From the 2019 statewide cycle through the primary that was concluded this past weekend, members of the Louisiana Legislature have successfully passed constitutional amendments only 50% of the time.
Of the 16 amendments proposed by the House and Senate over the last three years, only eight have gained approval from voters. For the election held this month, just one of the four amendments put forth was passed.
Lawmakers hit a similar speed bump in the late 1960s, until then-Gov. John McKeithen offered voters an opportunity for a comprehensive constitutional rewrite via 53 amendments placed on a single ballot. Voters, in response, rejected each and every amendment, setting the stage for the 1973-1974 Constitutional Convention, which produced the charter we now follow.
Could that happen again in Louisiana? Probably not. Modern politics are dramatically different and lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully to call a convention over the last few terms. Plus, our current Gov. Edwards isn’t as bullish on this particular topic as the last Gov. Edwards was roughly five decades ago.
So what should lawmakers do? During the next regular session that convenes on March 14, 2022, the legislative leadership should work with Gov. John Bel Edwards to give voters the authority to place constitutional amendments on the ballot using a petition process. If our Legislature feels generous, it should also make sure that voters have veto referendum powers, meaning they could uphold or repeal a law passed by the Legislature.
Currently, there are 18 states that have an initiated constitutional amendment process, and there are 23 states that allow for veto referendums. Louisiana, of course, is not among them, making for a long-overdue conversation.
Having such options will not solve all of Louisiana’s challenges when drafting fundamental law and holding the executive and legislative branches accountable. But after years of failed proposals and unintended constitutional consequences—and a recent veto session that could have been more productive—lawmakers should consider a different approach.
Anything short of giving Louisiana’s citizenry these tools sends a message from lawmakers to voters that they cannot be trusted. And, frankly, that wouldn’t be wise with reelection looming in 2023.
If the idea of an initiated constitutional amendment process and veto referendums makes sense to you, then let your elected legislators know what you think. You can find out how to contact your representative at www.House.Louisiana.Gov and your senators at www.Senate.La.Gov.
The devil, as you know, will be in the details. Oregon (4.3 million residents) has roughly the same population as Louisiana (4.6 million) and allows its voters to place constitutional amendments on the ballot with 149,360 signatures. Oregon also allows for an initiated statute process (112,020 signatures) and a veto referendum process (74,680 signatures).
That might not be the best approach for Louisiana, but it’s a start. Practically every member of the Legislature has campaigned on making government accessible to the people, but those public champions have very little to show for those talking points.
There is one twist to keep in mind. Earlier this year, in May, the Mississippi Supreme Court released a 6-3 decision overturning an initiated constitutional amendment passed in 2020. The court ruled that Mississippi’s ballot initiative process was “unworkable and inoperative” because the state’s constitution calls for an equal number of signatures to be gathered from each of its five congressional districts. The problem was that Mississippi has had only four congressional districts for the past two decades, and the state constitution was never updated.
However, that sort of problem is easy to avoid when you’re creating a program from scratch. Lawmakers started from scratch earlier this term when they passed laws related to tort reform and tax changes backed by business and industry. Surely, they can do the same for everyone else who lives and works in Louisiana.
The Legislature already trusts us, apparently, because we get the final say on constitutional amendments. But that isn’t good enough anymore. Residents of this great state deserve the first say as well.