ALFORD: Is Constitutional Convention Chatter Peaking?

This Louisiana Legislature’s upcoming session-palooza will host at least six legislative instruments, maybe more, calling for various forms of constitutional conventions and article-specific rewrites.

This will collectively represent a high-water mark for an elected body that usually gives attention — but not approval — to only one or two such measures annually. The coming debates over altering Louisiana’s guiding charter will also dovetail with ongoing conversations about how to fix the state’s finances (also known as the “Fiscal Cliff”).

For now there appears to be two main working groups at the Capitol, and both are growing in size as this year’s sessions draw near. There are individuals developing their own plans, too. The special session convened Monday and the regular session begins March 12. It’s even money at this point on the question of a third special session being called during the summer.

Outside of the rails, a group of heavy-hitting and well-known conservative donors, along with a sprinkling of lawmakers, have teamed up with some government relations pros from business and industry. It’s not clear yet which legislator is going to be carrying this alliance’s flag, but the working group wants a limited convention with a focus on Articles VI (local government), VII (revenue and finance) and VIII (education).

While recent legislative efforts have mostly been confined to proposals that limit the subject matter to revenue and finance, this new working group’s aim is notable because it pulls in the education article. The idea of tinkering with the Minimum Foundation Program funding formula gives some folks heartburn, but a restructuring of Article VIII is being discussed in other corners of the Capitol as well.

Ways and Means Chairman Neil Abramson, one of the most consistent advocates in Baton Rouge for a limited convention, intends to bring his own bill back again. His co-authors from last year — Reps. Steve Carter, Paula Davis and Franklin Foil — seem positioned to sign on once more and collectively they’re part of another working group in the lower chamber.

Abramson said his 2018 bill could include some variation of Articles VI, VII and VIII. He’s still ironing out the details. "A convention has to be a part of the long-term solution," the chairman said.

There’s a bit of a different vibe in the Senate, where two members are planning to file bills calling for full-scale constitutional conventions.

Senate Transportation Chair Page Cortez plans to do just that, with a delegate list that would be elected by voters, like Abramson has proposed in the past. Sen. Troy Carter, meanwhile, likewise wants to pop the hood on the entire constitution, with added protections for sensitive areas of law. Carter, however, would rather see legislators serve as delegates.

In January 1974, as Louisiana was wrapping up its successful constitutional convention, Texas was starting its own proceedings. While Louisiana’s charter was ultimately approved by voters, the Texas experiment resulted in a document that failed by three votes on the floor. The biggest difference between the two conventions was that Texas chose to allow its legislators to serve as delegates. Louisiana’s convention was filled with elected delegates, and some appointed.

Standing out from his colleagues in the Senate is Judiciary A Chair Rick Ward, who favors a constitutional convention and is leaning toward filing a bill that would only spotlight the revenue and finance article. "If we just sit here and keep chipping around the edges, we’ll be doing it in perpetuity," Ward said.

Taking a completely different approach will be Rep. Barry Ivey. He intends to file a "placeholder bill" that would put into one constitutional amendment a thorough rewrite of the revenue and finance article. "I’m going to have it there and ready, in case there’s an appetite for tackling this issue through a single constitutional amendment," he said.

Finally, Foil said he plans on reintroducing a resolution to create a commission to study the idea of a constitutional convention and advise the Legislature accordingly. But he’ll only move the resolution if he feels the idea of an actual convention is floundering. "I really do think we may be as close as we’ve ever been on this," Foil said.

As for Gov. John Bel Edwards, he told a gathering of student government presidents recently that he supports holding a constitutional convention, but he opposes any convention format where the entire Constitution would be open to review. The governor also told the student leaders that a convention should be undertaken with patience and not necessarily scheduled for the immediate future. Edwards said the entire process, if done correctly, should take four to five years.

While everyone involved with the legislation mentioned here is still exploring options in terms of timing, any ambitions for a 2019 convention would probably have to include delegate elections and/or appointments by this coming fall. So stay tuned in on this issue, because it’s starting to crest whether you like it or not.

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