One day after Rep. Neil Abramson’s constitutional convention legislation failed in the state House by a 52-47 vote, an organization involved with the effort released a statement saying it would work to have a similar bill introduced in the approaching special session that convenes Tuesday, May 22. Lane Grigsby, the founder of Constitutional Coalition 2020, said momentum continues to build. “As we sit on the eve of the sixth special legislative session in only two years,” he said, “we must consider this opportunity to develop real solutions to our state’s budget woes.”
That meant CC2020, which has a membership of more than 30 community and business groups, had to appeal to Gov. John Bel Edwards, who crafted the call for the next special session. Was Edwards willing to go along with the request to include the issue in his call?
“No chance,” an administration official told LaPolitics.
But that did’t spell death for CC2020’s mission. Its most influential supporters sound just as interested in the 2019 election cycle as they did the regular session. Plus, making another convention a campaign issue would keep with history; before voters approved our 1974 Constitution, they were sold on the matter during the previous election cycle — chiefly by Edwin Edwards in his first successful run for governor.
Getting like-minded legislators elected would be helpful for the cause as well. Because it’s highly unlikely the current Legislature will rally around the idea — although the House, so far, seems to be more open to the concept than the Senate, even thought the lower chamber fell 18 votes shy of making it happen last week.
While the Legislature has seen constitutional convention bills introduced regularly in recent terms, last week’s floor debate gave us our first honest look at the battle lines for this latest drive. Inside the rails, not a single black legislator supported HB 500 by Abramson, D-New Orleans, and the proposal only drew yea votes from five Democrats, out of 41 in the chamber.
Another more defining divide to keep an eye on pits business and industry against locals. Representatives knew officials back home were skeptical of the con-con push, but some were still surprised to see a single floor note — lobbyists and special interest use this to communicate with lawmakers — against HB 500 co-signed by the Louisiana Municipal Association, Police Jury Association, School Board Association, Sheriff's Association, Assessor's Association, Association of School Superintendents, District Attorneys’ Association and the Louisiana Conference of Mayors.
Both of those fronts — entrenched Democratic opposition and the concerns of local officials — will have to be addressed before the issue can gain further momentum. There’s also a transparency question that’s being asked, mostly by one legislator, Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe, who’s skeptical of the group pushing for the convention. Morris has been spending money on social media to disseminate his message.
“When people start talking about spending a lot of money about something, it gets my attention because that usually means money somehow might be involved in what people seek,” Morris said. “I’m not accusing them exclusively of seeking money. I think everybody who wants a constitutional convention wants something out of it relating to money. Because that’s the nature of the call.”
Morris, for one, said he doesn't buy the argument that delegation need to get into the Constitution to unlock dedicated funds of money to better balance future budgets. “Out of our $12 billion state general fund, $6.5 billion is not locked up by the Constitution,” he said. “The Constitution will essentially only unlock about $4.5 billion, the bulk of which is the MFP (funding formula for public schools). So there’s really no need to have a constitutional convention to unlock funds unless you want to unlock the MFP and the Transportation Trust Fund. I haven’t heard anybody say we need to cut K-12 education and cut infrastructure. People are saying it’s all locked up, but the bulk of it is only locked up in a few things.”
Asked what CC2020 really wants, Stephen Waguespack, the president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, which is a member, said, “We think it’s absolutely time that people outside the Capitol — voters and constituents back home — have a say on this Constitution. The document is 46 years old. We want an independently elected convention to scrub this document. Every year we hear another excuse for taxing more and spending more and it’s time to smoke out that excuse. And I think it’s fair to say it’s ironic that some of the people pushing hardest against the convention are the ones who authored many of the tax increase bills we debate year and after year.”
No matter when another constitutional convention is called, and no matter who is behind the effort, money is going to be spent to influence the process. From the first step — the election of convention delegates — to the final act — voters approving the updated document — there’s plenty at stake.
While you may not hear more about it until next year, make no mistake. The push for another convention is real. And it’s on.