Saturday, July 13, 2024

GOP megadonor circulates Louisiana Constitution draft with school funding, tax breaks up for debate

by BIZ Magazine

BY: JULIE O’DONOGHUE – Louisiana Illuminator

An influential Republican political donor emailed a rough draft of a proposed, new state constitution to Louisiana lawmakers Tuesday that suggests changes to public school funding, the homestead exemption on property taxes and widely used sales tax breaks should be up for debate.

Lane Grigsby, a retired construction mogul and founder of Cajun Industries, distributed what was described by others as a “working document” prepared months ago when a substantial overhaul of the constitution appeared more likely to happen. It contains dozens of suggested changes, some of which haven’t been discussed publicly.

In his email to legislators, Grigsby said he shared the documents to push them to quickly vote for a constitutional convention. He set a deadline for the convention of Aug. 23, seen as the cutoff date for approving new constitutional measures to appear on the Nov. 5 election ballot.

The proposal marks the first comprehensive look at what powerful convention supporters like Grigsby might want to accomplish in a constitutional reworking. It could also turn off legislators who are already skeptical of holding a convention on a tight timeline.

Grigsby’s documents propose a handful of changes legislators rejected weeks ago should still be discussed. Gov. Jeff Landry’s support for the proposals isn’t clear either.

The documents call for the removal of constitutional protections for K-12 public school funding and the homestead property tax exemption to be discussed further, even after legislators made clear these items weren’t up for debate.

Whether safeguards for law enforcement supplemental pay should remain in the constitution is also on a list of items for consideration in the Grigsby papers. Landry said months ago he wouldn’t touch this provision.

The proposal also suggests more deliberation over whether popular sales tax exemptions for residential utilities, prescription drugs and most food bought in the grocery store should be dropped from the constitution. Such a change would make it easier to levy new taxes on these items.

It also proposes constitutional laws that govern higher education management boards, worker’s compensation and civil service protections for public employees should be transferred to state statute without further debate. Legislators and the governor could eliminate or alter those provisions far more easily once they were moved from the constitution into regular statute.

Substantial constitutional changes affecting the judiciary are also contained in the documents, including a new system for picking the chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court and a reconfiguration of the way judges are assigned across the state.

Landry is in an ongoing feud with Supreme Court Justice John Weimer, and the governor has already made moves to put his allies on the state’s highest court.

While Landry remains supportive of constitutional convention in general, he also stopped short of endorsing the document blasted to legislators Tuesday.

“Mr. Grigsby’s message is what we have been saying since Day One,” Landry’s spokeswoman Kate Kelly said in a text message, but she declined to answer questions about the governor’s support for specific proposals contained in the papers.

Grigsby didn’t answer calls and text messages.

In his email to lawmakers, Grigsby described the documents he shared as a “work product” of the gubernatorial transition committee Landry set up after the governor’s election win in October. As a member of the committee, Grigsby chaired a council on constitutional reform.

Other people who worked on constitutional issues for Landry’s transition team said the committee never voted on or approved the documents. What Grigsby emailed lawmakers is a draft of ideas put together in the spring by two think tanks and a couple advisers who had helped with Landry’s constitutional proposals, according to people who worked on the document.

Staff from the conservative Pelican Institute and nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana (PAR), former Louisiana House Speaker Jim Tucker, a Republican, and former state Rep. Neil Abramson, a Democrat, helped craft the suggestions contained in the papers.

“It reflects ongoing discussions and is by no means a final draft,” said Pelican Institute CEO Daniel Erspamer, who worked on the proposal. “From my point of view, it was a working document.”

“The full transition committee did not review or vote on the draft that was shared,” he said.

Steven Procopio, who leads PAR, also characterized the document as a work in progress and said his organization focused on the portions that dealt with budget, taxes, pensions and education. PAR did not work on the proposals for the judiciary, he said.

Tucker and Abramson did not return phone calls Tuesday seeking comment.

Even if the document was just a draft, Rep. Beau Beaullieu, R-New Iberia, believes it could help the conversation over constitutional change in the Legislature. Beaullieu sponsored a bill to call a constitutional convention in the spring but couldn’t get enough support in the Senate to pass the measure.

Senators were reluctant to approve Beaullieu’s legislation because they said they didn’t have any concrete idea of what concepts would convention supporters wanted to accomplish. With Grigsby releasing this proposal, lawmakers have more information about what the goals of a convention might be.

“By him putting this out there, it could put some people at ease,” Beaullieu said. “[A detailed proposal] is what everyone was asking for.”

Legislators still aren’t likely to call a constitutional convention, according to Senate President Cameron Henry, R-Metairie.

“Nothing to report,” Henry texted when asked about the prospect of calling a constitutional convention Tuesday.

Reporter Piper Hutchinson contributed to this report.

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