A long-shot bid to finance sweeping improvements in Louisiana roads and bridges is dead for the legislative session.
In the end, heavy resistance to election-year tax hikes trumped motorists’ complaints about daily backups.
As a result, officials said, any highway changes approved before adjournment at 6 p.m. Thursday will be strictly short-term fixes.
One of the defeated proposals, House Bill 778 would have increased the state sales tax by 1 cent to raise $7.5 billion over a decade to finance 16 major projects. That list included a new $800 million bridge over the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge between La. 1 and La. 30.
The measure fell a whopping 20 votes short of the needed two-thirds majority in the Louisiana House last month and never made another appearance.
A second major plan — House Bill 777 — never even got a debate in the full House amid worries by backers that it had little chance of winning approval. That measure would have raised the state gasoline tax by 10 cents per gallon to generate $300 million per year for road, bridge and other improvements.
House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Karen St. Germain, D-Pierre Part, the sponsor of both bills, said they were victims of election-year wariness about tax hikes.
“Taxes and election year,” St. Germain said when asked why her bills died with little fanfare.
Rep. Terry Landry, D-Lafayette, a member of St. Germain’s committee, agreed.
“Let’s face it: This is an election year,” Landry said. “Some of these people have made a pledge, whether you agree with them or not, that they are not going to back any increase in taxes.”
On the other side, Rep. J. Rogers Pope, R-Denham Springs, said he opposed the 1-cent hike in the sales tax because his constituents believe the state is misusing dollars already earmarked for transportation. Roughly $70 million per year is moved from the Transportation Trust Fund to State Police.
Pope said most of his constituents believe this: “Until we stop raiding the Transportation Trust Fund, we can’t give you any more money.”
He added, “As much as we need transportation funds in Livingston Parish, we don’t want to do anything until they start doing the money right. That was the No. 1 reason.”
St. Germain’s bills faced daunting hurdles from the outset.
Both proposals involved major tax hikes in a state and Legislature where the T-word is often viewed as an epithet.
Key legislative leaders never got behind the proposals.
And many lawmakers viewed the push as a waste of time since, they said, Gov. Bobby Jindal would have vetoed the bills if they somehow won two-thirds approval in the House and Senate.
In addition, the key issue of the two-month session has been how to fix a $1.6 billion shortfall simply to keep spending at current levels.
Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, who backed the 1-cent sales tax hike, said St. Germain’s bid suffered by coming up for a vote after the House had already approved $615 million in tax increases and other measures aimed at addressing the shortfall.
“I know, for some of my colleagues, those votes have been tough,” James said.
“Coming on the back of the other revenue bills we passed, it was hard to get the 70 she needed,” he said, a reference to the 70-vote, two-thirds minimum St. Germain’s bill needed in the House.
What appears likely to win approval this year are a handful of short-term repairs.
Landry is pushing House Bill 208, which would phase out most of the transfer of state dollars from the state transportation fund to State Police. The bill breezed through the House and is awaiting action in the Senate.
Two other proposals — Senate Bills 221 and 122 — would pave the way for an extra $100 million per year for roads and bridges through a series of budgetary changes.
They have cleared the Senate and are awaiting action in the House on Monday.
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Robert Adley, R-Benton, sponsor of the bills, said the changes would ensure that the state has at least $70 million per year for road and bridge maintenance.
Two other bills — House Bills 767 and 618 — would set up a low-interest loan program for parishes and municipalities to finance transportation improvements, if voters agree.
The plans have passed both chambers.
Details are still being worked out.