XGR Louisiana Budget (copy)

Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, right, shown here with Rep. Tony Bacala during a House committee hearing last year, said he plans to sponsor a bill in 2021 that would gradually boost Louisiana's gas tax by 22 cents per gallon

While a new push to boost Louisiana's gas tax is underway, this one faces the same massive hurdles that have killed earlier efforts.

A group led by former state Rep. Erich Ponti wants the Legislature to raise the gas tax 10 cents per gallon initially – $300 million per year – and 22 cents eventually, about $660 million annually.

Ponti, like the leaders of earlier efforts, noted the tax has not been changed in three decades amid deteriorating roads and bridges and daily complaints from motorists.

"The need is great, there is no denying it," said Ponti, executive director of the Louisiana Asphalt Pavement Association.

But recent efforts to boost the gas tax point up the difficulty of winning approval for any plan, or even getting a vote.

In 2017 an effort to increase the tax by 17 cents per gallon – $510 million per year – won approval from a single House committee before dying without a vote in the full state House or Senate.

It was led by Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development, and followed public hearings and months of study.

In 2018 Poniti's group, the Louisiana Coalition to Fix Our Roads, tried to drum up interest for an increase in 2019, which was an election year.

It failed to even get a hearing.

Tax hikes can only be considered in odd-numbered years designated as fiscal sessions.

Wilson has said any such effort needs the support of Edwards; Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette; and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales.

The 2017 effort had the blessing of the governor, and Edwards is said to be open to the idea.

Cortez, former chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said earlier this year that he doubts any such increase will happen in the next four years, in part because the House is viewed as more conservative than previously.

Boosting the gas tax requires the support of two-thirds of the House and Senate – 70 and 26 respectively – and represents one of the biggest challenges in the Legislature.

Cortez said this week any successful push would have to be preceded by an education campaign so voters know exactly how the money would be used.

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

Louisiana ranks 43rd in the U.S. in what it charges, according to the Tax Foundation.

California is tops in the nation at 62.47 cents per gallon in state taxes.

Alaska is 50th at 13.77 cents per gallon.

Since 2013 a total of 30 states and the District of Columbia have raised their gas taxes, a tally by the National Conference of State Legislatures shows.

That list includes Alabama, South Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma.

Ponti's coalition includes the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, Acadian Ambulance and the Northshore Business Council.

Elizabeth Smith, vice-president for economic competitiveness for BRAC, said state governments will be looking for ways to generate dollars in 2021 amid the drop in revenue sparked by the coronavirus pandemic.

Smith said boosting the gas tax would mean construction and engineering jobs.

Said Ponti, "It is a very critical time to have that kind of investment, not to mention that it has been 30 years since we had that kind of investment."

But a group that helped kill the 2017 gas tax proposal, including a door-to-door campaign against it, opposes the latest one too.

"Raising the gas tax was a bad idea in 2017 and 2019 and it's a terrible idea now with over 320,000 Louisianans out of work," James Lee, deputy state director of the Virginia-based Americans For Prosperity-Louisiana said in an email.

"Erich Ponti heads the Asphalt Pavement Association and is only interested in seeing the state spend more money, not spending it well or giving Louisianans the transparency they deserve," Lee said.

"This new gas tax push will fail once again, not just because it's a bad idea but because it continues to deny transparency."

The bill would allocate 60% of the money for highway and bridge preservation and 40% for new projects.

It would require the Louisiana Legislative Auditor to assess the effectiveness  and efficiency of DOTD – another sticking point in earlier debates – and make recommendations for savings.

State Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, has said he will sponsor the legislation.

Wilson said he discussed the proposal with McFarland but did not get into lots of specifics because the legislation is still taking shape.

"We agree that you have to do something that is sustainable," he said.

Wilson said a complicating factor could be possible federal legislation on highways and other infrastructure in 2021.

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.