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Rep. Mark Wright, R-Covington, is the sponsor of a bill that would gradually move costs for DOTD employee salaries and benefits out of the fund that pays for roads and bridges.  

A House-passed bill that would gradually free up nearly $400 million per year for roads and bridges won approval Sunday in the Senate Finance Committee.

The measure, House Bill 40, next faces action in the full Senate and may undergo major changes before any debate there.

The vote took place during a rare Sunday session of the committee and of the Senate, which met from 4 p.m. until early evening but delayed action on controversial measures. The Senate passed some two dozen noncontroversial bills without objections on Sunday night. Monday is the 57th day of session and after 6 p.m. any bill not yet voted on by the full Senate or full House will need a two-thirds vote to bring up and pass. The Senate has 127 measures that still need a vote. 

The 2021 regular legislative session has to end by Thursday at 6 p.m., leaving four full days of work left. A revamp of the state's tax code, decriminalization of marijuana, a structure for sports betting, mandatory kindergarten, money for state construction projects, and the extension of the temporary increase of the state' sales tax to fund roads are still to be decided. Funding for transportation infrastructure remains a major goal for the session that began two months ago.

Rep. Mark Wright, R-Covington, sponsor of the bill, told the committee that the pot of money that finances road and bridge construction — called the Transportation Trust Fund — has paid for Department of Transportation and Development employee salaries, benefits and pensions since 1991.

Wright said the fund collects about $700 million per year from Louisiana's 20-cents-per-gallon gas tax, with about $400 million used for salaries and benefits.

"So, a lot of gas tax revenue goes to the department," Wright said, a reference to costs of employee salaries and benefits.

Gradually requiring those expenses to be funded through the state's general revenue fund would free up money for road and bridges and generate more federal matching money, he said.

Similar proposals in the past have sparked controversy because of concerns on how DOTD employee costs would be paid for without damaging education, health care and other state services.

Eric Kalivoda, deputy secretary for DOTD, said Gov. John Bel Edwards does not want to leave a "structural deficit" when he leaves office in 2024 similar to the major shortfall he inherited in 2016.

"He wants the budget to be sound," Kalivoda said. "We will just leave it at that."

Wright said that, because the changes would take place over seven years, Louisiana's budget could absorb the overhaul. He said the state has generated surpluses of $122 million, $308 million, $534 million and $270 million in the past four years.

"That is significant money," Wright said.

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Committee member Sen. Mike Fesi, R-Houma, said the state has a $14 billion backlog of road and bridge needs.

"This is really something we need to push hard on," Fesi said of the legislation.

Sen. Mark Abraham, R-Lake Charles, also a committee member, said he likes the idea of moving salary and benefits out of the transportation fund but echoed the view that the change could spark holes in Louisiana's $37 billion operating budget.

Wright's bill is separate from another measure — House Bill 514 — that would extend the state's 0.45% sales tax beyond its scheduled 2025 expiration date and dedicate that revenue for roads and bridges, also about $400 million per year.

It is awaiting Senate action — possibly Monday — and would have to return to the House for a vote there if it clears the Senate.

Senate Finance Committee Chair Bodi White, R-Central, made the motion to endorse Wright's bill, which was approved without objection.

However, White said there will be private discussions before any debate in the full Senate, and a possible scaling back on the impact of the bill.

One option would be to only move DOTD retirement costs out of the roads and bridges fund into the state general fund.

That would free up more money for projects but well under the $400 million per year the bill would do in its current form.

Wright's bill passed the House last month 65-31.

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.