A Louisiana constitutional convention primer

Jeremy Alford, publisher of LaPolitics. (File Photo)

I had but two goals while writing this column:

  1. To provide a better understanding of the ongoing constitutional convention issue in Louisiana as 2019 comes into focus.
  2. To ensure that a handful of people, no matter how minuscule, wake up tomorrow morning knowing something they didn’t know yesterday about our state Constitution’s 14 articles, even if that something is nothing more than the fact that there are 14 articles.

So let’s do this in numerical order and turn the spotlight on House Ways and Means Chairman Neil Abramson. After carving out a policy niche for most of his three terms at the Capitol, it appears that he may be taking a breather from his trademark constitutional convention issue.

“Will 2019 be ripe for a convention bill? I don’t think so. Not next year,” Abramson said during last week’s Beyond the Bar event hosted by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.

The chairman added that he may not carry his usual constitutional convention bill because the 2019 regular session will be fiscal in nature, limiting each lawmaker to just five general subject matter bills. Abramson, who’s term-limited, has made the possibility of a future convention a perennial debate in Louisiana’s lower chamber, which rejected his latest effort by a 52-47 vote. (HB 500 required 70 votes for passage and fell short by 18 earlier this year.)

A Democrat from New Orleans, Abramson has so far staked out a strikingly similar policy role to the one filled by U.S. Appellate Judge Jim Dennis when he was in the state House from 1968 to 1972, just prior to the 1973 Constitutional Convention. Dennis’ repeated and unsuccessful attempts to bring a convention to life via enabling legislation otherwise kept the issue alive, until other sources of momentum could build.

This past year of legislative action saw a similar upshifting of advocacy, centered almost exclusively around Abramson’s HB 500. Several new players entered the constitutional fray, with chambers of commerce, heavy hitters from the business lobby and premier donors joining the push for a limited convention. (Rather than allowing delegates to rewrite and restructure any of the Constitution’s 14 articles, the limited convention approach places bans on specific articles. In theory, this would ease the tensions of those politicos and interests in favor of protecting certain areas of fundamental law.)

Where the movement heads next is difficult to determine. Legal opinions vary on a number of fronts, such as the ability of the Louisiana Legislature to enforce the boundaries of a limited convention. Political opinions, too, run the spectrum, like the value of updating certain articles through the standard constitutional amendment process that requires voter approval.

Should the regular session end next year without one more debate on the topic that some refer to as “con-con,” the conversation may still rage on during the House and Senate elections slated for the coming fall. The same groups and individuals who asked lawmakers to advance enabling legislation are expected to request or force stances from legislative candidates in 2019. 

Finally let’s put a red and green Christmas bow on this briefing with a cursory yet hopefully memorable review of the Louisiana Constitution’s 14 articles. While journalists have been tackling the convention question for a year, little attention has been directed to the articles that are being targeted. So, to bring us home, here you go; this is what we’ve been yammering about over the past 12 months:

Article I. Declaration of Rights (Like the U.S. Bill of Rights, this article stands apart thanks to only-in-Looziana add-ons, like the right to hunt and fish.)

Article II. Distribution of Powers (You know these branches as executive, judicial and legislative.)

Article III. Legislative Branch (House and Senate stuff.)

Article IV. Executive Branch (Organizes statewide elected officials, such as governor, and limits this branch to 20 departments.)

Article V. Judicial Branch of Government

Article VI. Local Government

Article VII. Revenue and Finance (This is the article many con-con advocates want to dip into. From taxes and transportation to dedicated funds, No. 7 could have as many dates to the prom as it wanted.)

Article VIII. Education (This one has a bunch of book-learning and whatnot.)

Article IX. Natural Resources (If you can shoot it, drill for it, run it through a pipeline or describe it as a mineral, it’s more than likely in this article.)

Article X. Public Officials and Employees (Civil service issues covering government workers, firemen, policemen and others live here.)

Article XI. Elections (This article is the parking lot for voting-related matters.)

Article XII. General Provisions (This is your constitutional grab bag. Just reach into the article and see what you get! You may find a same-sex union prohibition, some lottery laws or even the acceptable location for Louisiana’s capital.)

Article XIII. Constitutional Revision (Want to change the charter? This article offers two alternatives, including amendments on a ballot or a convention.)

Article XIV. Transitional Provisions (This contains mostly complicated legal jargon regarding what else was needed for the 1974 Constitution to replace the often-scorned 1921 document. If this column hasn’t put you to sleep yet, read this article.)

Jeremy Alford publishes LaPolitics Weekly, a newsletter on Louisiana politics, at LaPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter, or on Facebook. He can be reached at JJA@LaPolitics.com.

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