These inadequate objections resurfaced during a debate of HCR 56 by Republican state Rep. Franklin Foil by the House and Governmental Affairs Committee. The resolution would create a study commission by which at the beginning of the next Legislature the panel would make recommendations about the necessity and scope of a constitutional convention.
That’s actually a step back from the recent myriad and numerous efforts to rework the state’s basic governing document. During this legislature’s term, ten bills have come forth to initiate a convention without any study, although another four resolutions take the lesser step. That includes Foil’s measure of this year and one by Democrat state Rep. Neil Abramson which appoints a committee only of legislators. All of the previous three years’ have foundered.
Nor does the history of efforts to do the same last year provide much optimism that any such effort will succeed. SCR 45 by Democrat state Sen. Troy Carter, with largely the same panel, timeline, and charge as Foil’s, lost two-to-one on the floor with about half of Democrats in favor but almost all Republicans against. Oddly, Foil had an identical measure, HCR 3, sail through the House with almost all Republicans in support and about half of Democrats against but that one languished in a Senate committee.
Defeats occur for the same two reasons. Democrat state Rep. Dorothy Sue Hill forwarded the more universal of the two, and one actually quite compelling to have a new document drawn up. She feared a new governing plan would detach a number of dedications and break up silos in which funds remained locked away. Naturally, she made the most alarmist case possible that the Minimum Foundation Program that walls off elementary and secondary education spending would go, even though convention delegates would have to suggest that and voters approve it, both of which seem very unlikely.
That distraction displays the real reason why too many legislators don’t want constitutional revision, as hinted at by GOP state Rep. Barry Ivey: by giving the Legislature much more discretion in budgeting, it also brings on greater accountability and responsibility with the likelihood government will shrink. It’s too easy now for legislators, noting that vast amount of dollars dedicated, to throw up their hands and claim because they are so hamstrung that they can do nothing about getting money to priority spending items, except for raising taxes. Relieving the dedication straitjacket would force legislators to go on the record with their spending choices, which they fear will earn them too much enmity from special interests benefitting from the current arrangement.
A more limited, yet potentially more hypocritical, objection came from Republican state Rep. Jay Morris, who alleged that special interests would have too much influence in the process. This view usually runs parallel with the claim that having anybody but legislators controlling the entire process leads to a document that treats some of these well but shortchanges the people.
Neither view holds up even under light scrutiny because of the false assumption that legislators somehow remain above all pressure. Morris himself stands out as an example contradicting his very position: in 2015 for his reelection, approximately $49,000 of the almost $134,000 he raised (including in-kind) came from interest groups, corporations, and limited liability corporations not associated with solo practitioners. Why would legislators be immune from the very influences they assert would infect the process?
In reality, special interests will try to distort the process, but that’s not a reason to junk the idea nor shut out conventions comprised of delegated elected by the people or representing certain organizations that dilutes legislator power in that instance. Nor could such interests wield enough power to warp the popular vote to approve the final product.
There’s good reason why a convention, at least for fiscal matters, need not happen: much of the necessary alteration that sequester roughly seven-eighths of spending changes in statute could accomplish. But the reasoning forwarded by Hill and Morris are insufficient to sideline the issue.
Foil’s instrument passed in bipartisan fashion, with only Hill, Morris, and Democrat state Rep. Sam Jenkins voting against. There should be no harm in studying the idea, but recent history shows even that limited request has proven too difficult to win approval from too many legislators more interested in making life easier on themselves than in doing their duty of tackling Louisiana’s inefficient fiscal structure.