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Money for New Orleans projects stalled by Republican leaders

August 19, 2021 GMT
Michelle Gonzales shows her proof of being vaccinated before being served at Morning Call on Canal Boulevard in New Orleans, Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. Starting today employees and customers need to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to get into many New Orleans businesses. (David Grunfeld/The Advocate via AP)
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Michelle Gonzales shows her proof of being vaccinated before being served at Morning Call on Canal Boulevard in New Orleans, Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. Starting today employees and customers need to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to get into many New Orleans businesses. (David Grunfeld/The Advocate via AP)
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Michelle Gonzales shows her proof of being vaccinated before being served at Morning Call on Canal Boulevard in New Orleans, Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. Starting today employees and customers need to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to get into many New Orleans businesses. (David Grunfeld/The Advocate via AP)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s Republican elected leaders Thursday stalled millions of dollars in state financing for New Orleans construction projects at the Superdome, schools, hospitals and the city’s port, a decision that comes only days after the mayor enacted new coronavirus vaccine and testing mandates.

The State Bond Commission — which includes statewide elected officials, their representatives and legislative leaders — withheld approval for more than $30 million in cash lines of credit for construction work around New Orleans, along with commitments for millions more in future financing.

The panel voted 12-2 to delay most of the project financing without explanation during the meeting, held via Zoom. But the action came during a week that New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell started requiring the coronavirus vaccine or a recent negative test for COVID-19 to enter restaurants, bars, gyms and other indoor businesses — a mandate that was condemned by the state GOP.

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Houma Rep. Jerome “Zee” Zeringue, the Republican budget committee chairman who sought to pull financing for many of the New Orleans projects, acknowledged after the meeting the city’s vaccine requirement was one of several reasons.

“It’s not entirely about the vaccine mandate,” Zeringue said in an interview with The Associated Press. “There are many issues, of which that’s a concern that’s been expressed by legislators and folks in the region. But that’s not the only reason.”

He and other Republicans on the commission offered little explanation in follow-up interviews beyond citing various unnamed concerns about projects. Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ two representatives on the Bond Commission were the only members to oppose the delay.

The governor’s top lawyer, Matthew Block, said he had no idea why the projects were targeted. He pushed for some public explanation, but received none.

“It’s concerning, but I’m hoping we can move forward next month,” he said.

State financing for ongoing improvements at the Superdome was sidelined in a separate vote pushed by Senate President Page Cortez. The Lafayette Republican said he wanted to make sure the New Orleans Saints gave ticketholders enough time to seek refunds if they don’t want to provide proof of vaccination or a negative test to attend a game, or if they’re worried about crowd sizes during the latest COVID-19 surge.

The Saints announced refund plans Thursday. But that decision came only after Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Bond Commission member, publicly called for stripping the state financing.

Cortez said he wanted more time to review the refund policy and make sure the NFL organization was acting responsibly to the “taxpayers that buy their tickets and rent their suites” and are helping to finance the Superdome upgrades.

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Thursday’s action also keeps money from flowing to projects at New Orleans City Park, renovations at Louisiana State University’s dental school, disability access improvements at Southern University-New Orleans and roof replacement at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. Millions of dollars for expansion projects at the Port of New Orleans also were delayed.

Financing for hundreds of other projects around Louisiana was approved without discussion. The New Orleans projects were rescheduled for another debate in September.

Cortez said he did not believe a month-long delay would disrupt the projects. Block was less certain.

“It may delay some of the bills being paid. We’re trying to figure that out right now,” Block said. “Obviously, we did not anticipate this happening.”

Commission members offered few direct answers about the decision-making for the stalled financing beyond the Superdome improvements.

“My understanding is the House had some concerns about some of the projects. The specific concerns they had I don’t know. And they asked for 30 days,” Cortez said.

Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder released a statement saying the projects were held back “for additional scrutiny,” with no specifics about what concerns lawmakers have.

“These projects are important to Louisiana and our members. We hope to be able to evaluate these projects and revisit at the next hearing,” he said.

Zeringue offered a similarly vague explanation, saying “members and constituents have concerns” and House leadership “wanted to reevaluate and assess.”

Lawmakers already reviewed and approved the projects in the state’s construction budget earlier this year.

Funding for a Lafayette redevelopment project at a local Catholic school also was delayed.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.