In the past year or so there’s been increasing chatter about rewriting all or parts of Louisiana’s constitution — mostly from reform-minded groups and policy wonks, and even a few lawmakers. The idea seems to be gathering some steam, but it’s a long way from taking flight.
The mechanics of rewriting a state constitution are daunting. The politics of such an undertaking pose even greater challenges.
In its recent report on the four proposed amendments that appear on the Oct. 12 ballot, the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana (PAR) observes, wryly, “Louisiana excels at pitching amendments.” PAR goes on to note that lawmakers have proposed nearly 300 amendments since the 1974 constitution was adopted, of which voters have approved 195.
The irony of having that many amendments to our “modern” constitution is striking to those who witnessed its drafting process. The new constitution’s main selling point 45 years ago was its conciseness. The rambling, self-contradictory 1921 constitution was, at the time of its replacement, by far the longest state charter in the country at roughly 250,000 words. That’s about three-fourths as long as the 1985 novel “Lonesome Dove,” but not nearly as much fun to read.
Today, Louisiana’s constitution has doubled its original size and is the nation’s fourth longest.
How did this happen?
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I believe it reflects Louisiana’s political culture, which is even more difficult to change than an entire constitution. Simply put, we don’t trust our politicians. We never have — and mostly for lots of good reasons. Consequently, we keep writing constitutions that constrain, as much as possible, what our elected leaders can do once we elect them. This is particularly true in the area of state finances, which is why so many amendments to the current constitution deal with the article on money matters.
The current crop of four proposed amendments, according to PAR, illustrates “how our constitution has evolved from a concise foundational document to a lengthy throng of regulatory minutiae.” One of the proposed amendments, says PAR, “calls for a minor appropriation of several hundred thousand dollars, something the Legislature rather than voters statewide could handle were it not for the lock-and-store habits of Louisiana’s fiscal culture.”
That is not to say the amendments are bad ideas. Indeed, this newspaper supports all four of them. But it does underscore the point that we keep having to tweak the document’s “regulatory minutiae” every time the political or fiscal landscape shifts ever so slightly.
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When you choose to put everything in a lockbox, you’re constantly in need of a bigger box.
For all its touted improvements over the 1921 constitution, the 1974 rewrite did not change things all that much. Its noblest aims were to take Louisiana into the modern era and make a clean break from Huey Long’s legacy. At the end of the day, Long’s top-heavy vision of centralizing power (and money) in the state remained intact — only with a newer lockbox — and Louisiana’s most powerful vested interests made sure that their interests remained protected.
The delay in opening New Orleans' new airport is reminiscent of the delays in opening the Louisiana Superdome.
If there’s to be a rewrite of our 1974 constitution, the real challenge will be producing a document that reflects a changed political culture and not just an updated set of protections for today’s vested interests.
Don’t hold your breath.