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15.5.17

Changing selection makes convention bill useful

Today the Louisiana House of Representatives Appropriations Committee takes up a measure to call a limited constitutional convention. With some tweaking, it’s an idea whose time perhaps has come.

HB 486 by state Rep. Neil Abramson would begin next year a process that could end up having a substantially revised governing document in place by the time of swearing in of the next governor and Legislature. A committee of 27 representing special interests, elected officials, and academia would meet in the first part of 2018 to determine the necessity of revisions and, if needed, to construct draft portions, followed by election later in the year of 105 others to join them in vetting the document. In 2019, the 132 would consider the changes through May 30, and, if deemed necessary, draft a revision to appear for statewide electoral approval at the time of the regular 2019 elections. Majority assent kicks in the new, revised document (and chooses among any alternatives, an option employed the last – actually in state history only ever – time the state undertook this utilizing a popular vote) at the beginning of 2020, just as new officials come into power.

Essentially, alterations could occur only to four areas of the present constitution: revenue and finance, local government finance, retirement systems, and higher education organization and finance. This deliberate attenuation of scope addresses areas over which a growing consensus has emerged that need change and assuages fears of some both within the public and among elected officials that this threatens to empower government too much and/or reduces their power and influence, as a means to rally support for the idea.

It builds largely on the 1973 attempt, but with three significant deviations. First, the effort of 44 years ago proposed a much larger overhaul; second, while the 132 delegates remain the same number, the 27 not elected last time the governor appointed while this time he names but a few joined by both legislative chamber leaders, the judiciary, and local governments with special interest and academic representatives comprising the remainder; and, third, the 27 have the additional role of preliminary investigation and drafting.

As such, this creates, if not exacerbates, a big problem of the last attempt. A large portion of the 132 1973 delegates came from state government – elected officials, appointed officials, and employees – or local government, some currently in office and other former, as well as from interest groups. This led to charges of elitism infusing the body that incompletely considered a broader, public perspective outside of government and group interests.

The same appears the case here, amplified. The 27 appointees, fairly enough, represent either presumably disinterested experts and/or those individuals part of groups with vested interests in the areas under scrutiny. However, their expanded role of potentially advising for the convention and producing an initial version of the altered text magnified their influence even further. And, if the 1973 experience indicates anything, a large portion of the other elected 105 delegates will reflect the same interests less likely to challenge the work product.

Thus, the selection method defined in HB 486 contains this fatal flaw and therefore should not become law in its present form. Fortunately, the legislative process provides opportunity to ameliorate this shortcoming.

Instead of carrying through the 27 appointees, an additional 39 – one for each Senate district – could be elected, with the same eligibility requirements as the others save one: none of the 39 could hold any office within state or any local government – elected, appointed, or classified or unclassified employment – currently or have in the past six years. This would boost the general interest of citizens; even if special interests jockey successfully for a number of those spots, countervailing views likely would result, not giving unduly large influence to any one set.

This change, made today or in the bill’s future, would make what the bill outlines a practical, useful tool to solve nagging state problems of a bizarre fiscal structure, inefficient parsing of revenue-raising between state and local governments, duplication in higher education, and overgenerous pension provision. Otherwise, what the bill envisions likely will fall short of producing the far-reaching alterations needed and would waste policy-makers’ and the citizenry’s time.

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