- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 24, 2015

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Despite criticism, Gov. Bobby Jindal proposes to divert even larger sums of state gasoline tax revenue away from road work next year to instead pay for state police operations.

Lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee learned Tuesday that Jindal’s budget recommendation for the fiscal year that begins July 1 would shift $72 million in gas tax money to cover state trooper costs, an increase of more than $5 million over this year.

That would boost the amount of money steered away from road and bridge work to $313 million over Jindal’s two terms in office, according to data from House budget analyst Daniel Waguespack.

The sidetracking of dollars away from highway projects comes as Louisiana has a growing $12 billion backlog of needed road repairs, infrastructure upgrades and bridge work. And the shifting of gas tax money has impacted which transportation projects get dollars.

Eric Kalivoda, deputy secretary of the Department of Transportation and Development, told lawmakers the agency has limited spending on federally-funded road projects that require higher levels of state match money, instead favoring interstate and other work with a lower match requirement.

“We’ve had to try to shift over because of the shortage of state funds to do more projects that only require a 10 percent match or a 5 percent match or in some cases no match,” Kalivoda said.

He said some of the other roadways “are in a downward spiral.” He said the department is working on ways to steer some dollars to those routes.

Lawmakers have complained about the diversion of the road money, saying drivers expect gas tax dollars to pay for highway improvements. But they haven’t blocked the transfers since they began five years ago, as they’ve grappled with continuing budget problems.

Money generated by Louisiana’s 20-cent-per-gallon gas tax flows into a savings account called the Transportation Trust Fund. More than $574 million generated by the tax, other fees and interest earnings is estimated to be available in the account for the 2015-16 budget year.

When Jindal first took office, none of the money in the trust fund was diverted to state police operations, but it started edging up by his third year and grew as state financial problems deepened.

The high mark was last year, when nearly $76 million was steered away from roads to state police. Next year’s sidetracked cash would edge close to that amount.

All four candidates for governor have said they want to move the dollars back to road and bridge work, to restore public faith in the trust fund. But they’ve not offered ideas for replacing the dollars in state police operations.

Asked by Rep. Ledricka Thierry, D-Opelousas, about her plan to chip away at the $12 billion backlog, DOTD Secretary Sherri LeBas didn’t offer one. She said the agency will get an additional $400 million a year when a law kicks in that dedicates vehicle sales tax money to road and bridge work.

Kalivoda noted that isn’t expected to happen until 2020.

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