Capitol Views: House may vote on constitutional convention idea

Legislation to create an “evaluation and drafting committee,” which would in turn have the authority to investigate the need for and then trigger a constitutional convention, was approved today by the Louisiana House and Governmental Affairs Committee.

House Bill 456 by Ways and Means Chairman Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, would carve out a path for a limited convention, meaning only certain areas of the Louisiana Constitution would be eligible for a rewrite. Specifically, Abramson only wants potential delegates dipping into fiscal matters. “This is a mechanism to provide for a process to fix some things,” he said of his legislation.

The bill is not a constitutional amendment, meaning voters will not get to weigh in on the matter. Gov. John Bel Edwards, however, will have veto authority should the House and Senate get behind Abramson’s push.

During today’s committee meeting, Abramson told lawmakers that he wanted his bill on the House floor just in case the Legislature meets gridlock while trying to balance next fiscal year’s budget and avoid a loss of temporary tax revenue in 2018 totaling $1.3 billion. “This can be part of the discussion,” he said.

Abramson has brought similar proposals before the Legislature in recent years, but none have made it past the finish line. Last year’s proposal never left the House floor, where Abramson’s latest version is now pending action. The difference between now and then, he added, is that many lawmakers recognize that a piecemeal approach to constitutional reform isn’t getting the job done. “I haven’t asked the floor to vote on it because we just haven’t been there,” said Abramson. “This year I think we might be closer.”

Robert Travis Scott, the president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, offered some encouraging words for the concept. “Even at a minimum, if you took on this job, even if you didn’t do good structural changes, you could do a lot of housekeeping,” he said, referring to funds and provisions that have outdated or inappropriate placements in Louisiana’s guiding charter.

He also said the delegates to a possible convention would be well served by focusing on Article 7 of the Constitution, which is one of the main money sections of the document dedicated to “revenue and finance.” That’s generally the same subject area that Abramson’s bill would limit the proposed convention to, if ultimately triggered.

Of the 186 amendments passed since the 1974 Constitution was approved, 80 of them dealt with Article 7, according to Scott. Of the 272 amendments put on ballots during the same timeframe, 127 of them did the same.

Scott recalled one election year, prior to the 1973 constitutional convention, where 70 constitutional amendments were placed on a single ballot and all of them were rejected by voters. “A lot of people think we’ve reached that point again, and that it’s time to hit the reset button,” he said.

Jason DeCuir, a principal at tax services firm Ryan, said a convention or an amendment are among the only ways to solve complicated fiscal problems, like the lack of a centralized sales tax collection system. He offered several other examples as well. “You can’t get there without looking at some constitutional changes,” DeCuir said.

Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe, expressed concern over how delegates would be selected and just how limited the convention would be. “Be careful what you wish for,” said Morris, adding, “At least we know what we have now.”

Taking a cue from the 1973 convention, Abramson’s proposed convention would have 105 delegates elected from each state House district and another 27 delegates who would be appointed to make sure different perspectives and special interest groups were represented.

If the committee proposed under Abramson’s bill does decide to endorse the need for a convention, Abramson’s bill would convene one on Jan. 7, 2019. A final document, if one is produced, would face voters during that fall’s gubernatorial election.

Jeremy Alford

Jeremy Alford will publish a daily update throughout the legislative regular session on Daily Report PM. Alford reports on Louisiana politics at LaPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook. He can be reached at JJA@LaPolitics.com.

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