State’s gas tax money shifts to troopers

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To cope with budget problems, Gov. Bobby Jindal and lawmakers have siphoned a slice of state gasoline tax revenue away from road work to instead pay for state troopers.

The amount of sidetracked money has been growing, even though Louisiana has a $12 billion backlog of needed road repairs, highway upgrades and bridge work.

Money generated by Louisiana’s 20-cent-per-gallon gas tax flows into a savings account called the Transportation Trust Fund. More than $570 million generated by the tax, other fees and interest earnings is estimated to be available in the account for the 2014-15 budget year.

Of that, the Jindal administration – backed by lawmakers – set aside $60 million to help cover the costs of the Louisiana State Police in the fiscal year that begins July 1. That’s up from $38 million three years earlier.

State Transportation Secretary Sherri LeBas said the money goes to a good use, tied to the roadways.

“If they did not have this money, they may not be able to provide the enforcement measures to keep our traveling public safe,” she said.

Sen. Robert Adley, R-Benton, chairman of the Senate transportation committee, said the money should be spent improving Louisiana’s roads.

“I like the state police as much as anybody, but the people voted for the tax for their roads and that’s where it ought to be going,” he said.

For the first three years of Jindal’s time in office, no dollars were shifted from the trust fund to the state police, according to data tracked by budget analyst Alan Boxberger, with the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Office.

When the governor and lawmakers crafted this year’s budget, trust fund dollars steered to state police had reached $46 million. In the most recent legislative session, that current year figure was bumped up to $69 million to cover gaps in the state police budget.

“This is getting out of hand,” Adley said.

The Louisiana Constitution allows up to 20 percent of the trust fund money to be spent on ports, parish roads, state flood control projects and the state police for “traffic control purposes.”

Jindal’s top budget adviser, Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, said the administration is following the constitution.

“We will continue to ensure that funding is provided both to our state roads and to the men and women who work to protect the people who use them,” Nichols said in a statement.

Before Jindal, spending from the trust fund on state police expenses historically was in the $35 million to $40 million range, Boxberger said.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, said diversion of the trust fund dollars takes needed dollars from roads, but he said budget troubles have left the state struggling.

“I don’t like it,” he said. “The bottom line is there’s just not enough money.”

LeBas said coupled with federal highway money, her department will have a $900 million budget for engineering and construction work next year.

Ken Perret, a retired assistant state transportation secretary, said Louisiana’s gas tax provides less money than it did when it was last increased in 1989, because of construction inflation.

Spending trust fund dollars elsewhere only worsens the problem, said Perret, president of the Louisiana Good Roads and Transportation Association, an organization seeking more money for road and bridge work in the state.

“It’s not a question of the state police. They need the money. We recognize that. It’s a question of where the money should come from,” he said.