Momentum Building For Constitutional Convention
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — With continued struggles to stabilize Louisiana's finances, lawmakers are turning more toward the state constitution, blaming its rigidity for years of budget woes. A growing movement aims to set the course for a constitutional convention to rewrite the governing document.
The convention legislation seems unlikely to make it through both the House and Senate this year amid competing visions of the scale of a convention, its participants and its goals.
But the broader momentum seems to be building, with bipartisan backing. If the framework for a constitutional convention doesn't emerge from the current legislative session, the issue is expected to be prominent with candidates in the 2019 statewide elections.
"I've only been here two years, but I've certainly been frustrated," said Rep. Gary Carter, a New Orleans Democrat. "I certainly appreciate the need to set some long-term, lasting reforms in place."
Rep. Franklin Foil, a Baton Rouge Republican, said: "I think our constitution has become a very cumbersome document."
Louisiana's current constitution was adopted in 1974, and supporters of a rewrite say too many rules that control government spending and tax policy are locked into the document, constraining lawmakers in addressing the state's persistent financial troubles.
Do the policies adopted more than 40 years ago still represent the priorities of today? Is the document still a strong volume of guiding principles for state government, now that 189 changes have been inserted?
Lawmakers and others say the Louisiana Constitution is cluttered with provisions that would be more properly placed – and easily changed – in state law.
"The money section (of the document) is almost as big as the original constitution" because of the years of add-ons, said Robert Travis Scott, president of the nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, which has tracked constitutional changes for decades.
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.
"If you get your dedicated fund in the constitution, you've hit the jackpot, because you're going to automatically get funding," Foil said. "I think the constitution should really be more like the U.S. Constitution, which is a very general document of general principles."
Proposals to call a constitutional convention have failed before, but they keep returning, with new supporters added each year. A half-dozen proposals involving a convention are filed this session, and three have started advancing.
A high hurdle is required to start the process to call a convention, requiring support from two-thirds of lawmakers in each chamber.
Opponents have expressed concern about opening up the constitution to outside delegates. Associations representing school boards, municipal government bodies and other groups with protected dollars in the existing document have registered objections.
Republican Rep. Barry Ivey of Baton Rouge worries about the influx of special-interest money influencing the outcome of any rewrite.
Ivey filed a constitutional convention bill, but his approach has been snubbed in favor of an alternate proposal. Ivey said he's concerned that proposal doesn't have enough protections to keep special-interest groups from dominating the convention and delegate positions.
Scott cautioned state senators last week that a successful constitutional convention movement requires a general consensus about the goal and strong leadership.
"There's an awful lot of energy out there. There hasn't been a lot of focus," he said.
Gov. John Bel Edwards echoed the sentiments, saying he's open to a convention — but more work needs to be done. He favors legislation sponsored by Foil to create a commission that would study ideas for a constitutional convention and make suggestions for an approach.
"I happen to think that it's likely that proposals for a constitutional convention that come before you've done the study won't harness the two-thirds vote necessary to be successful," the Democratic governor said.
And Edwards stressed that a constitutional convention wouldn't fix Louisiana's immediate budget shortfall looming on July 1 when more than $1 billion in temporary taxes expire.
"You can't change the constitution between now and June 30," he said.