gastax.adv

This is a view of the Interstate 10/12 split facing west.

One year after a gas tax hike died in the Legislature, trade groups and others are kicking off a $500,000 campaign to force another legislative debate on the issue, possibly in 2019.

"We have to find a solution," said former state Rep. Erich Ponti, of Baton Rouge, the executive director of the Louisiana Asphalt Pavement Association and one of the leaders of the effort.

The 35-member organization, called the Louisiana Coalition to Fix Our Roads, includes groups representing contractors, concrete interests and others that would benefit from new road and bridge building, as well as the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.

Organizers have hired Push Digital, of Charleston, S.C., to lead what Ponti calls a 20-month education and public awareness campaign on the need for better roads and bridges.

"Basically, it is a social media campaign, digital media," Ponti said. "There is so much information and misinformation that it is a long, slow educational process to get the facts out there."

But despite talk of a leisurely campaign, there are signs that the group may try to get a legislative debate on raising the gas tax in Louisiana's election-year legislative session, which begins April 8.

"I have heard from multiple people ... that there will be legislation brought in 2019," said John Kay Jr., state director of the Virginia-based group Americans for Prosperity.

AFP helped kill the 2017 drive for a 17-cent hike in the state gas tax — $510 million per year — and is starting its own campaign to derail any future increase in the state gas tax.

The group is launching 15-second ads displayed on the video screens attached to gasoline station pumps in metro areas urging motorists to reject a push by "special interests" to raise the gas tax.

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"I think everybody in Louisiana can agree that we need to improve our infrastructure," Kay said.

"The problem is, every time we need to fix something, state government goes to the people and asks them to send more money to Baton Rouge," he said.

Ponti said officials have raised about $150,000 of their $500,000 goal to build support for more road and bridge money.

Backers include Associated Builders and Contractors, Louisiana Associated General Contractors, One Acadiana, Concrete & Aggregates Association of Louisiana and Diamond B. Construction LLC.

"Louisiana cannot be economically competitive without infrastructure investments," Doreen O. Brasseaux, president and CEO of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Louisiana, said in an email.

Backers contend that, with a $14 billion backlog of road and bridge needs, the state cannot afford to wait until 2021 to tackle the issue. That year is often cited as the next likely time for a gas tax debate since 2019 is an election year and any 2020 debate would require a special session.

"We have got to have better transportation means," said Michael Olivier, CEO for the Committee of 100 for Economic Development Inc. and a member of the board of directors for the coalition.

"We have conferred with everyone from the Department of Transportation to the governor to lawmakers about what legislation could look like," Oliver said.

Olivier said that while a gas tax bill may be filed in 2019, it "may not even see the light of day" but instead be used as a way to raise awareness for transportation needs.

Olivier's group, which includes CEOs and university presidents, is supposed to offer a private-sector perspective to economic development and works with state and local officials to develop projects.

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

Ponti's group notes that Louisiana's gas tax has not changed since 1989.

Michael Hecht, president and CEO for Greater New Orleans Inc. and a member of the coalition, cited the announcement in October that what used to be the Avondale shipyard will be turned into a commercial transit hub.

"Transportation infrastructure is the lifeblood of economic development," Hecht said.

"To give you a concrete example, we would not have been able to redevelop Avondale if the Huey P. Long Bridge had not been widened," he said.

Shawn Wilson, the governor's state transportation lieutenant, led the 2017 drive to increase the gas tax by 17 cents per gallon.

Wilson noted that 2019 is an election year, typically not a time for tax hikes of any kind, and that next year will spark heavy turnover in the state House and Senate because of term limits.

"Because it is a 20-month campaign, I think they realize that this has to be an enduring practice or principle if we ever expect to move the needle on infrastructure," he said.

The Edwards administration is not publicly linked to the coalition's campaign.

However, Wilson says Louisiana is in danger of losing part of its $600 million in annual federal highway aid next year because of problems coming up with about $72 million in needed matching dollars.

State Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, who sponsored the 17-cent gas tax hike effort last year, noted that many of the groups leading the effort would benefit from an upsurge in state road and bridge building.

"They are obviously very supportive," he said.

Last year more than 20 groups formed an organization group called Build It to generate support for the 17-cent boost.

"They did not do social media," Carter said. 

"I was a little disappointed in that," he said. "We just didn't do the things that were necessary to get us across the finish line."

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.