FILE - Louisiana gas tax

At the Louisiana State Capitol, stakeholders often wear matching shirts to support their cause and let lawmakers know they’re out there. Members of the Coalition to Fix Our Roads were out in force last week at a House Ways and Means Committee meeting, wearing matching lime-green vests similar to those worn by road crews, even though their gas-tax bill wasn’t on that morning’s agenda.

Not to be outdone, Americans for Prosperity, the national conservative advocacy group with an active Louisiana chapter, sent a plane to circle the capitol pulling a sign: “La. can’t afford a gas tax too.” Louisiana already has a gas tax, of course, but the message was clear: Don’t raise our taxes again.

House Bill 542, the bill the coalition backs, would gradually almost double the state's gas tax, from 20 cents to 38 cents a gallon. Supporters note that Louisiana's gas tax hasn’t been raised in 30 years and is among the lowest in the nation. The Department of Transportation and Development says it faces a $14 billion backlog of infrastructure needs and has closed 19 bridges around the state so far this year, officials say.  

While other states are raising their gas taxes, Louisiana falls further behind, said Erich Ponti, executive director of the Louisiana Asphalt Pavement Association and spokesman for the coalition. He said Louisiana will be able to provide the required matching funds this year to draw down federal transportation dollars only because it currently has a surplus.

“The department has done an excellent job over the years of not only securing our match but taking other states that were unable to take their match and using their dollars,” Ponti said. “Without a surplus, we can’t make a match, and we will become a donor state going forward.”

HB 542 by Rep. Steve Carter, a Baton Rouge Republican, would gradually increase the state’s gas tax from 20 cents to 38 cents a gallon by 2031, when Louisiana motorists would be paying 56.4 cents per gallon in taxes, including federal taxes. That would be up from 38.4 cents today, or more if the federal government also raises its gas tax. President Donald Trump has proposed raising the federal gas tax by 25 cents a gallon.

If both federal and state gas tax hike were approved, Louisiana motorists would pay 81.4 cents a gallon in taxes.

All of the new state money would be dedicated to the Construction Subfund of the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, which means it could not be used to fund DOTD’s salaries and overhead.

Of the current 16 cents in gas tax funds that go to overall transportation, 8 cents would be dedicated to construction. So if DOTD needed more money to run the department, its leadership would have to go to House Appropriations and ask for it like any other agency.

While many agree that Louisiana’s roads and bridges are in sorry shape, not everyone wants to raise the gas tax. Along with AFP, one of the vocal opponents has been the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a free market think tank.

In a commentary titled “Louisiana Doesn’t Need to Raise its Gas Tax,” the Pelican Institute emphasizes public-private partnerships as a way to stretch state dollars for infrastructure. In exchange for updating and maintaining roadways, a private entity can charge a toll, or build “express lanes” for drivers willing to pay more.

“This not only acts as a better user fee than a gas tax ever could but gives a direct incentive for the private entity to keep the roads in excellent shape and traffic flowing quickly,” the institute argues.

Among other changes, the Pelican Institute also recommends spending the entire gas tax, not just half, on construction, and paying for all of DOTD’s operations out of the state general fund.

“I’m all for public-private [partnerships],” said Carter, the bill’s author. “I’m also for tolling.”

DOTD is pursuing partnerships for major projects. But there are roads and bridges across the state, particularly in rural areas, that likely don’t have enough traffic to interest a private company looking to profit from tolls, Carter said.

Hanging over this entire conversation is the fact that this is an election year, and some lawmakers would prefer not to have to vote on a tax increase when they'll be on the ballot in the fall.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has not taken a public position on the gas tax hike bill.

“You’re always going to have that in an election year, but the coalition has done a really good job of reaching out to them and explaining [the bill] to them,” Carter said.

Ponti, a former legislator, said many current lawmakers tell him it’s “past time” to raise the gas tax. About 100 organizations have endorsed Carter’s bill, Ponti said, including the highly influential Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.

Carter hopes his bill gets a hearing on Tuesday, though it has not yet been scheduled for debate.

Generally speaking, Louisiana lawmakers can only raise revenue during the fiscal sessions held during odd-numbered years, which is why the last major push for a gas tax hike happened in 2017.

Staff Reporter

David Jacobs is a Baton Rouge-based award-winning journalist who has written about government, politics, business and culture in Louisiana for almost 15 years. He joined The Center Square in 2018.