The Sewerage and Water Board plant in New Orleans, pictured Aug. 18, 2022. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)
New Orleans officials will have to rescind a resolution not to enforce Louisiana’s abortion law — or at least explain in person why they won’t — if the city wants preliminary approval for money needed to build a critical infrastructure power plant.
Anti-abortion forces on the Louisiana Bond Commission prevailed in a 7-6 vote Thursday to defer consideration of a $39 million non-cash line of credit for the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans unless city leaders back down from their stance on the state’s abortion ban. The money is for construction of an electrical substation to replace outdated, unreliable turbines that power the city’s drinking water, drainage and sewage systems.
Attorney General Jeff Landry took part in Thursday’s commission meeting and singled out two other agenda items that involved New Orleans. In addition to the power plant, he highlighted $35 million in Sewerage and Water Board capital improvements bonds and $135 million to refinance city general obligation bonds.
“This is not the first time that the city has thumbed its nose at either the laws of the state or the laws of this nation,” Landry said. “I would point to you several years ago back, the policy that the city of New Orleans has in regards to illegal immigrants, right, illegal aliens. They come into the city of New Orleans as a sanctuary city.”
Landry did not object to a motion to approve the Sewerage and Water Board capital projects or the city bond refinancing, but he had company in his opposition to the power plant credit line.
Rep. Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, R-Houma, argued the bond commission should take a stand against New Orleans deciding not to enforce the state’s abortion law. The procedure is only allowed when the life of a pregnant person is at risk or when at least two doctors concur a pregnancy is not viable.
“Whether we politicize this or not, it still deals with the fact that the legislature passed the law, and they’re refusing … to enforce that,” Zeringue said.
Thursday’s vote was the bond commission’s second deferral of the power plant financing, although it approved a related request last month. Members voted for a $32 million line of credit for the power plant in July after the legislature deemed it a Priority 1 project in its capital outlay bill for fiscal year 2022-23.
The $39 million request, for a later phase in the power plant project, is designated as Priority 5, meaning actual money won’t be set aside for it in the state’s construction budget any sooner than next fiscal year. When the bond commission deferred a request for the power plant last month, Senate President Page Cortez said it would not delay the project because lawmakers won’t consider its priority status in the budget until just before next year’s session.
Matthew Block, executive counsel for Gov. John Bel Edwards, opposed deferral. It is not within the powers of New Orleans’ mayor or city council to prosecute violators of state law, but rather the district attorney, he said. Plus, he noted the state’s only three abortion clinics have been closed since a court injunction blocking enforcement of Louisiana’s abortion ban was lifted Aug. 1. WWNO-FM reported Monday that the clinic operators have chosen to relocate out of state.
“There are no abortions being performed in Louisiana, much less in in Orleans Parish, right now,” Block said. “So this idea that because there were statements made and a resolution passed that, somehow in the future, there might not be enforcement of the law – that’s not happening right now.”
The legislature is empowered to decide whether local projects should receive state financing, Block said, explaining that arguments over social policy and project merits are the realm of lawmakers, not the bond commission.
Landry disagreed, saying “…we should not defer the ability to use the tools at our disposal to bring them to heel, quite frankly.”
Sen. Jimmy Harris, D-New Orleans, another legislator sitting on the bond commission, stressed the urgency of upgrading the Sewerage and Water Board’s power supply. He mentioned that he had just received an emergency text message during the meeting that said street flooding was expected from forecasted heavy rain.
“They’re expecting it to flood,” Harris said about the text message, “so you can now legally park on the neutral ground because of the rains. That’s actually happening in the city right now. That’s what we’re dealing with. That’s what this particular project is attempting to help us, to where we don’t have to drown.”
It was not immediately clear which New Orleans officials would be officially invited before the bond commission. Landry mentioned statements from Mayor LaToya Cantrell and Sheriff Susan Hutson declaring they would not enforce the state abortion law. The Orleans Parish sheriff’s chief duties involve operating the city jail and not day-to-day law enforcement.
Orleans District Attorney Jason Williams has said his office will continue to focus on violent crime and not abortion.
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