Road work stock

Advocate file photo

Voters will decide Nov. 6 whether to ban the use of state road and bridge funds to finance traffic control by Louisiana State Police.

The measure, Amendment 4, is aimed in part at answering complaints that Louisiana spends too much of its transportation fund on non-transportation expenses.

At issue is how officials use the chief source of of funding for highways, called the Transportation Trust Fund, or TTF.

The fund, which totals about $600 million, was set up in 1990.

Under current rules, the revenue can be used for a wide range of purposes, including traffic control by State Police.

A total of $679 million was diverted from the TTF to State Police from 1991-2015.

A state law that breezed through the Legislature in 2015 gradually limited those annual transfers to $10 million.

The amendment would end it entirely.

Gov. John Bel Edwards halted the practice in 2016, which means no such diversions have taken place for the past two years.

But Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Page Cortez, R-Lafayette and sponsor of the bill that spelled out the amendment, wants the ban enshrined in the state Constitution.

"My contention was just because this governor did not use it did not mean other governors would not supplant general revenue dollars for State Police from the TTF," Cortez said Tuesday.

"Until we removed it from the constitutional provision that allowed for it it might still be used," Cortez said.

He said his constituents believe TTF funds should be limited mostly to road and bridge construction and maintenance.

Voters will decide the issue against the backdrop of a Legislature unable to come up with long-term transportation answers.

The state has a $14 billion backlog of road and bridge needs.

A bid last year by the Edwards administration to boost the state gas tax by 17 cents per gallon, and raise $510 million more per year, died without a vote on the House or Senate floors.

Critics argued that voters are leery of how the state is using its current road and bridge revenue.

Cortez said approval of his amendment would address one of those concerns.

"I think it would give voters more confidence that the tax dollars they pay at the pump would be directed to construction purposes, whether it is roads or bridges or maintenance," he said.

The governor's $600 million highway spending plan, including $360 million to widen Interstate 10 in Baton Rouge, is being financed by borrowing federal dollars.

Motorists pay 38.4 cents per gallon today, including 20 cents in state taxes.

No legislative debate on whether to increase the state levy is expected before 2021.

Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development, is mostly staying out of any debate on the amendment.

"We are not taking a position on it," Wilson said, in part because it would affect another agency – State Police.

However, Wilson said there has been lots of concern historically about using the TTF to finance State Police operations.

The fund is also used for flood control, ports, airports and transit.

In addition, more than 1 cent per year of gas tax revenue – about $30 million – goes for parish transportation projects.

The ballot measure won lopsided approval in the Legislature.

The Senate passed it 38-0. The House did so 88-0.

The 2015 law that curbed the transfer of TTF money to State Police was sponsored by House Transportation Committee Chairman Terry Landry, D-Lafayette. Landry is also former superintendent of State Police.

That measure cleared the House 90-0 and the Senate 36-0.

Cortez said he has been asked about the need for State Police traffic control around construction sites.

He said those costs are the responsibility of the contractor, and that the issue is usually addressed in the contractor's bid for the work.

The measure is one of six constitutional amendments and another proposal on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Constitutional amendments have to win the support of a majority of voters to take effect.  

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.