A political brawl involving a bone-dry transportation trust fund and a pension-funding referendum continues as New Jersey lawmakers reconvene the week of Aug. 8.
Monday is the deadline to place a constitutional amendment on November's ballot that would require New Jersey to ramp up pension funding.
The latest twist came Wednesday when Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-West Deptford, asked the top federal and state law enforcement officials in New Jersey to investigate what he called coercion of legislators by leaders of public employee unions seeking voter approval of a plan to require scheduled payments to the state pension system.
He said they threatened to withhold campaign money.
"These threats clearly cross the line from lobbying to attempted bribery and conspiracy," Sweeney wrote in a letter to U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman. "Essentially, [the New Jersey Education Association] has put members of the New Jersey State Senate in the position of tying specific official action to the receipt of a campaign contribution."
The association is New Jersey's largest public-sector union and most powerful politically.
Unions pushed for the amendment after Gov. Chris Christie chose not to make the full contributions into the public-employee pension system. New Jersey's Supreme Court in June upheld the suspension of cost-of-living adjustments to retiree pension benefits.
Sweeney supports the amendment but also said solving the transportation trust fund crisis comes first. Full funding for both could be difficult given the state's funding squeeze, and Sweeney sounded pessimistic Thursday.
"Until we have, and I can't make this any clearer, until we have resolved the transportation trust fund impasse, we can't in good conscience put a constitutional guaranteed pension payment on the ballot," he told reporters.
His statement that "there's always next year" rankled NJEA officials.
"Next year isn't good enough," association president NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer said in a statement. "He needs to decide whether he's going to lead or just roll over and be part of the problem."
Lawmakers on Monday remained at odds over a revenue package to replenish the fund by raising the state's gas tax, now the second lowest in the country, by 23 cents per gallon. Christie, a Republican, is pushing for offsetting tax cuts. Sweeney acknowledged he could not generate enough votes to override a Christie veto.
"Transportation is particularly crucial in New Jersey," said Alan Schankel, a managing director at Janney Capital Markets in Philadelphia. "Jersey more than other states is dependent on good repair. It's one big highway. It connects Philadelphia and the southern regions, ultimately to Florida, with New York and northern parts."
The low gas tax for years has prompted New York and Pennsylvania motorists to cross state lines for a quick fillup.
While the gridlock has forced the shutdown of major transportation projects statewide, Schankel called a general-fund impasse, which Pennsylvania experienced in fiscal 2016, more serious.
"I'm not trying to minimize the negative, because I know that highlight projects are halted, but it doesn't affect things like school or university funding," he said. "Investors worry more about New Jersey's overall debt."
Bank of America Merrill Lynch, citing data from the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, said the shutdown, which began roughly four weeks ago, has cost the state and construction industry about $68 million to date, with estimated continuing costs of $9 million per week.
Moody's Investors Service rates New Jersey GOs A2. Fitch Ratings, S&P Global Ratings and Kroll Bond Rating Agency each assign A ratings.