Jim Beam column: Give us an amendment break!

Published 6:10 am Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Louisiana voters will be faced with deciding the fate of four more of those troublesome proposed amendments to the state constitution when they enter the voting booth on Nov. 18. Over many years, I have been asked more about amendments than any other ballot issues.

The Public Affairs Research Council (PAR) of Louisiana, which describes itself as “an independent voice,” has done a remarkable job for years explaining the amendments, giving readers arguments for and against each. However, PAR’s guide doesn’t make recommendations about how to vote.

Voters interested in reading PAR’s guide to the amendments will find it at www.parlouisiana.org.

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The Council for a Better Louisiana (CABL), which describes itself as a “nonprofit, nonpartisan statewide organization that works on issues in the public interest,  does make recommendations on the amendments. They can be found at www.cabl.org.

PAR said since voters ratified the Louisiana Constitution in 1974 they have been asked to decide 308 amendments, plus eight more this year. So far, 213 changes have won approval from voters, 4 of them at the Oct. 14 statewide election.

All four amendments drew heavy support, 79% to 56%.

PAR said a constitution should offer the fundamental guiding principles of law, containing the essential elements of government organization, the basic principles of government powers and the enumeration of citizen rights.

Many members of the Louisiana Legislature, unfortunately, love to pass what are often controversial issues along to the voters in the form of amendments. It protects lawmakers from political backlash.

As PAR said, the subjects of most amendments belong on the law books, not in the constitution. They can be changed by legislators much easier there.

The U.S. Constitution has been amended only 27 times since it went into operation in 1789, more than 233 years ago.

The Law Library of Louisiana said the state has had 10 constitutions since it joined the Union in 1812. And it said there are calls for an 11th from some quarters.

“Louisiana citizens are accustomed to almost constant voting on new additions to the state constitution,” the Law Library said. “Louisiana has changed constitutions for many different political reasons. Sadly, one reason the 1921 constitution was scrapped was because it was considered too big.”

OK, so what do we have to deal with on Nov. 18?

Amendment 1 would allow lawmakers to try to override a governor’s veto of a bill without having to call a special veto session. Those in favor of the amendment said the veto rules deserve more clarity, which the amendment seeks to do. Those against the amendment say the constitution is clear in how vetoes should be handled.

CABL supports the amendment, saying lawmakers should be able to consider veto overrides without having to call a special session. It said the amendment also provides more clarifying language around veto timelines.

Amendment 2, if approved, would remove six inactive funds with zero or near-zero balance from the Louisiana constitution. A vote against would keep those funds that opponents say, if needed, could be used again.

CABL supports the amendment,  saying it eliminates the inactive funds and won’t fundamentally change anything, but it would take some unnecessary items out of the constitution.

Amendment 3 would allow a parish governing authority to give up to an extra $25,000 homestead exemption on top of the usual $75,000 exemption to first responders.

Those would include sheriffs, police officers and others deputized as peace officers, firefighters, including volunteer firefighters, emergency medical services (EMS) workers, emergency operators and dispatchers and other full-time public employees involved with rapid emergency response. A number of those individuals already get state supplemental pay.

CABL took no position on Amendment 3, saying it was an issue best left for voters to decide. However, this amendment puts parish governments on the spot and they need the tax revenues they would lose. Improving the pay of first responders has been suggested as a better way to reward their service.

Amendment 4 makes rule changes to the Revenue Stabilization Trust Fund. A vote for the amendment would tighten the rules on allowed use of the 7-year-old trust fund. A vote against would maintain existing broad rules.

PAR said arguments for the amendment is that existing language would allow lawmakers to deplete the entire amount in the fund for anything they consider as an emergency. Opponents say Louisiana already locks up too much money in funds like this one.

CABL opposes the amendment, saying lawmakers should more clearly define the fund’s intent while adding safeguards that might be needed.

Amendments 1 and 2 look OK, but not 3 and 4.