Sam Hanna Jr.

State Rep. Jack McFarland may have an almost insurmountable chore awaiting him when the fiscal-only session of the Legislature convenes April 12.

The Republican from Jonesboro must convince at least two-thirds of his colleagues in the House of Representatives, or 70 members, and at least two-thirds of the members of the state Senate, or 26 senators, to vote for a proposed hike in the state’s tax on a gallon of fuel, better known as the gas tax.

McFarland’s legislation would raise the gas tax by a total of 22 cents by 2033. Some 10 cents of the proposed tax hike would occur initially, generating roughly $300 million each year for the construction of new roads and bridges as well as for the maintenance of existing roads and bridges throughout Louisiana. By the time 2033 arrives, the gas tax would increase by a total of 22 cents, ginning up some $660 million annually. Motorists who purchase fuel in Louisiana currently pay 38.4 cents per gallon in taxes, though only 20 cents of the fuel taxes are earmarked for the state.

Under McFarland’s proposal, some 60 percent of the revenues generated by the new fuel tax would be spent on new projects, or projects on the drawing board that have yet to be tackled because of a lack of funding. The remaining 40 percent of the proceeds would be spent on maintenance of existing roads and bridges.

There’s no disputing Louisiana’s roads and bridges are not the best in the nation. One could argue they are among the worst. Take a drive through Mississippi and Texas. Compare the roads and bridges in those states to the ones in Louisiana. There is no comparison. Ours in Louisiana are almost embarrassing.

According to the state Department of Transportation and Development, Louisiana has a backlog of some $15 billion in repairs to existing roads and bridges and another $13 billion worth of proposed projects. The problem, of course, is the existing state tax on a gallon of fuel doesn’t generate enough money to pay for the work that DOTD would like to do.

Critics of the move to raise the gas tax say DOTD does not properly spend the money it gets from the existing gas tax. They claim DOTD wastes too much money on administrative costs and other expenses. There’s probably some truth to the criticism, but we must remind ourselves that the Legislature has very little control over how DOTD spends its money once it gets its hand on it.

As you may recall, Louisiana voters approved a constitutional amendment some 32 years ago that established the Transportation Infrastructure for Economic Development (TIMED) program. The program was funded by a new four-cent tax on a gallon of fuel. Initially, the program was projected to pay for more than $5 billion of widening of some 500 miles of state roads, the construction of three new bridges and improvements to the Port of New Orleans and the Louis Armstrong International Airport in Kenner. By the late 1990s, the program was far behind schedule and the completion date was extended from 2004 to 2031.

At the time of its passage, the TIMED program was considered a progressive step in the right direction for Louisiana to rebuild its economy following the collapse of the oil and gas industry in mid-1980s. To a large extent, the TIMED program lived up to its billing, but at the same time it failed to live up to the expectations of the voters who supported the constitutional amendment. The bottom line is the four-cent tax on a gallon of fuel was not sufficient to do everything the proponents of the TIMED program promised. Quite understandably, scores of voters haven’t forgotten.

For McFarland’s proposal to become a reality, he must convince all of those freshman lawmakers who campaigned on a promise not to raise taxes to go back on their word and vote for a tax hike. Politicians don’t always tell the truth, but reneging on a no-new-tax pledge is a biggie. It’s just about unforgivable in some corners.

Veteran lawmakers won’t be as difficult to convince to support the measure, but they may present a bigger problem because they’ve been around for awhile and understand how the process works. In other words, they’ll insist on something (new road or bridge) for their districts in exchange for their “yes” votes. That’s to be expected.

Yet, McFarland could possibly overcome those obstacles and convince the general public to support his proposal as well. To do so, he must build public support for his gas tax. In order to accomplish that almost impossible feat, he must explain in sufficient detail which proposed roads and bridges will be built and which roads and bridges will undergo regular maintenance if the new gas tax is levied. And McFarland’s proposal must include some meaningful reform measures to truly hold DOTD accountable.

Levying a new tax on a gallon of gas for the construction of a bunch of new roads and bridges won’t amount to a hill of beans if DOTD spends the money on personnel and perks in lieu of the projects the general public was promised.

Sam Hanna Jr. can be reached by phone at 318-805-8158 or e-mail at samhannajr@samhannajr.com.

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