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.

If you’re a commuter around here, you don’t need the highly technical analysis of state Rep. Karen St. Germain: Roads around here have gone to hell in a handbasket.

The chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee used that phrase in her pitch for more money — big money, in the form of a one-cent sales tax increase over 10 years. The proposal by St. Germain, D-Pierre Part, got 52 votes in the 105-member House, but 70 votes is the magic number for a tax increase.

Her committee also proposes this year a more traditional route for road funding, a dime increase in the existing gasoline tax — a tax declining yearly in purchasing power and woefully inadequate to combat congestion in the Baton Rouge metropolitan area, much less the rest of the state.

The St. Germain bill that came to a vote was for a list of major products, several of them in the Baton Rouge area, including a new bridge over the Mississippi River connecting La. 1 to La. 30. The political theory is that a list of projects would draw more votes than a general tax increase. Maybe that will sway some more votes late in the session ending June 11. Maybe.

It’s also hard to argue that a dime on a gallon amounts to much with gasoline retail prices so low; St. Germain will not be in the next House because of term limits, but one of her proposals may live on.

The bottom line is there are few realistic ways to address traffic problems, locally or statewide, without significant new revenues.

That is going to be the ultimate challenge for CRISIS, the new coalition of major employers formed by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber to be an advocate for transportation.

The Capital Region Industry for Sustainable Infrastructure Solutions includes businesses along the river that are critical to the growth of the region’s economy. Taking advantage of low natural gas prices and the burgeoning of the already substantial petrochemical complex along the river requires transportation solutions, and all of those cost real money.

The challenges go far beyond this session’s tinkering with the Transportation Trust Fund, mostly coming now from the retail gasoline tax.

What is promising about CRISIS is that the group can coordinate with business and industry with the Center for Planning Excellence and regional planners in government. The lack of resources cited by St. Germain is one issue but another is the deployment of existing resources and better planning on a regional level; CRISIS can keep the pressure on and work with the federally mandated Metropolitan Planning Organization of local government, as well as with the state planners and builders.

But CRISIS must do one thing: get reluctant politicians to raise the gasoline tax. Other “solutions” will simply be small and short-term improvements to a hellish congestion problem.

ED ANDERSON: Services today for the longtime State Capitol correspondent of The Times-Picayune will honor one of the veterans of the old school with a commitment to writing the news fast and accurately and fairly. In a world of new media, his values deserve study from the younger generation.

Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate. His email address is lkeller@theadvocate.com.