Perhaps no bill matters to state lawmakers more than the measure that authorizes hundreds of millions of state dollars annually to build roads, repair buildings and construct sewer systems back home.
So lawmakers were understandably antsy Monday afternoon, hours before the regular session would end, when they couldn’t find the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Neil Abramson, for the second day in a row. Abramson wanted to bottle up the bill, which was up for final approval in the House, because he didn’t like changes made to it by the state Senate.
State Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, sent out a humorous series of tweets showing him searching in vain in the Capitol for Abramson, a Democrat from New Orleans.
Abramson surfaced on the House floor a few minutes later and immediately had to face an attempt by a majority of legislators to approve the construction bill — an unusual rebuke of the legislative leadership. He and several Republican allies resorted to a parliamentary maneuver to thwart the vote.
Abramson’s actions angered Democrats and Republicans alike in both the House and the Senate, and left his colleagues openly bad-mouthing him. The level of hostility toward Abramson was remarkable, given the enormous power he wields at the Capitol as the chairman of the House committee that plays the dominant role in rewriting tax law and approving construction projects.
“Neil Abramson is the person I trust least in the Legislature,” said state Sen. JP Morrell, who is not only a fellow Democrat from New Orleans but is the Senate’s lead negotiator on the construction bill as chairman of the Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee.
House Democrats are especially unhappy. Abramson was the only member of the party to break ranks in January when the Republican candidate was elected speaker over Gov. John Bel Edwards’ preferred Democratic candidate. Abramson further antagonized Democrats on Wednesday when he joined nine Republicans to cast the tie-breaking vote to defeat a tax measure before his committee that Edwards badly wanted. Three Republicans voted for the measure.
Afterward, few lawmakers were buying Abramson’s explanation that he voted to reject the bill because he feared changes made to it would raise taxes on low- and middle-income taxpayers.
State Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, who sponsored the changes and was present throughout the hearing, noted afterward that Abramson could have easily asked her to explain the impact but did not do so.
“What I’ve learned is we have to watch everything he does because some of the things he says do not bear up under scrutiny,” said state Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, the legislator closest to the governor.
Abramson has a history of being absent but especially on controversial matters where, had he voted in line with his Uptown New Orleans district, which strongly backed President Barack Obama in 2012 and Edwards in 2015, he risked damaging his standing with Republicans. (Obama won 62 percent of his district in 2012, and Edwards carried it with 74 percent in 2015).
Consider this extraordinary fact: Abramson has voted on two of the 23 abortion bills tracked by the state’s dominant anti-abortion group, the Louisiana Right to Life Federation, over the past five years.
The latest developments in Baton Rouge have reignited a buzz among insiders that Abramson is positioning himself to switch parties and run for a conservative-leaning state Senate seat in 2019 as a Republican.
If so, he won’t admit to it, though he also passed up an opportunity to deny it.
“I have no plans at this time with respect to my future,” he said in an interview in his Capitol office Thursday. “I have not ruled anything in or anything out.”
Asked about his recent actions that have stirred up controversy, he replied, “Doing the right thing is not always popular. But I didn’t come up here to do just what might be popular. I came up here to do the right thing.”
No one questions Abramson’s intelligence and his résumé. He grew up in Gonzales and graduated from Episcopal High School in Baton Rouge, where he was something of a golden boy. He quarterbacked the football team — while lettering in four sports — and was the senior class president and salutatorian.
From Episcopal, Abramson went to Dartmouth, where he excelled in his studies and played free safety on the football team. Afterward, he returned to Louisiana to attend law school at LSU, where he was first in his class and editor of the law review. In 1993, he moved to New Orleans, the city where he was born.
Abramson, his wife and their young son were the first ones back on their Uptown block near Audubon Park after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“The devastation of losing several generations of people from the city motivated me to run for the state House,” he said. “I thought the city needed help at the state level.”
Abramson won election in 2007 to a district that now includes Tulane and Loyola universities, Broadmoor and the Carrollton neighborhood south of Claiborne Avenue up to the Jefferson Parish line. Following his re-election in 2011, the Republican speaker of the House named Abramson chairman of the Civil Law and Procedure Committee, which oversees legal issues.
Abramson was well-positioned for the job as a lawyer who represents companies accused of causing harm from industrial accidents.
It follows, perhaps, that his voting record in the House shows that he mostly sides with the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and the National Federation of Independent Business.
“He is widely considered to be an extremely intelligent individual who is widely versed in the law,” said Gifford Briggs, vice president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association.
