OWEN: Why We Need a (Limited) Constitutional Convention

(By State Representative Chuck Owen, District 30) — Imagine finding a nice home you would like to buy. Imagine knowing the home is kind of a fixer-upper when you buy it. You know it’s a little old, and you know some interior walls need some work, you know the plumbing is a little tired and you suspect the foundation is a little questionable. Your inspection came back ok and you close on the deal. You like the looks. You like the character. You’re told it has good “bones.”

A few months into your purchase you find out that there’s a lot more wrong than you imagined. The walls have mold behind them. The cast iron and clay pipes can’t keep up with your family’s water and plumbing demands. And, upon further review, you find out the pilings that were supposed to support your foundation really aren’t deep enough and you’re sitting on a moving slab. You hear the house move at night as walls shift. All of the sudden, you realize you have a lot of work to do and it’s going to be expensive.

It’s March, it’s starting to get warm, and you need to do something. You remember you’ve been putting money aside for several years in a Christmas savings account that you can only get to in December of each year. Bank rules say you can only withdraw your money in December. You’ve got about eight months to go. You need some of that money right now, in fact, to fix your house. But you can’t touch it. But, you HAVE the money to fix the foundation. You HAVE the money to fix the walls. You HAVE the money to fix the plumbing. But, because of the type of account you have, you can’t touch it. You don’t have the money to pay off your entire mortgage, but you can fix your day-to-day problems.

That’s kinda where we are in Louisiana. We have a lovely state with great bones. But things are broken or are collapsing. We KNOW this. We see it all around us every day.

Most people don’t know we have the money to fix some of our biggest problems. We’ve been squirreling it away for years. We have roads, schools, hospitals and water systems that are in shameful disrepair. But we can’t hardly make a dent in getting things fixed because of our Constitution.

Our 1974 Constitution restrains the way we can manage our money. It cordons off and makes permanent guarantees of funding for things that fall into the great security blanket of the state budget. In short, once something is placed in our state budget, getting even adjusted to fit current realities is next to impossible. Flexibility just can’t happen because of the current paradigm.

The ’74 Constitution had many great things in it. Our liberties are enshrined in the ’74 document and they mirror our federal protections. Rights to property, life, speech, guns and other things we as a free people cherish are solid and on firm footing. Those parts of the Constitution don’t need to be touched.

But the way we manage our financial resources is arcane and needs to change. Upon doing a deep dive into the various “rainy day” funds we have established and where we squirrel away money, we’ve found BILLIONS of dollars sitting in what amount to passbook savings accounts. They get some interest, for sure, but the minuscule interest we get never meets the needs of our citizens. The fact is, it’s raining and our state has significant needs.

In any parish in Louisiana, you can find a litany of things that need to be done. Things that are “waiting on funding.” We have over 14 billion dollars of approved road projects that could be done with near term funding. These things are on the books and they stay on the books, giving false hope to people who hear that “this road is approved.” It’s nice to get something approved, but if you don’t pay for it, it never happens.

Because of the outdated way we manage money, we can’t ever plan for the long haul. We go through peaks and valleys in terms of our Constitution, and when down turns hit, the only choices the government has are raising taxes or cutting money to hospitals and higher education. That’s it. We have mountains and troughs the entire time we’ve had the current constitution and the story is always the same.

Our Constitution also forces the legislature to send to the people all sorts of initiatives and decisions that are truly legislative responsibilities. Someone in Richland Parish has no more business voting on how a levee district in Iberia Parish manages itself than someone in Caddo Parish has any need to decide if Livingston Parish can set up an independent school district. Year after year, because of our Constitution, citizens are asked to vote on things and make decisions that are made legislatively in just about every other state.

Further, we have a tax and business environment that is HOSTILE to entrepreneurship and innovation. Businesses flee Louisiana EVERY DAY because of the way we manage our taxes and because of the way we erect every barrier we can to success. This all needs to change.

Some question the speed with which this reform is taking place. It’s a valid question, and it merits a response. In short, the Constitution’s inflexibility and the narrow windows in which this type of thing can take place are what drive us to this moment. Doing it next year or the year after that will only keep us in the rut we are in. Our slab is moving every day. And, getting outside of analogies, we are short on time. Louisiana is in a crisis and a big decision is in order. We have lost population over the past eight years and we’ve lost Congressional seats in two of the past three census authorizations. We’re going in the wrong direction and we need to change our course—and fast. Some believe we might lose two more Congressional seats if something doesn’t change.

The time is now. The foundation of our home is cracked and it’s getting worse. We have a plan and we probably have enough money to get us on track. Our Constitution needs repair.

As a legislator, I firmly intend to support the initiative to have a limited Constitutional Convention and will support bold, common-sense and wise initiatives to changes our beloved state. I hope my colleagues will do the same.



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