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Business bullish on gas tax? Depends on who’s at the pump


April 5, 2017
By Greg Hilburn
Originally Posted on The News Star

A new coalition of 21 business advocacy groups has thrown its weight behind a Louisiana gas tax hike, but the business community isn't unified in its support, and one member of the coalition said it was misrepresented.

The group (BUILD IT: Businesses United for Improving Louisiana’s Development by Investing in Transportation) supports raising the state's gas tax by as much as 17 cents per gallon, which would generate about $500 million annually, to address a $13 billion backlog of maintenance on existing infrastructure as well as new projects.

"We have a transportation funding crisis," said One Acadiana President Jason El Koubi, noting the need to finish projects like the I-49 Lafayette connector. "We're in an unsustainable situation. Every region has needs that won't be met without a modest, but meaningful increase dedicated to infrastructure."

El Koubi pointed out the state hasn't increased its gasoline tax — currently 20 cents per gallon — in three decades and estimated the purchasing power of that 20 cents "has eroded to about 7 cents today."

Central Louisiana Economic Development Alliance President Jim Clinton agreed, saying needed infrastructure improvements at places like England Airpark in Alexandria won't occur without more funding.

"We recognize the need for more comprehensive tax reform, but this is something we need to do now, and the best way to address it is through an increase in the gas tax," Clinton said. "It's a conceptual endorsement because we believe there's a compelling need to stabilize infrastructure funding."

But North Louisiana Economic Partnership President Scott Martinez said although his agency joined the coalition, it hasn't signed on to a tax increase. Martinez said he was surprised to learn the group came out of the chute advocating for gas tax hike.

"In no way have we endorsed a gas tax," said Martinez, though he acknowledge projects like a new Jimmie Davis Bridge in Shreveport-Bossier City and the Kansas Lane Connector in Monroe need more funding to become reality. "We're open to the discussion, but we don't even know what the proposal will be. We can't get behind anything that doesn't address every region's needs, including North Louisiana."

So far, state Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, is the only lawmaker to file a gas tax hike bill (House Bill 578) to be debated in the legislative session that begins Monday. Jones' bill would raise the tax by 7 cents.

But Dawn Starns, who represents more than 4,000 businesses as the Louisiana president of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said her group will oppose any gas tax hike.

Starns said 73 percent of NFIB's Louisiana members said they were against raising the gas tax in the group's annual survey.

"It's tax fatigue," Starns said. "It's an indication of the environment we're in now, which is an annual attempt to raise taxes. Our members overwhelmingly believe government needs to do a better job with the existing resources available."

Stephen Waguespack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said his membership is taking a wait-and-see approach to an increase in the gas tax.

"This is an important issue that deserves attention," Waguespack said. "We hope the governor will come out soon with a clear plan of how he will make (the Department of Transportation and Development) more efficient, how much he intends to raise, how he plans to spend any new revenue and how he will guarantee to the taxpayers it will be spent only on infrastructure.

"As we travel the state and hear from our members, it is clear the public demands improved infrastructure, but they also want to hear directly from the administration on how specifically they propose to deliver and pay for it. We are open and anxiously await the governor's plan."

Gov. John Bel Edwards didn't include a gas tax hike in his agenda for the session, but has said he will support an increase if a bill moves through the Legislature.

"The Easter Bunny isn't going to bring us roads and bridges," Edwards told USA Today Network in a previous interview. "We have to do it ourselves. We're going to have to make adjustments if we want to move forward and set the stage for commerce."

LSU's annual Louisiana Survey 2017 shows Louisianians are more likely to support a gasoline tax hike to pay for better roads and bridges than any other revenue raising measure for other services. It was the only tax mentioned in the survey that had a clear majority of support.

"That shows people are willing to invest in infrastructure under the right circumstances," El Koubi said.

BUILD IT coalition

Members include: Baton Rouge Area Chamber; Blueprint Louisiana; Central Louisiana Economic Development Alliance; CRISIS — Capital Region Industry for Sustainable Infrastructure Solutions; East Feliciana Parish Chamber of Commerce; Evangeline Parish Industrial Board; Greater Baton Rouge Industry Alliance; Greater New Orleans Regional Economic Alliance; Greater Pointe Coupee Chamber of Commerce; I-49 South Coalition; Jeff Davis Parish Economic Development and Tourist Commission;

Lafayette Convention and Visitors Commission; Lafayette Economic Development Authority; Louisiana Chemical Association; North Louisiana Economic Partnership; Northeast Louisiana Economic Alliance; One Acadiana; Ports Association of Louisiana; South Louisiana Economic Council; SWLA Economic Development Alliance; and the West Baton Rouge Chamber of Commerce.