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Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bodi White, R-Central, raised questions about salaries at the state Department of Transportation and Development.

The leaders of the state Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday grilled the secretary for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development about salaries in his agency.

Sens. Bodi White, R-Central, chairman of the panel, and Heather Cloud, R-Turkey Creek, vice-chair, raised the issue as part of the committee's review of Gov. John Bel Edwards' proposed $36 billion operating budget for the financial year that begins July 1.

Administrative costs have long been a focal point of DOTD critics amid the agency's $14.8 billion backlog of road and bridge needs.

DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson, under questioning by White, said the average salary at DOTD is about $52,000 per year.

White noted that planned spending for salaries starting July 1 – $239 million – would be $17 million more than the agency spent on pay for the financial year that ended June 30, 2020. DOTD has about 4,200 employees.

The governor's recommended budget totals $656 million, which would be a 3% hike over current spending.

Cloud later focused on the number of engineers at DOTD and their salaries.

Wilson said the agency has about 400 engineers and they are paid between $80,000 and $130,000 per year. "That same engineer can go out and make 20% more in the private sector," Wilson said.

He said DOTD typically has 10-15 vacancies in the ranks of engineers, in part because of competition with salaries in the private sector.

Cloud questioned whether a $17 million hike in salaries over three years is sustainable in the state budget.

However, other DOTD officials questioned whether the increase will total $17 million because they said the agency does not typically spend the total amount recommended, including for salaries.

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Wilson is paid about $191,000 per year.

White also said DOTD typically overpromises and under delivers.

Wilson disputed that characterization.

"Our needs are probably the better place to show what we are not able to do," he said, a reference to the $14.8 billion backlog. "That to me is a more compelling figure."

Motorists pay 38.4 cents per gallon in Louisiana, including 20 cents in state charges. The overall U.S. average is 55.23 cents per gallon, according to figures compiled by the Senate.

State Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, last week said he was dropping plans to push a bill that would boost the gas tax by 10 cents per gallon initially – about $300 million per year – and 22 cents per gallon eventually, $660 million annually.

McFarland noted that roads and bridges could benefit from the $3.2 billion for state services Louisiana is getting from the $1.9 trillion federal stimulus bill.

Wilson helped lead a push in 2017 that would have increased the gas tax by 17 cents per gallon – $510 million annually – but it died in the Legislature.

He said DOTD has done "pretty darn good given the limited resources" in the past five years.

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.