The Hayride’s Guide To Louisiana’s Constitutional Amendments

We’ve been repeatedly asked to post something about the 10 constitutional amendments on the ballot Tuesday across Louisiana, because in the midst of a dramatic campaign where individual candidates have dominated most folks don’t even know what they’ll be voting for.

This post will hopefully fulfill that demand.

To begin, though, a few observations. First, we don’t do constitutions well here. Louisiana has had more constitutions adopted than any other state and few, if any, states go through constitutional amendments with the frequency we do.

Second, there’s a reason why we’re always going through constitutions and amendments. Namely, we put far too much stuff in our constitutions. The current constitution, for example, which was written in 1973, has 14 articles to it and is 92 pages long. The U.S. Constitution, it ain’t. So when a constitution strays beyond basic law and structure, it has to be amended constantly to fix details the legislature got wrong.

As the Public Affairs Research Council notes, the 1921 constitution was amended 500 times until the state’s politicians decided a new constitution was necessary. The current constitution has been amended 244 times, with another 10 potentially on the way. This is ridiculous. It’s also evidence of how poor a job our politicians have done that we’re asked to step in and fix their mistakes 10 times every year; when you go to the polls and see these amendments, you should be more than a little angry that the folks we’ve given power and position for the express purpose of handling this work on our behalf can’t get it straight.

You should also be more than a little upset that none of these 10 amendments will address the structural deficiencies which have Louisiana’s budget in the hole by more than a billion dollars next year – and when cuts have to be made the constitution dictates they have to fall on higher education and health care. Make no mistake, there is waste in higher education and health care, and Louisiana needs a far leaner structure in both areas so that our performance in handling them doesn’t whipsaw year by year based on whether there’s a tax windfall or not. But this constitution is replete with budgetary sacred cows, which means some waste gets protected every year while other waste goes untouched. As a result we have more state employees per capita than virtually anybody – over double the national average – and the results we get out of such a profligate bureaucracy are virtually nil.

So most of these amendments are a waste of your time given the import of the issues facing us in this election and in the immediate future. But since you’ll be in the voting booth, here are our thoughts on what you might do on the 10 amendments…

Proposed Amendment No. 1
Act 539 – Senate Bill No. 67, Regular Session, 2009
– To provide that any salary increase enacted by law for certain state elected officials, including statewide elected officials, members of the Public Service Commission, and members of the legislature, not be implemented until a subsequent term of office.
(Amends Article IV, Section 4; Adds Article III, Section 4(G) and Article IV, Section 21(F))

OUR TAKE: Honestly, if we’d had our druthers we’d go ahead and professionalize the legislature and pay all of them $60,000 or $80,000 a year, with the caveat that summary execution was in store for anybody who attempted to make more than that off the state. Better to have all the money on the table rather than under it, and with jobs in the legislature paying a decent salary you might get better folks running for them.

Since we’re not going to get that, though, it’s not a bad idea to keep legislators from voting themselves a pay raise. Go ahead and vote for this one if you like, though this could very easily be handled through statute rather than a constitutional amendment. It’s basically a skin on Sen. Joe McPherson’s wall – he can say  he got an amendment passed to keep the leges honest. When somebody keeps McPherson honest, we’ll let you know.

Proposed Amendment No. 2
Act 541 – House Bill No. 765, Regular Session, 2009
– To decrease the amount of taxes retained by the state on the severance of natural resources, other than sulphur, lignite, and timber, and to increase the maximum amount of such revenues which are remitted to the parish governing authority from where the severance occurs, to be implemented in the event that the official forecast of severance tax revenues for any fiscal year includes an estimate for severance tax collections which will exceed that actually collected by the state in Fiscal Year 2008-2009; to change the annual maximum amount to be remitted to a parish governing authority from eight hundred fifty thousand dollars to one million eight hundred fifty thousand for the first fiscal year of implementation, which amount would increase to two million eight hundred fifty thousand dollars for the following and subsequent fiscal years; to provide for annual adjustment of the maximum amounts in accordance with the consumer price index; to require that of the revenues received by a parish governing authority under these provisions, that portion which is in excess of the amount of such revenues received in Fiscal Year 2011-2012 be used within the parish for the same purposes as monies received from the Parish Transportation Fund; to require that of the severance taxes and royalty revenues retained by the state from activity on state lands within the Atchafalaya Basin, up to ten million dollars per year be deposited into a special fund created in the state treasury to be known as the Atchafalaya Basin Conservation Fund; to provide that monies in this fund be used exclusively for conservation, improvement, and management of the Atchafalaya Basin in accordance with formal state and federal plans; to require legislative approval for and specific limitations on the use of monies appropriated from the fund.
(Effective April 1, 2012.) (Adds Article VII, Section 4(D)(4))

