As the outgoing chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, Robert Adley understands how Moses felt when Pharoah told the Israelites to make bricks without straw.
Building new roads without new taxes is just about as impossible. And hostility to raising taxes resulted in little progress on infrastructure in the 2015 Legislature.
Adley, R-Benton, and others decided to find some existing state resources and rededicate them to roads and transportation, and that has led to two constitutional amendments on the Oct. 24 ballot. Both involve complex maneuvering through constitutional and statutory law, although not new taxes.
Here are our recommendations for the two issues related to roads and transportation.
Amendment 1. Budget Fund: No.
The centerpiece proposal deals with two problems — the first a long-standing issue of the process by which the “rainy day” fund for the state can be tapped. The second, but far larger, problem is the lack of new money for roads.
Amendment 1 continues to dedicate mineral revenues for the rainy day fund but makes the process of using money more practical.
Correcting those mechanics is valuable, but it also has given Adley and the amendment’s backers an opportunity to rewrite the fund’s law to put some oil and gas revenues — the source of the rainy day fund — into road and bridge projects instead.
Instead of today’s rainy day fund, there will be two funds: $500 million for a rainy day and up to $500 million for road projects. As both come from oil and gas revenue, today’s low prices will mean only $17 million or so for road projects right away.
That might change, and if and when it does, the dedication for road funds will grow. What is not so clear is whether a rainy day fund capped at $500 million will persuade national bond markets that Louisiana has put enough aside for emergencies.
As with any dedication, oil and gas revenues earmarked for roads won’t be available for other uses — whether it’s coastal restoration, or fixing state buildings or paying off state debts. The argument for this dedication is that we need long-term investment in transportation.
We do, but this is not really “new” money for roads. Should oil and gas prices boom again, lawmakers are certainly not forbidden from investing the money into roads and bridges, ports and rails. We’d support that. They did so in 2008 when revenues were healthy.
But this amendment is no substitute for a commitment to raising money directly for serious transportation investments.
The amendment at its core is about one idea: earmarking for highways the state’s future revenues, limiting the options of lawmakers to come. A fix for the mechanics of the rainy day fund is a separate decision that can be made separately in the future.
Amendment 2. Infrastructure Bank. Yes.
A second road proposal is one that was rejected by voters last year. We also criticized the creation of an “infrastructure bank” because the details of the proposal had not been fleshed out in law.
The Legislature has corrected that flaw with details about how the bank would work, basically as a revolving loan fund for local governments to borrow for road projects. Initial money for the bank is already earmarked, but the amendment authorizes the Treasury to invest some of its funds into the bank, allowing for more loans.
More than 30 states have something similar. If a revolving loan fund works, it would allow local governments to get more bang for their limited bucks. Once again, though, it’s not likely to generate significant dollars for road work unless new revenues, local or state, are produced through the political process.