So many of the rules controlling Louisiana’s taxes and government spending are locked up in the state constitution that some lawmakers think it’s time for a rewrite.
The idea of a constitutional convention has floated around the Louisiana Capitol for years as individual lawmakers have grown exasperated with limitations that they, their predecessors and voters
enacted on state government. But the concept has never gained traction.
That frustration has reached a louder pitch these days.
While it’s still a long-shot approach, more interest is building for a wholesale redraft of at least the part of the Louisiana Constitution that deals with government finances.
“We all know the process is broken,” said Rep. Neil Abramson, a New Orleans Democrat who is sponsoring legislation that could lead to a constitutional convention. “This provides an opportunity to try to go in and create a fix.”
It’s been more than 40 years since Louisiana’s last constitutional convention, and the once slim volume of guiding policies for state government has grown thicker nearly every year.
More than 180 changes have been made since the constitution was adopted in 1974, and critics say the document is cluttered with provisions that would be more properly placed — and easily changed — in state law.
“There’s a lot of garbage in there,” said Robert Travis Scott, president of the nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, which has tracked constitutional changes for decades and criticized the heavy amending done.
Items are locked into the constitution to make them more difficult to undo. Removing something from the constitution takes the same vote as adding them: two-thirds from the House and Senate and support from voters in an election.
Budget protections, tax limitations and state financing plans have been put into the constitution to mollify concerns of Louisianians distrustful of politicians. Special interest groups seek constitutional protection for programs to make them less vulnerable to legislative meddling. And, as more gets written into the constitution, more amendments are required if situations change or problems develop with the provisions added.
“We are so constrained by all the different provisions that we now have adopted in our constitution that it makes our ability to craft a budget not impossible, but certainly much more difficult than it needs to be,” said Rep. Greg Miller, a Norco Republican.
Dozens of constitutional amendments are proposed this legislative session as lawmakers and Gov. John Bel Edwards consider ways to revamp Louisiana tax laws to stabilize the budget and end cycles of financial gaps.
Abramson’s proposal — which won approval from the House and Governmental Affairs Committee and awaits debate in the House budget committee — would set in motion a process that could lead to a constitutional convention in 2019.
The convention’s scope would be limited largely to budget and tax issues, including retirement benefits for state workers and management of public colleges.
In prior years, even talk of a convention provoked fear of what a rewrite could mean and who would be in charge of the rewriting. Those fears remain.
“It’s like they say, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ At least we know what we have right now,” said Monroe Rep. Jay Morris, a Republican.
But freshmen lawmakers — after three special sessions in two years to grapple with budget woes — seem particularly interested in redrafting the constitution.
“I think we’re walking ourselves down the plank to that point because we will have basically tried everything else and proven that we’re not able to solve the problem,” said Republican Sen. Sharon Hewitt, of Slidell.
Seasoned lawmakers who once resisted the concept seem more open to it.
Hurdles remain high for passing Abramson’s constitutional convention bill. It would require a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate before reaching the governor’s desk.
Edwards hasn’t embraced the idea, though the Democratic governor has suggested a constitutional rewrite could be the only option if he and the majority-Republican Legislature can’t agree on a tax overhaul to stabilize the budget. So far, they’ve reached no deals.
Even if they eventually turn to a constitutional convention, that wouldn’t happen quickly enough to address Louisiana’s looming budget cliff, when an estimated $1.3 billion in temporary tax hikes expire, leaving a massive gap in state finances.
Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte