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Will state rewrite its constitution?

by Joshua Specht

Lawmakers toy with 2020 convention

Sarah Gamard and
Tryfon Boukouvidis
LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE — A bill to take a step toward creating a constitutional convention was approved Wednesday by a House committee, giving momentum to a push to hold one in 2020.

Louisiana’s last constitutional convention occurred in 1973, and proponents say a new one is needed to free up funds that are locked up for certain purposes and to change the state’s tax structure.

The House and Governmental Affairs Committee approved the bill, House Bill 500 by Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, and it now goes to the full House.

The bill would implement a limited constitutional convention in 2020 if the idea is approved by a 27-member committee of non-legislators whose purpose is to decide by 2019 whether the convention is needed.

The convention would focus on local government; state funds, taxes and revenue; and K-12 and higher education. The convention in 1973 was more comprehensive and looked at the state’s entire body of laws.

Proponents say a new convention could serve as a long-term fix for the state’s budget crisis. Excluding federal aid, about $4 billion of Louisiana’s annual spending is set aside by the Constitution or state laws for various programs, and about half of the other $6 billion is spent on healthcare and higher education, leaving those areas vulnerable when spending cuts are needed.

Some legislators said a convention also could streamline sales tax collection.

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.

The Legislature is now grappling with a proposed budget that contains $994 million in cuts to state-funded agencies and programs after a fifth special legislative session in two years collapsed earlier this month. Gov. John Bel Edwards called the special session in attempt to find revenue to replace $1 billion that will be lost when a temporary increase in the sales tax expires on July 1.

Abramson, who was not at Wednesday’s hearing, and others have introduced similar bills over the past several years but have never garnered enough votes to pass them. Support for a convention has escalated with the growing frustration over the number of special legislative sessions.

The committee also approved House Concurrent Resolution 3 by Rep. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, which would create a 13-member commission to study whether and how the state should implement a convention.

Foil wants his resolution to be insurance in case Abramson’s bill does not pass the floor. Unlike in Abramson’s measure, approval by Foil’s commission would not automatically trigger a convention. A separate vote by the Legislature would still be required.

Abramson’s bill proposes an election of 105 delegates to determine how to rewrite the constitution. They would be elected from each House district.

Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge, proposed a different makeup of the delegates to keep “big money” from taking over the process with campaign donations. But his proposal failed in committee on Wednesday.

Two senators, Sen. Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, and Sen. Troy Carter, D-New Orleans, have bills to create a constitutional convention that differ in some respects from Abramson’s. Both await a hearing in the Senate Governmental and Affairs committee.

Under Abramson’s bill, the non-legislative committee that would determine whether a convention is needed would include representatives from public university systems, business organizations, and nonpartisan and partisan researchers.

The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry is working with Abramson on the bill.

The organization’s vice president, Jim Patterson, said businesses hope a convention would change “archaic tax processes,” such as a provision that local governments collect their own sales taxes.

“This bedevils businesses that operate in more than one parish,” Patterson said. “It’s a tremendous impediment to our business development.”

The committee on Wednesday also reported favorably to the House a bill by Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, that would repeal constitutional provisions limiting the subject matter of regular legislative sessions.

Currently, regular sessions in even-numbered years do not allow consideration of tax measures. exclusions, deductions, or credits. The introduction of such tax measures is only allowed during regular sessions in odd-numbered years.

An amendment to the bill limited the number of fiscal bills that can be introduced in a general session to five.

Stokes argues that the number of unproductive special sessions erodes public trust, distorts Louisiana’s appearance to the credit rating agencies and costs taxpayers money.

The state is heading toward its sixth special session since 2016 to address fiscal issues that cannot be addressed during non-fiscal regular sessions. Stokes said these special sessions, counting the one that is expected on June, cost taxpayers around $5.5 million.

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