Sales tax hike for Louisiana roads, bridges fails as Rep. Karen St. Germain says they've 'gone to hell in a handbasket' _lowres

Advocate Photo by MARK BALLARD -- Louisiana Rep. Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part, shepherded legislation Tuesday through the House Appropriations Committee that would increase the state sales tax by 1 cent and raise about $675 million per year for roads and bridges. House Bill 778 now goes to the full House, where it must receive two-thirds approval needed for passage.

A tax hike that would raise $7.5 billion for transportation over 10 years failed Thursday in the Louisiana House despite pleas that roads and bridges “have gone to hell in a handbasket.”

The vote was 52-42 for the measure, well under the always daunting two-thirds majority — 70 votes — required for passage.

Backers vowed to try again to win House approval for the bill before adjournment on June 11.

The proposal, House Bill 778, would raise the state sales tax by 1 cent.

It would finance 18 projects statewide, including construction of a new bridge over the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge, improvements to the Port of New Orleans and upgrades to Interstate 49 between Lafayette and Broussard.

House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part, sponsor of the plan, pleaded with House members to endorse the legislation.

St. Germain said motorists statewide are clamoring for improvements, and lawmakers are pressed for dollars in a session dominated by a $1.6 billion shortfall to keep spending at current levels.

“But in the meantime, our highways and bridges have gone to hell in a handbasket,” she said.

St. Germain said the spending would improve travel and help lure businesses to Louisiana.

“This helps the quality of everybody’s lives,” she said. “I don’t care how rich you are. I don’t care how poor you are.”

No one spoke against the legislation.

However, the measure fell 18 votes short of the minimum needed — a huge gap to close in the final days of the session.

The state faces a $12 billion backlog of road and bridge needs.

However, most state lawmakers face re-election this year, and other tax increases are pending to try to solve state government’s financial crisis.

The debate marked the first time in years that a sweeping plan to aid roads and bridges was debated in the House.

Previous efforts to tackle the issue, including several interim studies, went nowhere amid fierce resistance to tax hikes.

Meanwhile, complaints from motorists continue to mushroom, especially in the Baton Rouge area.

St. Germain, who is serving her final year in the Legislature, is also sponsor of a bill that would raise Louisiana’s gasoline tax by 10 cents per gallon — about $300 million per year.

That proposal, House Bill 777, was set for debate on Thursday, but St. Germain opted not to bring it up after the sales tax boost failed.

It, too, requires 70 votes for approval.

While both bills always faced huge hurdles, the sales tax increase, which is linked to specific projects, was given a better chance to pass.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.the advocate.com/politicsblog.