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Traffic backs up on U.S. 190 in Covington.

Despite ominous signs, backers of what would be Louisiana's first state gasoline tax hike in 28 years insist they have a three-prong plan that can pass the Legislature.

With more than one-third of the 2017 session done, none of the revenue-raising bills have come up for committee hearings, and it may be another two weeks before they do.

House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, said Thursday he does not think backers currently have enough votes to get a major gas tax hike through the House, where it has to start.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, who says he backs a big boost in state transportation aid, is preoccupied with state budget problems and has had little involvement in the push for roads and bridges, lawmakers said.

But supporters say they have a strategy that can make it happen, and downplayed the lack of action so far.

"Very few bills that are meaningful and transformative and impactful happen very early in the session," said Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development, and the governor's transportation lieutenant.

Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, the sponsor of the bill backers are rallying around – a $510 million gas tax hike – made a similar point.

"We get input from people every day," Carter said. "That's why we have not done anything yet."

Backers say the need for more road and bridge spending is obvious, especially in chronically congested south Louisiana cities.

Motorist complaints, a $23 billion backlog of rank-and-file and "mega" projects and the lack of any transportation infusion since 1989 all make the case compelling, they said.

The trick is making a giant tax hike happen in a session where yet another budget crisis is the dominant topic, with no solutions in sight.

"The budget and tax reform and issues like that happen to be sucking all the air out of the room right now," House Transportation Committee Chairman Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville said Friday.

Also, some lawmakers contend residents are taxed enough and that other answers are needed for road and bridge woes.

Wilson, Carter, and leaders of 32 influential business groups behind the push think they have a way around the daunting odds.

The key to the effort, they said, is to start enacting bills that will improve voter confidence in current road and bridge spending before any tax hike debate begins.

One proposal aimed at doing just that – Senate Bill 57 – would ban the transfer of road and bridge dollars to State Police, a longtime complaint of DOTD critics. A total of $679.4 million has been moved from the Transportation Trust Fund to State Police since 1991.

That bill cleared its first committee step on Thursday and next faces action in the full Senate.

The second component is aimed at restoring voter confidence through bills aimed at clamping down on DOTD operations.

Two measures to do that – House Bills 598 and 604 – are set to be heard on Monday at 9:30 a.m. in the House Transportation Committee.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, sponsor of HB598, wants DOTD to spell out three-year timelines for projects, require annual reports to the Legislature on administrative and other costs and yearly checks from the Legislative Auditor aimed at ensuring dollars are being spent as intended.

Havard, sponsor of HB604, would require DOTD to follow a seven-step process on projects, and to provide yearly updates for the public on where things stand.

"The intent of my bill is to put some accountability in the DOTD process so that the consumer, or the citizens if they do support a gas tax, can be assured that the money is going where it is supposed to go, concrete and asphalt, and not some black hole somewhere," Havard said.

Motorists pay 38.4 cents per gallon now.

Carter's proposal – House Bill 632 – would raise that by 17 cents per gallon.

Carter said it is crucial for the House Ways and Means Committee, which considers tax measures, to get other budget bills out of the way before any gas tax hike begins in earnest.

"The first thing you have to do is get it out of Ways and Means, and I think we can do that," he said. "The timing of this is critical."

Others are less certain.

Abramson said earlier that restoring voter confidence in road and bridge spending has to happen before any debate on boosting taxes.

The lack of any clear path for solving state budget problems could mean the Ways and Means Committee will again be dominated by those issues, as it has since the session began on April 10.

Still others said they are comfortable waiting.

Derrell Cohoon, veteran lobbyist for the Associated General Contractors, said transportation transparency issues have to happen first.

In a statement Friday, Edwards noted that, without action, the state could be unable to meet federal matching funds as early as 2018.

"It would be very disappointing if we did not accomplish anything during this session to address our transportation needs, something our citizens have expressed is among their top priorities," the governor said. 

"As I have said before, I will support any bill that restores the value of the gas tax," Edwards added later.

Wilson said the lack of any major action so far simply reflects how the Legislature works. "What I will tell you is in legislative terms the calendar is always very full and timing is everything," he said.

"I would much rather run a bill later in the session, where I know the support and momentum are at my back than in my face," Wilson said.

The session ends on June 8.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.