In an effort to increase support for his proposed gasoline tax to fund highway construction projects, Baton Rouge Rep. Steve Carter is scrapping a controversial provision that called for redirecting revenues generated by a temporary, half-cent sales tax from the state general fund to infrastructure construction.
At a press conference at the Capitol flanked by representatives of the industry-led group Louisiana Coalition to Fix Our Roads (LCFOR), Carter said he plans to offer the amendment to his HB 542 when it comes for a hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee, which could be as soon as next week.
“We had added (the sales tax) in right at the end because we thought it was the right thing to do,” he said. “But I think the bill as it stands alone is a very good bill.”
Removing the sales tax provision from the bill—which would increase the state gasoline tax by 6 cents in the first year then gradually to an additional 18 cents over the next 12 years—is also the most politically expedient thing to do in an election year, when lawmakers are reticent to vote for any revenue increases, however badly needed.
Key LCFOR members at the press conference, clad in bright yellow safety vests, acknowledged the political realities facing the bill, which could ultimately fund nearly $1 billion of needed highway and bridge projects. But they point out that support for the measure—which dedicates the money to specific projects, including a new Mississippi River bridge in Baton Rouge, and also redirect much of DOTD’s money to infrastructure construction—is growing among legislators and the interest groups they represent.
Chance McNeely, who spoke for the measure on behalf of the Louisiana Motor Transport Association, is an example.
“For years we opposed the fuel tax … but we’re here today, happy to support this bill, because it does what the other bills failed to do,” McNeely said. “The trucking industry has changed its position because this is the right thing to do.
The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry has also come out in favor of the bill, though no one from LABI attended today’s press conference.
LABI President and CEO Stephen Waguespack said the bill is likely the “beginning of the multiyear conversation,” but that without the sales tax, along with the identification of specific projects that would get funding from the gas tax, the bill “appealed to our members.”
While the event was underway on the fourth floor of the capitol, dozens of members of the anti-tax Americans for Prosperity mingled downstairs, registering their complaints with lawmakers. Outside, an airplane continuously circled overhead pulling a banner that read, “La. can’t afford a gas tax too—AFP.”
Erich Ponti, of LCFOR, said his coalition is strong and growing and isn’t worried about a special interest group largely comprised of outsiders.
“There may be a few people from here but they are mostly outsiders,” Ponti said. “We drive on these roads. We have to get our family members to the hospital, and to school and soccer practice. Those are outsiders trying to hold our economy back. We’re tired of it.”