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Risky business: Gambling on a constitutional convention • Louisiana Illuminator

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Louisiana Gov. Jeff Landry recently requested that the Legislature call a constitutional convention. He says the current constitution is too restrictive, and forbids cuts to most agencies, resulting in most cuts falling on higher education and healthcare. He also says that most of the amendments in the constitution should be statutes that can be changed by the state Legislature.

The enabling legislation that made it out of the House proposes to hold a two-week convention starting Aug.1, with convention committees meeting prior to the convention to receive public comments.

The current Louisiana constitution is a flawed and excessively-amended document and should be rewritten at some point. However, the legislation being sent over to the Senate for debate is setting up a rushed, high-risk process that makes it difficult for ordinary citizens to have their voices heard. It would increase the influence of the governor by giving him more discretionary power over how state money is spent, but it’s unclear how it would help ordinary citizens.

The first problem with current convention legislation is the lack of public input. The constitutional convention of 1973 had a long series of open meetings that stretched over an entire year. Meetings were not only held in Baton Rouge. Committee members traveled to all parts of the state to make sure that any citizen who wanted to participate in a public meeting received the opportunity.

The 1973 convention was composed primarily of elected delegates. Some were state lawmakers, some were local officeholders, but many were simply private citizens who chose to run for a delegate seat. The current legislation calls for a convention of strictly state legislators and gubernatorial appointees. It’s not really a recipe for broad public participation.

This is especially problematic for the urban areas of the state. The main protection that a city such as New Orleans, a heavily Democratic city in a Republican state, has is a home rule charter. The central structure of city government is shielded from state interference by the home rule charter rights written into the constitution. A hostile group of delegates could weaken the home rule charter provisions in the document. They could choose to change the form of government of the city altogether, taking away the power of the mayor and City Council to appoint members of city boards and commissions, such as the City Planning Commission or Sewerage & Water Board, and give those powers to the state.

The governor’s legislative floor leaders have responded to criticism that the time period allocated to write a new constitution is too short to allow broad public participation by describing the new constitution as a refresh or a streamlining. They argue that their goal is not to write a new constitution from scratch, but simply to remove all of the provisions that should be legislative statutes. Their stated plan is a “limited convention.”

There is no such thing as a limited convention. There is nothing in Louisiana law that would stop delegates from immediately expanding the scope of the convention once they go into session. History indicates that governors and legislative floor leaders usually lose control of these conventions.

Veteran political journalist Jeremy Alford, in his book, “The Last Constitution,” said that the last time the state wrote a new constitution, in 1973, newly-elected Governor Edwin Edwards ran on a very specific set of constitutional reforms. Since Edwards was a popular and powerful governor, everyone expected the delegates to follow his charge. Alford said: “The delegates, however, ignored that charge and penned a plan for drafting their own constitution on the back of a cocktail napkin from Pastime Lounge, which in turn became one of the first official documents entered into the convention record.”

Given the high stakes of getting this convention wrong, it is time for the Senate to slow the process down, stretch it out, schedule public meetings across the state, and bring more private citizens into the process.

Ultimately, the voters will have the final say because a new constitution must be approved by a simple majority in a statewide vote. It would be preferable to bring broad public participation at the start of the process rather than waiting until the end. Rushing the process and excluding most of the voters runs the risk of dealing the state a losing hand in the end.

This article first appeared on Verite News and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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