Does Louisiana really spend just 11 percent of its gasoline tax revenue on roads?
BATON ROUGE -- The number reappears in Louisiana's transportation debate over and over: 11 percent. Tax hike critics, Republican officials and conservative organizations say that's the portion of state gasoline tax revenue spent on actual road and bridge work, and they used the argument to defeat a proposed gas tax increase this year.
Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration says that number is a myth, nowhere close to the financial reality of the spending in the Department of Transportation and Development. "The 11 percent deceives people, and it creates this perception that there's waste and abuse," said Transportation Secretary Shawn Wilson.
The number -- real or not -- is indicative of a driving public opinion that state government squanders too many tax dollars and can't be trusted with more. Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, who unsuccessfully pushed a 17-cent gasoline tax hike earlier this year, said that perception was a central problem in winning support for the legislation aimed at chipping away at a $13 billion transportation backlog. "Let me tell you the toughest thing we had on this bill: The people don't have any confidence in people like me," Carter said
Motorists in Louisiana pay 38.4 cents in taxes per gallon of gasoline, including 20 cents in state taxes. The state rate hasn't changed in almost 30 years. In May, Carter abandoned his proposal to raise $500 million a year with a higher tax when it became clear he didn't have enough backing.
Among criticisms of the tax hike, opponents said Louisiana shouldn't get more money for road and bridge work until it better spends the dollars it already receives. That has been a focus of the transportation debate for several years.
Republican David Vitter cited the 11 percent figure regularly during his unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2015. U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, repeated the 11 percent figure last week as he described an "inefficient system" bogged down by decades of mismanagement.
"As data prepared by contractors indicated, and was talked about extensively during the last governor's race, an estimated 89 percent of the funds that are derived from state gas taxes go to expenses inside the building at the Department of Transportation, not outside on turning dirt," Graves told the Press Club of Baton Rouge.
Wilson said that figure distorts his agency's budget and misunderstands how transportation financing works. He said that less than 4 percent of the department's total $2 billion budget pays for administrative costs.
Those citing the 11 percent figure are using only the state gasoline tax dollars, which doesn't account for the full financing in the transportation department. It leaves out the $816 million in federal money and the $323 million from money that Louisiana borrows via bond issues.
Also, the critics seem to be including most, if not all, salaries as administrative costs. Wilson said that assumes every person who works in his department is a bureaucrat at a desk, rather than an employee working on road and bridge projects.
Of the 4,200 employees in the agency, Wilson said more than 3,400 of them are doing operations, safety and maintenance work: filling potholes, mowing grass, hanging road signs, repairing guardrails and striping roadways. He said that's road and bridge work, just as much as new construction -- not an administrative cost.
"That's not pushing paper. That's actually making the roads safe, keeping a road open, picking up debris after a flood. That is a direct service," Wilson said.
Graves seemed unlikely to be swayed by such arguments, saying in his speech: "I've heard folks refute those estimates, and I'll say again, those estimates were put together by contractors. I've seen some of the backup data, and I think that information is sound."
One decision fueling perceptions of misspending was the repeated diversion of millions of dollars, earmarked for road and bridge work, to pay for State Police traffic control operations. The practice grew larger during former Gov. Bobby Jindal's administration.
Edwards and the current Legislature, since taking office in January 2016, have stopped the diversions. But it could take years to alter the mistrust.
"I can't change as secretary the practices over the last 30 years," Wilson said. "But we're being judged for the practices over the last 30 years."