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State Bond Commission threatens $39M S&WB project because of New Orleans' abortion stance

The Sewerage and Water Board's facility Uptown.
Travis Lux
The Sewerage and Water Board's facility Uptown.

After Jeff Landry asked the state to withhold construction dollars from New Orleans for city officials choosing not to enforce abortion restrictions, the Louisiana Bond Commission made good on Landry's threat by delaying the city's $39 million request for funds to improve its ailing drainage infrastructure.

During Thursday’s Bond Commission meeting, Landry’s representative on the panel targeted only one funding request from the city for a $39 million non-cash line of credit to build a power station for the city’s Sewerage and Water Board.

The committee voted 12-2 to delay the consideration of the project by a month. Gov. John Bel Edwards’ two designees on the panel cast the only no votes.

By deferring the consideration of the request for one month, the commission has left itself enough time to put the project back on track. And legislative leaders on the committee noted that advancing the request Thursday would not have guaranteed that the project would be fully funded in the state spending bills crafted by lawmakers next year.

This comes just two days after Landry urged his fellow Bond Commission members to defer any applications for funding from the city of New Orleans until officials there affirm that they will enforce the state’s near-total abortion ban and cooperate with any other state officials.

In the days after the U.S. Supreme Court ended the constitutional right to abortion last month and activated the abortion trigger bans in Louisiana and across the country, New Orleans city officials publicly stated and passed resolutions saying they would not enforce the state’s ban on the procedure.

The ban, which is currently blocked by court order, would prohibit abortion from the earliest stages of pregnancy and would impose stiff criminal penalties on doctors who perform the procedure in defiance of the law.

For those reasons, Landry received criticism from some New Orleans and state officials, including Republican and State Treasurer John Schroder. He said Landry’s effort amounted to little more than political posturing. Schroder challenged Landry to use his authority as the state’s top law enforcer to charge the defiant New Orleans officials with malfeasance in office and leave the state’s finances alone.

“We’re playing politics with this and I don’t like it,” Schroder said. “I am trying not to be cute about this. This is a bond commission. We deal with the finances of the state, and as long as you check the boxes, then those things get approved.”

Emily Andrews, deputy attorney general for the civil division, said she did not rule out the possibility of the attorney general pursuing criminal charges against Orleans Parish officials, but said their defiance requires the state to use all of the tools at its disposal to ensure their compliance.

“It’s a violation of the constitution,” Andrews said. “There is a breakdown in the rule of law when you have municipalities and parishes who will not abide by the laws that were passed by the legislature and signed by the governor.”

“The attorney general has the ability to enforce state law whether it’s a doctor who’s illegally operating in that [abortion] clinic or some public official,” Schroder said. “So he’s got plenty of tools.”

Schroder and Landry, both Republicans, are expected to face off as candidates for governor in 2023.

Schroder criticized Landry for not sharing his plan with him before announcing it publicly on Tuesday, and he questioned the attorney general’s decision to attend a conference held by the Alliance Defending Freedom in Georgia instead of attending the meeting himself.

“If he were really serious, he wouldn’t be sitting in a conference right now. He’d be here, handling the duties of the Attorney General of the State of Louisiana.”

Edwards, an anti-abortion rights Democrat who has criticized the New Orleans city officials’ pledge not to enforce the abortion ban, said on his monthly radio show that cutting off state funding was misguided.

“The idea that you seek to punish all the people living in a certain area because you are at odds with some of their elected officials — that’s not a reasonable approach,” Edwards said Wednesday during his monthly radio show.

Matthew Block, Edwards’ executive counsel and one of his representatives on the committee, said threatening the funding of the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, which has no role in enforcing abortion laws and plays a vital role in protecting life and property, was ill-advised, especially during hurricane season.

But Landry had broad support among the members of the overwhelmingly Republican panel. Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin said the city passing a resolution stating that it would not enforce the laws of the state amounted to anarchy and a violation of their oath to uphold the Constitution.

“We don’t have the opportunity to pick and choose what laws we follow,” Ardoin said. “In my opinion, they should all be impeached.”

Thursday’s vote delays just one step in the lengthy process to secure funding for the public works project.

Christy Harowski, New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board’s chief of staff, said the money at stake was part of a $106 million effort to improve the city’s ailing drainage infrastructure. The project requires 14 separate contracts, all of which are underway, Harowski said, adding that the delay would affect the project timeline and shake contractors' confidence in the city’s ability to pay for the work.

"It is disappointing and appalling that the Louisiana Bond Commission decided to halt funding for one of the most vital and valuable infrastructure projects, despite the fact that the right to an abortion remains legal statewide," New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said in a statement.

Cantrell called on business leaders in the city, which is one of the largest economic drivers in the state, to pressure the Bond Commission to reverse course and restore the funding.

Paul Braun was WRKF's Capitol Access reporter, from 2019 through 2023.

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