Many Louisiana leaders have insisted that only a gasoline tax hike can cure what ails state road construction. They’re wrong.
With the state facing about $13.1 billion in backlogged infrastructure maintenance and a project wish list of $16 billion more, a number of lawmakers and Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration want to add at least a few more cents per gallon on the 16 cents-per-gallon that flow into the Transportation Trust Fund. Another dedicated 4 cents go to pay off Transportation Infrastructure Model for Economic Development (TIMED) debt that financed 14 special projects completed last year.
The 20 cents represent one of the lowest rates among the states, with the amount unchanged for nearly three decades. Further, without an additional $27.4 million from raising the tax, Louisiana supposedly would miss out on $137 million in federal matching funds.
However, by altering spending priorities, there’s enough money to substantially boost roads spending without a tax increase. Unfortunately, Louisiana’s history of taxing at the state level to distribute goodies back to local jurisdictions informs how Transportation Fund monies are used. Compared to other states in 2016, Louisiana local governments ranked only 36th in per capita transportation spending. They're obviously relying heavily on the state to pick up a big share of the transportation tab.
The Constitution does not require spending any Fund money on "multimodal" projects such as air, rail and water transportation. Airports and seaports could charge user fees and borrow on their own to make up the state’s contribution, which would reduce Fund spending on statewide flood control and facilities to just $12 million.
Fund money also needn’t go to TIMED. Establishing tolls on its local projects paid for by the state’s motorists, such as Jefferson Parish’s Huey P. Long road bridge and the John Jay Audubon Bridge, or user fees attached to other projects, such as at Louis Armstrong International Airport and the Port of New Orleans, can compensate for that portion.
Constitutionally, one of the 16 cents must go to funding parish concerns, but the current allocation exceeds that by over 50 percent. While it's best to amend this requirement out of the Constitution, budget planners can, at the very least, use only the one penny’s worth, putting local governments on the hook for their own mass transit, bridges, and railroad crossings.
Finally, motorists statewide also pay for some other local, miscellaneous expenses. For example, the Motorist Assistance Patrol Program in urban areas replicates private and nonprofit sector solutions, and local jurisdictions can use inmate labor to cut grass and pick up litter.
All told, redirecting the Fund’s state subsidization to localities could mean an extra $130 million for state roads added to last year’s $85 million. Other spending choices regarding the general fund could dramatically enlarge this figure. For example, eliminating the inefficient Earned Income Tax Credit and capping the wasteful Motion Picture Investors Tax credit at $30 million per year (a higher level than all states with caps except for California and New York; and, among uncapped states, only Georgia spent more last year) would provide another $200 million yearly.
This $330 million annually would be more than enough to make substantial progress on road needs. In arguing that overly congested Louisiana roads will fall apart without higher taxes, advocates of that idea are putting local governments and special interests ahead of taxpayers statewide.
Correction and clarification: My April 16 column reported that the Louisiana State Licensing Board of Contractors had hired Larry Bankston as its counsel after Gov. John Bel Edwards made appointments to the board. In fact, the governor had made no appointments to the board when Bankston was hired. The column also reported that the Governor's Office defended Bankston's hiring. The governor's counsel, Matthew Block, did not specifically address whether Bankston should have been hired, but argued that the board is authorized to make its own decisions about hiring. Michael McDuff, the board's executive director, defended Bankston's hiring in a letter to Attorney General Jeff Landry.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics, www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or email firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.