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State Bond Commission delays $39M in SWB funding in ongoing spat over New Orleans abortion stance

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry (left) addresses the media after a court hearing on the state's abortion "trigger laws" while Solicitor General Liz Murrill and attorney John Balhoff look on. July 18, 2022.
Paul Braun
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry. July 18, 2022.

The Louisiana Bond Commission voted Thursday to delay funding for a $39 million New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board project by another month, prolonging top state officials’ spat with the city officials over their defiance of the state’s abortion ban.

For the second month in a row, the 12-member comprised of the state’s top elected officials voted to block the advancement of the city of New Orleans’ request for a non-cash line of credit to continue improvements to its aging sewer pump infrastructure.

The committee voted 7-6 to delay the request.

Attorney General Jeff Landry, who has been highly critical of city officials’ abortion stance, led the effort to delay the project.

“The city of New Orleans seemingly wants to defy the will of the legislature,” Landry said. “This is not the first time that the city has thumbed its nose at either the laws of this state or the laws of this nation.”

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.

Matthew Block, Gov. John Bel Edwards’ executive counsel and one of his designees on the commission, objected saying that the punishment was targeted at the wrong entity of New Orleans local government and would affect citizens who are routinely impacted by street flooding and poor drainage.

The state’s near-absolute ban on abortion, which the state Supreme Court has allowed to remain in effect, has shuttered the three abortion clinics that previously operated in the state. All three have announced plans to leave the state.

Paul Rainwater, a lobbyist representing New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell,

“Find something non-essential to go after — not the Sewerage and Water Board,” Rainwater said. "You're putting a lot of people at risk by holding up the project."

Rainwater said that Landry could more directly punish Cantrell or Orleans Parish District Attorney Jason Williams with charges of malfeasance in office, but he suggested that Landry knew such charges would not stick.

Rainwater asserted that the public statements by the mayor and district attorney and the passage of the resolution by the city council were protected by the public officials’ First Amendment rights. And last weeks’ closure of the last operational abortion clinic in New Orleans rendered the issue moot.

Jay Dardenne, Edwards’ top budget advisor and his second designee on the panel, said Landry’s efforts would erode potential contractors' confidence that the state would honor contracts it made with the city.

“Let’s be honest with ourselves, let’s be honest with the public — this is all about political theater,” Dardenne said. “The policy of this Bond Commission [should be] to look out for the financial interests of this state and make certain that we create the opportunity to fund projects that are meaningful to the people of this state.”

Sen. Jimmy Harris (D-New Orleans) also opposed the motion, noting that the the last time the commission voted to delay the funding last month, New Orleans was impacted by flash flooding that could have been mitigated by a properly functioning pump system.

State Rep. Jerome Zeringue (R-Houma) motioned to defer the project until city officials appear before the commission to explain their actions.

Landry, Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin and state representatives Zeringue, Neil Riser (R-Columbia), John Stefanski (R-Crowley) and Rep. Scott McKnight (R-Baton Rouge) voted to delay the funding.

But Republicans’ support of the effort began to fray, as several panel members voiced their concerns about the politicization of the typically perfunctory processing local governments' funding requests.

State Senators Bret Allain (R-Franklin), Franklin Foil (R-Baton Rouge) Barry Milligan (R-Shreveport) joined Harris Dardenne and Block to oppose delaying the funding.

Schroder openly criticized Landry’s push to delay the funding for the drainage project but did not vote. Schroder, who is expected to run against Landry in next year’s governor’s race, admonished the attorney general in a letter calling his push to delay a project a “hollow gesture” and challenged him to use his authority as the chief legal officer of the state to levy more targeted punishment.

“If you are serious about upholding our state constitution and laws, please move forward with some real and decisive action on this issue,” Schroder wrote.

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