Many of the surviving delegates who wrote Louisiana’s constitution in 1973 gathered over lunch for a reunion Friday and several said they think today’s legislators don’t get along well enough to tackle rewriting the state’s fundamental legal charter.
“It would be a disaster,” said Tony Guarisco, 79, “I don’t think with the divisiveness in today’s political atmosphere that it would have success.”
Guarisco was a Morgan City lawyer in his mid-30s when elected to the 1973 convention. He became a state senator and sponsored the original legislation in the 1970s allowing the use of marijuana for medical purposes. The contracts for doing so were only approved this year.
Like Guarisco, the 50-some delegates and staffers attending the reunion luncheon at Juban’s Restaurant in Baton Rouge, moved on to become major daimyōs in Louisiana politics, industry and law. The last time the group gathered was January 2014.
The delegates came from a wide variety of the state’s population. Eleven were African Americans, eleven were women – at a time when neither were allowed much political participation. Lawyers, bankers, even a chiropractor, were part of the mix as were representatives from across a pre-Interstate 49 Louisiana when traveling from north to south, west to east, took hours on narrow rural roads.
“Unlike the Legislature, this was a time when people could put aside politics,” said Woody Jenkins, a delegate from Baton Rouge. “We really had to compromise in order to do the things we thought were most important.”
Now a community newspaper publisher, Jenkins, 70, heads the Republican Party in East Baton Rouge Parish, served in the Louisiana House for 28 years and lost the 1996 race for the U.S. Senate by less than 5,800 votes.
Called CC ’73, 132 appointed and elected delegates participated in the Constitutional Convention that wrote the document that replaced the state constitution of 1924. Over the past four decades, the law has set the power of state officials and local governments, established civil service, limited the number of government department to 20 and granted state government taxing authority while limiting how that money can be spent.
The constitution also has been amended 189 times over the past 40-some years. And it’s being targeted by some current legislators who argue that the law restricts their ability to write and balance the state budgets.
“A lot of citizens and voters are frustrated and they would like to see a new constitutional convention,” Baton Rouge Republican Rep. Franklin Foil told The Advocate in an interview later Friday afternoon. He'd like to see the state constitution look more like the federal constitution, more organic law and guiding principles than a heavily amended document that micro-manages government activities.
“But when you start pushing it, the interests protected in the constitution are opposed and the votes for it fade away,” Foil said. The interests, for example, include law enforcement and firefighters, who had part of their pay and pensions locked into the constitution through amendments.
Senate President John A. Alario Jr., 74, acknowledged that more efforts would be made in the upcoming legislative session, which convenes in March, particularly given the state's shaky fiscal position. But he doesn’t think rewriting the state constitution right now is a good idea.
“In this atmosphere, I’m not sure the time is right,” he said. Motioning to the room of fellow delegates, the Westwego Republican added, “This group came together and compromised. These folks found a way to find some common ground. And that’s what’s missing in the Legislature today.”
E.L. “Bubba” Henry, who chaired the 1973 convention, said while legislators are complaining about budget flexibility, they have failed to articulate just how they would change the charter.
“I don’t know what they really want to do,” Henry said. “If legislators can’t agree on the legislation to eradicate the debt that we have, I don’t know what they could do in the constitutional convention that would be helpful to the state.”
Henry, 81, is a Baton Rouge lawyer and lobbyist. He was Speaker of the House in the 1970s and commissioner of administration from 1980 to 1984 under Gov. Dave Treen.
Henry is writing a book about the convention.
“The important issue is who sits on the convention. I think it’s risky to say we’re going to rewrite the constitution,” said Donald “Boysie” Bollinger, 68, who was a delegate from Lockport. “But I would not have my feelings hurt,” if they did.
Bollinger went on to run his family’s successful shipbuilding company in Lockport. He is a major contributor to Republican candidates and causes.
Four-time Gov. Edwin W. Edwards, 90, called the Constitutional Convention of 1973 and was the featured speaker at Friday’s reunion.
He pointed out that the constitution the delegates wrote has lasted almost as long as the one that it replaced. “The bill of rights that you wrote was copied almost verbatim by at least seven different states,” Edwards said.
Edwards pointed out that many of the alumni went on to become judges, legislators, business leaders, leading lawyers and one – Buddy Roemer – became governor. “Others tried but didn’t do too well,” Edwards said, pausing for laughter as he looked at Henry, whose 1979 gubernatorial campaign didn’t go very far.
The mood was light with plenty of jokes about their advanced ages.
Former state Rep. Johnny Jackson Jr., one of the founders of the Legislative Black Caucus, quipped it was better to be seen than viewed.
Patrick A. Juneau Jr., 79, called the roll, noting that many of their number had passed away. He quipped that in another fives years the reunion could be held in the back of his pickup truck.
Former 4th Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Max N. Tobias Jr., 70, shouted out, “I’m still alive.”
And Edwards said he planned to attend the 50th reunion in six years.