- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 25, 2015

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Despite criticism, Gov. Bobby Jindal has taken $48 million that would have been used on roads and bridges and used it instead to plug this year’s budget deficit.

The maneuver, backed by lawmakers on the joint House and Senate budget committee, got little public discussion and came after months of election campaign promises that such sidetracking of roadwork money should end.

The Jindal administration said diverting the transportation money helped shield public colleges and other services from deep cuts.

Nearly all the money, about $46 million, came from the Transportation Trust Fund that contains state gasoline and fuel tax income. The remaining sliver of cash came from vehicle registration and license fees and taxes.

Combined with the earlier use of transportation money to pay for state police this year, $93 million initially earmarked for road repairs, highway upgrades and other infrastructure needs will be spent on other government operations.

Critics of the latest diversion of transportation funds say the budget maneuver received too little debate and damages the state’s ability to chip away at a $12 billion backlog of road and bridge needs.

“The administration saw that was an easy grab for them,” said Ken Perret, a retired assistant state transportation secretary and president of the Louisiana Good Roads and Transportation Association, an advocacy group.

“It certainly didn’t recognize the priorities that the people of Louisiana do have for transportation. To me, they just made the situation even worse,” Perret said Tuesday.

Lawmakers have said they disagree with steering gas tax dollars away from road and bridge work. But Jindal has won support for diverting $286 million of such money to state police operations since 2011. That’s not counting the additional money just approved by the joint budget committee to pay for general government operations.

All four major candidates for governor - including the winner in Saturday’s election, Democrat John Bel Edwards - campaigned on ending the fund raids and using the money as intended for transportation projects.

The financing shift approved Friday by lawmakers was part of Jindal’s patchwork plan to close a $487 million deficit in the $25 billion budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, lamented moving the money “with all the road problems we have.” But he voted for the plan, saying lawmakers had few other options without going into a special session.

The state brought in more money from Louisiana’s 20-cent-per-gallon gas tax than expected after low gas prices boosted fuel consumption in Louisiana.

“We are utilizing this extra funding to protect higher education and critical services. No existing transportation projects will be adversely affected by this decision,” Jindal spokesman Mike Reed said in a statement.

But the dollars could have paid for other projects still on the drawing board.

“It’s a really big hit on the transportation fund. It’s another example of a program where everybody wants to go forward and in fact we’re all going backward,” said Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, a government watchdog group.

Scott said lawmakers should have considered using more cash from the state’s “rainy day” fund. Jindal’s plan uses $28 million from the account, but additional money was available.

“It was not clear, I think, to everybody involved in that decision on Friday just exactly what their options were on highway funding and whether this was as inevitable as it was presented to them,” Scott said.

State transportation department spokesman Rodney Mallett said in a statement the agency “can always make good use of additional funds,” but adding the department “must do its part to meet the overall state budget needs.”

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