A bill that would revamp state spending on roads and bridges in a bid to improve voter confidence in Louisiana's transportation system cleared its first hurdle Monday.
Backers hope the plan will help pave the way for a major hike in the state gasoline tax before adjournment on June 8.
However, House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, in a discussion of state budget problems, said Monday supporters of a boost in the gas tax face heavy competition because of all the tax bills aimed at easing financial problems.
"It has an uphill battle with the other revenue-raising measures out there," Barras said during a 30-minute meeting with the editorial board of The Advocate.
The measure, House Bill 598, won approval from the House Transportation Committee without objection.
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"We know there are revenue measures that have been proposed in the legislative session," said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans and sponsor of the bill.
"We need to restore the confidence in the highway priority program and Transportation Trust Fund," Abramson said. "This is one of the proposals that tries to do that."
The highway priority program is the list of road, bridge and other projects overseen by the state Department of Transportation and Development.
The Transportation Trust Fund is the source of dollars for roads and bridges, mostly revenue from the gas tax.
Abramson's bill would require DOTD to maintain and publish two key lists.
One would be a three-year timeline for projects that are assured of being rolled out.
Updates would include construction schedules, the stage of the work and the estimated starting and finishing dates.
How the projects would be funded and whether the work is on time would also be required.
The other list would be three-year plans for other projects if the money becomes available.
Abramson emphasized that his plan would require that at least 35 percent of any new state aid for roads and bridges be allocated to the state's nine highway districts for preservation on the basis of mileages and traffic.
The lawmaker said that provision is aimed at concerns from some that, while they are paying gas taxes for roads and bridges, the work always seems to be happening elsewhere. "So every area will get some of the money," he said.
The legislation would also require annual financial and performance reviews by the Legislative Auditor. Those reports would be aimed at ensuring transportation dollars are being spent as intended.
DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson said that, for the most part, the bill would put current policy into state law.
"The accountability you see here assures the public and the Legislature that we are doing things according to the law," Wilson told the committee.
Barras said that, while transportation funding probably deserves more attention, lawmakers first have to show voters how current transportation dollars are being used.
Wilson called the legislation a companion bill for proposals to raise new dollars for roads, bridges and other forms of transportation.
Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, a member of the committee, is sponsoring a bill that would raise the gas tax by 17 cents per gallon – $510 million per year.
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"Thank you for bringing this bill," Carter said. "It is important. It is necessary."
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Carter's bill, like other tax hikes, has to start in Abramson's committee.
Motorists pay 38.4 cents per gallon now, including 20 cents per gallon in state charges.
Carter and other advocates of a gas tax increase have said the bill by Abramson, and a Senate proposal that would ban dipping into state road and bridge funds for State Police, need to make headway before bills to raise the gas tax are heard in committee.
Abramson's legislation next faces action in the full House.