Gas pump gas tax gasoline

Advocate file photo

In a last ditch bid for Louisiana House approval, backers of a hike in the state gasoline tax Tuesday said they will seek a 10 cents per gallon increase, down from 17 cents earlier.

The new plan, if it clears the Legislature, would raise about $300 million per year for roads and bridges compared to $510 million annually under the initial proposal.

State Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge and sponsor of the measure, said he scaled back his request because "we were really having a hard time getting the votes" for a 17-cent hike.

"Hopefully we will get some additional traction," Carter said of the new plan.

The proposal, House Bill 632, is set for a House vote on Wednesday afternoon.

It requires the support of two-thirds of the House, a minimum of 70 votes in the 105-member chamber.

Carter plans to offer an amendment to the measure so that it reflects the revised request.

Without enough support, he said, the entire bill will likely be withdrawn, which would end the gas tax debate for the 2017 regular legislative session. "If we don't have the numbers I don't think I can make people vote on it," Carter said.

The session ends on June 8.

Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development and a key leader of the effort, said the latest push reflects political realities but would also mean fewer transportation improvements if enacted.

"I think we could have an impact with the 10 cents, but nowhere near what we could get with the 17 cents or anything greater than that," Wilson said.

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

Carter's legislation would link the gas tax to the rate of inflation, with periodic adjustments.

Under the new plan, that indexing component would be stripped from the bill.

The measure would link any gas tax hike with voter approval of a constitutional amendment – Senate Bill 57 that would ban the use of transportation dollars for State Police.

That bill has won Senate approval and was endorsed without objection Tuesday by the House Appropriations Committee.

If the measure wins final legislative approval it will be submitted to voters.

Since 1991 a total of $679.4 million has been moved from the fund for roads and bridges – called the Transportation Trust Fund – to State Police, according to figures compiled by Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Page Cortez, R-Lafayette and sponsor of the bill.

Carter's bill would also be tied to final legislative approval of a bill that would revamp operations of the state Department of Transportation and Development. But even with the latest revisions' backers said they face major obstacles.

"Legislators have said they have concerns about indexing, they have concerns about the dollar amount," Wilson said.

He said "everything they have asked us we have accommodated them" but landing firm commitments remains an uphill battle.

Asked what he is hearing from House members who say they cannot support the bill Carter said, "Their constituents are saying they just don't want any more taxes."

Critics said the fact the bill has been trimmed is telling.

"Representative Carter's decision to drop the proposed gas tax increase from 17 cents to 10 cents shows that the appetite for new taxes in the House is incredibly low," John Kay, state director of the Louisiana branch of Americans for Prosperity said in a statement. The group opposes the legislation.

"The citizens of Louisiana are against this hike and have made that clear to their legislators," Kay said. "I'm calling on Representative Carter to pull the bill and move on from this ill-advised gas tax hike."

On the eve of the vote, the Republican Party of Louisiana urged citizens to call House members and urge them to reject any gas tax hike. "The hardworking people of this state are not willing to pay two dollars more every time they fill up their car for the rest of their lives," GOP Roger F. Villere Jr. said in a statement.

On the other side, the Louisiana Good Roads and Transportation Association issued a statement that said it backs the 17 cent increase.

"Some political opportunists are playing on people's anger by claiming state government can fix this problem without more money, but the numbers tell a different story," said Kenneth Perret, president of the group.

In another bid for support, the revised bill will list some of the projects that would benefit from an increase in the state gas tax.

The list includes a new bridge across the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge; completion of Interstate 49 South; completion of the La. Hwy. 1 South elevated roadway between Golden Meadow and Leeville; upgrade La. 1 and La. 30  connections to Interstate 10 and reconstruction of the Loyola/I-10 interchange in New Orleans.

The state has a $13.1 billion backlog of road and bridge needs and a separate list of "mega" projects.

The latest proposal would devote about $150 million per year to mega projects, about $100 million for road and bridge preservation and $50 million or so for other areas.

However, ongoing state budget problems and how to fix them have sparked a rift between Gov. John Bel Edwards and House leaders, including arguments over other tax bills to shore up state services.

"Our timing is just really tough," Carter said.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.