U.S. Congressman Garret Graves says it’s easy to understand why Louisiana can’t fully capitalize on its unique abundance of natural and manmade resources.
Speaking Feb. 14 during the Louisiana Associated General Contractors’ Critical Issues Summit in Baton Rouge, Graves says the bad outweighs the good in most cases. “We can’t have the highest violent crime rate in the country while promoting our quality of life to these large economic development projects,” he notes. “And while we’ve got some great public schools, it’s not that way across the board.
“We’ve also got to make sure that we have a tax code that’s competitive and modern,” he adds. “Another need is tort reform—it’s not acceptable to have the second highest auto insurance rates in America. Not acceptable at all.”
The congressman puts infrastructure woes are at the top of the list. “We have a transportation crisis—not just in Louisiana, but across the country. We have underinvested in our infrastructure.” Other long-term problems on the horizon, such as a shift to electric vehicles and alternative fuels, could reduce federal and state gas tax revenues.
At the federal level, the divisive nature of politics has been a major stumbling block for infrastructure funding, even as Congress struggles to pass a new highway bill that is typically a bipartisan endeavor. “I don’t think we’ll actually get a bill passed until 2021, based upon the tone of Washington,” Graves says.
Locally, Louisiana Senate Transportation Chairman Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, doubts much will be done about the state’s $14.6 billion backlog in transportation funding any time soon. The last attempt at a gas tax hike was in May 2019, but HB 542 was shelved due to a lack of support. The measure gradually would have raised the tax by 18 cents per gallon. Motorists currently pay 38.4 cents per gallon in taxes, including 20 cents per gallon in state charges.
Ward told those at the summit he is hopeful that the incoming roster of legislators will be more receptive to moving transportation funding forward, but he acknowledges little can be done without additional revenue. “There will be some constraints in terms of what can be done, but there will be bills to shift dollars over to DOTD,” he adds. “But that’s somewhat limited because there are no new funds.”
Graves insists it’s still possible to move Louisiana from the bottom of many state rankings, citing a laundry list of assets that could help it “blow every other state away”: five of the top 15 river ports in the U.S., 18% of all maritime commerce, and one of only two states with six Class One railways.
“We’re also one of the top energy suppliers and the second biggest petrochemical supplier,” he adds. “But it’s not just the resources; it’s the distribution system. We’ve got reliable access to natural gas. It’s inexpensive and we have pipelines that go everywhere. We also have the most productive workforce in the country.”
Other topics at the two-day summit included discussions about Washington D.C. policy, the Louisiana business climate and risk allocation.