Momentum continues to build for a rewrite of the state constitution, which proponents contend would help prevent the string of financial crises that have plagued Louisiana government for years.
“For decades, we have tried and failed to use the political and legislative mechanisms in place to address our core, systemic problems,” said Lane Grigsby, a Baton Rouge businessman and founder of Constitutional Coalition 2020. “A constitutional convention is the only way we can make the impactful, long-lasting changes we need, and we believe that, working together, we can help Louisiana’s government better serve the people and bring about a bright future for all citizens of our state.”
The coalition of business and community groups includes Louisiana Association of Business & Industry, Louisiana Oil & Gas Association, Blueprint Louisiana, Greater New Orleans Inc. and the Pelican Institute.
The group distributed a letter to all Louisiana legislators last week urging them to pass legislation that would call for a convention in 2020.
“Our present state constitution is too detailed and prescriptive, an outlier compared to other nearby growing states,” the letter says. “It restricts the ability of elected officials to properly maintain an effective budget and governing structure and has helped to create a culture that places far too much dependence on the hallways of the State Capitol for prosperity.”
It notes the state constitution:
- Totals more than 75,000 words — 2 1/2 times longer than when it was written in 1973 and 10 times longer than the U.S. Constitution.
- Has been amended 189 times in 44 years versus the U.S. Constitution — 27 times in 218 years.
- Includes 35 dedicated funds and sub-funds that lock in money for specific purposes.
Why it matters to you
The issue: Proposals to hold a state constitutional convention.
Local impact: Proponents see it as a way the state can start from scratch on a tax and spending structure that will put the state on solid financial footing for the long-term. It would have sweeping effects on who pays taxes and how much. And it would set spending priorities for important state services such as health, education and roads.
Similar measures have failed over the past several years, with critics claiming lawmakers, lobbyists and special interests are unwilling to undo constitutional protections for pet projects, tax breaks and favored programs. Opponents say another convention, which has no guarantee of success, could ultimately be a waste of time and money given the state’s political gridlock.
But a chief complaint about the current constitution has centered on its locked-in, or dedicated, money. Excluding federal aid, about $4 billion of Louisiana’s annual spending is locked into various programs, and about half of the other $6 billion is spent on health care and higher education, leaving those areas the most vulnerable to cuts.
Lawmakers have introduced three bills during the current session calling for a constitutional convention:
- House Bill 500 by Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, was approved last month by the House and Governmental Affairs Committee. It now awaits action by the House Appropriations Committee. Coauthors include Houma-Thibodaux area Reps. Beryl Amdedee, R-Gray; Truck Gisclair; D-Larose; and Tanner Magee and Jerome Zeringue, R-Houma.
- Senate Bill 218 by Troy Carter, D-New Orleans, awaits action by the Senate Finance Committee.
- Senate Bill 329 by Patrick Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, awaits action by the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee.
The coalition as well the Council for a Better Louisiana, a nonpartisan good-government group, say all or almost all of the delegates to a constitutional convention should be elected by Louisiana voters. Both seek changes to House Bill 500, which they say could lead to a small group of appointed delegates who would draft a new constitution.
Barry Erwin, CABL’s president and CEO, says lawmakers need to engage in “robust discussion” this session about the intent of the proposed constitutional convention.
“The bigger issue is what do they want the convention to do?” Erwin says in an opinion column published on the Editorial Page of Saturday’s Courier and Daily Comet. “What new policies do they want to see the delegates propose? A constitutional convention is a process. It is a means to an end. Hopefully various groups including the governor, elected officials, business leaders, citizen groups and others will begin to paint a picture of what that end might look like.”
Both the business coalition and CABL propose similar goals for a constitutional convention:
- Enact comprehensive fiscal reform that modernizes that makes Louisiana more competitive with neighboring states.
- Establish policies that lessen dependence of local governments on the state.
- Remove provisions that limit the Legislature’s flexibility to deal with the normal processes of governing. That should include removing items from the constitution that are better suited for statues, which are more easily modified.