Panel OKs roads funding plans _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MARK BALLARD -- House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part, testified Tuesday for two bills would pave the way for a loan fund to help local governments finance road and bridge projects. The House Appropriations Committee forwarded both measures to the full House for consideration..

Two bills that would pave the way for a loan fund to help local governments finance road and bridge projects cleared a key House committee Tuesday.

A similar plan passed the Legislature last year but was rejected by voters in November.

The effort this time is part of a wide range of proposals aimed at finding ways to aid highways and bridges amid Louisiana’s $12 billion backlog of projects.

House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part, sponsor of the bills, said this year’s package includes safeguards that will boost support by the public.

The proposals are House Bill 618, which is a constitutional amendment, and House Bill 767, which would be a state law that spells out details of the new rules.

Both won approval in the House Appropriations Committee without objection.

They next face action in the full House.

Current state law generally prohibits the state from offering loans or credit.

The plan would carve out an exception aimed at offering low-interest loans to parishes and municipalities to help pay for transportation improvements, including roads, bridges, airports, railroads and ports.

It would set up a fund in the state Treasurer’s Office using existing dollars that are otherwise invested elsewhere.

“It is not coming off the backs of anybody,” St. Germain said. “It is money we already have.”

The fund would be part of the Louisiana State Transportation Infrastructure Bank, which would be governed by a seven-member panel, including the state treasurer, the secretary of the state Department of Transportation and Development, the leaders of the state House and Senate transportation panels and others.

To qualify for the loans, local officials would have to show they can pay it back, either through bonds, tax revenue or other means.

St. Germain said 11 states have similar laws. Her plan is modeled after similar operations in South Carolina and Virginia.

How much would be placed in the fund is unclear. No caps are included in the legislation.

St. Germain said the money would be set aside in a way that protects it from being “swept” by the Governor’s Office to help ease state financial problems.

Voters also have complained about the annual movement of money from what was supposed to be a roads-only fund at DOTD to State Police.

“We are putting it in a lock box,” St. Germain said of the loan money.

The proposed constitutional amendment — House Bill 618 — requires the support of two-thirds of the House and Senate.

The other bill requires majority approval.

If the package is approved by the Legislature, the constitutional amendment will be submitted to voters on Oct. 24.

It would require majority approval to take effect.

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