Monday, April 15, 2024

McHugh David: The money is there – time to drop the lame excuses

by BIZ Magazine

One wonders when the people of Louisiana will officially be tired of the ongoing discussions at the legislature over infrastructure – including drainage, roads, and bridges – and the lack of funding for those particular projects.

This year, the legislature made permanent what was supposed to be a temporary increase in the state sales tax, pushed by Gov. John Bel Edwards in his first year in office, to help balance the budget.

Indeed it did, causing a surplus in the following years and as the legislature faced it’s sunset – they decided to extend the 0.45-cent increase.


The move was part of an ongoing game of hide-and-seek between Louisiana’s representatives and the quest to ‘find money’ for roads, bridges, and drainage infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the massive backlog that includes tens of billions of dollars in maintenance, and roughly the same amount in mega projects, continues to grow because there hasn’t been any opportunity to close that gap appropriately, or efficiently.

There have been gas tax proposals, removing part of the Louisiana budget from constitutional mandate, firing the engineers at DOTD, forcing DOTD to spend a certain amount on infrastructure and capping what can be sent on planning and engineering, and so much more.

All have failed.

And yet, two proposals that could possibly generate optional tax revenue have died on the vine several times due to what can only be described as some sort of ‘moral high ground.’ The legalization of recreational marijuana being one, and the acceptance of large-scale toll roads being the other.

Marijuana is somewhat understandable in a state that is predominantly conservative. For decades weed has been an illegal drug, and remains so – although the legislature has reduced it to a non-felony offense, as well as reducing the the fine, as long as it’s under a certain weight for recreational use only.

It’s also understandable from a law enforcement perspective, because those incarcerated for marijuana offenses, as well as those tickets written for small pot amounts, are a major revenue stream for local jails and law enforcement groups.

So why can’t a portion of the marijuana-based sales tax, should it be legalized, go toward law enforcement with the rest toward infrastructure? For years that’s how it worked with state police, anyway, with the regular gas tax fund.

That was only recently discovered.

Consider this, Colorado legalized recreational marijuana in 2014. Since then, the industry has ballooned to over $1 billion a year in sales in the state alone, generating $35 million per year in tax revenue and almost 35,000 jobs.

Places like California and Washington have had similar success with legalization.

It may take longer to catch on in Louisiana, due to years of societal backlash and an expert marketing campaign against marijuana, hemp, and other bi-products.

Toll roads, on the other hand, form a pay-as-you-go approach to infrastructure. Right now, the Causeway Bridge from the Northshore to New Orleans generates roughly $16.5 million a year in tolls. Because it’s a bridge, and a long one, there are extra expenses but once the debt service is paid the toll revenue will generate almost $8 million a year in profit – and that’s just one project.

Toll roads have been bashed due to the reasoning that they are ‘discrimnatory against the poor.’ This makes no sense, considering toll road routes are almost always optional means of transport to arrive at a destination – it’s not as if drivers will no longer have a free option.

Plus, the profits from said roads go toward other infrastructure and public transportation – a win-win for motorists who can’t afford to take toll roads, but still get the benefit of upgrades and maintenance on existing thoroughfares.

Houston has perfected this art, generating nearly $1 billion in profit from their toll roads in Harris County to fund new infrastructure projects. While the Houston area does contain almost four times the population of Louisiana, the fact remains that the Bayou State still has the I-10, -12, and -20 corridors that, utilizing loops, could generate new funds for the state.

Among other local projects.

Not to mention the current governor – a democrat – has been touting the idea of toll roads since he took office.

Louisiana, consistently, has stood in it’s own way due to arguments over ‘morality’ and the ‘high road.’ Yet, where has this landed the state? 50th among all major economic categories.

Meanwhile, large countries such as Russia and Saudi Arabia are diversifying their economic portfolios away from oil and gas as quickly as they can, seeing the global move toward greener technology.

This puts Louisiana in a bind, because the state relies so heavily on the oil and gas industry for both revenue and jobs. While the Bayou State may hold on to the industry to keep supply running for parts of the U.S. and other parts of the world that may still hold onto the raw goods, the fact remains Louisiana must diversify itself if it’s to fix it’s problems.

Which include bad roads, bad bridges, and poor drainage infrastructure.

It’s true, there’s a windfall of federal dollars right now that may get drainage close to where it needs to be, but if Louisiana – and, specifically, Livingston Parish – learned anything from the recent onslaught of floods and hurricanes, it’s that the work is never done.

Between all of these necessary improvements to the infrastructure in the state, which would drive economic activity, and the fact that the state can only generate so much revenue from taxes before – or if it isn’t already – being a deterrent of new business, it’s time for Louisiana to drop the hypocritical act of taking the ‘high road’ above some of these revenue opportunities.

Texas continues to lead the way with toll roads, and if they legalize recreational marijuana before Louisiana? That could spell trouble.

McHugh David is publisher of the Livingston Parish News.

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