OUR TAKE: We’re now officially into the weeds, and this is where your average voter’s eyes will glaze over. Basically what this does is shift some severance tax money from the state’s coffers to parish governments. While that’s not a bad idea in principle, as if you can devolve money and power closest to the individual you’ve got the best chance to have accountability follow it, in practice it isn’t likely to work out that way. After all, the state already doles money out to parishes like nobody’s business; moving severance tax revenue to the parishes just means less flexibility to deal with a budget crisis or properly prioritize state spending.

And besides, this came up in 2008 and it was voted down. Vote no.

Proposed Amendment No. 3
Act No. 1049 – House Bill No. 246, Regular Session, 2010
– To exempt from ad valorem tax, in addition to the homestead exemption, the next seventy-five thousand dollars of value of property which is owned and occupied by a veteran with a service-connected disability rating of one hundred percent; to authorize the exemption to apply to the surviving spouse of a deceased veteran if the exemption was in effect on the property prior to the death of the veteran and the surviving spouse remains the owner of the property; to require the taxing authority to absorb any decrease in the total amount of ad valorem taxes collected as a result of this exemption; to prohibit the exemption from creating any additional tax liability for other property taxpayers; to prohibit implementation of the exemption from triggering reappraisal of property or adjustment of millages; provides that the exemption shall only extend and apply if established through an election called by the local governing authority and approved by a majority of the registered voters in an election held for that purpose.
(Effective January 1, 2011)(Adds Article VII, Section 21(K))

OUR TAKE: We love disabled veterans, and we’re sympathetic to the idea of the state doing nice things for them. This amendment sets up the option for local governments to put tax breaks on local ballots for disabled vets or their family members. We like local control, so we’d be OK with the idea that voters in a given city or parish would get a shot to put this into effect. On the other hand, this is a pander-in-a-box for mayors, sheriffs and parish presidents.

Do what you want with this one. It won’t do a lot of harm if it passes. We’re saying vote no, simply because we need lower overall taxes and less individual tax breaks, but that’s not an absolute position.

Proposed Amendment No. 4
Act No. 542 – House Bill No. 903 (Substitute for House Bill No. 375), Regular Session, 2009
– To provide that the power of a taxing authority with a governing authority which is not elected to increase millage rates without voter approval after reappraisal, which is presently limited by the prior year’s maximum millage rate, be further limited to annual increases which do not exceed two and one-half percent of the property tax collections for the immediately preceding calendar year; to exclude from such restriction taxing authorities which are special fire protection or fire department districts or ports, port harbor, and terminal districts, and millages levied by certain levee districts under authority granted by the Constitution of Louisiana.
(Amends Art. VII, Section 23(C))

OUR TAKE: This isn’t just into the weeds, it’s in the roots of the weeds. Basically what’s at issue here is that some of the governing authorities with taxing power in the state aren’t elected, and the goal is to limit the power of unelected folks to tax property owners. But the millages themselves are initially voted on, and with all the exemptions built into this thing it’s a mess. Best to leave it alone. Vote no.

Proposed Amendment No. 5
Act No. 1050 – Senate Bill No. 21, Regular Session, 2010
– To authorize continuation of the homestead exemption and the special assessment level for a homestead that has been destroyed or is uninhabitable due to a disaster for two years if the homeowner’s claim for damages is pending in a formal appeal process with a governmental agency or program offering assistance for repairing or rebuilding homes damaged by the disaster or if a homeowner has a damage claim filed and pending against the insurer of the property; to authorize an assessor to grant up to three additional one-year extensions of the continuation of the homestead exemption and the special assessment level as prescribed by law.
(Amends Article VII, Sections 18(G)(5) and 20(A)(10))

OUR TAKE: This is a Katrina deal, and it would extend homestead exemption protection for destroyed property until 2016. It won’t have any noticeable fiscal impact. It’s worth supporting.

