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U.S. Representative Ralph Abraham, R-La., left, shakes hands with Gov. John Bel Edwards, right, with moderator Robert Travis Scott, Public Affairs Research Council president, at center, just before the start of the non-partisan PAR gubernatorial forum held Thursday, April 11, 2019 at Crown Plaza Hotel Baton Rouge. Candidate Eddie Rispone had a prior engagement.

Apart from eating boudin, avoiding specifics and having supporters describe opponents in the vilest terms, one of the enduring Louisiana campaign traditions is the pilgrimage to PAR, first to understand what in the world those constitutional amendments on ballot mean, and second, to hear whoever is in charge of PAR at the time talk about the impossible number of changes to the Louisiana Constitution.

The answer is 195 amendments during the nearly 45 years the state’s latest version of fundamental law has been in place, according to a report released last week by a study group from the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana.

What started as a 36,252-word document in 1975 now has more than 72,000 words — the fourth-longest constitution in the U.S., according to the first part of the PAR study on constitutional reform, called “Getting the Foundation Right.” The second part, which will take a deep dive into specific issues, will be released in September.

The average state constitution is 26,000 words. Since 1789, the 7,500-word U.S. Constitution has been amended only 27 times.

With nearly 50 vacancies in the 144-seat Legislature — the largest turnover in state history — PAR optimistically predicts a constitutional rewrite “will be a major issue for the 2019 gubernatorial race as well as for the House and Senate races.”

Of the three major candidates for governor in the Oct. 12 election, Republican Eddie Rispone, of Baton Rouge, is for writing a new constitution; incumbent Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards is against; and Republican U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, of Alto, has said he’s open to revisiting Article VII, the part dealing with finances, but more recently spoke against convening a convention.

Task force reports on how to fix the state’s rickety financial structure fill library shelves without any action taken on their suggestions. Louisiana legislators routinely deflect “shouldn’t y’all do something” demands with “need to change the constitution first” defenses.

But calling a convention for a rewrite is a tall order, requiring voter approval of a referendum first passed by two-thirds of each legislative chamber.

Several legislators have tried, but none have cleared that first hurdle.

The real problem with the current version, outgoing House Ways & Means Chairman Neil Abramson, D-New Orleans, pointed out during testimony for his unsuccessful call for a limited rewrite is the amendments — 99 or more than half the total changes to Article VII — lock away so much money.

The state budget is about $30 billion. But it contains all sources of revenue, much of it from the federal government. The part Louisiana taxpayers kick in is about $9.5 billion. Of that money about $4.3 billion is locked away in the Louisiana Constitution for specific expenditures like K-12 education.

Another roughly $2.7 billion of revenues is dedicated to spending only on certain items through 33 separate funds, some of them necessary but many more shoehorned in by special interests seeking to protect their corner.

“Once an interest group is successful at gaining constitutional protection for its particular stream of funds, there has been little to no risk that the fund will be re-evaluated in the future, even in the face of serious fiscal challenges,” PAR’s report states.

Basically, the state constitution gives lawmakers about $3 billion to operate the bulk of state services. And Louisiana is required to balance its budget. Tax decreases, without like cuts in spending, led to a decade of annual deficits until lawmakers agreed in 2018 on a six-year sales tax increase. But that took eight legislative sessions since 2016 — most specially called to address just that issue.

The constitution “reflects a culture of mistrust and a culture of inflexibility,” said PAR President Robert Scott, who changed his mind about revisiting the document after reviewing the study’s results.

Changing the state constitution to free up some of those locked-in dedications would give lawmakers some flexibility in balancing the budget and wouldn’t enshrine everyday spending issues in the Constitution.

But that’s a debate for the future, Scott said.

For now, he wants conversation to focus on what a new constitution would look like should voters decide a new one is necessary.

The report suggests an easy-to-read, hard-to-amend document that outlines the government’s authority and articulates fundamental principles to guide future actions but leaves all the day-to-day stuff for regular laws.

Scott says the present constitution gets in the way of opportunely addressing issues, like education and poverty, that hold Louisiana back.

“I don’t see any new actions taking place to lift us out of the state we’re in,” Scott said.


Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.