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Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, speaks on a bill in the Senate chamber Monday, June 7, 2021.

The late-session drive to find new state aid for roads and bridges took a major turn Monday.

The Senate voted to gradually redirect about $375 million per year in sales tax revenue from the sale of cars and trucks to help construct a new bridge across the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge and other projects.

The measure, House Bill 514, cleared the Senate 37-0 and now returns to the House, where it faces an uncertain future.

It also raises the stakes on whether the Legislature, after years of failed efforts, can come up with a funding solution for transportation's $14 billion backlog before adjournment on Thursday at 6 p.m.

The money under scrutiny now goes to the state's general fund, where it pays for a wide range of state services.

Sen. Rick Ward III, R-Port Allen, Senate handler of the bill, last week planned to use the same legislation to extend a 0.45% sales tax beyond its scheduled 2025 expiration date, and dedicate that money for transportation.

Instead, Ward won Senate approval for an amendment that dumped that approach in favor of slowly earmarking sales tax dollars from motor vehicle sales for road and bridge needs.

"The hang-up we were having on the other (approach) is we were extending a tax set to expire," he said after the vote.

"It was giving a lot of people heartburn on both sides for different reasons," he said.

One of the obstacles was opposition to the sales tax extension from the newly-created House Conservative Caucus, which has 40 members.

Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, chairman of the caucus, quickly praised Ward's latest plan.

"It is not increasing taxes," McFarland said. 

"I'm encouraged. It's the first substantial recurring dollars in almost 40 years."

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McFarland earlier proposed a hike in the state gas tax cut but dropped the effort amid criticism from Gov. John Bel Edwards and Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette.

Under the plan, motor vehicle sales tax revenue would start being moved from Louisiana's general fund into the fund for transportation in the financial year that begins July 1, 2022.

Over three years it would transfer 75% of the money raised by the tax on car and truck sales into a fund to help finance the Baton Rouge bridge, upgrade U.S. Hwy. 90 between New Orleans and Lafayette to interstate standards and widen Interstate 12 in both directions between the eastern edge of the Baton Rouge area to the Mississippi border.

The proposal is sure to spark questions on how the state would handle the gradual reduction of about $375 million per year from the general fund, where it finances education, health care and other state services.

Ward said the planned phase-in would give state leaders time to adjust.

Edwards last week said he was open to the bill when it would have extended the temporary sales tax, which also raises about $400 million per year.

Whether Edwards would embrace the latest approach is unclear.

The Senate vote marked the second day in a row where senators approved a bill that would provide a major boost for transportation.

On Sunday the Senate Finance Committee approved a House-passed bill that, over seven years, would free up about $400 million per year for transportation.

It would do so by ending the practice of using state gas tax revenue for salaries and benefits paid to employees of the state Department of Transportation and Development.

That proposal, House Bill 40, next faces action in the full Senate.

The chief sponsor of the bill Ward helped to rewrite is House Speaker Pro Tem Tanner Magee, R-Houma.

It originally would have ended the state sales tax exemption on the sale of therapeutic marijuana.

Advocate staff writer Sam Karlin contributed to this report

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.