In recent years there has been growing discussion about the possible need for Louisiana to convene a convention to rewrite the state’s constitution.
Many reasons have been given for that.
- Our constitution has been amended too many times and it’s grown too long.
- It has ceased to be a framework for governing and become an instrument for legislating items that more appropriately belong in statute.
- It contains too many dedications.
- It has become an inflexible document that protects priorities of the past while making it difficult for lawmakers to prioritize important issues for the future.
- After nearly 45 years, the state’s economy has changed and it’s time to review all aspects of fiscal policy from our tax code to the relationship between state and local government.
There is validity to each of those points and there has been for some time, but for years Louisiana has resisted the urge from various corners to undertake a revision of the state constitution.
To some degree it appears that view is changing. The Legislature’s recent inability to deal with Louisiana’s ongoing fiscal issues has fueled that change and it’s been aided by the work of the Legislature’s own Task Force on Structural Changes in Budget and Tax Policy. The task force report coupled with recommendations from others has highlighted a number of structural problems within our governing framework that hurt the state’s competitiveness and seem anachronistic in today’s world.
At the same time, the notion of a constitutional convention to address those issues creates its own concerns for many. They worry about what the actual goal of the convention might be, what protections might be lost, and what changes in fiscal policy might ensue. And they argue that the Legislature already has the authority to offer amendments to the constitution in any area it chooses.
The concerns on both sides are well taken and should be considered. CABL has not been at the forefront of calling for a new constitutional convention, but we support the idea and believe the time is right to have a serious debate about revising our constitution and making it a stronger foundation from which to govern our state.
As in the past various bills have been filed this session for calling a constitutional convention. We support an approach which calls for a limited convention focusing debate on only three substantive articles of the constitution:
- Article VI, Parts II and III dealing with local government finance, levee districts, and regional flood protection authorities.
- Article VII dealing with state revenues and finances.
- Portions of Article VIII dealing with higher education and K-12 funding.
CABL believes these are the areas where the most critical attention is needed and where successful outcomes are most important.
There are numerous ways that delegates can be chosen to a convention and many have been discussed over the years. Some of the legislation under discussion envisions a combination of appointed and elected delegates similar in some respects to what was done for the 1973 constitutional convention. CABL has historically supported the idea of elected delegates and continues to do so.
We have concerns about language in some of the proposed legislation which would allow not only the substantive changes recommended by the drafters to be submitted to voters, but also “alternative provisions.” We are not clear on the intent of that approach, but we believe voters should be offered a single package to vote up or down and not alternative options which may be confusing to the public and yield inconsistent results.
Finally, whatever the outcome of any legislation this session, CABL believes there should be a robust discussion about the intent of the constitutional convention. To some degree, that is a missing link right now. Citizens around the state are frustrated by what they see as the Legislature’s inability to resolve the state’s fiscal problems so there’s growing talk of a convention.
But the bigger issue is what do they want the convention to do? What new policies do they want to see the delegates propose? A constitutional convention is a process. It is a means to an end. Hopefully various groups including the governor, elected officials, business leaders, citizen groups and others will begin to paint a picture of what that end might look like.
From CABL’s perspective we would like to see at least three things:
- Comprehensive fiscal reform that modernizes our fiscal policies and makes Louisiana more competitive with our neighboring states.
- Policies that lessen the dependence of local government on the state and in turn give local authorities more autonomy to take care of their own local and regional needs.
- Removal of provisions which limit the Legislature’s flexibility to deal with the normal processes of governing and with that a general clean-up of items that should more appropriately be placed in statutes.
The calling of a constitutional convention is a significant event for any state and it should only be undertaken with respect for the rule of law and commitment to the wellbeing of all citizens. There are always risks, but from CABL’s perspective we also see positive opportunities.
Whether a convention materializes anytime soon remains to be seen, but we support the idea. It is our hope that from such a process a sound and forward-looking document might emerge that will position Louisiana to be a true economic leader in our region for the benefit of the people of our state.