In just a few weeks we will be going to the polls to vote on a number of races and 14 constitutional amendments. In this column I will share my views on the amendments, explaining which I endorse and will vote for. As I said in my last column, the Public Affairs Research Council notes we have amended our constitution 175 times since 1974, and now we must vote on 14 more. Many of these could be handled by statute, but often the Legislature wants to avoid a governor’s veto or wants to get a measure put into the constitution so it is very hard to overturn later. That is an abuse of the constitution, and voters should not allow it.
Most of the time, the amendments “sound good,” and many have a noble purpose. But at the same time, some changes should not be part of the constitution. I will oppose those on principle and on the basis of common sense. In fact, Amendment No. 7 is included this year to fix a problem with a 2010 amendment that was passed. One flaw was previously detected, so another amendment was passed in 2012 to correct it. And then another flaw was discovered, so now there is a second fix you have to vote on in 2014. It is sometimes simply insane what we do with our state constitution, and as you will note below, I say NO more often than YES.
My thanks to PAR for its guide to the amendments. It lays out the facts. You can find the complete guide at parlouisiana.org.
If legislators are going to avoid doing their job of debating and creating laws and instead put numerous issues on the ballot to let the voters do their job for them, maybe we should reduce their pay by 1% for each amendment. That’s a 14% reduction for this year. (I bet that rule would trim down the amendments.)
So here are my recommendations on changes to the constitution (title of amendment in italics):
Medical trust fund and healthcare provider base rate. This is intended to protect nursing homes from budget cuts and even set a floor for rates paid to them. A 2013 statute already provided some protection to nursing homes, but they want it locked into the constitution—and that is one more “dedication” in the budget that reduces flexibility in tough times. Not a good idea. No one opposes taking care of the elderly, but this amendment just takes care of one more special interest in the budget. It, along with No. 2, will put the target solely on the back of higher education in times of budget cuts.
Hospital assessment, trust fund and fee formula. I wrote about this in my last column and stated clearly that health care is important. But if this is necessary, it could have all been done in statute, leaving budget flexibility intact. This is one more “dedication” that everyone—even hospitals—used to claim was bad policy. Its passage could result in higher education alone being available for budget cuts in tough times. That is shortsighted and simply the wrong direction to go.
Sales of property with delinquent taxes. This basically would allow local governments the option of using a private firm to help collect delinquent property taxes and with the process of selling property whose owners are tax-delinquent. I believe a private firm can do it faster, more effectively and more efficiently. Proponents also say this could help with the “war on blight.” It gets properties back on the tax rolls. This can be complicated, and government does not easily support the effort or the expertise required. There is a fee cap of 10% on taxes collected, allowed in the statute.
Funds transfers for an infrastructure bank. This one puts the cart before the horse. It allows for the investing of state funds into the Louisiana Transportation Infrastructure Bank—which doesn’t exist. The package of bills supporting this idea failed to establish the bank, but one, HB 628, passed, which became Amendment 4. Maybe the package had merit, but as it stands, No. 4 makes no sense.
Elimination of the mandatory retirement age of judges. There is no right or wrong vote here, and it’s not about good government. It really just depends on how you see it. Currently, judges who are 70 or older cannot run for re-election. This would eliminate that restriction, which was put in place in 1974. (Forty years ago 70 may have seemed old.) Even the states are split on this. Twenty-one states mandate 70 as the maximum age. Eleven states plus D.C. have a higher age. Eighteen states have no mandatory retirement age. We have many officials who serve well beyond 70. Of course, we also have term limits for some officials. Sitting judges have no term limits and are rarely defeated, serving as long as they choose. So, you decide: Should age limit their ability to serve?
Higher millage cap for police and fire protection in Orleans parish. This is an amendment that only affects Orleans Parish but must pass statewide as well as in Orleans. It does not raise taxes but increases the limit if voters chose to approve new millages for police and fire agencies. This would allow the option of increasing those revenues, with Orleans voters still having the final say in a tax election.
Property tax exemption for certain disabled veterans. This is the amendment I referred to above that is being “fixed” for the second time. It is also one that sounds good and is hard to oppose. But I must be consistent. I opposed the original amendment in 2010 because there were already provisions in the law allowing benefits to vets. In my opinion, the amendment was unnecessary. In 2012 we learned that one spouse was affected by the timing of a death and the exemption, so we voted to change our constitution for one person. This highlighted the problem with putting everything in the constitution. Now we discover the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs sees disability and employability ratings differently than does Louisiana, so we are back to vote on another change to our constitution. And if approved, this will automatically allow the higher homestead exemption to about 2,000 homeowners statewide, reducing revenues in the parishes that have approved it. While I am very supportive of our veterans, this should not be in the constitution.
The artificial reef development fund. Every group wants constitutional protection for their funds. And if this passes, I imagine others will be lining up to ask us to vote next year to give them protection, too. Each time we add dedications, we eliminate options, flexibility and the ability for those we elect to govern and make choices in difficult times. We need to keep the big picture in mind and look at having more flexibility and fewer dedications.
Tax exemption reporting for permanently disabled residents. This is another amendment that we should be embarrassed to include in our constitution. We already approved freezing the property assessment for anyone who is permanently disabled. In 2013 their income could not exceed $67,670 to be eligible. If they are under 65, they must verify they meet the income requirement to maintain their assessment freeze.
This amendment would remove the annual verification of their qualifying income and have them “self-report” if it goes over. (Yeah, right.) Those over 65 only have to qualify once. This is a bad amendment for two reasons. One, adding such reporting guidelines to the constitution is absurd. And two, if folks under 65 want a tax break annually, they should be willing to provide verification of income annually.
