Jim Beam column: Constitutions tough to change

Published 7:10 am Saturday, March 30, 2024

When someone tells you writing a new Louisiana constitution is much easier said than done, believe them. Republican Gov. Jeff Landry wants to rewrite the 1974 constitution this summer, understandable because he wants to strike while the iron is hot.

State Sen. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, may know more about getting a constitution written than anyone else in the Legislature. Foil and former state Rep. Neil Abramson of New Orleans introduced many of the 44 bills filed over the last 24 years that were aimed at writing a new state constitution. None of them made it.

Seven constitutional convention bills were filed during the 2018 regular legislative session, the most in one year over the last 24 years. Six were filed in 2016.

Email newsletter signup

Both Foil and Abramson served in  the state House from 2008 to 2020. Foil has been in the state Senate since 2020 and is chairman of the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee.

Foil serves on the governor’s transition council for constitutional reform. He told LaPolitics Weekly he wanted to file legislation regarding the centralization of sales tax payments but decided against it after learning about the governor’s plans.

Landry has a supermajority Republican Legislature that appears to be extremely anxious to do the new governor’s bidding, but their leaders have some reservations.

Foil confirmed what most people have expected when he said Landry wants “to hit when the coals are hot and strike right now.” He said Landry also wants the public’s vote on a proposed new constitution on the ballot this fall.

Rep. Beau Beaullieu, R-New Iberia, and chairman of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee, has filed House Bill 800 that lays out convention plans. There would be 171 delegates, including 144 legislators and 27 Landry appointees.

Beaullieu also said the proposed convention’s goal would not include adding new provisions to a new constitution. Instead, he said, it would be an exercise in reduction, which means sections could be moved to statutes.

Supporters say streamlining by putting items in statutes would allow lawmakers to change those items in the future without needing a vote of the people, which is how they change them now.

Foil during a 2017 interview with The Advocate said, “A lot of citizens and voters are frustrated and they would like to see a new constitutional convention.” He said he sees a constitution that should be more like the abbreviated U.S. Constitution.

Then Foil offered this reality: “But when you start pushing it, the interests protected in the constitution are opposed and the votes for it fade away.” He mentioned the fact that law enforcement and firefighters have had part of their pay and  pensions locked into the constitution through amendments.

Guy Cormier, executive director of the Police Jury Association of Louisiana, has expressed concerns people always have. He told LaPolitics Weekly,  “Our fear is that we have little or no participation in the process, and we have a bunch of folks who have never been in our shoes rewriting a very important document that we have to live with for years to come.”

Homeowners are always worried about the Legislature changing the homestead exemption that protects homes valued at $75,000 or less from having to pay property taxes.

The Advocate said another key question is, “Will lawmakers remove from the constitution the Minimum Foundation Program, which sets how much the state spends on K-12 public schools each year?”

That happens to be a distinct possibility because Republican legislators are creating education savings accounts (ESAs) that would give families public school funds to choose which schools their children would attend.

The newspaper said House Speaker Phillip DeVillier, R-Eunice, said, “Everything is part of the conversation.”

In order to write a constitution this summer, many legislative leaders believe debate should be limited to certain areas of the constitution. However, Senate President Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, shot that idea down quickly.

“Once you’re in a constitutional convention, you open up the entire constitution,” Henry said.

Henry is right, of course, and that is a major reason why 44 constitutional convention bills that were introduced over the last 24 years never got out of the Legislature.


Add reaction