Saturday, April 13, 2024

Analysis: GOP lawmaker trying to sell colleagues on gas tax

by Associated Press

Though lawmakers spurned recent proposals to raise Louisiana’s stagnant gasoline tax, another Republican legislator is trying to muscle through the idea, hoping he can persuade colleagues that significant new money is needed to attack a multibillion-dollar backlog of road and bridge work.

Rep. Jack McFarland, of Winnfield, faces the same headwinds that jettisoned other efforts to raise taxes at the pump: Anti-tax conservative sentiment in the majority-GOP Legislature, opposition from the Republican Party and the hurdle of a two-thirds House and Senate vote for passage.

But McFarland, a businessman in his second House term, thinks he’s found a winnable approach for the legislative session that begins April 12.

He’s coupling the tax hike, which eventually would raise an extra $600 million-plus yearly, with a package of oversight changes for transportation spending he said will prove dollars are going to projects rather than administrative overhead.

“My bill brings a balance of reform with revenue,” McFarland told the Press Club of Baton Rouge. He described his proposal as “much more conservative” than prior bills because “we’ve added transparency and accountability.”

Louisiana’s backlog of road and bridge work has grown to $15 billion — not counting $13 billion in projects to improve traffic flow and lessen gridlock.

Motorists in Louisiana pay 38.4 cents in taxes per gallon of gasoline, including 20 cents in state taxes. The state rate hasn’t changed since 1990. Louisiana ranks 43rd in the nation for what it charges drivers to fuel vehicles, according to The Tax Foundation.

McFarland is following a well-worn path in trying to boost the gas tax.

Former Rep. Steve Carter, a Baton Rouge Republican who recently died of COVID-19 complications, tried without success in his last term to gain support for a gas tax increase. He proposed state gas tax boosts that failed in 2017 and 2019 and a local gas tax concept that lawmakers killed in 2018.

McFarland said his bill — which hasn’t yet been filed for public review — would raise the state tax 22 cents by 2033, starting with a 10-cent per gallon increase in 2021, then 2 additional cents every other year for the next 12 years. That is estimated to raise $300 million annually in the first year and grow to $660 million yearly by 2033. New fees also would be charged on electric and hybrid vehicles.

The dollars would be split, McFarland said, with 60% steered toward repair work on existing roads and bridges and 40% on interstate widenings, new bridges and other improvement projects.

The proposal would require 4 cents of the current gas tax go to a fund that must pay for road and bridge work. McFarland said the money already is paying for such projects, but the transfer would ensure that continues. New auditing requirements, legislative review of project selection and an inability to cut certain infrastructure funding would be tied to the tax hike.

The gas tax increase is backed by a coalition of contractors and economic development groups.

But legislative leaders have largely stayed silent on the proposal, leaving McFarland to hustle to gain traction from an even more conservative Legislature than the one that bottled up Carter’s bills. McFarland is traveling the state to meet with legislators and hosting calls with economic development groups, chambers of commerce and other civic clubs.

Still, he faces opposition from his own party.

Louis Gurvich, chairman of the Republican Party of Louisiana, slammed the tax hike as unaffordable in a struggling economy, saying in an email to supporters that “all tax increases should be off the table for the foreseeable future.”

Conservative organization Americans for Prosperity is again targeting the gas tax for defeat. James Lee, deputy Louisiana state director of the group, called the tax increase on social media “too much of a burden while so many Louisianans are out of work” during the coronavirus pandemic.

McFarland said construction work financed by the tax would stimulate the economy, creating new jobs.

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ transportation secretary has concerns about elements of McFarland’s proposal, and the Democratic governor isn’t on board with the effort though he previously supported a gas tax.

“I don’t believe it would be possible to get a two-thirds vote this year in light of the economy and what has happened because of COVID,” Edwards said on his monthly radio show. “I am not going to be supporting that this year.”

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