Jim Beam column: Do we need new constitution?

Published 7:52 am Saturday, March 9, 2024

Do we really want a supermajority Republican Legislature to rewrite our state constitution? GOP Gov. Jeff Landry’s special crime session proves those Democratic lawmakers who wanted to make some logical changes in proposed crime laws were shut out completely.

A Landry transition team headed by businessman Lane Grigsby came up with the plan to write a new state constitution. The Advocate described Grigsby as “one of the Republican Party’s biggest donors (who) wants to remove dozens of provisions from the state constitution that provide such safeguards as preventing cuts to K-12 school funding.”

It’s no surprise that Grigsby would like the 144 state Senate and House members to serve as delegates to a constitutional convention. That would definitely give Republicans complete control over writing a new constitution.

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The House has 73 Republicans (three more than two-thirds of the 105 members) and only 32 Democrats. The Senate has 28 Republicans (two more than two-thirds of the 39 members) and only 11 Democrats.

Why does Grigsby want lawmakers to be able to cut funding to K-12 school spending? Many conservatives prefer school choice over public education.

House Speaker Phillip DeVillier, R-Eunice, is a big proponent of school choice. His 2022 school choice bill that passed the House 75-26 would have created a program to provide state funding for qualified education expenses for students in  K-12 who are not enrolled in a public school. It died in the Senate.

Legislators have already filed bills dealing with school choice and more are expected at their session beginning Monday.

The Advocate said Grigsby’s transition team wants Louisiana to be mostly governed by laws approved by legislators rather than by constitutional amendments approved by voters. Statutes can be changed by legislators but constitutional amendments require public approval.

Grigsby’s transition team said, “It is clear that it is too easy to amend the foundational document of our state’s government. This process should be reviewed and reformed to make it more of a hurdle to amend the constitution.”

That may be true but some subjects in the constitution were put there to give them special protection. The $75,000 homestead property tax exemption enjoyed by homeowners is the best example. Gov. Huey P. Long had the Legislature create the exemption in 1934 and it has become sacred to many Louisianans.

The late-Gov. Buddy Roemer had a tax reform plan in 1989 that lost at the polls and many believed it was because they thought Roemer was going to change the exemption. However, he had deleted that from his reform plan.

Supplemental pay for policemen, deputy sheriffs and many other first responders is protected in the constitution.

The state constitution also protects civil service employees against arbitrary action by government officials.

Jeremy Alford of LaPolitics Weekly collaborated with former House Speaker E.L. “Bubba” Henry, who chaired the 1973 convention, to write a history of the convention.

The bill creating the constitutional convention called for 132 delegates — not legislators but 105 individuals elected from the state’s House districts and 27 appointed by the governor.

The convention opened on Jan. 5, 1973, and the delegates had until Jan. 4, 1974, to submit a new constitution to then-Gov. Edwin W. Edwards.

Alford said it’s a legitimate concern that over the years individual legislators have repeatedly sought to establish a constitutional convention. However, the efforts failed over fears about what would stay in or be taken out of the constitution.

Alford in an interview said, “Unless policymakers find new ways to hamstring future delegates, there’s no reason to believe we’ll see anything different than what happened before — a strong-willed body making its own decisions.”

Some are concerned a new constitution could also lead to privatization of public services. Former Gov. Bobby Jindal privatized the state’s charity hospital system but it didn’t work out as well as expected.

No bills among the 1,093 that have been pre-filed for the legislative regular session opening Monday are proposing that a constitutional convention be held, but some are expected.

The Advocate may be right about Grigsby having his best chance to get a constitutional convention now with Landry and a Republican Legislature in power. However, if a convention is approved, delegates should definitely be elected like they were in 1972.