House votes down constitutional convention bill

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BATON ROUGE — Efforts to call a constitutional convention to resolve the state’s “broken” budget and fiscal structure were thwarted Tuesday evening in a 50-45 House vote, considerably short of the two-thirds required for the bill to pass.   

House Bill 456 didn’t even receive the required simple majority of the 105 House members needed for regular proposals to pass. Ten members of the chamber were absent, a move sometimes a deliberate maneuver to help defeat a bill without recording a vote.

HB456 by Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, proposed calling a constitutional convention to selectively review state and local finances, to alter revenue streams, and devise a more reliable funding source for education.  

Abramson told the Manship School News Service after the defeat that he has been working on the measure for the last 10 years as he “saw the train running off the track.”  
“I knew it would take a lot of pain and a lot of bleeding before we finally got to point where people realize we have to go in and have a convention to make holistic changes,” Abramson said.

“I thought we were finally there, but apparently not quite yet.”  

The bill would have established a committee to review the constitution and outline solutions to fiscal issues over an eight-month span beginning in fall 2017. If the state’s budget issues can’t be resolved and the committee determines a constitutional convention is necessary, one would be called in January 2019.  

Twenty-seven delegates would be appointed and 105 would be elected for the convention from the state’s House districts. Each of the delegates would be subject to the same code of ethics state legislators answer to, Abramson said. Any changes recommended by the convention would have to be approved by a two-thirds majority of the voters. 
But even that was too much outside interference to many lawmakers. 

They  raised concerns about relinquishing control to an outside body, peppering floor debate with fears of the influence of outside money on state decision-making and the qualifications of elected delegates.  

Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe, questioned handing the fiscal reins to delegates who lack the lasting accountability legislators have to their constituents, and asked why the Legislature isn’t more qualified to handle the issue. He also noted it’s impossible to know what the “flavor” of the convention body would be like or what kinds of changes they would propose for the constitution.  

Abramson noted after the vote that it’s difficult to assuage representatives’ fears of the unknown and ultimately, they have to be willing to make the jump. The will simply doesn’t exist in this legislative session to take a chance on reform, he said.  

Abramson said HB456 won’t be resurrected this session, but vowed to bring it before the Legislature in future sessions until the fiscal debate is resolved.  

“Most people, even some of those who voted against it, are for it and for change,” he noted. “They just weren’t willing today to break lose and vote independently about what really needs to be done . . . People seem to want to fight instead of coming together and collectively pursuing something that fixes the problem.”  

The last full constitutional convention was called in 1973 which managed to fashiom significant changes that were approved by the electorate. A partial convention, which came up with only one change, which was turned down by voters, occurred in 1993.

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