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Roads ideas divorced from new Jindal budget direction

Bad ideas disproportionately remain in currency, and thus it seems the idea of raising gasoline taxes and others of extracting additional revenues from the public do not go away when it comes to considering funding for roads construction in Louisiana, both for the existing but especially contemplated ones.

Frustrated this past session when he could not get his idea to index the cost of living to gasoline taxes enacted into law, state Rep. Hollis Downs got the Legislature to pass a resolution to study the issue. Naturally, at the top of his list was this idea, accompanied by establishment of toll roads and, the only suggestion which may not cost taxpayers more, public/private partnerships in operation.

But conspicuously absent from the roll was the idea on which existing legislation already is based, designed to bring hundreds of million of extra dollars annually for road building. Currently, funds collected from taxes and fees directly related to transportation such as 80 percent of the state’s 20 cent per gallon retail gasoline tax are supposed to go only to the actual building of transportation projects. Until that became law last year, those hundreds of millions could be used for any purpose and they were outside of these kinds of projects. These proceeds would amply eat into the estimated $12.6 billion backlog of roads projects.

Unfortunately, an amendment was put into place on that bill to allow the redirection in times of projected budgetary deficits to other uses. Well, that’s where the state is now and likely will be for at least a couple of more years, hence the whining that led to this study. However, this new search dodges the obvious solution.

That is, simply spend less in state government. When economic times are harder causing overall revenue to falter, government needs to retrench in areas of reduced importance. And the idea behind the law is that the “hole” created by removing transportation-generated revenues from being used generally should have been treated as a one-time reduction of state government, establishing a lower baseline that could change on its typical path in future years and not even needing further cuts

Actually, the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration has talked more ambitiously than this incrementalist approach and these words need to be heeded by these legislators. Its new envisioned budget regime would reduce the inflexibility of the current system, especially straitjacketed by hundreds of dedicated funds, allowing reduced spending as low priority, largely if not totally unnecessary items are dropped from being a state function. This would include how much money would be directed to transportation, so if it is a true priority, its funding will increase.

Furthermore, it is fatuous for the most part to start talking about new projects that would increase the demand for money. After all, the state is losing population, so why must there be new roads except in a handful of instances such as I-49 (north; south can get along with the existing U.S. highways that it uses) and perhaps a few isolated (because it’s not happening much) places of good population growth in the state? If these are high priorities, then the projected new budgeting plan should get money to them. And, one must wonder about the economic acumen of those who propose to excise more money from the people when a recession already is hurting them economically. (Note also that a recent legislative attempt to redirect funds by giving local government more authority over use of project funds, which might have improved prioritization, was defeated.)

So, the obvious solution is this: adopt budgeting reforms suggested by the Jindal Administration that would cause redirection of existing revenues to roads, and no revenue enhancements are necessary. While blatant, despite that this escapes the cognizance of many legislators simply because they appear genetically programmed to want to increase the size of government, and thus its (and their) power over the people. This study’s current agenda underscores the difficulty the Jindal Administration will have in getting the new budgeting idea through, and exposes the mentality that continues to hold back the state’s ability to spur growth and economic development.

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