Proposed Amendment No. 6
Act No. 1048 – House Bill No. 229, Regular Session, 2010
– To require a two-thirds vote of the elected members of each house of the legislature to enact any benefit provision for members of a Louisiana public retirement system if the provision has an actuarial cost.
(Amends Article X, Section 29(E)(5); Adds Article X, Section 29(F))

OUR TAKE: This one could be better written, and the question of what actually constitutes a public retirement system will make for some confusion. That said, anything which makes it harder to worsen the problem of our underfunded pensions – which could be as bad as a $16 billion liability for our state – gets our support. Vote yes.

Proposed Amendment No. 7
Act No. 540 – House Bill No. 509, Regular Session, 2009
– To provide relative to the bidding process for ad valorem property tax sales by authorizing a bidder at a tax sale to bid down the existing five percent penalty in increments of one-tenth of one percent; to require the payment of penalties by a bidder at ad valorem property tax sales; to require the payment of interest, penalties, and costs by a taxpayer who is delinquent on the payment of taxes on movables.
(Amends Article VII, Section 25(A)(1) and (E))

OUR TAKE: This would increase the amount of cash local governments could get out of tax sales, but it’s an affront to property rights. PAR’s notes on this amendment sum things up nicely:

…removing the phrase “least quantity of” significantly weakens protections designed to help debtors preserve as much ownership interest in their property as possible when they cannot afford to pay their property taxes. Homeowners who are not be able to redeem their property because of the high cost of the newly authorized penalties would have their property taken completely in cases where the penalty is bid down instead of the ownership interest.

Vote no.

Proposed Amendment No. 8
Act No. 1052 – House Bill No. 276, Regular Session, 2010
– Provides that property expropriated for the public purpose of removing a threat to public health or safety caused by the existing use or disuse of the property shall not be subject to the requirement of offering the property back to the original owner who allowed the property to become a threat to public health or safety or to the requirement of public sale.
(Amends Article I, Section 4(H)(1))

OUR TAKE: This one is tough stuff, as what it basically concerns is blighted property. Voting for this amendment essentially would make it easier for, say, the City of New Orleans to expropriate blighted property in large tracts and then sell those tracts to developers. Most people say that needs to be done, and current law does allow for expropriation of blighted property so that the land can be cleared. What’s at issue is whether the owner of the blighted property would then have the right of first refusal to buy back the cleared property. So what do you think is more important? Property rights, or Katrina recovery? We’re going to come down on the property rights side of this, but if you’re for recovery and redevelopment above property rights we won’t hate you for it.

Proposed Amendment No. 9
Act No. 1051 – Senate Bill No. 42, Regular Session, 2010
– To provide that, in civil matters only, when a court of appeal is to modify or reverse an administrative agency determination in a workers’ compensation claim and one judge dissents, the case shall be reargued before a panel of at least five judges prior to rendition of judgment, and a majority shall concur to render judgment.
(Amends Article V, Section 8(B))

OUR TAKE: Rearguing appealed workers’ comp cases before five-judge panels looks like a good way to create traffic jams in the judicial system. We’re going to say no on this one.

Proposed Amendment No. 10
Act No. 1053 – House Bill No. 940, Regular Session, 2010
– To permit criminal defendants, except in capital cases, to waive their right to a trial by jury no later than forty-five days prior to the trial date.
(Amends Article I, Section 17(A))

OUR TAKE: This is a victims’ rights question, because criminal defendants often wait until the last minute to make the call whether to go ahead with a jury trial or waive it and put their case in front of a judge. This would eliminate some of those delaying tactics and give criminal victims a chance to get the trial over with and move on. There’s a problem, though – 45 days out from a trial date the defendant might not even have a jury roster, and if your freedom is at stake those are the kinds of things you probably need to have information on.

We’re sympathetic to victims’ rights and lawyer tricks are irritating to us just like everybody else, but this seems like the kind of thing which shouldn’t be messed with. We’re voting no.

So in other words, we like 1, 5 and 6. The rest? Nope. But make your own decisions.

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