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Voters check in at the Ward 01/ Precinct 01 polling location inside Baton Rouge Fire Dept.'s Robert A. Bogan Fire Station #12 on Government Street, during election runoff voting Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019.

Voters will decide seven constitutional amendments on the Nov. 3 ballot, including questions on abortion, property taxes and whether unclaimed property dollars deserve special protection.

All seven stem from bills approved by the Legislature, and all seven will be decided by majority votes.

More information is available at http://parlouisiana.org/publications-by-date/guide-to-the-constitutional-amendments/

The measures are:

Amendment 1: Abortion

The proposal was approved by the Louisiana Legislature in 2019 as courts in a dozen states were finding various anti-abortion measures unconstitutionally infringed on other individual rights.

It was pitched as a way to ensure that if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, which currently makes the pregnancy termination procedure legal, then states would be allowed to decide the issue on their own and Louisiana courts would enter that new world with the knowledge the state’s residents prefer forbidding abortions.

Approval by a majority of voters would add language to the constitution that could be interpreted as removing the right to an abortion or public funding for abortions.

The state already has a law saying pretty much the same thing, but proponents of the amendment argue that placing anti-abortion wording in the state Constitution would preclude any state judge from ruling that a denial of access to abortions would conflict with an individual’s fundamental rights.

Louisiana legislators, with the support of governors over the past quarter-century, have erected a phalanx of legal hurdles that make getting an abortion in this state far harder than in most states. The Nov. 3 election is Louisiana voter’s first chance to directly vote on whether they agree.

“This will show the world, our constituency,” said state Sen. Katrina Jackson, the Monroe Democrat who sponsored the legislation, “that Louisiana is pro-life holistically.”

Clare Daniel, who has written extensively on the politics surrounding reproductive rights, sees passage as more harmful.

"If Amendment 1 passes, it will further erode bodily autonomy in a state that already has abysmal health outcomes for women. It will make future efforts to improve abortion access in Louisiana more difficult. A 'no' vote would signal that the public rejects the status quo of restricting abortion access,” Daniel, who teaches at Tulane University’s Newcomb Institution, said in an emailed statement.

Amendment 2: Oil and gas wells

For decades, parish tax assessors and the oil and gas industry have bickered, often in court, over the complex way to calculate how much to tax wells that pump the product from under the ground. Constitutional Amendment 2 is presented as a way to end that conflict.

The actual crude oil and natural gas are taxed based on quantity and market price, called severance taxes.

The constitution provides that the presence of oil and natural gas cannot be used to impact the value of property. A landowner pays property taxes on based on the land and what may be on top of it, not the value of the minerals below.

Restricted by state law, assessors have tried various methods to levy taxes on the equipment sitting on the property and used to extract oil and gas. A frequent method to value the property was its replacement value.

That led to disagreement over tax calculations and bills sent annually for equipment sitting idle atop a played-out oil and gas strike played-out years ago. Often unused equipment is taxed at the same rate as equipment pumping constantly.

After intense negotiations, the assessors and the industry agreed on a formula that includes the value of the product being pumped and sold.

“It took many years of work to get both sides to 'Kumbaya,'” said state Rep. Mike Huval, the Breaux Bridge Republican whose legislation became Constitutional Amendment 2 on the ballot.

Plaquemines Parish Assessor Belinda Hazel, who appeared before Legislature to explain how the plan works, said assessors would consider revenues raised along with expenses and costs on oilfield equipment just as they would do with apartment buildings.

That solution violates the current constitutional measures that limits oil and gas taxes to what is pumped from the ground. Constitutional Amendment 2, if approved by a majority of voters, would narrowly change existing language to allow market values to be included in the property tax calculation.

The deal was sealed in May by of the Louisiana Assessors’ Association, the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, and the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association.

Amendment 3: Rainy Day Fund

Under current rules, the Legislature can dip into a source of dollars called the Budget Stabilization Fund when revenue is short of expectations.

Doing so requires the support of two-thirds of the state House and Senate.

The amendment would expand the list of reasons to use the money to include federally declared disasters, such as hurricane recovery.

"This would allow us to tap into our Rainy Day Fund if we have a true rainy day in Louisiana," said state Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, House sponsor of the change.

The same rules — two-thirds of both chambers — would be required to use the money.

No more than one-third of the fund could be depleted, which is the current rule.

A separate state law spells out how officials would repay the money after federal emergency dollars arrive.

"It is to allow the state of Louisiana to stand itself up in a federally declared emergency and not wait for FEMA or the federal government or anyone else to bail us out," Carter said, a reference to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"When we have those rainy days we will be able to stand up for our people."

Amendment 4: State spending

Louisiana currently has a spending cap on state dollars.

The amendment would tighten that by imposing a state spending ceiling of 5% compared to the previous year.

Spending limits would be linked to a complex formula that includes the growth of personal income and inflation.

It would require two-thirds support of the House and Senate to change the limits.

"If passed I think this amendment is going to bring stability and predictability to our budget process," said state Rep. Beau Beaullieu, R-New Iberia and House sponsor of the proposal.

