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Gov. John Bel Edwards discusses transportation needs/solutions during a meeting of American Council of Engineering Companies and others in Baton Rouge, La., Friday Feb. 17, 2017.

ADVOCATE STAFF PHOTO BY BILL FEIG

The reelection of the man detractors call “the accidental governor” may be more than 30 months away, but the campaign's outcome will be written over the next four.

Lawmakers convene at the State Capitol April 10 to balance the next year's budget before July 1. They are talking about sweeping changes to the way Louisiana raises and spends money – cutting appropriations on pet programs, rolling back tax breaks for favored interests, and complex accounting changes – all with sweeping impacts hard to articulate to everyday taxpayers.

No, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ future will be decided in traffic jams.

The line is pretty direct between drivers sitting in congestion and the state’s $13 billion backlog of rank-and-file needs. (That doesn’t include another $16 billion backlog of "mega" projects, including a new bridge across the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge.)

A gubernatorial task force pointed out the need to raise $700 million to maintain roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure. The group calculated that raising the 38.4-cent per gallon tax on gasoline by 23 cents would cover the entire amount.

“He needs some big wins,” said Baton Rouge pollster John Couvillon, who put Edwards chances for reelection at 50-50. “If he can get a gas tax passed and/or find a way to more adequately fund the roads, I think he would get a lot of gratitude from voters.”

Edwards is smart enough to know that if he were to succeed in paving the streets with gold, the House GOP majority would complain he didn’t use silver.

Viewed in that context, Edwards’ strategy of choosing a transportation tax initiative to back – rather than pushing his own – is understandable. A gas tax hike needs approval of two-thirds of the Legislature, a daunting task, so legislators need to “buy in” to any effort.

“It needs to be something bigger than the governor’s bill,” said Shawn Wilson, who runs the Department of Transportation & Development.

The number doesn’t have to be 23 cents, Wilson said. He can fill in some of the $700 million with other changes in policies recommended by the Task Force. He’s more concerned with how the tax increase would be set up. Would it be tied to an index that would allow the tax to independently fluctuate with some measure like the Consumer Price Index, so as not to lose value over time? Would the increase be tied to specific projects or to the entirety of the state’s infrastructure?

LABI president Stephen Waguespack poked at Edwards’ “buy-in” strategy, saying the members of his Louisiana Association of Business and Industry are wanting the governor to present a plan that “articulates a clear vision of what he wants, how he wants to spend the money and how it all fits in” with the other changes to the tax system on which lawmakers will be simultaneously working.

Baton Rouge Republican stae Rep. Steve Carter and others are drafting a bill that would increase the tax by up to 17 cents per gallon, which would raise about $510 million annually.

Already the effort has been condemned by the Louisiana chapter of Americans For Prosperity, a national conservative advocacy group aligned with the tea party movement. Taxes don’t need to be raised, a 60-second TV spot states. “We simply need leaders who will spend our money wisely.”

And that kind of opposition, knowing the impact of 30 years of neglect, is what keeps Republican House Transportation committee Chairman Kenny Havard awake at night in his St. Francisville home.

A couple of lawmakers are pursuing the idea of letting voters decide in a statewide election. Edwards has voiced support of this plan too.

Havard thinks a statewide vote will fail.

Every day, West Feliciana Parish voters can see ongoing progress in the construction of a new $27.7 million hospital. Yet in December they soundly defeated a 1.5 percent property tax to pay for operating the facility when it opens later this year.

“I just don’t see voters approving a tax for promises that we as a state will fix the roads sometime in the future,” Havard said. “For years we haven’t spent the money where we said we would. We have a real credibility problem.”

He favors overhauling the state’s fiscal system to include making the DOTD administration come to the Legislature each year for funding and coming up with a way to regularly fund maintenance and expansion projects.

“I’m scared we’ll settle for 10 cents,” Havard said. “But that’s not even going to start fixing the problems we have. So what’ll end up happening is that we’ll still be sitting in traffic, only now we’ll be thinking about how we’re paying more in taxes.”

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.