In the wake of the surprise floods of Aug. 5, Gov. John Bel Edwards has been on the front lines alongside city leaders, trying to reassure frightened residents that the region's drainage infrastructure can sustain a heavy rain event or even a hurricane.
But the ongoing uproar about the city's drainage system has two Metairie Republicans questioning why Edwards has twice vetoed state funding for a multimillion-dollar drainage project designed to mitigate flooding in Uptown New Orleans and Old Metairie.
Although those areas saw no damage in the recent floods, much of that area depends on the Sewerage & Water Board's decrepit pumping system, adding a sense of urgency.
The governor's veto took away $2 million in capital outlay funds from the project, which is located in the legislative districts of two of Edwards' most vocal critics, Rep. Cameron Henry and Sen. Conrad Appel. Both are Republicans and fiscal hawks who have led the opposition to Edwards' proposals to raise state revenue.
Henry said it's no coincidence his project got the ax.
"This is a project that affects Orleans and Jefferson, which everyone has agreed is important. Clearly we have significant problems with drainage, especially in Orleans Parish," Henry said. "But my relationship with the governor is that we have different political philosophies, and this is his way of getting back at members for not voting the way he wants. One way he gets back at us is vetoing projects in their districts."
Richard Carbo, Edwards' deputy chief of staff, said the accusation that the project was vetoed out of political retribution is baseless. He said the veto was merely part of the governor's making good on a promise to trim a bloated list of capital outlay projects.
"Legislators like Rep. Henry and Sen. Appel scream from the mountaintops about cutting spending, but then cry foul when the cuts hit their district. The bottom line is the capital outlay process doesn't have enough money to do all the projects we'd like, and that's the unfortunate reality," Carbo said.
Was it political payback?
The project Edwards vetoed would increase the size of a culvert under Airline Highway, speeding the flow of stormwater to the 17th Street Canal — a canal that serves as the border between Orleans and Jefferson parishes and empties water from neighborhoods on either side.
New Orleans city officials declined to comment for this story.
The project is part of a bigger plan in Jefferson Parish. Called the Hoey's Bypass, it seeks to tie the Hoey's Canal to the 17th Street Canal, eliminating a bottleneck where it joins the Geisenheimer Canal.
The full cost of the project is expected to be from $10 million to $24 million, said Reda Youssef, Jefferson Parish's capital projects director. Youssef said the $2 million request was for seed money, with the expectation it would be combined with other sources and that future requests would be made.
But Edwards, a Democrat, used his line-item veto in June to delete the project from the state's construction budget. The project was one of 36 that Edwards cut, worth a total of $77 million. In his veto statement, he stressed the state has limited capacity to sell bonds to finance construction projects.
Many of his vetoes did impact Republicans who crossed swords with Edwards during the year, including House Speaker Taylor Barras and Lance Harris, who heads the House Republican caucus. But others affected the districts of fellow Democrats.
If the governor's concern is fiscal responsibility, Henry said, there's no good reason why a key drainage project should be cut while less consequential projects were spared. He noted that the governor let stand a $530,000 capital outlay expenditure for a Hungarian Settlement museum in Livingston Parish.
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"I'm not saying museums aren't important," he said. "But we can't even maintain the ones we have open now, so why are we building a new one?"
Appel said he was frustrated that no one in the governor's office contacted him before announcing the veto to ask about the project's importance.
Appel said his concerns mounted after the recent floods. So in a tweet to a colleague last week about the governor, Appel wrote, "He vetoed a major drainage project in my district that drained NOLA and Jeff Parish. I guess flooded homes are not a priority either."
"After the last rain storm, I'm thinking about the people, and if this was built how it could affect tens of thousands of people and businesses. I got concerned," Appel said in an interview with The Advocate. "I don't have a problem with politics, but don't hurt the people."
Carbo questioned how major a priority the project was. He said that in 2013 and 2014, the project was provided a line of credit by the state but Jefferson Parish didn't use it. Youssef said there was a disagreement with state officials over whether the money could be used for design work, which is why it went unused.
Carbo also noted the Legislature sets the initial priority of construction projects in House Bill 2, the capital outlay budget, although it's the governor who ultimately recommends which projects will be sent to the Bond Commission for financing. The project Edwards vetoed was listed in the bill as a Priority 5 project, the lowest level, meaning it didn't have a cash commitment.
"Clearly, it wasn't a priority to them because it was (Priority) 5, which is a non-cash commitment," Carbo said. "(Appel) didn't make a good enough case to the Legislature to make it a priority project; he just wanted to run back to his district and give them false hope."
Priority 5 projects are ones that the state is indicating will be funded in the future, but some projects stay in Priority 5 for years. Priority 1 projects are slated for funding in the current year.
When Edwards vetoed the project the first time, in 2016, it was a Priority 1 project.
Rubye Noble, the Jefferson Parish delegation's legislative liaison, said the project has been important for Orleans and Jefferson officials for years. She said she is already working on an application to resubmit it next year.
When Jefferson Parish submitted its wish list of construction projects, Noble said the 17th Street Canal project was near the top.
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"It's a very high priority for the parish," she said.
Even though no state money is coming this year, Jefferson Parish is moving ahead with another aspect of the Hoey's Bypass project. The parish is almost finished designing a plan to build three 82-inch pipes under Airline that will drain water into the 17th Street Canal from the portion of the bypass that is already built.
Sen. J.P. Morrell, a New Orleans Democrat who was supportive of the project, said he believes that Appel and Henry are largely to blame for seeing the project killed.
"Everyone would like to blame the governor because they didn't get their project, but if we as the Legislature failed to solve our budget crisis, that prevents us from being able to pay our bond debt to pay for our projects," he said, noting that the two Republicans have been leading opponents of raising more revenue.
Morrell also noted that the drainage project would have helped not only Old Metairie but also the districts of New Orleans lawmakers who have been friendly to the governor's agenda, including him. So he was dismissive of the notion that the governor was trying to punish Republicans.
"Sometimes the reality is much simpler than political conspiracy theory," he said.