Lawmakers reject measure to create constitutional convention

Concerns that special moneyed interests would control a state constitutional convention caused a measure to create one to come up 18 votes short Wednesday of the 70 votes (two-thirds) required in the state House.

Rep. Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, is sponsor of House Bill 500, which can come up for reconsideration. Abramson said creation of a convention has been an issue he has worked on for 10 years. Legislators can’t come up with the solutions necessary to fix the state’s financial problems, he said.

Reps. Mark Abraham, R-Lake Charles, and Stephen Dwight, R-Moss Bluff, voted for the bill. Reps. James Armes, D-Leesville; A.B. Franklin, D-Lake Charles; Johnny Guinn, R-Jennings; Bob Hensgens, R-Abbeville; Dorothy Sue Hill, D-Dry Creek; and Frank Howard, R-Many, were opposed. Rep. Mike Danahay, D-Sulphur, was recorded as absent.

Rep. Jay Morris, R-Monroe, is one of the chief opponents of the convention method proposed by Abramson. The bill calls for a limited convention to convene on Jan. 6, 2020, to be composed of 117 delegates — three from each of the state’s 39 Senate districts. Delegates would be elected on Oct. 12, 2019, without regard to their party affiliation.

The convention would be limited to parts of the constitution dealing with local government; revenue and finance; some higher education and K-12 public school funding; public officials and employees; and limited sections of other articles.

Abramson said his measure is aimed at taking a comprehensive look at fixing problems that legislators haven’t been able to fix on their own. The voters of the state would elect the delegates, and they would have the last word on whether the proposed constitutional changes are accepted, he said.

“What do you want to curtail or fix?” Morris asked Abramson. He said there are too many unknowns in the legislation.

Morris said the two-thirds vote required for taxes and amendments would be at risk, along with the Minimum Foundation Program, which funds public education; the Transportation Trust Fund; TOPS scholarships; rainy day funding; and the restricted use of one-time funds in the budget.

“This is one of those bills you have to vote for to know what’s in it,” Morris said. He talked about special business groups hiring a host of lobbyists to protect their constitutional interests.

Abraham said he liked that part of the proposed convention that would give local governments more authority to handle their own finances without having to seek approval in Baton Rouge. He said many Texans work in Southwest Louisiana but live in Texas because they like local government control.

Rep. Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville, said legislators have the authority to do what needs to be done.

“What can we do (at a convention) that we can’t do now?” Havard said. He said special interests are the ones asking for a convention.

Abramson said legislators can do it, but they have continually refused to take the necessary steps.

Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge, supports the bill and said legislators came to Baton Rouge to make changes.

“This is the only way I can see we can do it to make this a great state,” Carter said. “We are not going to please everybody.”

Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, offered an unsuccessful amendment that would have given the state Democratic and Republican parties equal representation at a convention. James said the current failure to make changes is caused because of the way the state’s election districts were redrawn after the 2010 U.S. census.

Conservative business groups are at the table now, James said, and the election districts aren’t balanced enough. His amendment got only 38 yes votes to 62 against.

Abramson said he is open to suggested changes to his legislation because he has no position on anything in particular. He said he didn’t think convention delegates would tamper with public school funding, the state’s homestead exemption, or the two-thirds vote required for proposed amendments to the constitution and taxes and fees.