ERSPAMER: Constitutional Reform Needed To Bring Jobs And Opportunity To Louisiana

In the last week, there has been a rise in discussion throughout Louisiana over what a potential Constitutional Convention would mean for our state. As is the case with so many other policy debates in Louisiana, entrenched special interests and others benefiting from the current system have predictably started disseminating exaggerated and, in some cases, outright false claims regarding what a convention would entail.

Constitutions are supposed to outline the basic principles and structure of a nation or state. Effective constitutions lay out the powers, checks, and duties of the government and guarantee certain rights to the people. This means constitutions serve to protect the rights of citizens and ensure the actions of governments do not infringe on those rights. The specifics and application of the system of government belongs in statute – the collection of laws and codes that legislators consider and pass – under the structure laid out by the constitution.

Most people view the U.S. Constitution as the best representation of this definition and a shining example for governments around the world because it effectively – and concisely –  protects liberty and opportunity by constraining government and instituting proper checks and balances. Unfortunately, the Louisiana state constitution essentially does the polar opposite by enshrining government, all too often at the expense of liberty and opportunity for citizens of the state.

Though comparatively young, Louisiana’s current constitution has undergone dramatic changes since its ratification in 1974. While the federal constitution has been amended 27 times in 231 years, Louisiana’s elected leaders and voters have amended the state constitution 200 times in 45 years. Since 1978, the state has enacted at least one, and often more than one, constitutional amendment in all but three years.

As a result, Louisiana has one of the longest constitutions in the country, capturing vast swaths of law that belongs in statute. For example, Louisiana’s constitution dedicates 13,000 words just to explain how the state should spend its money, while the U.S. Constitution contains only 7,500 words total. From articles dictating cigarette tax rates to consignment jewelry property tax exemptions, Louisiana has proposed or passed constitutional amendments for seemingly everything. This is not to suggest some of these aren’t good things and appropriate for the state (some are). They just shouldn’t be enshrined in the state constitution.

These constant changes and frequent additions to the constitution have turned the state’s foundational document into a grab bag of special interest provisions that have collectively made Louisiana difficult to govern at both the state and local levels. This is precisely why the Pelican Institute supports the calling of a Constitutional Convention. Louisiana desperately needs fundamental constitutional reform, if it wants to ensure that state lawmakers and parish governments have the tools they need to govern well and the rights of Louisiana citizens are adequately protected.

These persistent problems in Louisiana are also what compelled the Pelican Institute to release “Ideal Principles of Effective State Constitutions,” which outlines the core values that should animate reforms for state constitutions around the nation. Among the key principles outlined in the document are the following:

  • Legitimacy
  • Brevity and Clarity
  • Structuralism
  • Rights and Judicial Review
  • Amendability and Reform

For a new convention, citizen delegates from every corner of the state will be elected by the people and then come together to debate the policy specifics, and – this is important – the voters will have the final say on whether or not to ratify  the new proposed document. Citizen involvement and leadership in the process is critical, as Louisiana’s elected leadership have been influenced by a small group of powerful special interests for far too long.

We must address the structural challenges that hold our state and policymakers back and curb the rights of Louisianans. Whether it’s the complex and convoluted tax code, a budget process that restricts lawmakers’ abilities to accurately reflect current priorities or the structure of government itself, the Louisiana constitution is a barrier to bringing jobs and opportunity back to Louisiana.

We have a unique opportunity to make needed changes now. Let’s not let fear-mongering and political posturing get in the way.

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