Constitutional convention unlikely; structural change possible
While the near-term possibility of a state constitutional convention in Louisiana may have died with Gov. John Bel Edwards’ reelection, there are other ways to tackle the issues convention supporters want to address.
“We don’t see a path to a convention,” said Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana. “Not under the current political circumstances. Certainly not for 2020.”
But Scott says PAR is focused not on a convention, but on “constitutional reform,” which will “never be dead so long as there are serious problems with the constitution.”
Holding a constitutional convention has been considered and rejected numerous times by lawmakers in recent years.
Critics of the current state constitution argue it is a bloated set of statutes that limits the ability of state and local officials to prioritize spending and should be replaced with a shorter statement of principles similar to the U.S. Constitution.
But others worry opening up the constitution could jeopardize provisions important to them, such as protections for education funding, the homestead property tax exemption, and the right to bear arms.
Edwards cited those concerns to explain why he opposed holding a convention.
“[The constitution] can be amended from time to time, and we can address those challenges, but now is not the time to be dangerous and to gamble with all of these things that are adequately and properly protected in the constitution today,” Edwards said during a debate with Republican challenger Eddie Rispone, who promised to call for a convention if elected.
While a “limited” constitutional convention has been discussed, it’s not clear whether convention delegates would be legally obligated to stay within the stated limits.
Alfred “Butch” Speer, the longtime clerk of the state House of Representatives, said the last state constitutional convention in 1992 was limited to fiscal issues.
No one challenged the limitations, so the concept was never tested, and the results ultimately were rejected by voters, he said.
“I think our staff even has different opinions on that,” said Rep. Franklin Foil, when asked if a constitutional convention can be limited. “I would guess you probably can’t limit it once you call a convention.”
Foil, a Baton Rouge Republican who will move over to the Senate for the next term, is a longtime supporter of a constitutional convention. He said he doesn’t consider holding a convention to be a partisan issue, adding that Republican former Gov. Bobby Jindal also was opposed.
The process works like this: Legislators create a bill that describes the convention’s subject matter and how the delegates would be selected. In 1992, the legislators themselves were the delegates, so the convention was much like a legislative special session, Speer said.
If the bill garners support from two-thirds of members in each body — 70 votes in the House, 26 in the Senate — it goes to the governor’s desk. The governor could veto the bill, but legislators could override his veto with the same two-thirds majorities that approved the bill in the first place.
So technically, the legislature doesn’t need the governor’s blessing to hold a convention.
But in practical terms, the governor’s ability to influence the legislative process makes passing a convention bill without his support unlikely.
“Unless we can convince Gov. Edwards to change his position, I think it would be very difficult to get a convention in these next four years,” Foil said.
Of course, the state constitution can be amended in a piecemeal fashion with the approval of two-thirds of each body and a public vote. The current document, enacted in 1974, has been amended more than 300 times, which is a big reason why many convention supporters want to scale it down.
Legislators also could rewrite an entire article of the constitution and present the results to voters as an amendment, which do not require the governor’s signature. Lawmakers who want to unlock dedicated funds and give officials more spending discretion often cite Article VII, which covers revenue and finance, as a possible target.
Foil said he expects lawmakers to discuss an Article VII rewrite. But if they go down that road, interest groups would fight to protect their dedications, which is why he likes the idea of a convention with delegates who aren’t worried about reelection.
Scott, the Public Affairs Research Council president, said taking a possible convention off the table might actually lead to a more focused discussion of what Article VII should look like.
“The fact that we’re probably going to have a pause in talking about a constitutional convention just means we can shift attention to what it is exactly that we want to do with the constitution,” Scott said.