In 2015, when Abramson won re-election to a third and final term in the House, he received contributions from $1,000 to $2,000 from such petrochemical companies as Chevron, Hilcorp Energy, Phillips 66, Dow Chemical and Koch Industries.
In 2014, two environmental groups complained that Abramson’s work at the Liskow & Lewis law firm created a conflict of interest on a key bill. They said he needed to recuse himself from the bill, which aimed to derail a lawsuit seeking damages from 97 oil and gas companies for causing part of Louisiana’s coast to disappear. Anne Rolfes, of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, and Jonathan Henderson, of the Gulf Restoration Network, said Liskow & Lewis represented one of the companies.
Abramson said he saw no need to follow their request because he was not involved in the case. He ended up not voting on the bill, he said, because of a funeral.
Asked about the episode recently, Rolfes noted that her group worked with Abramson’s constituents to get him this year to support another measure, House Bill 469, that would have required Vertex Refining to install air monitors around its plant in Marrero. Residents in his district have been blaming Vertex for odors in their neighborhood, across the river from the plant.
HB469 lost badly, 24-65. Abramson was one of 15 members who didn’t vote.
“When something is tough, he walks,” Rolfes said. “That is clearly his strategy.”
Not so, Abramson said. “This year, I’ve been working quite considerably on the revenue bills,” he said, referring to the tax measures before the Legislature. “It takes me away from my desk.” He said he is frequently meeting with constituents, lobbyists or senators.
During the 2016 regular session, Abramson missed 65 percent of the recorded votes, according to Legiscon, more than any of the other 103 House members who served during the entire session.
For comparison’s sake, state Rep. Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, the other major money panel, has missed 12 percent, the 37th highest number.
Abramson has an especially spotty voting record when it comes to abortion, usually a highly charged issue. The Louisiana Right to Life Federation has recorded him as absent on all eight abortion-related votes on the group’s 2016 scorecard. Two other members voted on only one of the measures.
Among the votes he missed: a measure that will require the state to defund Planned Parenthood if its new facility on Claiborne Avenue begins to perform abortions, as planned. Another vote he missed tripled the wait time for an abortion to three days.
For the legislative session from 2012 through 2015, Abramson voted on only two of the 15 measures tracked by the group. No other member came close to missing so many votes: The closest any other member came to missing so many votes was one who voted on eight of the 15 measures.
Asked about his absenteeism, Abramson said, “I know I’ve missed votes on the House floor because I’ve been taken away on other bills.”
As for his position on abortion, he replied, “I don’t have any particular views,” and added: “I think (abortion) should be rare.” He notes that whether abortion is legal is up to the federal government.
Asked whether he supported women having the right to an abortion, he ducked again: “That’s a broad question.”
Asked whether he opposed abortion save in the cases of limited exceptions, a common Republican position, he punted yet again. “I’m not going to get into the details of all of this,” he said.
Following Edwards’ election in November, Abramson angled to be named the next speaker, but the new governor favored state Rep. Walt Leger, a Democrat from New Orleans whose district adjoins Abramson’s on the downtown side. Nonetheless, Abramson put forth his candidacy among the 105 House members. In the first round of voting, he got one other vote than his own.
The next round pitted Leger versus state Rep. Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, a compromise choice among Republicans. Abramson was the only Democrat to support Barras, who won, 56-49.
Afterward, Abramson said his vote would help New Orleans get more benefits from the Legislature because he had supported the winning candidate and Leger had no chance of defeating Barras. Abramson’s reward was the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee.
In that role, he presented an initial version of House Bill 2, which authorized the construction projects. State Rep. Tanner Magee complained that the bill omitted the Bayou Country Sportsplex in Houma, saying construction on it was already underway.
Abramson called him several days later and arranged for Magee to show him the project and several others in the Houma area.
“For three hours, I showed him all the projects,” said Magee, R-Houma. “It’s unusual that he would take that level of interest. It showed how much he cared that all the actual projects were funded.”
But then Abramson ran afoul of House members last Sunday and Monday when legislators wanted him to present HB2 for their approval — but which he opposed because of what he called “technical and legal problems” — and they couldn’t find him.
Asked where he was on Sunday, while the House was meeting, Abramson replied, “I was working with staff without having to be distracted.”
Asked whether he was in New Orleans or Baton Rouge, he refused to say more. “People want to play politics with everything,” he said. “I was working with staff. I won’t go into everything.”