Louisiana candidates split on constitutional convention idea
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — While efforts to rewrite Louisiana’s constitution stalled with state lawmakers, advocates for a constitutional convention are trying to make new inroads for the movement, seeing opportunity with legislative term limits and statewide elections this fall.
The push may face an important roadblock, however. Two of the three major candidates for governor, Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards and Republican U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, are lukewarm at best to the idea. Only Republican contender Eddie Rispone is a full-throated backer of a constitutional convention.
And such a large effort likely would need a governor’s support to get off the ground.
The conservative Pelican Institute for Public Policy hosted an event Tuesday seeking to bolster arguments for a constitutional rewrite. The House rejected proposals starting a process for a constitutional convention in 2017 and 2018.
Still, supporters of a rewrite say too many rules that control government spending and tax policy are locked into the constitution, limiting lawmakers’ ability to respond to financial problems or determine spending priorities.
About 30 funds — including those for education, transportation and coastal restoration — are created and protected in Louisiana’s constitution, said Beverly Moore Haydel, a consultant who worked for former Gov. Bobby Jindal.
“That is wildly out of line with what other states do,” Haydel said during the Pelican Institute event.
Louisiana’s current constitution, adopted in 1974, has been amended nearly 200 times. Items are locked into the constitution to make them more difficult to undo. Removing something takes the same vote as adding them: two-thirds from the House and Senate and support from voters in an election.
Government watchdog group the Public Affairs Research Council has argued for years that a constitution should be a broad governing document outlining a state’s priorities and principles, not cluttered with minutiae better left to state law. Robert Travis Scott, the council’s leader, said many items in the constitution were decided decades ago.
“Are our priorities different now? Are our values different now?” he asked.
Among the many disagreements about a constitutional convention are competing visions about the scale, its participants and its goals.
Critics worry about the delegate-selection process and the influence of special-interest groups. They question whether the state could limit a constitutional convention purely to finances. Associations representing school boards, municipal government bodies and other groups with protected dollars in the existing document have registered objections.
When Edwards and Abraham spoke to Louisiana’s sheriffs earlier this month, both the governor and his challenger on the Oct. 12 ballot showed little interest in a convention.
“A constitutional convention is not, in my view, necessary,” said Edwards, who is seeking a second term in office. “I don’t have a burning desire to do it (and) would not support the effort if it couldn’t be a limited constitutional convention and there’s a difference of opinion among the legal scholars as to whether that’s possible.”
Abraham said Louisiana has structural budget and tax problems, but he didn’t embrace a constitutional convention as the remedy.
“There are a lot of ways to fix the problem, not necessarily with a constitutional convention,” he said.
Only Rispone, a Baton Rouge businessman running for governor, wholeheartedly endorses the convention “to address structural changes in our constitution so we can be competitive when it comes to taxes, we can be competitive when it comes to education, we can take the shackles off our local government.”
A high hurdle is required to start the process to call a convention, requiring support from two-thirds of lawmakers in each chamber.
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