La. House approves bill calling for constitutional convention

Published 4:26 am Thursday, May 9, 2024

By Elizabeth White | LSU Manship School News Service

A bill calling for a constitutional convention, a key part of Gov. Jeff Landry’s agenda, passed the House floor in a 75-27 Tuesday after a lengthy debate and various amendments.

Supporters said the aim would be to move provisions of the current constitution into statute, making it easier to change some of them in future legislative sessions.

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Under the bill, some articles and provisions in the current constitution, including the homestead property tax exemption and public-school funding, would be protected from being moved out of the constitution.

“We are not rewriting the constitution,” Rep. Beau Beaullieu, R-New Iberia, said. “This is a refresh of the constitution. We respect the previous authors’ work so much that we’re going to retain that language and simply move it into statute.”

Much of the state’s operating budget is dictated by provisions of the constitution, and changing them to statutes could give the Legislature more flexibility in dealing with the expected loss of several hundred million dollars in revenue next year when a fraction of the state sales tax expires.

But some lawmakers are concerned about the lack of transparency in the process and whether Landry and his allies also plan to use the convention to enhance the governor’s power in other ways.

Beaullieu started the debate Tuesday with an amendment changing the timeline for the convention, which has been a point of contention for many lawmakers.

Under the new timeline, the convention would start no earlier than May 30, which is 10 days after the originally proposed start date of May 20. Legislators and delegates would then meet throughout June and July in joint committees focused on different articles of the constitution.

After these meetings, the full convention of the Senate, House and Landry’s delegates would take place Aug. 1 through Aug. 15, with the ability to extend the convention no later than August 23 to ensure it is on the November ballot.

“Why do we need this convention? Why do we need it now? Well, as you know, we do have an election this fall,” Beaullieu said. “It also allows us to address the over half-a-billion-dollar shortfall that’s projected to have next year.”

Beaullieu’s amendment passed with no objections. But despite the new timeline, members of the House still had concerns about transparency, whether the protections outlined in the enabling legislation would be followed and the public’s ability to have input in the convention.

Landry, who was present on the House floor for the entire debate, has been pushing for a convention for the past two months, but has provided no details about what changes to the constitution he is seeking.

Some members expressed their frustration over the lack of transparency about what changes Landry wants to make, even going as far as to ask numerous times if a constitution has already been drafted.

“You know, I like a delicious meal, but at least I want to know what’s on the menu,” Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, said. “And right now, I don’t know if any of us actually know what’s on the menu. We don’t know what we’re really ordering.”

Multiple members of the House, some of whom are lawyers, said it is unclear whether delegates would be legally bound to the enabling legislation and could open the convention to more than just reorganization.

“I’ve talked to a lot of lawyers that specialize in constitutional law,” Rep. Jason Hughes, D-New Orleans, said. “I’ve also spoken to some folks that were actually a part of the 1973 convention, and they have told me that the enabling legislation could be ignored. In fact, they said that enabling legislation was ignored in the 1973 convention.”

Beaullieu assured members that he and Landry, House Speaker Rep. Phillip DeVillier, R-Eunice, and Senate President Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, will stay within the confines of HB 800. DeVillier also rebutted these concerns.

“There was a Supreme Court decision regarding the 1913 convention,” DeVillier said. “It said once the legislation is passed to call a convention that piece of legislation covers the items to debate.”

Public input was also debated as Beaullieu explained citizens would be able to come to the joint committee meetings and give testimony like in regular sessions. Some members said they would like to see a “road show” happen where they travel the state hearing testimony.

There were almost a dozen other amendments on the floor Tuesday attempting to add to the list of provisions protected from removal. Among those passed were retirement benefits for public employees and teachers and pay for district attorneys and sheriffs.

The bill will move to the Senate, where the proposal is said to be less popular and must be passed before the end of session on June 3 for a constitutional convention to occur.