Steve Carter’s Local Gas Tax Bill Might Not Be All That Terrible An Idea…

…or, perhaps better put it might be the best of a number of bad options with respect to finding ways to finance new road construction, which is Carter’s current raison d’etre as a legislator from the Baton Rouge area.

Here was WAFB-TV’s report on Carter’s local gas tax district bill, HB 178 (its companion bill, HB 179, is part of a package first allowing local governments to impose gas taxes and then allowing the creation of multi-parish taxing districts for imposing gas taxes) last night…

WAFB 9 News Baton Rouge, Louisiana News, Weather, Sports

Naturally, Shawn Wilson, the head of the state’s Department of Transportation and Development, hates Carter’s bill. Wilson has a point that you can get exponentially more tax dollars by raising the gas tax statewide, and you might just chase customers away from gas stations in places where the local gas taxes are higher if you build a local gas tax district and raise taxes to support a new bridge, let’s say.

But here’s the problem – DOTD is a disaster and it always has been. Louisiana spends more than the Southern average on road infrastructure and yet the state ranks 45th in the quality of its roads. Most people in Louisiana would tell you 45th is a generous ranking, and then ask “Who in the hell has worse roads than we do?”

Carter tried to pass a statewide gas tax last year and got nowhere with it, largely because nobody at the state legislature or among the public has any faith that DOTD won’t waste and steal the money. And also because if you live in DeRidder, let’s say, or Bastrop, why would you be interested in paying increased gas taxes so the state can build a new bridge over the Mississippi in Baton Rouge?

And then there’s the issue current Louisiana treasurer John Schroder raised last year during his campaign. Schroder, who was a House member from Mandeville before running for his current job, noted that his constituents pay a whole lot in taxes to state government each year only to have the governor gather up that money and then hold it out as bait to induce legislators to vote the way he wants – because if they don’t, they get no concrete poured in their districts. That’s an inherently corrupt system, and current governor John Bel Edwards is merely the most recent to take advantage of it.

But if you move some of that taxation down to a local level, you can get the concrete pouring in the places everybody knows it needs to be. And you might be able to innovate a little in how to get these projects completed.

For example, let’s say Carter’s bills pass and there’s a consensus in the Baton Rouge area for a new bridge south of town, complete with an interstate-quality bypass road running from I-10 on the west side of the Mississippi to the new bridge, and then through Ascension Parish to hook up with I-10 again. You also need that bypass road to connect with I-12 somewhere in Livingston Parish to really alleviate traffic through downtown Baton Rouge, but let’s focus on the bridge and the approach for now.

What this bill could do is to put East Baton Rouge, Ascension, Iberville and West Baton Rouge Parishes in a special taxing district, and then put a gas tax of, let’s say, 20 cents in place in those four parishes to finance the project. If it passed, that would provide a revenue stream allowing for a bond issue worth several hundred million dollars that could finance the bridge. And nobody from DeRidder or Bastrop would be on the hook for anything.

The question is whether there would be enough gas tax revenue to service the bond at an amount sufficient to finance the bridge. Wilson says no. But if a project like that came to him with a large chunk of its financing already taken care of, why wouldn’t DOTD be able to contribute, and why wouldn’t that state and local pot of money be able to attract a federal match per the infrastructure bill being crafted in Washington?

We don’t like taxes any better than Carter does. We’d say we dislike them a lot more than he does. But we do like the idea of decentralizing the state’s infrastructure spending, if for no other reason than the state agency which builds and maintains the roads is an incompetent mess, and this is a way to do that.

Carter’s bills are in front of the House Ways And Means Committee today. We’ll let you know how they do.

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