A nearly $700 million roads bill that breezed through the Louisiana Legislature was one of the biggest surprises of the two-month session.
The legislation was the result of a delicate political balancing act pulled off by two lawmakers who are lawyers and friends who had never put their names on such a sweeping bill.
The largest transportation bill in the past 30 years won final approval Tuesday when the Louisiana House approved a $690 million spending plan…
"This may be the most significant thing I ever do," said state Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma, a third-year lawmaker who came up with the idea.
"It is the biggest bill I have ever been involved with, without question," said state Sen. Rick Ward III, R-Port Allen, Senate sponsor of the measure and one of four candidates to become the next president of the Louisiana Senate.
What the pair did is almost unheard of in legislative circles.
They took a little noticed proposal – House Bill 578 – and turned it into the biggest transportation bill to clear the Legislature in 30 years.
They got buy-in from Gov. John Bel Edwards, Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, and the old lions of the state Senate, several of whom were serving their final days because of term limits.
And they won overwhelming approval for a measure that will inject transportation dollars into every corner of the state, two years after a bid by the Edwards administration to boost the state gasoline tax died with little fanfare.
Sen. Norby Chabert, R-Houma, who was a key player in the days of behind-the-scenes talks, said the bill glided across the finish line because senators were comfortable that Ward, Tanner and others were shooting straight.
"Nobody thought they were getting fugabooed," Chabert said, meaning tricked.
The bill includes $125 million to build the La. Hwy. 415 connector in West Baton Rouge Parish, a 3-mile flyover between Interstate 10 and La. Hwy. 1 that has been on the drawing books for nearly half a century.
A Baton Rouge area road project faces a crucial vote Wednesday in the Louisiana House, nearly half a century after it went on the drawing boards.
Another $150 million will help build Interstate 49 in Lafayette; $150 million for an 8-mile stretch of elevated highway on La. 1 between Golden Meadow and Leeville and $50 million for the La. 3241 project in St. Tammany Parish promised voters in 1989.
Still another $100 million will be used for I-49 in Shreveport, $40 million to upgrade rural roads and bridges, $15 million to widen Hooper Road between Sullivan Road and Greenwell Springs Road in East Baton Rouge Parish, and $20 million to buy two new cranes for the Port of New Orleans.
In some cases the money will be used for bonds and other borrowing costs to stretch the dollars.
The work will be financed by revamping how the state spends $690 million in settlement dollars from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill.
It replaces a 2014 law that directed the annual payment by BP of about $53 million to go 45% percent to the Medicaid Trust Fund, 45% to Louisiana's rainy day fund and 10 percent to the Health Trust Fund.
Redirecting the dollars sparked little discussion in the House or Senate.
Magee, who like Ward is seeking re-election this year, also teamed up with Ward to win approval for a bill that will expand Uber and Lyft ride-sharing services statewide.
A bid to expand Uber and Lyft ride-sharing services statewide moved within one step of final approval Saturday when the state Senate passed it 34-1.
Similar efforts failed in 2017 and 2018, including last year's version sponsored by House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, tried something similar to get money for roads in 2018 but it failed to gain traction amid major state financial problems.
Magee, 38, tried an earlier version of his bill last year but it too went nowhere.
But Magee began meeting with members of the congressional delegation and others in January and February in a bid to craft language that could draw down federal dollars for the projects.
The initial target was elevating the 8-mile stretch of La. Hwy. 1 south of Golden Meadow. The route is one of the energy industry's most important routes.
About the same time problems near the Mississippi River bridge and Intracoastal bridge – two traffic chokepoints – led Magee to ask Ward, who passes the area daily, if he wanted to be part of the bill. That measure used $275 million of Deepwater Horizon money for just the two projects. The legislation won House approval 97-4 on May 15.
"The idea was to keep it to two projects in the House," Magee said.
But backers knew all along that the bill would expand in the 39-member Senate, and that agreeing on projects would be easier than on the rowdy floor of the 105-member House.
Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, one of Ward's three rivals to succeed Alario as Senate president, approached Ward about overhauling his bill.
"I had a suspicion it was either going to get filled up with pork or he was going to have a hard time passing it," Cortez said of the House-passed version with just two projects.
Ward, 36, was quick to accept the offer.
"Page was absolutely vital to the process of getting it where it is," said Ward, whose father Richard Ward Jr. has been district attorney of West Baton Rouge Parish for 29 years.
"As chairman of transportation and doing the road show (public hearings) for a number of years he was able to say 'This region we know that every time we go over there the whole group of legislators say we need this done, this is vital to our region, or we need this done in this region,'" Ward said.
"That knowledge was essential to being able to lay out the things we laid out," he added.
Private negotiations began with Ward, Cortez, Magee, Chabert and Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development.
"We talked over the phone, we would meet on the floor, we would meet in various offices," Ward said. "We just kept the conversation going."
Alario, who had the power to kill the bill at any time, was kept abreast of what was happening, and how the bill had morphed into one of the major bills of the session.
"He looked at it and said 'Okay, it is a good idea.' He said is everybody getting something?" Cortez recalled.
Edwards has been briefed on the idea and, after a wait-and-see attitude, told reporters he was inclined to sign the bill after it won House approval.
"When they came aboard it really helped," Magee said.
State Rep. Jean-Paul Coussan, R-Lafyaette, said Magee was smart to accept that his two-project bill would undergo huge changes in the Senate, oftentimes the big brother of the two chambers.
"He has the ability and the foresight to engage Rick Ward and he had the skill to work with Page Cortez," Coussan said
Chabert, who also is from Houma, is represented by Magee in the House.
"I think he has shown his colleagues that A, and most importantly, he is trustworthy," Chabert said.
"And B he does not have a personal agenda," he added. "He is not an ideologue. And when you combine all that that is the type of person that is handling a big bill."
What all the private talks produced was a bill in the Senate Finance Committee that hardly resembled the one that emerged from the House.
The list of projects shot up from two to 10.
The price-tag rose from $275 million to $690 million.
The overhaul was sure to do one of two things: Attract lots of support from lawmakers around the state or sink under the weight to all the projects, and possibly open a scramble for still more.
Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia, said Ward's handling of the bill kept it on track in the often-bickering Senate.
"Rick has the ability to reach across the aisle and work with individuals," said Riser, who is Ward's seatmate in the Senate. "He has a calm but quiet way about him that can bring people together."
Chabert, who is leaving the Senate because of term limits, said the bill would have sunk if senators viewed Ward as an ideologue. "Sometimes when people just go to the mic they automatically have X votes against them," he said.
One potential problem in the Senate involved complaints from northeast Louisiana senators, and those in the House, that they were being left out.
The $40 million to upgrade rural roads and bridges added to the bill put out a potential fire. "That is huge for rural areas, and you don't have a more rural area than northeast Louisiana," Chabert said.
The legislation cleared the Senate 37-10.
It won final House approval 92-10.
The entire process took 34 calendar days.
Ward and Magee are confident the governor will sign it into law.