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Candidate Eddie Rispone on set before the start of the 2019 Louisiana Governor's runoff debate, Wednesday, October 30, 2019, at Louisiana Public Broadcasting in Baton Rouge, La.

Eddie Rispone has offered few details about his No. 1 policy priority if elected governor: a convention to rewrite the Louisiana Constitution of 1974 and usher in sweeping changes to how state government operates.

But Rispone has left himself an opening to take on some parts of the constitution that have long been considered politically sacred, like the homestead exemption, and he says he wants the Pelican Institute, a conservative think tank, to play a key role in rewriting the document.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, the incumbent Democrat who is trying to ward off his Republican challenger in a Nov. 16 runoff election, has taken aim at Rispone’s constitutional convention idea. Earlier this week, in the only televised debate for the runoff, he warned a convention would put at risk programs like the homestead exemption, a popular property tax break for homeowners, and others that are defended intensely at the State Capitol by local governments and others.

“I’m not in favor of reducing or eliminating the homestead exemption. Pensions for thousands of Louisianans are protected” in the constitution, Edwards said. “Now is not the time to be dangerous and gamble with all the things that are adequately and properly protected in the constitution today which is why I’m steadfastly opposed to a convention.”

Rispone accused the governor of “fear-mongering,” and noted lawmakers have few areas to cut during a budget shortfall aside from higher education and health care, which could be changed by unlocking funding in the constitution. He said he would “protect” things like law enforcement and K-12 funding.

“Am I nervous about having a constitutional convention?” Rispone said. “No, because business people, we know how to put things together and make sure it works like we want it to work and make sure we’re competitive with the rest of the country.”

A Republican industry executive and longtime GOP donor, Rispone avoided specifically promising to keep intact programs like the homestead exemption, supplemental pay for law enforcement and the Minimum Foundation Program, which governs K-12 funding. He said he would, but when pressed on whether he would commit to keeping the homestead exemption during a constitutional convention after the debate, he said, “How am I going to do that?”

“That’s up to the citizens of Louisiana to decide that fact, not me as governor. I think it’s important to do that,” he said at the studios of Louisiana Public Broadcasting in Baton Rouge. “How do you do that as governor? Are you going to tell the delegates what they have to do? I’m not writing the constitution.”

Rispone’s comments illustrate the political minefield he would enter if he offered a more specific vision for what he wants to accomplish in a constitutional convention.

But the Pelican Institute provides some clues to what a rewrite could look like, as Rispone indicated the organization would play a key role in a convention.

Daniel Erspamer, the Pelican Institute’s CEO, envisions a constitutional convention as a way to strip out reams of funding locked in the constitution, such as making it easier for lawmakers to change the Minimum Foundation Program, which determines how much public schools are appropriated, and usher in a conservative tax rate revamp that is “fairer and flatter.” Other constitutionally dedicated funding sources deliver money to wetlands restoration and conservation, a fund that caps potentially dangerous abandoned oil wells, the state’s savings account and assistance for farmers and fishermen, among others. 

As part of that overhaul, constitutional protections for programs like the homestead exemption and other programs that are closely-guarded at the State Capitol would likely be taken out. Erspamer said he believes the local and state government should become less dependent on each other, meaning local parishes should have the ability to cut homestead exemptions if they choose. 

The argument Erspamer makes for eliminating those programs is that by making broad changes to how Louisiana taxes and spends money – including a traditional conservative supply-side economics argument of creating jobs by making the tax code friendlier to business – people in Louisiana will come out on top, even if their homestead exemption is eliminated.

Erspamer said delegates would work out specific details on the policies, but that Pelican generally favors moving tax and spending priorities out of the constitution, while keeping the two-thirds vote requirement to raise taxes.

“It’s way easier, simpler to fear-monger than to actually talk about the nuances of the policy,” Erspamer said.

Opponents of a constitutional convention, including lawmakers who have thwarted the effort in recent years, warn it would be impossible to limit it to only tax and revenue areas of the budget. The homestead exemption, and the two-thirds requirement for the Legislature to raise taxes, are among the constitutional protections cited by opponents, and the issue quickly became a political football in the governor’s race.

Those representing local governments and sheriffs are often opposed to the idea of breaking open the constitution out of fear they could lose subsidies like supplemental pay to sheriffs, and other funding streams.

After Rispone’s comments about the homestead exemption were made public, on Thursday morning, Edwards’ campaign swiftly accused Rispone of “lying” when he promised to protect several areas in the constitution during the debate.

“The reason Eddie Rispone is scared to appear in front of media and the public was on display last night,” Edwards campaign spokesman Eric Holl said. “When pressed for real answers, he’s forced to admit that his talking points are phony. He admitted that he lied to the people of Louisiana when he said critical priorities like the homestead exemption, funding for K-12 education, and funding for local law enforcement wouldn’t be eliminated in his administration.”

The governor said he believes the constitution is a “good document” that can be amended with two-thirds votes from the House and Senate, as well as a majority vote of the public.

Earlier this year, state Rep. Steve Carter, a Baton Rouge Republican, worked with the Pelican Institute on a legislative effort to allow local governments to reduce the homestead exemption

The tax break forgives 10% of the value of a taxpayer’s primary home, up to $75,000, of the assessment for property taxes. That means nearly a third of homeowners pay no property taxes at all. In 2018, homestead exemptions were granted on about $7.3 billion in property, according to the state Tax Commission.

“The homestead exemption obviously is a sacred cow,” Carter said in an interview. “But a few of us sat down and said, why don’t we look at (letting locals) control their own destiny and raise some dollars.”

He said he doesn’t know if Rispone could pull off a constitutional convention if elected, but added his best chance would be to strike early, when new lawmakers are afraid to anger the governor and would be more willing to play along.

Robert Travis Scott, head of the Public Affairs Research Council, a nonpartisan think tank that favors a constitutional convention, pointed out the constitution has been amended nearly 200 times since the latest version was enacted, in 1974. It operates more as a collection of statutes than a real constitution, he argued, and Louisiana may have different priorities now than the provisions added to the constitution 30 years ago.

But Scott also said few proponents of the idea have spelled out exactly what they want out of a constitutional convention.

“Everyone is falling into this trap where we say we want to change the constitution, but no one wants to say exactly what the goal is,” Scott said. “Mainly what we need to do first is to build a consensus on what it is we want to eventually achieve.”

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com