This column was originally written in 2015, and then rerun in 2017. With the “fiscal cliff” staring us in the face, it’s time to reconsider. I’ve edited it a bit.
The Louisiana Legislature will be going into session to deal with the ongoing crisis of budget shortfalls. Gov. John Bel Edwards has unveiled his plan to address the problem, which is sure to come under fire.
However, the problem with our state is not necessarily fiscal but constitutional — an issue I have been lamenting for more than a decade.
Any civics teacher will tell you the purpose of a constitution is to provide the framework for governing. It should state the purpose of governance and provide for the execution of that purpose. It is a relatively broad document, aimed at establishing what is and isn’t allowed in the process of government. The constitution should be difficult to amend, as the necessity to change should only come in the most rare of circumstances.
At the state level, statutes are the mechanisms by which government business is conducted. They are much more specific than the articles in the constitution, allowing for modification as the need arises. While relatively easy to enact, statutes cannot come into conflict with precepts of the constitution. If they do, they are rejected by the court as “unconstitutional.”
This system is relatively efficient, by government standards. However, Louisiana isn’t so “efficient.” We have figuratively shot ourselves in the foot.
Our current state constitution, enacted in 1974, has been amended 186 times (as of 2016). Many of these so-called “necessary changes” to the law of the land have been shelters to protect funding for certain initiatives. Regardless of the merits of said initiatives, these actions bastardize the intent and spirit of our constitution.
So here we are. We have to make major decisions with regard to our state budget, yet our legislators’ hands are tied due to so much “protected money.” While there is talk of attempting to “unprotect” certain monies, those actions would require more constitutional amendments, and a statewide vote of the people. The chances for success of those endeavors are minimal at best.
So, what is the answer? It is simple but not easy. Louisiana needs a constitutional convention. A constitutional convention should be convened with the sole purpose of reestablishing the law of the land in the manner which it was originally intended — as a framework for governance. Fiscal items have no place in the document, with the exception of the rules of taxation and dispersement. However it should include a balanced budget requirement.
The document should be extremely difficult to amend. This would force funding matters to be handled via statute — which is proper. Amendments should only be enacted when absolutely necessary to affect the fundamental process of governing the state.
This constitution would need to be ratified by the people of the state with a single “yes” or “no” vote. It would be hard to defeat such a measure as voters understand the grave circumstances we face if we don’t do something meaningful to fix our problems.
Should the new constitution pass, then legislators could get to work fixing our fiscal woes — via statute — as it should be. No longer would healthcare and education be the only choices on the table for reductions, but all budgets, etc.
As simple as this solution sounds, it is far from easy. The constitutional convention would have to be as apolitical possible — no easy feat in Louisiana. In fact, should the governor call such a convention, it may cost him a second term as those who don’t want such reform to take place will unleash everything they have to defeat it — and him.
Many are fearful of such an action. In fact multiple bills calling for constitutional conventions were defeated in last year’s legislative session.
That being said, for our state to dig itself out of this mess and be poised for future growth, we must fundamentally change how we do government. This should have been done 186 amendments ago. It must be done now.
David Specht is editor and publisher of the Minden Press-Herald, and President of Specht Newspapers, Inc.