Shawn Wilson (copy) (copy)

Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development, said Monday he has concerns about a proposal that would gradually increase the state gasoline tax by 22 cents per gallon.

Louisiana's transportation chief Monday stopped just short of dismissing chances for a gas tax hike in 2021 that is being pushed by industry groups.

Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development, said looming issues sparked by the coronavirus pandemic and the need for top state leaders to agree on any gas tax increase makes it problematic this year.

"First I think my concern is really timing," Wilson said. "Right now, I think it is all going to be pandemic and economic recovery because we absolutely need those things."

The DOTD leader made his comments during a nearly one-hour meeting with the editorial board of The Advocate and The Times-Picayune.

Wilson's views are significant because in 2017 he was the leader of a bid to boost the gas tax by 17 cents per gallon, which died without a vote in either the full state House or Senate.

Backers can ill afford any split in the ranks, especially since rounding up the needed two-thirds support in the House and Senate is always a huge political challenge.

Wilson said 2021 is "eerily similar" to 2017 in that, four years ago, gas tax boosters tried to gain traction at the same time that a roughly $1 billion shortfall dominated attention in the Legislature.

A group led by former state Rep. Erich Ponti, R-Baton Rouge, is behind legislation that would boost the gas tax by 10 cents per gallon initially – $300 million per year – and 22 cents eventually – $660 million annually.

Backers say the push is drawing support from a wide range of groups that stayed out of the fray in previous years.

Wilson has chafed over some of the details of the early drafts of the bill, including regular state audits on how DOTD is using its money as well as independent reviews of those audits to ensure that DOTD is being efficient.

He said his agency has made major strides in the past five years despite a gas tax that has remained unchanged for the past three decades.

"We have reformed and reformed and reformed," Wilson said.

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State Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, sponsor of the gas tax bill, said in a statement Monday action is needed to ensure the state has enough money to qualify for all of its federal matching dollars.

"Dr. Wilson knows that legislative leadership has encouraged us to bring this bill because now is the time to create return on investment for taxpayers and grow jobs and the economy," McFarland said.

Ponti, chairman of the Louisiana Coalition To Fix Our Roads, said in a statement that the timing of the proposal "couldn't be better" and the plan is gaining bipartisan support and backing from community leaders.

He said the legislation "returns purchasing power to consumers and compliments the innovations Dr. Wilson has ushered in at the department."

Wilson was asked whether his comments meant he would not back McFarland's bill.

"Good question," he replied.

He added later that he "will always work with our stakeholders."

Wilson said top officials of DOTD plan to meet with newspaper editorial boards around the state to point out progress in the past five years, including about $250 million in federal dollars redirected to Louisiana from other states.

He said DOTD has been unfairly portrayed as a "bogeyman" in some public debates.

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

Louisiana's backlog of road and bridge needs is $14.8 billion.

The 2021 regular legislative session begins April 12..

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.