Stephanie Grace: Gas tax debacle shows Legislature failing at big things, and small

The Advocate

With the partial exception of criminal justice reform, the waning legislative session will go down as one in which lawmakers failed to do big things.

With just under a week to go, all hope of the sort of large-scale budgetary restructuring that had once seemed possible is gone. There are no remaining bills in the pipeline that would significantly address the looming fiscal cliff, $1.3 billion in temporary taxes adopted last year and set to expire in 2018, under the theory that the Legislature would surely come up with a longer-term plan in the interim.

It’s not at all certain that the House and Senate will agree on state spending and constructions budgets for next year that Gov. John Bel Edwards would be willing to sign. Wednesday, the governor put out a call for a special session immediately following the end of the regular one, just in case. The new fiscal year starts July 1.

And it’s not just big things that are off the table. So, it seems, are small things. That’s one takeaway from the quiet death of an effort to modestly increase the gas tax in order to tackle what everyone supposedly agrees is a crisis in infrastructure upkeep and expansion.

I say this not because raising the gas tax wouldn’t have been a big deal, but because it should have been relatively easy, at least compared to larger fiscal challenges that have gone by the wayside.

It was tightly targeted to address a widely acknowledged need, a $13.1 billion backlog in road and bridge projects. It had support from middle-of the road business-minded groups, including the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, One Acadiana and GNO Inc. It had a Republican author, which also should also have given nervous lawmakers some cover. The tax hadn’t been raised in nearly three decades, and the original 17 cent-per-gallon figure had been lowered to just a dime, far short of the money needed but at least a down payment. Polls showed broad public backing.

Yet the proposal still couldn’t attract the 70 votes it needed to pass the House.

State Rep. Steve Carter, the Baton Rouge Republican who took on the unenviable task of sponsoring the bill, pulled it rather than force his colleagues to go on record on a tax vote that wouldn’t solve anything.

Carter had plenty to say, though, as well he should. He pointed the finger directly at the culprits who mounted a public campaign to pressure lawmakers to hold the line, complete with implied political threats against those who might cast a pro-tax vote. Specifically, he named the state Republican party, which opposed the tax despite the fact that the state central committee had been divided, and the national conservative activist group Americans for Prosperity, which crowed over its supposed accomplishment. Carter told his colleagues that it’s just dishonest to tell people that there would never be a need for a gas tax boost, and called AFP an “an out-of-touch, out-of-state bankrolled group.”

These groups get a win, but what do Louisiana residents get out of the deal? Perhaps fewer courageous lawmakers like Carter, people willing to do the work and take on potentially risky causes because somebody has to. Very possibly lost federal funding, because the state may not be able to provide the local match needed to secure money from Washington. Crappy roads and bridges that are only going to deteriorate more as time goes on.

And this reality check, delivered via Twitter from state Transportation and Development Secretary Shawn Wilson: “Apologies to those citizens that are frustrated w/ infrastructure needs of this state. We tried. It only gets (worse) & more expensive.”

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