Tax sale of vacant, blighted or abandoned property. Currently, when taxes are not paid on a property, the next year it is put up for sheriff’s sale. Whether bought by an investor or retained by the city, there is a three-year waiting period to obtain clear title. Someone must maintain that property. Often it is empty and it creates blight, can become a site of illegal activity and certainly impacts the neighborhood in a negative way. PAR says that officials in Shreveport estimate it costs the city more than $2 million a year to maintain blighted and abandoned properties.
PAR states, “This amendment would shorten the redemption period for property that has been declared vacant, blighted or abandoned from three years after the sales’ recordation to 18 months.” This has been the law in New Orleans since 1995. The amendment would not shorten the period for non-blighted, owner-occupied homes.
Property rights are valued in America, and any change must be considered carefully. All of the due process and notice requirements currently would remain. Blight and abandoned properties have become a problem for cities like Baton Rouge, and this could help. The 18-month period has been used in New Orleans for almost 20 years and assists with the return of properties back into commerce to improve neighborhoods. The same could be done across the state by passing this amendment.
Increases the number of state departments from 20 to 21. Expand government, really? Government is big enough, and there is no need for more bureaucracy. While the elderly and their affairs are important and should be addressed, they can be served as they are now in the Department of Health & Hospitals, the office of Elderly Affairs and the Office of Aging and Adult Services. That seems to be more than enough government without creating a new department.
Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission membership. What we should be voting on is to remove the membership criteria for boards and commissions from the constitution and put them into statute. This amendment wants to require LWFC seats from north Louisiana. The fact is, four of the seven seats are at-large and can be held by anyone anywhere. (Currently one is from Ruston—but all four could be.) These minutiae are not needed in the constitution.
Orleans Lower Ninth Ward vacant property. This amendment may sound good and may be well-intentioned, but it seems the execution was flawed. This would allow lots in the Lower Ninth Ward to be purchased by certain groups (but not developers) for $100 (though recent appraisals have been around $3,600), and not all buyers would be required to build.
The Bureau of Governmental Research in New Orleans looked very closely at this issue, the amendment and the companion legislation, which voters don’t see. BGR is against this amendment and explains, “Given the extremely high vacancy rate in certain sections of the Lower Ninth Ward, a clear strategy for the future is warranted.
However, the proposed amendment would open the way for the Legislature to usurp control from the city and [the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority] over the decidedly local issue of neighborhood redevelopment. The companion legislation is also seriously flawed. It lacks adequate safeguards to ensure that property is redeveloped.
The sale price set forth in the legislation is arbitrary and would cause NORA to lose money on each sale. Finally, allowing state lawmakers to order local government entities to sell property under terms set by the Legislature sets a bad precedent that could be expanded to other jurisdictions.”
Tax rebates, incentives and abatements. As PAR explains, the constitution specifies when the Legislature meets and what it can consider. General sessions are held in even-numbered years, and fiscal sessions in odd-numbered years. Fiscal sessions were intended to allow the Legislature to focus on all matters dealing with state finances, such as “levying, authorizing or increasing a tax or those dealing with exemptions, exclusions, deductions or credits.”
The constitution does not address tax rebates, incentives or abatements. Therefore, these types of bills show up in general sessions as well as fiscal sessions. It seems obvious to me that these are fiscal items that impact state finances and should be debated in a fiscal session. This amendment would limit such bills to a fiscal session. In the case of a critical issue that needed to be addressed for economic development purposes, a special session could always be called for a week.
Louisiana’s flagship continues to grow in a number of areas. Overall enrollment tops 30,000 this fall with the third largest freshman class, but it also has an all-time high ACT average of 25.6 and high school GPA of 3.43. (This is how you continue to grow the graduation rate: with students who can finish strong.) It is exciting to also see first-generation freshmen up to a new high at 36.9%. “High-quality high school students from across Louisiana and the country are choosing LSU for their college careers, and we are committed to providing them with exceptional, affordable and accessible higher education,” said LSU President and Chancellor F. King Alexander.
In addition to growth in numbers and strengthened ACT scores, LSU is seeing its largest proportion of overall minority enrollment ever, including Asian, African-American and Hispanic students.
Would you expect an entire senior class of African-American males, mostly from low-income families, to be admitted to four-year colleges and universities? You can hear how Tim King, founder of Urban Prep Academies, accomplished it when he speaks at the Louisiana Association of Public Charters annual conference next week in Baton Rouge. He will keynote the luncheon at noon at the Crowne Plaza. (Tickets are available at 504-274-3675.)
King is president and CEO of Urban Prep Academies, a nonprofit organization operating a network of public college-prep boys’ schools in Chicago (including the nation’s first all-male charter high school). In 2014 King was honored at the BET Awards as a recipient of the Shine a Light award, and he has also been named ABC World News Tonight “Person of the Week,” Chicago Magazine‘s “Chicagoan of the Year,” People magazine’s “Hero of the Year” and one of Ebony‘s “Power 100”; he was featured on Good Morning America and The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Special thanks to Lane Grigsby, the presenting conference host, and to the Baird Company, the keynote speaker sponsor.
In a recent newsletter, Educate Now, I noticed two contrasting items about charters. One headline was “Louisiana has second-strongest charter school initiative in the U.S., report says.” The item said, “Louisiana’s charter schools ranked as the second strongest, according to a recent report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Louisiana was praised for having charters that served a higher percentage of low-income students and exhibited higher academic growth than traditional public schools.”
Despite that success in Louisiana for students, the other headline was “Teachers union sues Louisiana to de-fund some charter schools.” It pointed out that “the Louisiana Association of Educators is suing the state to block it from using the MFP to fund type 2 charter schools. LAE says the state constitution requires the MFP to be distributed through a local school district or through the RSD, but Type 2s, which are authorized by BESE, receive their funds directly.”
With the unions it’s all about protecting the money and the jobs—not the students. So sad.