Talk of holding a constitutional convention to address Louisiana's structural deficit has gained momentum. The idea has merit on several fronts, but it's also an admission that our state legislators are either unwilling or unable to do their jobs. And, ultimately, there's a danger that not much would change.
That's not to say it's a bad idea or not worth the risk. The sad political reality is that most Louisiana lawmakers know perfectly well what needs to be done to stabilize our state's revenue stream, change our budgeting process and make state government more efficient. Unfortunately, most of them lack the political will to do it.
There's no denying that we need to restructure Louisiana's tax system. It must be broader and fairer, which would lower rates for most taxpayers. We also need to remove most (but not all) statutory and constitutional budget dedications, shift responsibility for certain services from the state to local governments, and let local governments tax their citizens at an appropriate level to sustain key services without state interference.
That's a tall order, which explains lawmakers' reluctance to tackle meaningful fiscal reform. It's so much easier just to talk about it.
Sort of like talking about a constitutional convention. Truth is Louisiana has a constitutional convention every time our Legislature convenes. Legislators can propose constitutional amendments every year, and many of them do. But none has ever proposed a global fix to Louisiana's fiscal train wreck. Instead, our lawmakers have proposed — and we, their constituents, have approved — a hodgepodge of fiscal amendments since our constitution was adopted in 1974.
What began as a much- needed rewrite of Louisiana's unwieldy 1921 constitution (one of the longest and most-amended in the nation) resulted in a streamlined version of the Huey Long model of state government. The 1974 constitution was more concise than its predecessor, but it did not change what is fundamentally wrong with Louisiana government: We concentrate power (and money) at the state level and stifle local governments' ability to serve people where they actually live and work.
Now, more than four decades after it was written, our current constitution is beginning to resemble its antiquated predecessor.
That's probably the best argument in favor of a convention. Others include the fact that our current constitution does not establish a good model for modern governance; it contains too many fiscal restrictions that lead to structural deficits; and it is too restrictive.
A handful of bills now pending legislative approval call for a "limited" constitutional convention that would focus on the constitutional articles dealing with taxing, budgeting, state and local government relationships and financing education.
Those are the key areas, and there may be enough support for the idea of such a convention, but let's not lose sight of another political reality: Whether legislators or convention delegates gather to rewrite our constitution, the forces that favor various aspects of the status quo will do all they can to make sure nothing changes.
So far, with or without a constitutional convention, those forces are winning.