The Louisiana Constitution of 1974 was far from a perfect document when voters approved it more than four decades ago. Proof of that is the fact that it has been amended more than 180 times — and lawmakers currently are considering still more amendments.
Given the gridlock between the Republican-controlled House and Gov. John Bel Edwards, the prospects for long-range, comprehensive fiscal reform are dim. Heck, it would take a minor miracle to get a small gasoline tax hike out of the House, even though a clear majority of Louisiana voters support that idea as a means of putting more money into the state's crumbling infrastructure.
That's one reason state Rep. Neil Abramson's bill to convene a limited-purpose constitutional convention deserves serious consideration. If lawmakers can't even agree on the simple things, maybe a constitutional convention can address the big picture. Abramson doesn't frame his argument quite that way, but that's the reality.
Unfortunately, state lawmakers today can't even agree on what fiscal reform means. Democrats focus on revising the tax code. Republicans focus on cutting the budget. Both are partly correct, but only partly — and neither side appears willing to find common ground.
Governors and lawmakers have approached fiscal reform in a piecemeal fashion for decades. That hasn't solved the overarching problem, and voters have grown leery of amendment after amendment, Abramson says, adding, "I am proposing what I believe to be the most efficient way to deal with these issues."
Abramson's House Bill 456 mirrors legislation he has proposed for a decade. It would create a 27-member committee to determine if Louisiana's constitution needs to be changed, which seems obvious. If (when) the committee decides that such is the case, it would outline an overall plan for the convention and potentially suggest ways for it to rewrite the taxing and spending provisions of the 1974 constitution.
Under Abramson's bill, convention delegates would be elected in 2018 from the 105 state House districts, and drafting committee members would become at-large delegates. The convention would begin in early 2019 and produce a document for voters to ratify — or reject — in October of that year, when candidates for governor and the Legislature also would be on the ballot.
Abramson, a Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee (which hears all tax bills), already has several GOP co-authors on his bill.
"A state constitutional convention would allow a comprehensive rework of the state tax structure and state budget system as well as correct the state-local system," Abramson says, noting the many mid-year budget deficits in recent years.
The state's budget picture is exacerbated by more than $4 billion that currently is protected in the constitution. In addition, Abramson says, "the state provides over $4 billion in state general fund revenue to local governments for local expenditures, while at the same time the constitution significantly restricts local governments from controlling their own local revenue decisions."
This is not news to anyone who has advocated fiscal reform since the mid-1980s, but perhaps the state's current problems will be vexing enough to convince lawmakers to try an alternative to gridlock.