"The key is both sides are going to be better equipped to predict what the limit is going to be from year to year as opposed to having these big peaks and valleys," Beaullieu said.

State aid for colleges and universities, public school teachers and other state services rose sharply in the early 2000s, then plummeted starting around 2008 amid less than expected revenue.

"Louisiana government grows at either an unpredictable rate or too fast," the Public Affairs Research Council said in its analysis of the amendment.

"State government spends every tax dollar it gets and when times get tough, politicians either resort to budget gimmicks or raising taxes," PAR said in noting arguments for the plan.

But the same analysis said the new rules could unduly restrict options for state lawmakers, and hurt key services.

"Limiting the growth will disproportionately affect those areas that are not protected by fiscal provisions in the constitution, primarily higher education and health care," PAR said in citing arguments by critics.

"This new limit would be too harsh and could hamper appropriate levels of government spending."

Amendment 5: Taxes

Like the operatic singers who want their cash now in the ubiquitous commercials, local taxing entities could negotiate upfront payments in return for reduced property taxes in the future should Constitutional Amendment 5 win approval from a majority of Louisiana voters on Nov. 3.

As an incentive for manufacturers, the state for the past 80 years has offered to basically forgive for a decade the property taxes on which local governments rely through ITEP, the Industrial Tax Exemption Program. Gov. John Bel Edwards changed ITEP by limiting the ad valorem tax abatement to 80% for five years with an option for another five years and gave local governments veto power over the state’s tax-break decision.

State Sen. Mark Abraham, the Lake Charles Republican who sponsored the legislation underlying Amendment 5, said local governments need to be allowed to negotiate payment in lieu of taxes, called PILOT. School districts, say, may want the money now to build a library, or some other asset, rather than wait 10 years. The amendment wouldn’t affect the ITEP situations of other local entities.

The Louisiana School Boards Association, the Police Jury Association of Louisiana, the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association back the amendments, as do business lobbyists and industry trade groups.

Parish tax assessors, however, don’t like the idea and neither does Together Louisiana, a coalition of community and faith-based organizations, which recently held a video conference that had more than 400 participants. A new group — Louisiana Taxpayer Education Fund — was formed to oppose Constitutional Amendment 5 and has lined up top-flight political consultants to mount a statewide media campaign.

Critics say the idea, which was pushed hard by business interests, would keep local governments from long-term planning and set up situations where corporations could duck their tax liabilities thereby cutting public services or increasing taxes for everyday citizens.

Edgar Cage of Together Louisiana was the only person allowed to testify against the measure during legislative hearings where the discussion was short and complimentary. He pointed out that the amendment reverses a court decision on PILOT that would have lowered to $503 million from $1.5 billion owed in property taxes over 23 years by Cameron LNG, a facility jointly owned by a California energy company and Japanese interests.

Amendment 6: Property taxes

Louisiana offers a property tax break for several groups, including those 65 and older who meet the income rules.

The rates are frozen — which means they do not rise yearly — for those 65 and older whose incomes do not exceed $77,030.

The amendment would raise that cap to $100,000.

Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, R-Metairie and House sponsor of the proposal, said the plan in part recognizes that people work longer today, and that dual incomes are common.

"Sixty-five is not the hard date for retirement for our seniors," Hilferty said.

Hilferty also noted that, in the past, some homeowners have been hit with huge hikes in their annual property tax bills.

The revamped threshold would take effect in 2026 if voters approve the amendment.

The new ceiling, like the current one, would eventually be adjusted for inflation.

Today's limit of $77,030 to qualify for the freeze was $50,000 when it first too effect in 2001, PAR noted.

Critics contend the state already has generous property tax break rules, which exempts the first $75,000 from parish property tax calculations.

The expansion spelled out in the amendment would worsen that picture, they say.

Amendment 7: Unclaimed property

The state collects unclaimed property, such as payroll checks, bank accounts, royalties and deposits.

It is lost money that belongs to individuals, businesses and nonprofit groups.

The fund totals about $900 million, according to state Treasurer John Schroder's office.

Critics said the change is needed because unclaimed property is routinely swept into the state general fund, and that doing so left the state unable to pay claims this year and in 2018.

The amendment would set up a special fund — called the Unclaimed Property Permanent Tax Fund — to house the assets starting July 1, 2021.

The principal would be used to pay claims.

Excess revenue could be invested and used for state services, and Schroder said that could total $40 million per year in two decades.

"This is good policy," he said.

"This raises money for the state without raising taxes or fees," Schroder said. "When is the last time that happened."

The amendment stemmed in part from efforts to end a long-running dispute between Schroder and Gov. John Bel Edwards over use of the money.

Edward and others said that, despite the routine transfer of unclaimed property dollars to the general revenue fund, paying claims has never been a major problem.

Backers say it is wrong for state government to spend money that belongs to private citizens.

"It is the people's money," said Sen. Mike Fesi, R-Houma, Senate sponsor of the proposal. 

"We are just using it like it is the state's money."

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.