Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni sent a caustic letter to Gov. John Bel Edwards last week, accusing him of spitefully vetoing a top-priority drainage project in Jefferson to send a message to conservative foes in the Legislature.
Yenni wrote in his Aug. 18 letter that he was "angered and disappointed" that Edwards would spike what he characterized as the highest-priority capital project in his parish.
The $2 million was requested to bolster flood protection in Uptown New Orleans and Old Metairie, a project that has gained renewed attention in the wake of recent floods in the city stemming partly from decrepit infrastructure.
"I recognize your need to manage your politics in Baton Rouge. But when your personal political retribution impacts the public safety of my parish and its people, I refuse to sit idly by without expressing my disdain for your process and demanding a fair solution," Yenni wrote.
"For the record, my $2 million request for capital funding, which would have triggered a $10 million+ drainage project, was not a low-level priority, as your deputy chief of staff expressed, but instead it was the highest priority on my 2017 request."
But in a equally snippy response letter sent Monday afternoon, Edwards questioned why no one in Yenni's administration had lifted a finger to lobby him or his administration directly about the urgency of the construction project.
"If this project was 'the highest priority' for you and the parish, as you and some members of your legislative delegation suggest, I am confused as to why neither you personally, any member of your staff, nor any member of your legislative delegation took the time to meet with me to discuss this project and its importance," Edwards wrote in the letter.
He added: "I appreciate the need to advocate for local projects that are important. I would, however, suggest that you convey the importance of these projects in advance, rather than sitting back and watching the process play out without your involvement."
In a phone interview, Yenni said the parish communicated this project was at the top of its wish list when it submitted it to the state as the No. 1 priority on a long list of capital projects.
Edwards deleted the project from the capital outlay budget in June, along with 35 other projects that were included in the bill passed by the Legislature. In his veto statement, he stressed that the state has limited capacity to sell bonds to finance construction.
Yenni wrote his letter on Aug. 18 after an Advocate article quoted the two Republican legislators representing Old Metairie grousing that the veto was politically motivated.
The project is in Rep. Cameron Henry and Sen. Conrad Appel's legislative districts. The two Metairie Republicans are among the most outspoken members of the Legislature in their criticism of Edwards.
After the August floods put a spotlight on problems with the region's drainage infrastructure, the two lawmakers told The Advocate they were frustrated to have lost the funding.
In the wake of the surprise floods of Aug. 5, Gov. John Bel Edwards has been on the front li…
"I realize the animosity you have toward Rep. Cameron Henry and Sen. Conrad Appel. I can even imagine the grins and snickers of your close aides as you vetoed spending that was put forth by one of your political enemies," Yenni wrote. "Your veto didn't only hurt Henry and Appel, it also hurt your close allies who endorsed you from their Republican ranks like Sheriff Newell Normand, Councilman Chris Roberts, Sen. Danny Martiny and more. Perhaps you will consider them when determining whether to punish all of Jefferson Parish strictly out of spite."
Edwards' deputy chief of staff, Richard Carbo, said last week that Henry and Appel both failed to make the case in the Legislature that the project was a high priority. It was listed in House Bill 2, the state's construction budget, at the lowest priority level — meaning the state was not committing any money to it.
"By the time this legislation reached my desk, it was in the lowest possible priority level, and its importance to the parish had not been communicated to my administration in any way," Edwards wrote. "In fact, since this project was in (Priority) 5, I question whether you or your administration and legislative delegation did any outreach whatsoever to discuss its importance."
This is the second year in a row Edwards has vetoed the project. Last year, when he vetoed it the first time, it was a Priority 1 project in the state's construction budget, which means it could have received financing that year. When a project is listed as Priority 5, that means it doesn't have a cash commitment for that year but is in the queue for future years.
The project Edwards vetoed is intended to increase the size of a culvert under Airline Highway, speeding the flow of stormwater to the 17th Street Canal — which serves as the border between Orleans and Jefferson parishes and empties water from neighborhoods on either side.
The project is part of a bigger plan in Jefferson Parish called the Hoey's Bypass, which seeks to tie Hoey's Canal to the 17th Street Canal, eliminating a bottleneck where it joins the Geisenheimer Canal.
Edwards also put some of the blame on the votes of the likes of Henry and Appel, who he said have opposed measures to fix the state recurrent budget's crises.
"In the future, I would suggest that you encourage your legislative delegation to work with me to stabilize Louisiana's budget," Edwards wrote. "Without fiscal reform, current law restricts our ability to finance additional capital outlay projects, and that is the unfortunate reality."