Louisiana lawmakers trying to reach tax deal for roadwork

Louisiana
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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana senators advanced several transportation financing proposals in a rare Sunday debate session, as lawmakers negotiated behind the scenes on ways to steer more tax money to roads and bridges before the legislative session wraps up this week.

Senate leaders are proposing to make a temporary 0.45% state sales tax passed in 2018 permanent and send the dollars to infrastructure, rather than letting the tax expire as planned in mid-2025. But that idea appeared to be in trouble, facing significant opposition in the House.

With that proposal struggling to gain traction, senators have started looking for other approaches that could bolster state spending on projects in a $15 billion list of backlogged state-identified transportation needs. The Senate Finance Committee on Sunday approved two House-backed road financing bills that senators previously had shelved. Those measures were sent to the Senate floor, where they could become part of any eventual deal between the House and Senate.

“It gives us some choices of what we’re going to do,” said Finance Chairman Bodi White, a Republican from Central.

Those bills — sponsored by Republican Reps. Jack McFarland and Mark Wright — would phase in a requirement that vehicle sales taxes pay for infrastructure projects; limit the use of the Transportation Trust Fund to pay for operational expenses in the state’s transportation department; and enact other provisions aimed at lessening administrative costs in the agency.

All the ideas would make more money available for road and bridge projects, though that could leave financing gaps to cover health, education and other programs across state government by shifting existing tax dollars to transportation work with no means of replacing them.

Republican Senate President Page Cortez, White and other senators have made coming up with more money for infrastructure a top priority in the final days of a session that must end Thursday. But their favored approach, centered on the state’s sales tax, has failed to gain support so far in the House.

That proposal, added by Senate leaders into an unrelated House bill, would strip the expiration date for the temporary 0.45% state sales and send the nearly $400 million received annually to road and bridge work beginning in 2025.

But the Louisiana Conservative Caucus — 41 GOP lawmakers in the House — oppose the idea, calling it irresponsible to keep the temporary sales tax on the books when the state is receiving billions of federal dollars with more infrastructure money possibly on the way. Louisiana currently has the second-highest combined average state and local sales tax rate in the nation at 9.52%, according to the Tax Foundation.

Lawmakers in the Conservative Caucus represent more than one-third of the 105-member House, enough to stall the bill that requires a two-thirds vote to pass. In addition, some Democrats have raised objections to making the tax permanent.

Already lawmakers have allocated $560 million in federal coronavirus aid to pay for infrastructure, including several phases of widening of Interstates 10, 12 and 20, port projects and work on I-49 South. They’ve also added millions of dollars in legislative earmarks to budget bills that would provide financing for specific transportation projects favored by individual lawmakers.

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