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Lawmakers debate how — and whether — to move forward with constitutional convention

The Louisiana State Capitol on April 4, 2023, in Baton Rouge, La.
Stephen Smith
The Louisiana State Capitol on April 4, 2023, in Baton Rouge, La.

This story was produced by the LSU Manship School News Service.

The House and Governmental Affairs Committee voted 9-5 on party lines Wednesday to advance a bill favored by Republican Gov. Jeff Landry that calls for a limited constitutional convention next month.

House Bill 800, sponsored by Rep. Beau Beaullieu, R-New Iberia, calls for a constitutional convention to take place from May 20 to June 3, and it could be extended until no later than July 15. The bill now goes to the House floor, where Republicans hold a solid majority and are likely to pass it.

The convention’s delegates would be the members of the state House and the state Senate and 27 people appointed by Landry.

The committee amended the bill to address concerns expressed in hearings last week. Under the amended bill, judges appointed as delegates by Landry would not have to recuse themselves from their judicial work.

Landry would also not be able to appoint himself as a delegate, and state Atty. Gen. Liz Murrill or her designee would serve as a legal advisor to the convention.

The amendment also prohibits delegates from impacting Articles 1-4 of the Louisiana Constitution, which deal with declaration of rights, distribution of powers, the legislative branch and executive branch.

Despite the attempt to address concerns, some members of the committee and the public still took issue Wednesday with the bill due to the timeline and lack of public participation.

“How could we possibly, in four or five weeks, figure out what we want to move where and be able to really digest the effects of moving something protected by the constitution to something that will have loose protections in a super statute,” Rep. Candace Newell, D-New Orleans, said.

Former Republican Rep. Neil Abramson, who was a part of Landry’s transition team on constitutional reform, defended the timeline and explained that each article of the constitution would be assigned to a certain legislative committee. It would examine that article and decide what would stay in the constitution and what would be transitioned into statute.

“We have already covered Articles 1, 2, 3 and 4 through this committee's work,” Abramson said. “The idea of the process would be the same for the other committees that we would take a little bit of their time during one of their normal committee meetings, but it would not be disruptive of the rest of your work where you couldn't get to the rest of it, which I don't think we've done for this committee.”

Lawmakers also raised concerns that citizens do not understand what a constitutional convention is or were not given enough notice to express their opinion on the possibility of a convention.

“I'm finding that some of the public has no idea what that means, even that language, because we're not saying ‘constitutional reform,’ we're saying ‘convention,’” Rep. Delisha Boyd, D-New Orleans, said. “Most of the public have no idea what that really means. So then when it is on the ballot, they probably will have no idea what they're even supposed to be voting on.”

Beaullieu argued that the timing of the convention is “perfect” because of the upcoming fall elections. He believes there would be less public input if the convention was pushed back to the next session. In that case, he said, there would have to be a special election, which would result in a lower voter turnout.

“We've had a lot of testimony,” Beaullieu said. “We're going to continue to have that voice, and that's why we've established the procedure for going through this committee structure to continue to give the people of Louisiana a voice and receive this public input.”

Beauilleau also discussed the financial effect the convention would have as the .45 cents of the state sales tax is due to expire in spring of 2025.

“Next year we have a fiscal cliff that we're hitting,” Beaullieu said. “$500 million is what it's looking like if we proceed as it is without this convention, and we don't give ourselves the ability to do a comprehensive tax reform. If we don't address something, it's coming out of higher ed, health care, it's that simple.”

All nine committee Republicans who were present voted in favor of advancing the bill to the House floor. All five Democrats present voted against the bill.