The Legislature has a way of bleeding away every bit of “trust” in a “trust fund,” this time on the contentious issue of road and bridge repairs.
While many lawmakers are apt to be critical of Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is leaving office because of term limits, the reality is that there is a great deal of blame to go around when it comes to sucking the trust out of the system.
When voters dedicated a 20-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax via an amendment to the Louisiana Constitution, they not unreasonably expected all the money to go to roads or other transportation needs. What has happened, over a period of 25 years, is that the other needs have been paid from the gasoline tax proceeds.
Many of those expenses are perfectly reasonable. Louisiana State Police patrol the highways, so a small part of the gasoline tax for troopers is not a bad idea.
Where are we now? “We are spending it on everything but highways,” commented a senior lawmaker, Robert Adley, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee.
That’s not entirely the case, but it’s certainly true that significant diversions from the highway trust fund exist. Jindal’s proposed budget directs $91 million from the trust fund — about three pennies of the gasoline tax — to State Police and other transportation services.
Inevitably, that leaves less money for roads and bridges, trains and buses, but it’s not just a problem of $90 million or so. Louisiana has always tried to use local money to maximize its match from federal funds, even getting some unused money from the U.S. government that other states left on the table.
Now, the Department of Transportation and Development is scrambling to avoid losing federal dollars because of the state’s revenue problems.
The governor and lawmakers have cheerfully eroded the state’s tax base for years, reducing revenues and taking credit for a lavish buffet of tax credits and exemptions for businesses. As the revenue stream has slowed, the raiding of trust funds is a substitute for fiscal responsibility; that’s why the State Police money from the highway trust fund has ticked up so significantly.
Early in Jindal’s term, the state spent significant sums on road and bridge repairs because state revenues from hurricane recovery were flooding into the Treasury. Now, those projects are completed or nearly so, and long-term needs are going to have to be paid for by taxpayers.
Naturally, legislators don’t want to take the blame for raising taxes, but want to divert attention to the governor or anybody else.
Alas, this wrong turn involved a great many drivers’ hands on the State Capitol wheel. And now trust is hard to come by.