Jim Beam column: New constitution is tough sell

Published 6:18 am Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The late-Gov. Edwin W. Edwards made it clear during his 1971 and 1972 campaign for governor that the rewriting of a new state constitution was his top priority.

Republican Gov. Jeff Landry wants the Legislature and some of his hand-picked appointees to rewrite the current constitution. However, The Advocate back in April said Landry barely mentioned wanting a new constitution when he ran for governor last year.

That is no surprise because Landry made only one debate and shunned other forums attended by his opponents, so voters didn’t learn much about any of his plans. The newspaper said Lane Grigsby, a mega-donor who backed Landry’s campaign, has been the biggest driver for changing the constitution.

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Dozens of opponents attended the first committee hearing on House Bill 800, the convention legislation. The full House on May 7 voted 75-27 (the two-thirds required) to send the bill to the Senate.

The Louisiana Illuminator a week ago said the Senate “is not close to voting to support a convention at this point, with just three weeks left in the legislative session.” The Senate and  Governmental Affairs Committee hasn’t set a hearing on HB 800.

Senate President Cameron  Henry, R-Metairie, told the news agency, “Like at the end of the day, what’s the best possible outcome? And do we really need to have a constitutional convention to get there?”

Although Edwards made it clear during 1971 and 1972 that he wanted a new state constitution, it wasn’t a popular idea in those days. The late-Gov. John McKeithen, who was in office during the election, said Edwards wouldn’t get his constitutional convention “unless he bows to teachers and organized labor.”

State Attorney General William Guste said he favored an article-by-article revision of the constitution instead of the convention proposed by Edwards.

The Legislature, however, had other ideas. It gave near-unanimous approval of the bill Edwards favored. It called for a constitutional convention of 142 delegates — 105 elected from the state’s House of Representative districts, 15 elected by the Legislature, and 22 appointed by the governor.

Edwards didn’t want legislators to be able to run in the 105 House districts. William “Bill” McLeod of Lake Charles, a state representative at the time, was the principal administrative spokesman for the legislation bearing his name.

“In the public interest of public confidence, as a matter of selling this to the public, it would be best that the delegates be ordinary citizens,” McLeod said.

If legislators were allowed to run, he said they “would pretty much comprise the constitutional convention.”

Rep. Alphonse Jackson of Shreveport said, “The people of this state will reject any document that represents the interests of politicians alone.”
The Public Affairs Research Council said, “Anything less than election of all the delegates will tend to dilute the rights of certain citizens while enhancing the rights of others.”

The Associated Press reported the Senate voted 37-2 for the convention bill, but not until it eliminated the prohibition against legislators competing against the public for delegate seats. As passed by the Senate, the bill provided for 132 delegates, 105 from House districts and 27 appointed by the governor.

Edwards went along with the change and The AP reported on May 26, 1972, that the governor “will sign his first legislative triumph into law today — a bill to call a convention to rewrite Louisiana’s much-maligned  constitution.”

The Legislature on June 18,  1972, voted to appropriate $350,000 to pay for the upcoming convention. The convention would meet Jan. 5, 1973, select an executive committee, then adjourn until July 5.

After the delegates completed a year’s work, voters approved the new constitution on April 20, 1974. The final results showed 358,588 favored the new document and 262,030 were against.

Only 27 of the state’s 64 parishes voted in favor of the constitution. Four of the six metropolitan areas at the time — Caddo, Calcasieu, East Baton Rouge,  and Ouachita — opposed the new charter. Lafayette and Orleans areas backed the new constitution.

Why does Gov. Landry want a new constitution?

Quin Hillyer, a conservative deputy commentary editor of the Washington Examiner, in his Sunday column in The Advocate, had the right answer. He said all of Landry’s clues about his constitutional convention “seem to lead to more power for Landry himself.”

It’s a point well made.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than six decades. Contact him at 337-515-8871 or jim.beam.press@gmail.com.


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