Friday, May 24, 2024

Proposed Louisiana constitutional convention could be pushed back to August

by BIZ Magazine

BY: JULIE O’DONOGHUE – Louisiana Illuminator

Backers of the proposed Louisiana constitutional convention are considering a new timeline for the event, one that doesn’t coincide with the state lawmakers’ ongoing legislative session. That’s according to four sources familiar with the effort who weren’t authorized to speak about the matter publicly.

Supporters might push for a convention to be held in July or more likely August, instead of from May 20 to June 3 as called for in House Bill 800, the enabling legislation the Louisiana House of Representatives is scheduled to vote on Tuesday.

The possible change comes as Gov. Jeff Landry puts pressure on lawmakers to vote in favor of having a convention. It’s also after The Times-Picayune | The Advocate published a poll showing only 1% of Louisiana residents consider a constitution convention a top priority.

The Republican governor made holding a convention a central part of his legislative agenda this spring but faces challenges getting enough lawmakers to support the proposal. At a convention, Louisiana’s 144 legislators and 27 delegates chosen by Landry would be expected to revise the state’s 50-year-old constitution, based on House Bill 800.

The governor has said lawmakers and his delegates would limit themselves to moving provisions out of the constitution and placing them in regular statute, instead of eliminating sections of the law or writing any new language for the document. A shortened version of the constitution would then appear on the November ballot for voter approval.

Lawmakers have been skeptical of a constitutional convention timeline that overlaps with the end of their legislative session. With less than a month of their session left, lawmakers still have other high-profile bills to consider. They’re also less than halfway through the process to finalize next fiscal year’s budget.

“I think we need [a constitutional convention]. I don’t think we should do it in session,” said Sen. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, who is typically aligned with Landry. “I would rather do it right than rushed.”

Several lawmakers also want more details about what the governor seeks to do in a convention. Landry has refused to tell legislators or the public what specific changes he wants to make to the constitution.

“I think that’s the big question: What does the governor want us to do?” Sen. Thomas Pressly, R-Shreveport, said, adding that he supports a constitutional convention in theory but wants more information.

Landry has said generally he wants to make constitutional changes in order to free up more money in the state budget to deal with an expected budget shortfall next year. He has also said a constitutional convention could help make “wholesale tax reform” easier.

But what sections would be taken out of the constitution – specifically, what protected funding or constitutional tax policy might be targeted to reach those goals — has not been disclosed. Landry’s reticence has created an information vacuum, even among legislators being asked to support his proposal.

“I’m not going to vote on stuff when I don’t know what’s in it,” said Rep. Neil Riser, R-Columbia, who was opposed to a constitutional convention last week.

Lawmakers have been left to speculate about what parts of the constitution the governor might want to alter. They worry public school funding, higher education boards, district attorney authority, law enforcement pay, state worker protections and consumer tax breaks on food, prescription drugs and utilities might be targets for constitutional cutting.

Transferring sections of the existing constitution to regular state law, as Landry has said he wants to do, won’t change their enforcement in the short term. But it will make those provisions far easier for lawmakers to change or remove in the future.

Constitutional laws can only be altered with support from two-thirds of both chambers of the Legislature and a statewide vote. Items moved to statute can be eliminated or altered by a simple majority vote in the House and Senate.

“This is very top down … We’re being told what we need to do,” Rep. Joe Stagni, R-Kenner, said. “With more transparency and more public input, I think you would get a better product.”

Convention supporters have also made a few concessions ahead of Tuesday’s vote in the House.

Last week, they said public school funding protections, which make it difficult to cut K-12 school allocations from year to year, would remain in the constitution. There would also be no effort to remove the popular homestead exemption property tax break.

Over the past week however, other special interest groups started to push to have their favorite constitutional items taken off the table for changes as well.

Sheriffs want legislators to commit to not touching supplemental pay for law enforcement. Local hospitals could also seek to wall off their funding as well.

Democratic lawmakers have already filed amendments to the constitutional convention legislation that would exclude Southern University and the judiciary branch from changes.

It’s not clear legislators even have the ability to restrict what is discussed during a constitutional convention. Legal experts have said once a convention is called, the entire document can be opened up and altered, regardless of what limitations the lawmakers place on it ahead of time.

If they push the convention timeline back to July or August, the exercise would also become more expensive.

Had the convention overlapped with the legislative session, lawmakers would have been able to save money by using their daily session expense reimbursements, called per diem pay, to cover the convention meetings.

In July or August, the state would have to cover the lawmakers travel and lodging costs, raising those per diem expenses to $1.5 million for a two-week period, when Landry’s delegates are included. The price of compensating legislative staff and office materials needed for the convention would also have to be worked out.

A July or August start date would give the lawmakers more time to plan and seek public input. Some legislators have expressed interest in a “road show” where they travel around the state seeking citizen testimony on the constitution, they said.

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