Riegel: A moment of truth for the business community


About this time last year, many—though not all—of the Capital Region’s business leaders and organizations came out in support of a proposed gasoline tax to fund badly needed mega infrastructure projects.

With the area’s chambers of commerce, big chemical manufacturers and a rare, united Capital Region delegation all pushing for the proposed 17-cent tax increase, the measure appeared to have a legitimate shot at passing.

But state Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, couldn’t get the necessary two-thirds of the Legislature to go along, so he pulled the bill before it could come up for a vote on the House floor, thereby sparing his colleagues the indignity of having to weigh in on a tax that was doomed to fail.

For those who live and work in the Capital Region and suffer the indignity of sitting in gridlock every day, the failure of the measure was a crushing blow.

But there are those determined to stop a tax at all costs, no matter the need or the cause. They were effective in rallying the opposition and sowing doubt about how gas tax money might be spent in a state that, admittedly, has a history of sweeping funds and building bridges between St. Francisville and New Roads.

Leading that opposition was the conservative-leaning Americans for Prosperity-Louisiana, which is funded by the Koch brothers. In a minute-long video that made the rounds on social media, the AFP blasted the proposed tax and asserted that “Louisiana doesn’t need higher gas taxes to fix our roads and bridges. We simply need leaders who will spend our money wisely.”

Once the measure had died in House committee, the group claimed rightful credit, noting in a release on its website that, “AFP-LA volunteers made their opposition clear to lawmakers by going door-to-door, attending town halls, making calls and sending emails.”

It’s important to note that as effective as the AFP was, it wasn’t alone. The local chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses also opposed the tax. Its small business base wasn’t convinced that bothersome traffic—even if it stifles economic development—wasn’t worth 17 extra cents per gallon at the pump.

Then there was the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, which took something of a sideline position, neither coming out for or against the tax. Arguably, if the powerful group had put its full muscle behind the tax it would have passed. But LABI keeps saying the state has a spending problem, not a revenue problem, so couldn’t justify lobbying for a tax increase.

It could be a real moment of truth for the local business community, and the future of Baton Rouge.

It’s instructive to recall this brief bit of recent history because Carter and the industry-led CRISIS group are planning to again push a gas tax in the upcoming regular legislative session, though this time the measure would take the form of a constitutional amendment. If approved by the Legislature and, later, the voters, the amendment would allow specific parishes or regions to vote their own gas tax increase to fund local or regional infrastructure projects.

It’s a long-shot proposition with a lot of moving pieces and parts. But many of the same groups that pushed for the gas tax last year are working to make it happen, and this year they’ll have some high-profile help.

Local businessman Jim Bernhard in two recent speeches has announced a newfound commitment to civic activism and improving the quality of life in Baton Rouge. Specifically, he has made fixing the area’s chronic gridlock his number one priority, with fighting crime and funding LSU second and third.

In one of his recent speeches, the fiery, charismatic Bernhard actually apologized to Carter for not becoming more involved in the gas tax battle last year. He vowed that would never happen again.

He later told Daily Report he intends to fund a gas tax campaign himself and take on anyone or anything who plans to oppose it.

He will face a determined opponent. I recently spoke to John Kay, executive director of the AFP-LA chapter, asking him if his group might temper its opposition this year. Could it live with Carter’s constitutional amendment?

He said no.

“We’d like to sit down with Rep. Carter and find out more,” Kay said. “But I don’t see how we could support something like that.”

Why not, if a broad-based coalition really wants it and has determined it is the only way to effectively address gridlock in a specific area?

“Because in Louisiana, state and federal spending has increased so much since Katrina,” he said. “Until we really do a better job of cutting spending, digging deep, cutting out all dedications … I think we would have to oppose it.”

With the battle lines effectively drawn, who will the business community line up behind? Bernhard’s speeches have been warmly received by his peers, and he says his phone has been ringing off the hook with calls and texts from local business leaders who want to join his crusade to really fix problems, not merely talk about them.

But when the rubber meets the road, will those same leaders side with him and make time to lobby lawmakers?

Or will they back a group like the AFP-LA, which they’re likely aligned philosophically on issues of tax increases and government spending?

It could be a real moment of truth for the local business community, and the future of Baton Rouge. It will be interesting to see it play out.

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