees.

The action - which officials at the authority said did not come as a surprise - provides an example of how Christie has asserted his powers as governor.

His veto of the Delaware River and Bay Authority raises coincides with his campaign for further changes to the state pension system - a pitch he has been making at his town-hall events as he rails against the rising cost of public worker benefits.

In a similar action, Christie also recently vetoed raises at the Pinelands Commission.

The recent vetoes, though in line with Christie's position, were not intended to send a broader message, said one of his spokesmen, Kevin Roberts.

The vetoes "are definitely a reflection of the governor's view that these costs still need to be controlled," Roberts said. But "we would be just as happy if the commissions hadn't taken the actions they had."

Since 2010, Christie has vetoed authority minutes 31 times, according to a list supplied by Roberts.

Most of those vetoes - 25 - occurred in 2010 and 2011, when "there really was something of sending a message of reining in" waste and abuse, Roberts said.

Christie vetoed minutes four times in 2012, and not at all in 2013, indicating that "the right message was sent" in the previous years, Roberts said.

The governor's Authorities Unit has four lawyers working under director Regina Egea who oversee the state's authorities, boards, and commissions. Christie has veto power - granted by state statute - over 36 of those entities, which do not receive funding from the state budget. but operate with public money.

Other state authorities, as well as hundreds of local authorities, are not subject to Christie's veto power.

The arrangement is a "historical holdover" dating to the state's modern constitution in 1947, said Ronald Chen, dean of the Rutgers School of Law-Newark.

Before then, there were more state authorities, under a "very loose" governing system, Chen said. Today, New Jersey is said to have one of the most powerful governorships in the country.

Since the authorities are run by semiautonomous boards - the Delaware River and Bay Authority, for instance, has 12 commissioners appointed evenly from New Jersey and Delaware - Christie's power derives from his ability to veto minutes, Chen said.

Governors can impose their will through "back-channel messages," said Chen, who served as public advocate under Jon S. Corzine, the former Democratic governor, and said he did not recall Corzine vetoing minutes "with any frequency."

But "governors might prefer to [veto minutes] to send a public message," Chen said.

Roberts said Christie's office aimed to work with authorities up front, rather than through after-the-fact vetoes.

"They should be talking to us and cluing us in so we can deal with it on the front end," Roberts said.

In the case of the recent vetoes, however, "that was not a system that worked," he said,

Officials at the Delaware River and Bay Authority said Christie - in contrast with Delaware's governor, Democrat Jack Markell - left no room for negotiation.

When Christie rejected the contracts for authority employees - taking issue with 1.9 percent pay raises and 10 percent health premium cost-sharing, which the governor said did not match what state employees are made to pay - "I don't think you can say it was completely unanticipated," said Scott Green, the authority's executive director.

Though Christie's office had made its position known, many employees at the authority - which has about 380 full-time workers - had not had a pay raise in five years, Green said.

The authority, while "not awash with money," has managed its budget and can afford the raises, Green said.

He called Christie's veto "unproductive."

"I wouldn't say that's an example of having developed a great working relationship and demonstrating we all understand how it's going to be," Green said. "These broad-stroke, stake-in-the-ground positions that they take on things like the wage increase are just not helpful."

Christie's position has made it more difficult for the authority to hire people, particularly for technical roles, Green said.

At the bistate Delaware River Port Authority - where Christie also has made clear his opposition to pay raises - nonunion employees have not received raises in more than five years, said Jeffrey L. Nash, vice chairman of the board. As a result, wages paid to lower-ranking workers are approaching those of managers, he said.

The DRPA, which operates four bridges between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, has "an open dialogue with the governor's office" on the issue, Nash said.

Christie has a "general rule about raises," said Nash, a Democrat who is a Camden County freeholder. But "it's not really the governor forcing his hand."

The DRPA was one of Christie's first targets as governor.

The agency, which has been under federal investigation for politically connected economic development spending, enacted reforms in 2010, some of which Christie vetoed because he said they did not go far enough.

Christie's early vetoes, including at the DRPA, "created an enormous amount of shock," said Brigid Harrison, a Montclair State University political science professor. "This was a tool that had never really been used by previous governors."

Amid the investigation into the lane closures at the George Washington Bridge, operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Christie may once again be exercising his veto power "as a means of indicating he's paying closer attention to the actions of these independent authorities," Harrison said.

As for Christie's targeting pay raises and worker benefits, "it would stand to reason he's going to use any tool he can to implement his agenda," Harrison said.