This is an anniversary year for one of the landmarks in recent Louisiana history, adoption of the 1974 Louisiana Constitution.
The previous constitution, written in 1922, had ballooned over decades of amendments into a long and unwieldy document. Voters had begun to rebel, turning down proposed amendments en masse, without regard to the subject matter.
A revision of the constitution was needed, but it took a real revolution in state leadership to make it happen. Among the leaders of that historic effort, resulting in a yearlong constitutional convention and eventual adoption of the new document, were then-speaker of the state House E.L. “Bubba” Henry and then-Gov. Edwin W. Edwards.
The leadership of Henry steered the convention into a document that drastically reduced the old sprawling constitution into 35,000 words. Edwards backed the effort and helped work out some compromises that would lead to its adoption by the voters. Others still on the political scene were involved — not least, then-Rep. Woody Jenkins, of Baton Rouge, who was a key author of the documents on the rights of citizens.
If not perfect, the result was brief and fulfilled what was needed — a constitution of fundamental structure, that could then be the framework for statutes adopted by lawmakers.
As voters will now face no less than 14 amendments on the Nov. 4 ballot, it is past time to wonder if the political class has forgotten the lessons of 40 years ago. The voters’ “patience at the polls” may be tested by a long list of amendments, said Robert Travis Scott, president of the Public Affairs Research council.
PAR is again publishing its indispensable guide to the amendments. It’s important that voters be prepared, and the guide is essential reading before showing up at the polls.
But the guide also notes that the array of amendments this year, as many times before, will include detailed law, and not the fundamentals that should be part of the constitution.
The Louisiana Constitution has been amended 175 times since it became effective on Jan. 1, 1975. The new amendments delve into health care, finance and other issues that probably ought not be part of a fundamental document.
We’ve amended and re-amended the old volume so many times since 1974 that parts of it are no longer anything that can be construed as really fundamental law. In many respects, the state constitution is just another book in the statutes, except that it’s harder to change once an amendment is enacted by voters. Thus, many amendments protect particular interests in government and out — even better than the lobbyists and the legislators they control usually do.
“A constitution is supposed to be a state’s fundamental law that contains the essential elements of government organization, the basic principles of governmental powers and the enumeration of citizen rights,” PAR notes this year in its guide. “A constitution is meant to have permanence. Statutory law, on the other hand, provides the details of government operation and is subject to frequent change by the Legislature.”
The practice of legislating through the constitutional amendment process is still with us, and most amendments pass. Meaning that the political class and special interests will continue to promote constitutional amendments for future election days.