Last Modified: Thursday, August 25, 2016 6:43 AM
No one likes higher taxes, but Louisiana will never come to grips with its monumental road and bridge problems until legislators increase the gasoline tax. The state’s $12.7 billion construction and maintenance backlog will soon exceed $13 billion.
None of that backlog includes mega projects like the critical need for a new Interstate 10 bridge over the Calcasieu River at Lake Charles. Add the cost of that structure to another bridge over the Mississippi River at Baton Rouge with other big projects sitting on the shelf, and you’re talking about another $10.5 billion.
Meanwhile, the state has to deal with the unknown millions of dollars it will take to recover from the recent historic flooding and the urgent need to float a loan so the state can pay its bills because of cash flow problems.
Hard financial times call for drastic action. The money simply isn’t there to do the many things that are necessary to carry on the essential functions of government.
Gov. John Bel Edwards has appointed a special task force to come up with financial solutions for major transportation needs and it is supposed to issue a report by Jan. 1. Toll roads and private-public partnerships are a couple of solutions, but most experts believe a higher gasoline tax has to top the list.
A bill that wasn’t advanced during the Legislature’s 2015 regular session would have increased the gasoline tax by 10 cents per gallon for 10 years. Fiscal analysts said it would have raised $300 million annually, $30 million per penny.
Louisiana motorists are currently paying a tax of 38.4 cents per gallon, which includes a federal tax of 18.4 cents and a state tax of 20 cents. The national average state tax is 26.5 cents per gallon.
The state raised its gasoline tax to 16 cents in 1984, and current revenues only have a purchasing power of 7 cents. Another four pennies were added in 1990, but all of that money and more is dedicated to paying for 16 projects that cost hundreds of millions more than expected.
Two of those 1990 projects in this area are U.S. 165 and U.S. 171, which were expanded to four lanes.
Louisiana’s 20-cent state gasoline tax ranks 41st in the nation. Pennsylvania has the highest at 50.4 cents per gallon. Washington State is No. 2 at 44.5 cents, and New York is at 42.6 cents. Alaska has the lowest tax at 12.25 cents, followed by New Jersey at 14.5 cents. Texas has a 20-cent tax; Arkansas is at 21.8 cents, and Mississippi’s tax is 18.78 cents.
The Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana in a January report on state spending said it is important to put trust back into the Transportation Trust Fund. It said motor fuel taxes should only be used for highway and other infrastructure needs, which hasn’t been the case.
Money from that fund has been used, for example, to finance State Police operations and pay for parish road work. PAR said the parish funding shouldn’t be increased and it should eventually be eliminated.
Edwards and lawmakers have started reversing that trend, and the governor has pledged to use more capital outlay money on roads and bridges. Reform isn’t complete, but it is moving in the right direction for a change.
“Given our historic budget shortfalls, the people of Louisiana stand to benefit most from better roads and other infrastructure,” Edwards said when he signed the 2016 capital outlay bill.
Shawn Wilson is secretary of the state Department of Transportation and Development and co-chairman of the task force. He said the average motorists in Louisiana paid only $108 in state gasoline taxes in 2015.
Ken Perret, a former top official at DOTD, is president of the Louisiana Good Roads & Transportation Association.
“I think the gas tax problem is that it has been static for 20 years,” Perret said. “It hasn’t been adjusted for inflation and the buying power is diminished. The gas tax is the most viable thing.”
Getting two-thirds of the Legislature to vote for a gasoline tax increase won’t be easy. It takes 70 votes in the House and 26 in the Senate. The House voted 70-31 in 1984 to double the state’s 8-cent-per-gallon tax to 16 cents. The Senate vote was 26-13.
Edwin W. Edwards was governor in 1984 and initially wanted to cut the size of the gasoline tax increase, but said he changed his mind after traveling through the state, talking to organizations and individuals about his tax package.
Raising the gasoline tax next year is going to take the same kind of selling job on the part of the current governor and members of the Legislature.
Opponents of increased taxes will complain about any plans to increase the gasoline tax because of the $1.6 billion in higher taxes approved earlier this year. However, the majority of those tax increases are going off the books in 2018.
Drive through Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida and you can see the superiority of their highways and bridges and the construction that is constantly under way on their transportation systems.
Louisiana is far behind the curve, and keeps losing more ground. The unprecedented industrial construction in this corner of the state is going to take a tremendous toll on the area’s state highways. A modest increase in the state’s gasoline tax is the most logical way to start catching up with our transportation needs and to stay up to date.
Posted By: Jim Pittman On: 8/25/2016
Title: No, a cigarette tax hike is essential.
Louisiana's cigarette tax remains suspiciously low, while the state's annual smoking-related healthcare costs are in the $BILLIONS. Tax smokes (and only smokes) to the national average ($1.61). Save lives.
Posted By: claude On: 8/25/2016
Title: Gasoline tax hike essential
No, it isn't.