BATON ROUGE, La. — A push to raise Louisiana's gasoline tax and pour hundreds of millions of dollars more each year into road and bridge work narrowly crossed its first legislative hurdle Tuesday.
The conservative, majority-Republican House Ways and Means Committee voted 9-7 for the 17-cent per gallon tax hike, in a bipartisan vote with four GOP lawmakers siding with Democrats to advance the tax increase. The vote sends the proposal by Republican Rep. Steve Carter of Baton Rouge to the full House for debate.
But the tax hike, estimated to raise $539 million in its first year, remains a long-shot, amid concerns about making drivers pay more at the pump. Two-thirds of lawmakers in the House and Senate would have to support the bill for it to reach final passage, a particularly difficult hurdle in the House, which has shown resistance to tax bills.
The gas tax boost is pushed by chambers of commerce and some business leaders, particularly in the Baton Rouge and Acadiana regions that struggle with gridlock. That crippling traffic persuaded three Republicans from the Baton Rouge area, where daily traffic jams snarl commuters, to back the bill.
"I sit in a parking lot every day, as do all of our constituents," said Baton Rouge Rep. Paula Davis.
Louisiana has a $13 billion backlog of road and bridge repair and upgrade needs, according to the state transportation department. That doesn't count the $15 billion wish list of new construction projects. Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, supports a gas tax boost.
Opponents of the tax hike said people are tired of repeated tax increases from lawmakers and don't trust Louisiana will spend the tax money on the roadwork promised. They said working families are struggling in a state with one of the nation's highest unemployment rates and can't afford new charges at the gas pump.
"People in Louisiana are hurting, and quite frankly, a cup of Starbucks coffee is a luxury many people can't afford," said John Kay, Louisiana state director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative organization that has launched an ad campaign to lambast the gas tax.
Motorists in Louisiana currently pay 38.4 cents in taxes per gallon of gasoline, including 20 cents in state taxes. The state rate hasn't changed since 1990, even as construction costs boomed. Under Carter's bill, the tax would grow by 17 cents on July 1. The tax then would rise periodically, tied to an inflationary index.
The dollars would be earmarked for transportation projects, unable to be spent on salaries or administrative costs — an effort to make jittery lawmakers comfortable that they can go home and tell people the money won't be diverted to grow government.
Supporters of the tax increase said Louisiana's infrastructure deficiencies make it harder to attract new business.
Jason El Koubi, president of One Acadiana, the Lafayette-area regional chamber of commerce, said his organization generally opposes tax increases, but believes the benefits of a gas tax increase outweigh its costs. He said suggestions from bill opponents that the state can make budget cuts elsewhere to shift dollars to roadwork are unrealistic.
"The costs of inaction are going to increase over time," El Koubi said. "This is going to become a worse and worse problem."
Rob Maness, representing the tea party-aligned Louisiana Power Coalition, said the state's poor infrastructure quality isn't chasing away businesses. He said that's the fault of Louisiana's unstable tax policy, with legislative changes annually.