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Louisiana lawmakers plan to give anti-abortion nonprofit exclusive state contract worth millions


Louisiana lawmakers plan to give anti-abortion nonprofit exclusive state contract worth millions

Apr 16, 2024 | 6:01 am ET
By Julie O'Donoghue
Louisiana lawmakers plan to give anti-abortion nonprofit exclusive state contract worth millions
Sen. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, is sponsoring legislation that would give one anti-abortion nonprofit millions of public dollars. (Greg LaRose | Louisiana Illuminator)

Louisiana legislators plan to give millions more in public money to anti-abortion pregnancy resource centers this year and to funnel all those dollars through a single nonprofit organization.

Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, wants money for the state’s Alternatives to Abortion program, which supports the pregnancy centers, to jump from $1 million this cycle to between $3 million and $5 million next fiscal year, which starts July 1. McFarland is the head of the Louisiana House Appropriations Committee, which helps build the state’s spending plan. 

McFarland and Sen. Katrina Jackson-Andrews, D-Monroe, also are co-sponsoring legislation that would require all Alternatives to Abortion money to go through a single, not-yet-chosen nonprofit organization before it reaches the pregnancy centers. 

The program would be rebranded as the Louisiana Pregnancy and Baby Initiative and provide money for parenting classes and baby supplies, including diapers and cribs, among other things.  

Jackson-Andrews, an anti-abortion Democrat, said services to help young parents are needed more than ever now that Louisiana has a strict abortion ban in place. Her bill has been popular so far. The Louisiana Senate voted 34-3 in favor of it last month, and it’s expected to pass the House. 

But the plan has raised eyebrows for lacking transparency. Under the proposed changes, spending on pregnancy centers and other anti-abortion programs might become more difficult to track publicly.

It’s also not clear who would run the nonprofit slated to receive millions of dollars for the state’s anti-abortion initiative. 

“We don’t know who [the nonprofit] is yet or what it is, and we are going to give them this money to spend?” asked Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria. “I don’t want to see all this money go to one program, and they get to pick and choose who they like.” 

Interest from Texas operator 

Starting in August, the unnamed nonprofit would serve as the “general contractor” for the anti-abortion program, according to Senate Bill 278, even though the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services has distributed money to anti-abortion pregnancy centers without a middle man for years.

Jackson-Andrews, McFarland and others said they don’t know which person or organization might bid on the work and get the contract, but the man who ran the Texas Pregnancy Care Network of anti-abortion pregnancy centers for 12 years appears to be interested in the work.

John McNamara has reserved the name Louisiana Pregnancy Care Network in the Louisiana Secretary of State business and nonprofit entity filing database until June 4, the day after the Louisiana Legislature’s current law-making session ends. 

McNamara testified in favor of Jackson-Andrews’ legislation last month during a meeting of the Louisiana Senate Health and Welfare Committee, but didn’t mention he might be interested in running the nonprofit laid out in the bill. He could not be reached for comment over the past two weeks.

The Texas Pregnancy Care Network, where McNamara was executive director, went from an annual $4 million public budget supporting about 30 anti-abortion pregnancy resource centers to a massive operation, with $50 million in annual public funding and 180 locations in recent years.  

“The program has been exceedingly successful,” McNamara told the Senate health committee last month. 

But McNamara’s former organization has critics. Democratic lawmakers in Texas have complained there isn’t much accountability regarding how the Texas Pregnancy Care Network spends the money it receives. There’s also very little evidence that it’s been effective at meeting its main goals, including preventing abortion, according to The Texas Tribune.

At least one high-profile scandal involving a San Antonio pregnancy center is associated with the Texas Pregnancy Care Network. The center used public money to pay for a hemp farming operation, vape shop, spa treatments, airline tickets and a motorcycle, according to an investigation by KSAT-TV in San Antonio.

McNamara has also been involved in setting up similar anti-abortion umbrella organizations for pregnancy centers in other states. He helped establish the Oklahoma Pregnancy Care Network and Kansas Pregnancy Care Network, among others. 

In Oklahoma, the state health department questioned whether its pregnancy network was making good use of public money. The agency concluded that less money had gone to services than anticipated, and a larger share had been spent on staff salaries.

Louisiana’s legislation includes one transparency measure that would require the nonprofit overseeing its program to report the number of people served with the funding and what particular services are offered every yer. But the bill also limits the oversight of the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services.

Under the legislation, the state’s child welfare agency would be barred from placing additional requirements on the anti-abortion centers or “prioritizing” one type of service over another for financial support.  

New funding source

Anti-abortion advocates are also pushing Louisiana lawmakers to switch up the funding source for pregnancy centers.

Louisiana has typically relied on federal money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) grants to fund them, but anti-abortion advocates said the requirements to receive TANF money have become onerous. Lawmakers are looking to allocate state general funding — money that can also be used for K-12 schools, higher education and prisons — instead. 

“Federal reporting requires a level of administrative work that has become more tedious and burdensome,” Kathleen Richard, executive director of Life Choices of North Central Louisiana, a pregnancy center in Ruston, said at the health committee hearing.

President Joe Biden’s administration has also been scrutinizing the use of TANF dollars, which are supposed to help low-income families. A new federal rule could make it difficult for the pregnancy centers to qualify for that type of funding moving forward. 

A state funding source may demand less transparency from the pregnancy centers and the nonprofit that oversees them. More relaxed reporting requirements could mean less information about where the money is going and how it is being used.

Pregnancy resource centers have been under more scrutiny across the country in recent years. 

Lift Louisiana, an abortion rights organization, released a report in 2022 detailing Louisiana’s anti-abortion centers’ shortcomings when it came to providing medical care with the public funding it received. Critics said the centers have misrepresented themselves as health care clinics, even though their staffs have little medical education. 

“These anti-abortion centers have opposed any attempts to hold them accountable for the millions of tax dollars they have received from the state,” said Michelle Erenberg, executive director of Lift Louisiana. “This bill would shroud them in even more secrecy and insulate them from any oversight by the public.”