The call to rewrite Louisiana’s constitution, adopted in 1974, has been growing over the last few years. But inside the Capitol, lawmakers haven’t been able to get enough support to approve a constitutional convention. The non-partisan Public Affairs Research Council (PAR) of Louisiana published a report recently, calling the state's constitution one of the major issues in this year’s gubernatorial and legislative races.
On this week's Capitol Access, Robert Travis Scott, president of PAR, discusses the complexity of Louisiana's constitution and efforts to rewrite it.
Q: Louisiana’s constitution is lengthy. It’s the fourth longest in the United States. Does that make lawmaking and governing more difficult?
We have a very cluttered constitution and not because it started out that way. It's because, since we had this new constitution through a constitutional convention in 1974, we've amended it 195 times. So we've really cluttered it up with a lot of special protections, funds and mechanisms to the point where I think it's become pretty unwieldy and it's not a model constitution by any means.
Q: Voters in Louisiana have amended the constitution 195 times since its adoption 45 years ago. Compare that to the US constitution, that’s been amended only 27 times in its 230 years.
And it's only 7,500 words, so it's much smaller and has been more enduring. That's what you want to see in a constitution and that's been the basic problem we've had in Louisiana. Our culture has been one in which we've wanted to expand and put all kinds of minutia into the constitution. The constitution is supposed to be foundational principles protecting citizen rights and also just outlining what the structure and function of government is going to be. I think we could go a long way towards simplifying what we have.
Q: There’s always plenty of talk in the Legislature about the number of dedicated funds that are outlined in the constitution and how those make the budgeting process more challenging for lawmakers. Nearly two-thirds of all state general fund dollars are already committed before the Legislature even starts crafting the budget. How could a constitutional convention give them some more flexibility?
We have all these funds now in the constitution and when a lot of these were established in the '80s and '90s, we might have had different values then. We might have different priorities then about how we wanted to dedicate these funds. Why can't we sit down as a group and look at these funds reasonably and say 'is this how we would spend this today?'
If I gave you a copy of the 1974 constitution and you looked at it and held it in one hand and saw how slim it was and how manageable it is—even though it had it's faults—and then compare it to the constitution we have now, which is small typeface, crowded pages, very thick. When I ask future legislators who are running for office to look at those two documents, I ask them 'which of these would you rather read?' And then I say, 'which of these do you think you'd have a better chance of understanding?' And most importantly, 'which of these are you prepared to uphold?' I think that gets people thinking that maybe we could have a simpler constitution, which is the fundamental thing we need to uphold, and then we can work from there.