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Analysis: Rispone wants to redesign Louisiana’s constitution

November 3, 2019
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Louisiana Republican gubernatorial candidate Eddie Rispone speaks at President Donald Trump's campaign rally in Lake Charles, La., Friday, Oct. 11, 2019. Trump introduced both Rispone and Republican gubernatorial candidate Ralph Abraham on the eve of the Louisiana election, urging the crowd to vote for either to unseat incumbent Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
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Louisiana Republican gubernatorial candidate Eddie Rispone speaks at President Donald Trump's campaign rally in Lake Charles, La., Friday, Oct. 11, 2019. Trump introduced both Rispone and Republican gubernatorial candidate Ralph Abraham on the eve of the Louisiana election, urging the crowd to vote for either to unseat incumbent Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — If he reaches the Louisiana governor’s mansion, Republican businessman Eddie Rispone wants to rewrite the state constitution, drafting a new document to outline citizen protections, government financing and the parameters of agencies’ power and authority.

Rispone promises such a rewrite will create a “sea change” making Louisiana more competitive with other states, mentioning the idea in nearly every stump speech and debate appearance. He talks of overhauling provisions on taxes, revenue, state worker pensions, local government and education.

“I would not be running if we weren’t going to have a constitutional convention to change the structure that we have here,” Rispone, founder of an industrial engineering and construction firm, said at a Republican forum in September.

His opponent in the Nov. 16 runoff, Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards, calls Rispone’s idea dangerous.

Rispone won’t get into details of what he wants to strike from the constitution. But while the GOP contender is scant with specifics, his allies in the business community and at the conservative think tank Pelican Institute for Public Policy have sought a constitutional convention and offered ideas, providing clues of what Rispone might want to accomplish.

Those changes could strike at entrenched political interests, long-time Louisiana traditions and significant voting groups. Rispone’s allies have suggested:

—Eliminating the statewide property tax exemption for homeowners, known as the homestead exemption, letting parishes decide if they’ll maintain an exemption and its size.

—Ending a constitutional requirement that the state give nearly 12,000 municipal law enforcement and firefighters $500 per month in a salary supplement beyond their local pay.

—Lowering state tax rates in exchange for eliminating many tax exemptions. Barring parishes from charging businesses a local property tax on their inventory.

—Removing constitutional protections for certain funds, making them vulnerable to budget cuts. Among protected areas are the K-12 public school financing formula, dollars for coastal restoration and gas tax money earmarked for transportation projects.

—Resetting Louisiana’s spending caps, to restrict growth in spending.

—Restructuring public college governance.

—Making pension systems less lucrative for state workers and teachers.

Such sweeping changes could run into opposition from Louisiana’s school boards, municipal officials, police juries, sheriffs, district attorneys and superintendents — which might explain why Rispone refuses to detail ideas for a convention.

Louisiana’s current constitution, adopted in 1974, has been amended nearly 200 times. Provisions are included in the constitution to make them difficult to undo. Removing and adding something takes the same vote: two-thirds from the House and Senate and support in a statewide election.

Rispone’s central theme when pushing for a convention involves finances. He says too many rules controlling government spending and tax policy are locked into the constitution, limiting lawmakers’ ability to respond to financial problems or determine spending priorities.

But his argument isn’t limited to taxes and spending. Rispone says too many provisions better left to state law are cluttering up the constitution. That’s a main criticism from Daniel Erspamer, CEO of the Pelican Institute, a conservative organization influential with Rispone.

“Louisiana’s constitution dedicates 13,000 words to explain how the state should spend its money, while the U.S. Constitution contains only 7,500 words total,” Erspamer said in a statement.

Edwards opposes a constitutional convention.

“Now is not the time to be dangerous and to gamble with all of these things that are adequately and properly protected in the constitution today,” he said in a debate with Rispone.

The House in 2017 and 2018 rejected proposals starting a process for a convention, which would require support from two-thirds of lawmakers. Disagreements included competing visions about the scale, participants and goals. Critics worry about delegate selection and possible manipulation by special-interest groups.

“We’ll have people in Louisiana spending money who are not from Louisiana to influence what the constitution looks like,” Edwards said.

Rispone said Edwards is fearmongering.

“Am I nervous about having a constitutional convention? No, because business people, we know how to put things together,” Rispone said.

During his debate with Edwards, Rispone said he would work to protect education funding, the homestead exemption and law enforcement in the constitution. After the debate, he was less definitive, saying: “That’s going to be up to the delegates to make sure.”

He noted Louisiana’s voters would have the final decision on whether to adopt any new constitution drafted.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte