While there is much legislative self-congratulation after Louisiana’s biggest pork-barrel highway bill in years, the public deserves better.
The bill passed in the recent session of the Legislature involves a cautionary tale of how law is actually made. The legislation does advance some needed projects, but with little regard to long-term needs that may be different from the projects finally chosen.
After four years, what does the Louisiana Legislature have to say for itself?
That’s the wrong way to approach infrastructure spending, and it ignores the long-term costs of building and, above all, maintaining roads and bridges in the state.
House Bill 578 by state Rep. Tanner Magee, R-Houma basically took money coming to the state from part of the BP oil spill damages and threw the dollars into a couple of major projects that were selected from no other criteria than political pull. The elevated highway to Port Fourchon near Magee’s district was sought by the influential oil and gas industry, and Magee’s Senate co-author got a big local project for his area, on La. 415 in suburban Baton Rouge.
House members approved it so that they could say in an election year they were doing something about the infrastructure crisis, though this is not nearly enough. Rolling that pork barrel over to the Senate side resulted in a slew of additions, so that $690 million from the BP fund, to be collected over the next 15 years, will be used — in some fashion — for roads and bridges.
Many of the projects are far too expensive for the amount of money allocated. That’s why the public should not be fooled by the political acumen of the pork-barrel caucus, which in this case was just about everybody in the House and Senate.
This was about political credit for a Legislature unwilling to do the right thing, which is raise the 30-year-old state gasoline tax.
Funding is not a bad thing, because the state Department of Transportation Development under Secretary Shawn Wilson can put it to use. DOTD under Gov. John Bel Edwards has a good record of cobbling together special funds and some creative financing to push legitimate projects, such as the Interstate 10 widening in Baton Rouge and the new airport exit in Kenner.
Talking to a room full of business people, Shawn Wilson had a simple statement: “I challenge any business to charge what you charged in 1989, …
Another bit of good news in this: The Magee bill does not raid the BP settlement funds that are dedicated to the coast.
He tapped a smaller payment, based on compensating the state for economic damages from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico disaster. But some of that money was intended to refill the state's rainy day reserve. So the bill is in several ways a short-term vision.
We’re glad to see that the Legislature, at least so far, is hewing to the important line set over two administrations that protects the $5.8 billion in environmental damages to be used strictly for coastal protection and preservation.
We hope that requirement stays in place. But given that the Legislature is always desperate to say it’s accomplishing something without the pain of putting permanent funding in place, can we count on it? HB 578 is an exercise in expedience that could be indulged again one day.