Neil Abramson

State Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans and chair of the House Ways & Means Committee, speaks at the State Bond Commission on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017.

In a new twist, a legislative leader said Thursday steps are needed to restore voter confidence in how road and bridge dollars are spent, possibly before any push to raise the state's gasoline tax.

"Whether it can be somewhat at the same time or staggered is still open to debate," said House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, who will play a major role in the discussions.

"Something like this has to be accomplished to have the other discussion," Abramson said, a reference to tax hikes for transportation.

The lawmaker's comments are significant because his committee will be the first to consider proposals to increase the state's gasoline tax, possibly by up to $500 million a year.

How votes go there, and in the full House, if the bills pass Abramson's committee, will play a crucial role in the debate.

The two-month session starts Monday.

Abramson is sponsoring a two-bill package, including a constitutional amendment, aimed at tightening controls at the state Department of Transportation and Development. "This is an effort to put some specifics in the law and in the Constitution to make the program better and restore the confidence of the public," he said.

"I think there is a lack of confidence among the public with the current program," Abramson said.

In a statement, Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development, said during his 15-month tenure his agency has a strong record of putting transportation dollars on infrastructure, eliminating diversions and leveraging federal dollars.

"Let's not punish citizens for decisions that were made in the past," Wilson said.

A panel named by Gov. John Bel Edwards in December recommended a $700 million increase in annual road, bridge and other transportation spending.

That amount, which is unlikely, would require a 23 cent hike in Louisiana's gasoline tax if it is the sole source of the new money.

Doing so, backers say, would help reduce the state's $13 billion backlog of rank-and-file needs, and boost chances for projects like a new bridge across the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge.

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

Backers of a tax boost are finding that one of the key hurdles are complaints that DOTD is not handling current spending well.

The plans of Abramson and state Rep. Jim Morris, R-Oil City, vice chairman of the committee, are spelled out in House Bill 598 and a companion ballot measure, House Bill 447.

The Legislation would require DOTD to spell out three-year timelines for projects where dollars are assured and three-year plans for projects if new money becomes available.

"Right now that timeline is only required when the construction begins." he said. "This is going to require that timeline from the beginning, when the project is considered."

DOTD would also be required to say whether projects meet local and regional needs.

Annual or more frequent reports to the Legislature and Legislative Auditor would be required to detail administrative costs, how projects are prioritized and other issues.

In addition, the bills would mandate annual reviews by the Legislative Auditor to ensure transportation money is being spent as intended.

Those audits would include both accounting and performance components, Abramson said.

How the new reviews would differ with current checks by the Legislative Auditor is unclear.

The constitutional amendment, like any tax increase, requires the support of two thirds of the state House and Senate and a majority of voters. If the changes are submitted to voters the issue would appear on the Oct. 14 statewide ballot.

In his statement, Wilson said DOTD backs more improvements, transparency and efficiencies.

He added later, "Our future is too important to delay additional improvements. We need to be about the business of delivering infrastructure."

Said Abramson, "I think these bills need to actually happen, or be assured that it is going to happen. before any consideration about additional revenue. We have to have the system in place."

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