Louisiana's High-Profile Gas Tax Died Because of 'Toxic,' Leaderless House, Veteran Lobbyist Says

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The push to raise the state gas tax died because the Louisiana House has turned into a "toxic mix" that features a "total lack of leadership," a veteran lobbyist told allies in a memo.

The scalding comments were spelled out by Ken Naquin, CEO of the Louisiana Association of General Contractors, a lobbyist who has frequented the state Capitol for 38 years and a top backer of the bid to boost the gas tax.

"You must appreciate the toxic mix that is the House of Representatives as it exists today and the total lack of leadership in the House," Naquin said in a memo to members May 31, the day the tax-hike bill died.

"There are really three speakers in the House," he said, meaning three top leaders when there should be one.

Naquin listed House Speaker Taylor Barras (R-New Iberia), who was elected in a surprise last year and two others that he said are essentially speakers too — House Appropriations Committee Chairman Cameron Henry (R-Metairie) and Rep. Lance Harris (R-Alexandria), chairman of the House GOP caucus.

"The power in the House is Rep. Harris," according to the memo.

"The Republicans do not want to allow Gov. Edwards any victory, and the passage of an infrastructure bill would be considered his victory," Naquin wrote.

Barras was a backer of the gas-tax increase — House Bill 632 — but Henry and Harris were not.

The governor also backed an increase but kept his distance, mostly because friction with Barras and other House members meant his active involvement could be a liability for the bill.

The result was that, despite the support of the governor and House speaker, a bill by state Rep. Steve Carter, (R-Baton Rouge), to raise the gas tax by either $300 million or $500 million per year died without a vote.

"We are stuck in the perfect storm trying to raise the fuel tax with what is going on," Naquin said in an interview.

Barras, speaking with reporters after the House adjourned on June 2, said he has not seen Naquin's memo and was not interested.

The speaker said the gas-tax bill died because of a lack of support in the House.

"They didn't have the votes, and struggled at whatever rate," Barras said, a reference to reductions in the bill aimed at attracting support.

"Outside of this building, it was getting louder and louder the longer the bill hung around that the public was just adamant about it," he said of opposition.

The GOP-controlled House was always considered the crucial test in the push for a gas-tax increase, which would have been the first in 28 years.

Backers of the increase had to round up at least 70 votes in the 105-member House — a two-thirds majority — to move the issue to the state Senate, always a huge lift politically.

Naquin said support topped out at 60 "yes" votes on May 30, an unlikely alliance of Republicans from Baton Rouge and other congested areas, some members of the Legislative Black Caucus and a smattering of other Democrats.

But it also sparked a split in the state Republican Party, with its leaders opposing Carter's push and Carter denouncing his own party in a House speech on May 31.

In addition, all four Republicans who endorsed a 17 cent, $510 million gas-tax hike in the House Ways and Means Committee, were targeted for criticism in a resolution approved by the state party.

Those were state Reps. Julie Stokes of Kenner, Barry Ivey of Central, Paula Davis of Baton Rouge and Clay Schexnayder of Gonzales.

"I just felt like it was important to let people know who we could count on and who we couldn't count on," said Roger Villere Jr., chairman of the Republican Party of Louisiana.

Scott Kirkpatrick, executive director of a transportation advocacy group called CRISIS, was heavily involved in the gas-tax push and said things changed near the end of the debate.

"I do think later in the session as things dragged on it became more of a partisan issue," Kirkpatrick said. "It did not start that way."

Splits on the issue in the House leadership showed up early.

Rep. Jim Morris (R-Oil City), vice-chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, considered sponsoring a gas-tax hike, and perhaps an increase of 17 cents per gallon.

But Morris dropped his plans after a meeting of House Republicans, with Harris and Henry getting some of the credit for Morris' change of direction.

Morris voted "no" on Carter's bill when it was approved by Ways and Means last month, and said his constituents made it clear that they oppose any such hike.

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