A Louisiana House bill written to tax medical marijuana has become legislation that, if approved, may help fund a new Interstate 10-Calcasieu River bridge at Lake Charles. However, it would probably take a few years to raise enough money to begin construction.
Members of the state Senate can’t initiate tax measures, so Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, found the marijuana tax bill that he could amend. His amendment takes some of the revenues from current sales taxes on the sale, use or lease of motor vehicles and puts the money into a special transportation subfund.
Ward had earlier tried to make a 0.45 percent state sales tax increase approved in 2018 permanent. It was passed as a temporary tax to stabilize the state budget and is scheduled to go off the books in 2025.
As you would expect, many legislators didn’t take too kindly to that idea. The House Conservative Caucus quickly came out against that proposal. Ward then copied some fund-raising ideas from a transportation bill sponsored by Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro.
For fiscal year 2022-23, Ward’s amended bill would take 25 percent of those vehicle sales tax revenues and put them in that subfund. It would take 50 percent in 2023-24 and 75 percent of those revenues in 2024-25 and each year thereafter.
Ward said 75 percent of the revenues would have to be used for new transportation projects and the other 25 percent for preservation of existing roads, bridges and other infrastructure.
House Bill 514 is no longer a marijuana tax bill, Ward told fellow senators, and all of them liked his proposal. They voted 37-0 for the bill, and it ended up with 21 co-authors.
Some senators wanted to know what happens when Ward’s proposal ends up taking $350 million every year from the state general fund. Ward said the state’s leaders would have enough time to figure out how to handle that problem.
The Advocate in an editorial opposing Ward’s plan said, “The general fund is the mainspring of Louisiana’s government mechanism. Raiding it as Ward proposes would help to create a new fiscal ‘cliff,’ like the ones that legislators faced in 2016 after the financial failure of former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration.”
Another view is held by Mc-Farland, who is chairman of the conservative caucus. He said of Ward’s proposal, “It is not increasing taxes. I’m encouraged. It’s the first substantial recurring (transportation) dollars in almost 40 years.”
Ward said when the 75 percent taken from vehicle sales taxes takes place in the third year, the bill is expected to raise $350 million annually. He said this plan is better than raising gasoline taxes because those revenues decline quickly.
The proposed I-10 bridge at Lake Charles is listed first in the Ward bill’s list of projects to be completed. It would include I-10 improvements from the I-210 interchange west of the Calcasieu River to the I-210 interchange east of the river.
No. 2 is upgrades to U.S. 90 to interstate standards from the I-10 and I-49 interchange from Lafayette to New Orleans. A new I-10-Mississippi River bridge at Baton Rouge is No. 3. It would have freeway-level connections from I-10 west of Baton Rouge to I-10 east of Baton Rouge.
A number of other statewide projects are listed, and when asked, Ward said there is some flexibility on changing the projects. Like McFarland, Ward said there haven’t been any major highway and bridge projects funded by the state since the 1980s.
Another bill that was making its way through the session — House Bill 40 — died on the Senate calendar when the session ended. it would have gradually ended the practice of using gas tax revenues for highway department employee salaries and benefits paid to retirees from the department.
By fiscal year 2029, that bill would have provided another $387 million annually for transportation. If the bill had been approved, lawmakers would also have had to figure out how to replace those highway funds in order to keep paying highway employees’ salaries and benefits.
The marijuana bill that Ward converted to a transportation measure is also in a conference committee that could derail what Ward is proposing.
Whatever happens, you can’t blame the residents of Southwest Louisiana if they support any effort to get them a new I-10 bridge. They have waited long enough.