Four proposed constitutional amendments will be on the Oct. 24 ballot, half of them efforts to infuse more money into addressing Louisiana’s mounting transportation and infrastructure needs.
Amendments 1 and 2 are aimed at easing Louisiana’s $12 billion backlog of road and bridge projects.
Both breezed through the Legislature and require majority voter approval in the Oct. 24 election to take effect.
Amendment 1 would revamp what is known as the state’s Rainy Day Fund.
Under current rules, annual oil and gas revenue that exceeds $950 million is sent to the fund set up to deal with financial emergencies. The cap now is about $800 million.
Under the proposal, the Rainy Day Fund would be split into two accounts. Up to $500 million could flow into the account that handles emergencies. However, additional revenue would go into a new fund for transportation projects.
“Budget stabilization is taken care of first,” said Derrell Cohoon, a consultant for the Associated General Contractors. “Then you start looking at some of the needs that aren’t being met in the state.”
Backers concede it would take years for road and bridge projects to realize big gains from the proposed change.
The Rainy Day Fund has $517 million now, which means only $17 million would be sent to the transportation account if the proposed rules were in place now.
Cohoon said it is hard to predict when road and bridge dollars will build up because the revenue source is linked to the price of oil, which is at historic lows today.
Critics say the changes would diminish the Rainy Day Fund and offer only modest relief for road and bridge needs.
Amendment 2 would allow the state treasurer to invest dollars in the Louisiana State Transportation Bank, which the Legislature authorized earlier this year.
The bank could be used to offer low-interest loans to parishes and municipalities to help pay for transportation improvements, including roads, bridges, airports, railroads and ports.
Voters rejected a similar proposal last year.
However, that was before the Legislature authorized the bank.
State Treasurer John Kennedy said he backs Amendments 1 and 2.
“We have to do something about infrastructure,” Kennedy said. “The advantage of both of these amendments is that it would generate additional money for roads without raising taxes.”
House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part, sponsor of Amendment 2, said the plan is simple.
“It gives the treasurer the ability to invest the money that he already invests out of state into our own state,” she said.
Kennedy downplayed concerns that politics will determine who gets the loans.
“I will make absolutely certain before I put in money on behalf of the state that the roads will be picked on an objective, priority basis,” he said. “It is not going to be political if I have anything to do with it.”
Kennedy also minimized worries about local governments defaulting on the loans.
“Frankly, I don’t anticipate that being a problem,” he said.
Proposition 3 deals with what types of legislation the Legislature can consider during “fiscal sessions,” which are held in odd-numbered years.
The Louisiana Constitution lists a number of budget and revenue-related issues that can be considered in fiscal sessions. Among them are bills that levy or authorize a new tax; increase an existing tax; levy, authorize, increase, decrease or repeal a fee as well as those dealing with tax exemptions, exclusions, deductions, reductions, repeals or credits.
The change would allow legislators to “legislate with regard to the dedication of revenue” and “with regard to taxes,” eliminating all the specific types of legislation in today’s Constitution.
The proposition’s sponsor, state Rep. Julie Stokes, said the change is designed to eliminate differing House and Senate interpretations of what can be considered in a fiscal session. The current provisions “create confusion,” said Stokes, R-Kenner.
She said the new language would add clarity. “It really doesn’t hurt anything nor give anybody latitude to do more,” she said.
In its analysis, the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana said: “The impact of the proposed change would be to make clearer the intended broad grant of authority to the Legislature as to taxation by removing various specific terms and replacing them with sweeping language. These provisions allow wider parameters in a fiscal session for the types of tax and revenue bills that can be considered in an unlimited fashion, especially including bills dealing with tax administration, collection, reporting and dedication.”
Proposition 4 would allow local governments to tax property within their jurisdictions owned by local or state governments outside Louisiana.
The proposed amendment comes in response to a recent appeals court ruling that found local and state governments are exempt from paying the tax.
The ruling came in a case involving an out-of-state public utility company and West Carroll Parish. The ruling meant the parish lost $103,000 in potential revenue , according to the Legislative Fiscal Office.
Under the constitution, state, parish or city governments in Louisiana are exempt from paying property taxes on “public lands” and “other public property used for public purposes.”
Proponents argue that the constitution never intended the property tax exemption to apply to out-of-state governmental entities, as the Louisiana Supreme Court stated in the past.
According to PAR, the neighboring states of Texas and Mississippi already explicitly say that their property tax exemption applies only to their state and local subdivisions.
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