In a new sign the quest faces huge obstacles, a $510 million gas tax hike bill scheduled for Louisiana House debate Wednesday was delayed until at least May 31.
The measure, House Bill 632, was narrowly approved last week by the House Ways and Means Committee and is on the House calendar for debate Wednesday. But backers remain well under the two-thirds majority needed for approval – at least 70 votes in the 105-member Louisiana House.
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The session ends on June 8, which means another delay makes final approval of a bill that already faced steep odds even more remote.
The Legislature is grappling with how state leaders can agree on a $29 billion operating budget and a wide range of other bills, in addition to ongoing disputes on how to solve the state's latest budget crisis.
State Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, sponsor of the bill, told the House at 7:30 p.m. that while there is widespread recognition of transportation problems, the bill lacks the needed votes.
"We are not there just yet," Carter said.
He added later, "We have to try to solve this problem. I know it is a tough vote. I know it is tough times."
The measure would increase the gas tax by 17 cents per gallon, which would raise $510 million annually for roads, bridges and other transportation needs.
Backers say the boost is needed to address the state's $13.1 billion backlog of road and bridge needs, and a separate list of "mega" projects, including a new bridge across the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge.
However, tax hikes have become a toxic topic in the two-month session, and more so than normally after the Legislature, at the urging of Gov. John Bel Edwards, approved higher taxes last year to help offset budget problems.
Even some lawmakers, who recognize the state has major transportation problems, say their constituents oppose any tax increases.
"I recognize we are in a polarized environment," said Shawn Wilson, secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development and a top proponent of the bill.
Others say a lack of confidence in state spending practices, including DOTD, make it impossible to endorse Carter's bill.
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How many House members would be willing to back the bill is unclear. Estimates range from the mid-50s to lower 60s.
Both are well under the minimum 70 needed for approval, and Carter would be unlikely to force a vote without pledges from more than 70 lawmakers.
House leaders are reluctant to make lawmakers 'bleed" – legislative parlance for forcing a vote on a controversial bill that has little chance of passing.
A panel named by Gov. John Bel Edwards recommended a $700 million annual hike in transportation spending last December after months of study.
Edwards has said he would back any bill in line with the panel's blueprint, and the governor praised the action last week when Carter's bill cleared the House committee.
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However, bickering between Democrat Edwards and Republican House leaders has meant that even backers prefer the governor not be heavily identified with the plan because of concerns doing so would hamper efforts for passage in the GOP-controlled House.
The legislation is backed by a coalition of about three dozen influential groups, including the Louisiana Chemical Association, Baton Rouge Areas Chamber and One Acadiana.
Wilson said Wednesday that, if the Legislature does not approve new aid for transportation, problems for the state matching federal road and bridge dollars is the top concern.
"If we don't it now the right way it is only going to get worse and get harder," Wilson said of state transportation troubles.
Opponents include the state branch of Americans for Prosperity and the Tea Party of Louisiana. Critics of the bill say it would impose an unfair burden on taxpayers.