Con-Con Game: Who Do You Trust?

“As we all found out when we came here, we can’t touch certain funds when the state is strapped for cash,” Rep. Franklin Foil (R-Baton Rouge) told the House and Governmental Affairs Committee Wednesday. “It’s frustrating for our hands to be tied,” agreed Rep. Steve Carter (R-Baton Rouge). “Part of our duty to the public is straightening out this mess.” And in presenting the executive budget proposal to House Appropriations Tuesday, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne brought up the uncomfortable fact of those “untouchable” funds. “You have over $4-billion in spending that is constitutionally dedicated,” Dardenne reminded the money panel. “The people have said, ‘We don’t want the governor, the legislature or anybody else spending this money in any other way and for any other purpose than what we have said’.” The Jindal administration frequently found ways to divert money from those dedicated streams to other purposes in so-called “fund sweeps”, using what was technically “one-time money” for recurring expenses. The current administration has halted all that, and has therefore struggled to fill budget holes that had previously been camouflaged. In the meantime, complaints about constitutionally dedicated funding streams – along with those that are dedicated through statutes, collectively known as “stat deds” – have become the “go-to” excuse for lawmakers trying to absolve their inaction at digging in to achieve true structural reform of the state’s tax system. The solution for many now seems to be re-writing the state constitution. Six pieces of legislation regarding a constitutional convention have been filed for this session. “The current constitution has become a cumbersome document, full of statutes, full of funds and dedications. It has been amended 189 times,” Foil explained, as he presented two identical bills calling for a convention. “But Louisiana’s constitution should be more like the United States Constitution, a very general document, which in its 229-year history has only been amended 27 times.” The bills, one authored by Foil, the other by Rep. Neil Abramson (D-New Orleans), would “break open the wall” on Articles VI, VII, and VIII of the 1974 Constitution. “Article VI deals with local governments, which need more autonomy. VII deals with funds and financial issues, and VIII deals with education – a massive part of the budget,” Foil outlined. “Delegates will be elected from each of the 105 House districts, and anyone – any citizen – can run for election as a delegate.” But Rep. Barry Ivey (R-Central), who has his own bill calling for a constitutional convention, had some concerns about the delegate selection process. “You said anyone can run to serve as a convention delegate, right? John Q. Public needs resources to run an election campaign. If we elect the delegates, we could end up with a constitutional convention that’s bought and paid for by special interests. Big money could decide who is going to ‘own’ the convention – and then nobody is looking out for John Q. Public and his small business. How can we protect from having special interests dominate the convention?” “By doing it this way,” Foil replied. “It’s democratic. It gives everyone an opportunity to participate, and everyone will decide who they will elect.” Ivey was shaking his head while Foil was responding, and Foil reluctantly conceded, “Okay, maybe there will be some influence exerted…” “Not maybe. Will,” Ivey insisted. “If special interests own 60% of the convention, you’re set up for bias.” Foil protested, saying, “The people have the power. They elect the delegate from their district.” That delegate election would take place in the fall of 2019, during the next statewide election, and the proposed constitutional convention would then occur during the first half of 2020. So while the idea is touted as the ultimate fix for Louisiana’s budget imbalance, it’s actually kicking the Con con can down the road. On the other hand, Ivey’s bill would would put the completed revisions to the constitution on the fall 2019 ballot. His version of the convention would begin their work in August of this year. Ivey’s bill, HB 385, calls for 93 delegates — 70 of them selected from the 144 current members of the legislature. There were cards entered in support of the Foil/Abramson measures – from the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, and from the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association. Cards in opposition came from the Louisiana School Boards Association, the Police Jury Association, and the Louisiana Municipal Association. Ultimately, Foil voluntarily deferred his HB 323 in favor of its twin, HB 500 by Abramson. The idea of a constitutional convention has been Abramson’s cause celebre since 2009. Every year he files a constitutional convention bill or study resolution. Three times it has made it as far as the House floor, but was never called up for a vote. This year, Abramson’s bill has 28 co-authors – all Republicans, most all of them part of the so-called “Disciples of No”. HB 500 advanced, favorably, without objection. HB 385, by Ivey, was voted down. But as we asked a few days ago, do the people of this state really want to punch through the wall of the state constitution and allow tinkering with its wiring, when their current elected lawmakers can’t seem to decide whether to change a burned out lightbulb? Probably not. According to the LSU Public Policy Lab’s 2018 Louisiana Survey, released today, Louisiana residents are “disillusioned” with the state’s entire political process. On the other hand, a constitutional convention is a political junkie’s dream-come-true. This year’s annual poll, conducted from January 26 to March 3, shows that state residents are thoroughly displeased with the partisan bickering that has dominated state politics and halted progress for the past couple of years. And 79-percent expect it will continue, with no solutions in sight. The survey says 66 percent of state residents have little or no confidence in the political wisdom of their fellow Louisiana citizens. That’s not very encouraging for the constitutional convention delegate selection process proposed in the Abramson bill. As for Ivey’s alternative, drawing the majority of delegates from current lawmakers, the LSU poll says 70 percent of Louisiana residents believe elected officials in this state do not care what people like themselves think. Considering the fact that economists have said the main reason for Louisiana’s fiscal decline was lawmakers statutorily repealing parts of the 2002 Stelly Plan – despite the fact that it was a constitutional amendment approved by the people – is it any wonder that 7 out of 10 state residents don’t trust elected officials to listen to them?