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Convention unnecessary to fix LA fiscal problems

Although some, principal among them Gov. John Bel Edwards, think a constitutional convention in order for Louisiana, conditions simply don’t warrant that.

Certainly, the fiscal straitjacket into which Louisiana has amended and legislated itself needs unbinding. Almost seven out of every eight dollars generated by the state by law or the Constitution go to a specified purpose (which includes self-generated revenues such as user fees and tuition at state institutions of higher learning). Most of the remainder ends up funding higher education, health care, or corrections. This hyper-inflexibility hampers budgeting and makes past a certain point addressing mid-year budget deficits almost impossible.

Those arguing for a convention believe this as the best way to sweep aside locked-in spending. By loosening dedications and protections of funds that receive these proceeds, better matching of money to need could happen, rather than enduring government-on-autopilot.

But three things work against the calling of a convention for this purpose. First, the vast majority of the 370 dedications come from statute; the Constitution bakes in only around two dozen. To fix these needs no alteration to the Constitution at all, just political willpower.

Second, even with relatively few constitutional dedications, much of the directed spending occurs because of these. For example, about two-thirds of all general fund revenue gets shuttled to nondiscretionary purposes. In all, the 26 accounts suck in just over half of all dedicated monies.

Further, the largest of these address areas often considered crucial and/or underfunded. For example, the single largest in terms of dollars going in and out is the Transportation Trust Fund, recently in the area of $1.4 billion annually. Yet rather than redirect away from this, policy-makers have taken to calling for an increase into it, as of late wishing to jack up the revenues going to it by 50 percent through more than doubling the gasoline tax through an increase of 23 cents per gallon.

In other words, should a consensus build to pare or eliminate certain less-crucial dedications, it would not take a constitutional convention to do so. This would involve relatively few items. Nor would changing the rules by which policy-makers could make cuts mid-year need an entire convention to accomplish.

Neither would reform in this fashion require interconnectivity among the discrete changes. One argument for a convention maintains that that special interests, with different coalitions forming around each separate item, collectively could block alterations, but if everything hung together in a series of tradeoffs aimed at overall simplification and flexibility that special interests could feel assured that, if they ended up losers, other compensations would soften the blow and thereby make them less likely to coalesce to defeat individual items.

However, if merely unlocking several dedications and loosening strictures on deficit reduction, proponents reasonably can publicize (to the electorate that would have to produce majority votes in favor of amendments spelling out these) funding reductions won’t necessarily happen by this and that policy-makers could respond better to sustaining areas most vulnerable under the current system. The benefits of connectivity generally get overplayed and the drawbacks to separated items overemphasized.

Third, recent past conventions give guidance that existing policy-makers have too much influence with a convention. Even as most of those to the 1973 version faced election to get there, most of the elected already held some kind of elective office, and the appointees largely were allies of their appointer, the governor. In 1992, legislators made themselves the convention, along with extra pay to do so. Their limited product (only dealing with fiscal matters) voters summarily rejected – the centerpiece of which being a loosening of dedicated funds in the procedure for tackling deficits.

Given these reasons, while discussion of fiscal reforms requiring constitutional changes should commence with due haste, this does not need a constitutional convention to succeed.

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