Policy experts from Louisiana and elsewhere gathered at a public forum Tuesday to explore whether state lawmakers should call a convention to streamline Louisiana’s bloated constitution.
Andrew Spiropoulos, who directs the Center for the Study of State Constitutional Law and Government at the Oklahoma City University School of Law, said a constitutional convention doesn't have to rewrite state policies. Moving overly detailed constitutional provisions into statute, which is more easily changed by lawmakers, can be the path of less resistance.
“Put off the fight,” he suggested. “Just put it in statutes and let the legislature work out the details.”
The Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a New Orleans-based fiscally conservative think tank, hosted the forum at the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge to promote the idea of a constitutional convention and discuss how it should be structured and what should be accomplished.
The institute has issued a wide range of policy papers calling for structural changes to Louisiana's tax policies, budgeting, and the relationship between state and local governments, among other topics. Pelican favors a flatter, simpler tax structure, freeing up dollars currently dedicated to certain purposes, and making local officials more independent of the state.
Daniel Erspamer, the institute's CEO, has called for scaling down the state's lengthy constitution so that it provides the basic framework for government, rather than a set of laws with constitutional authority. As speakers noted Tuesday, very few constitutions include as many specific policy details as Louisiana's.
For example, state constitutions typically require adequate funding for education, and leave it legislators and the courts to determine what that means. Louisiana actually enshrines a specific K-12 education funding formula in the constitution.
But removing that formula from the constitution wouldn't mean education is no longer a priority, Erspamer says, only that current legislators would decide how to go about meeting that priority.
Under the current system, where so much spending is dedicated by statute or the constitution, legislators only have discretion over about 11 percent of the budget, he says.
“We have elected officials who are not able to go and represent the priorities of their constituents,” Erspamer said. “Legislators from decades ago have predetermined how that money is going to be spent.”
Speakers at Tuesday's forum said constitutional conventions used to be commonplace nationwide but are no longer so.
Opponents often worried about losing things about the current system they like, which Professor John Dinan of Wake Forest University called the “Pandora’s box” argument. To get around that objection, proponents often raise the possibility of a limited convention focused only on a single issue – taxes, for example.
But consultant Beverly Moore Haydel said it’s not clear whether a limited constitutional convention is even possible in Louisiana. Attorney generals have issued opinions saying a convention has to stay within the bounds of the legislature’s call, she said. However, a proposed constitutional amendment to set up a framework for limiting conventions was soundly defeated by voters, suggesting the current constitution doesn’t allow for a limited convention.
“This is going to be a detailed, tedious process,” she said of a potential convention.
But she said supporters of holding one don’t have to wait for the convention to be called to start working on their proposals, and could even start drafting language for potential changes.
“We can start doing this work right now, so if a convention happens, we’ve already given thought to the changes that will be made,” Haydel said.
Under the current system, local governments also are beholden to the state for funding and limited in the revenue they can raise themselves by Louisiana’s homestead exemption. Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, said local leaders are some of the staunchest defenders of the current system, partly because they don’t want to lose state money, but possibly because they don’t want to take on more authority.
Dinan said Louisiana is unlike many states in that voter approval on the front end isn’t necessary to hold a convention, though proponents still should not go forward without broad public support. Holding a convention in Louisiana requires approval by two-thirds of legislators in each body, though any changes must be ratified by voters.
Dinan said if a convention is called, convention delegates might want to break up their proposals into multiple ballot measures rather than one up-or-down vote, so a single controversial proposal doesn’t sink the whole effort.
“When we talk about changing the constitution, we’re not just talking about changing all the rules,” Scott said. “We’re talking about what Louisiana is and how we see ourselves. Do we see ourselves as a state that’s capable of doing this?”