BATON ROUGE – The House Committee on Ways and Means narrowly eked out, 9-7, a favorable recommendation for a 17-cent per gallon increase on the current 20-cents-a-gallon gas tax that would raise an estimated $700 million for mega-projects throughout the state.
The 37-cent proposed tax would be adjusted annually based on Consumer Price Index. It is estimated to cost Louisiana drivers an estimated $100 to $200 in additional expenses each year if enacted at the 17-cent level.
The bill goes to the floor of the House for consideration early next week.
“I applaud the bipartisan vote in Ways and Means on a bill to dedicate new revenue today that helps us move forward to improve and repair the crumbling infrastructure that Bobby Jindal left behind,” Gene Reynolds, D-Minden, House Democratic Caucus Chairman said.
House Bill 632, sponsored by Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, received an endorsement from several business lobbies, but individual and small business owners generally were opposed. The Department of Transportation vowed it would spend on specific projects throughout the state and not on whatever needs money.
Acknowledging constituent concerns of government accountability, the committee added an amendment would tie Carter’s bill to the accountability-inspired House Bills 119 and 598 that establishes the Louisiana Fiscal Transparency website and increase transparency within the Highway Priority Program, respectively.
The bill would also require DOTD to provide an annual list of ongoing projects within the Highway Priority Program so taxpayers know precisely where the new money would be going.
The Department of Transportation and Development would allocate at least 50 percent of the proceeds from the taxes levied over the first 20 years to begin construction of previously prioritized “mega-projects.”
Another committee-added amendment would specify that 45 percent of the funds be dedicated to non-interstate payment projects, evenly among highway districts, in the state’s parishes.
“We have a history in the Legislature of saying we’re going to do something, but taking the dollar and doing something else with it,” Carter said.
Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge, was one of House Bill 632’s most vocal supporters. He promised his support if there would be an “ironclad commitment” toward transparency, to which Carter and DODT Secretary Shawn Wilson agreed.
Rep. Paula Davis, R-Baton Rouge, joined with Ivey in offering support for the legislation, recounting horror stories of sitting in interstate traffic between Baton Rouge and her hometown of Breaux Bridge.
Wilson said an independent group of engineers ranked the state a D+ on its crumbling, cracking roads in between spouting off statistics about how the average Louisianan spends 26-47 hours a year in traffic congestion.
Wilson noted only three states have a gas tax older than Louisiana’s. “We put more in our football fields than we do in our roads.”
He said the proposed gas tax would cost drivers an extra two cups of Starbucks coffee each week, which lit a fire under the bill’s opponents.
“Personally, I don’t drink Starbucks,” retorted Glenda Pollard of Keller-Williams Realty Group of Baton Rouge. Instead, she equated the tax to a grocery list, noting that it would cost a family one loaf of bread, or one dozen eggs, or one gallon of milk, or one bag of beans or one bag of rice weekly.
Col. Rob Maness, who has run for governor and the U.S. Senate, called the bill “regressive,” arguing that Exxon skipped over Louisiana for Texas not because of Louisiana’s roads but rather because of its “unstable tax policy.”
Cecil Cavanaugh of the Chamber of Commerce of East Baton Rouge, which represents only small businesses, was confused as to why his tax money would be used to deepen ports in Baton Rouge he never used.
“You want the taxpaying public to pay for everyone’s problem,” Cavanaugh chided.
The bill garnered an equal number of supporters in the committee room, mostly representing business and industrial interests, including the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, the Port Association of Louisiana and various economic development alliance groups.
Robert Travis Scott, president of Public Affairs Research (PAR) Council, a non-partisan public policy think tank in Baton Rouge who served on the transportation task force, said his skepticism has changed throughout the decades he has been following this issue.
“One thing we learned in this is we have a problem. We are not going to fix this without resources.”