The Pelican Institute recently held a constitutional convention forum in Baton Rouge. A few bigwigs showed up, ranging from mega-donors and politicians to out-of-state academics and lobbyists. The policy issue remains all the rage, even though we’re unlikely to see a gathering on the scale of Louisiana’s 1973-74 convention ever again.
But that’s OK. More advocates are coming to that same conclusion and the number of those sounding the bell for a convention is shrinking. Hopefully, that will lead to fewer news stories about the groups that are “pushing for a constitutional convention.”
What’s taking place instead is a much-needed dialogue about fundamental law, what it should entail and how Louisiana’s citizenry can go about making those changes. Those were a few of the recurring themes from the Pelican Institute’s forum last week.
From my vantage point, there were seven key takeaways from the forum, including:
1.) Interest in altering Louisiana’s most fundamental laws remains strong. That much was evident in the personalities (donors, elected officials, lobbyists, journalists, good government types, consultants, etc.) that attended the half-day event. If you think it’s a dead issue, wake up because it’s starting to evolve.
2.) Momentum for constitutional conventions is lacking nationwide, but academics seem to dig the concept of standing ballot initiates. New York State, for example, has an automatic ballot item every 20 years to call a convention. The intent behind the 170-year-old process was that “all power was inherent to the people.”
3.) Louisiana is one of six states that doesn’t require a popular vote to call a convention. Instead, the Legislature alone shoulders this hefty burden. Has it become too heavy for our legislators? Is it time for voters to have more of a say?
4.) Out of Louisiana’s entire political class, legislative candidates were well represented at the conference. This could be an early signal that the issue of another convention in Baton Rouge may carry over into the next term. If the policy trend continues, however, it’s reasonable to believe that it too will begin to evolve inside the rails of the House and Senate.
5.) We’re in desperate need of a public conversation about what fundamental law should be and, more importantly, what it shouldn’t be. Maybe the table of contents to Louisiana’s Constitution shouldn’t be longer than the entire U.S. Constitution.
6.) Every state that has legislative term limits also has a mechanism that allows voters to overturn laws passed by lawmakers and governors—except one. Louisiana does not allow its voters to enjoy such a check-and-balance vehicle. (When considered in concert with the inability of voters to approve a convention, it becomes even more surprising that a gubernatorial candidate hasn’t yet attached themselves to these glaring oversights in citizen engagement.)
7.) The academics gathered at the forum seemed to agree that what’s keeping Louisiana out of a convention are the issues that are dividing people and special interests, which also happen to be the issues driving advocates to call for another convention. Simply put, issues like funding for local governments are why some folks want to crack open the constitution, but it has such powerful players on both sides that it appears destined for a stalemate. (As my Paw Paw Ivy liked to say, that’s just a snake eating its butt.)
Policymakers on the state level would do well to apply these seven takeaways to any thoughts they’re having about upcoming constitutional law efforts. The political landscape moving forward is clear enough to read, after all.
In the race for governor, only businessman Eddie Rispone has made a convention call a priority. Incumbent Gov. John Bel Edwards and Congressman Ralph Abraham, meanwhile are “lukewarm at best to the idea,” according to Associated Press reporter Melinda Deslatte.
In the Legislature, the possibility of another constitutional convention has become a perennial topic. Last year, a convention bill made it to the House floor and was stalled there due to a lack of votes. (Not a single black legislator supported the bill, which is a notable hurdle for advocates moving forward.)
During the most recent regular session, conducted this past spring, only two measures related to a constitutional convention were introduced. Both were resolutions, which do not have the force of actual law, to create a commission to make recommendations about holding another convention.
In addition to the Pelican Institute, several special interest and advocacy groups are studying constitutional law and making their own comments or recommendations for potential paths to follow, including Americans for Prosperity; Committee of 100; Council for a Better Louisiana; Louisiana Association of Business and Industry; and Public Affairs Research Council, to name a few.
Reforming fundamental law should always be a massive undertaking. No matter which angle you attack it from, the issues are complex and serious. So maybe we should all take a different look at the con-con matter and forget about asking if we can-can or can’t-can’t. Let’s just focus on the how and now.