'Battle Royal' Revisited?

A special session was recently wrapped and another is being considered. Should the state change its constitution instead?

Louisiana has had 11 different constitutions to guide its governmental sectors ' more than any other state in the union. The longest period of agreement lasted from 1921 to 1973, until former governor and present inmate Edwin Edwards held his own constitutional convention. It was the last time Louisiana saw a successful convention, where delegates actually assembled under one roof to rewrite the state charter.

Since then, voters have been making piecemeal changes to the constitution, doubling the length of the charter over time by approving 123 proposed amendments. It's a fickle process; the Legislature usually approves amendments in a hurried fashion, with little thought to costs or ramifications. Then the public is forced to decide on highly complex issues ' one of the many reasons dozens of ballot initiatives have failed over the years.

"Louisiana constitutional history is the unstable backbone of its unstable political culture," wrote LSU professor Wayne Parent in his most recent book.

Possible changes to the constitution are endless if Louisiana entered into a convention. Based on the state's perpetual budget problems and its dire need for money, delegates could decide to tinker with income tax rates or remove the two-thirds required vote for a fee to pass the Legislature. On the flipside, as a sweetener to help the entire proposal pass voter approval, delegates might also increase the homestead exemption, thus cutting property taxes.

They might even decide to address the growing controversy over south Louisiana's levee boards by consolidating them under one agency ' the 1973 convention merged about 100 boards into 20 executive departments. In New Orleans, where population numbers are questionable, positions and offices special to the parish might be cut to reflect fewer residents.

More than a million people were reportedly dislodged after the twisted sisters hit south Louisiana, which could significantly decrease the state's population and demographics. A provocative question has cropped up: Does a constitution drafted more than 30 years ago still apply to the state that exists today?

Elliott Stonecipher, a Shreveport-based political analyst and demographer, says resident outmigration was already increasing prior to the hurricanes. The state had a net loss of more than 75,000 people from 1995 to 2000, according to census figures. But the physical and psychological damage inflicted by the hurricanes could push tens of thousands ' and possibly more ' people out of the state permanently, reminiscent of the aftermath of the 1927 floods.

"We were already going to be third or fourth worse, as far as population, but now we are solidly last," says Stonecipher. "We have to configure ourselves for an entirely new reality. We are no longer the same state, and that trend has been happening for years. We should have had a constitutional convention 10 or 15 years ago."

Just in New Orleans, he says, there has been an annual outmigration of about 3,700 people. The Crescent City saw its population peak in 1960 with about 628,000 residents, but it's diminished over the years as Hurricanes Hilda, Betsy and Camille came to visit. Now Louisiana is faced with a challenge it should have recognized years ago, says Stonecipher.

He believes the current goals of the administration ' downsizing government, rebuilding New Orleans, reorganizing the tax structure ' can best be accomplished through a constitutional convention. The current formula will not get the job done, he says.

"Every special session is just a rearranging of the deck chairs," Stonecipher says. "All you can do is go in and prolong the agony. At some point, you have to blow the whistle on yourself. Katrina may be an exclamation point at the end of a sentence, but the sentence was 45 years long. We slept through the alarm clock."

Barry Erwin, president of a Council for a Better Louisiana, a nonprofit that monitors the activities of state government, says there's some merit to the argument. But for Louisiana to successfully execute a convention, there needs to be strong leadership from the top. If it's not there, then the state risks opening a Pandora's Box of policy changes.

"Our constitution is now more dated than it was before the storms," Erwin says. "It creates levels and layers of government that we don't need anymore, and in particular in New Orleans. If we're going to be a smaller state with fewer resources, we need to peel back these layers of government bureaucracy. And to do that, you just can't change the laws, you have to change the constitution."

Others who have been there and done that, however, find even the notion a waste of time. They argue there are more immediate needs to address and any necessary constitutional changes can be carried out piecemeal through constitutional amendments.

C.B. Forgotston, Jr., a New Orleans attorney and senior staff member from the 1973 constitutional convention, says most of the state's challenges right now are budgetary and do not require altering the constitution ' they can be done statutorily. Even sweeping changes to the charter can be accomplished in a session through a constitutional amendment, he adds, if voters grant ultimate approval.

"There is nothing inherent in this constitution that legislators with guts can't fix in one session," Forgotston says. "[Constitutional] articles can be addressed in one fell swoop through constitutional amendments. That is the safest way to do it."

And there's always the fear that lawmakers will get into a convention and change things on the sly. Forgotston remembers the 1973 gathering as a "battle royal" over provisions and protections. "I would never want to go through that again," he says.

Butch Speer, the clerk of the House of Representatives who served as a student worker in the 1973 convention shortly after he began his career in state government, says there is little need for a constitutional convention right now. For starters, the state is still grieving and has yet to accept the fact that massive changes will be needed, he says.

Additionally, it's questionable whether the state can afford a constitutional convention ' the per diem for delegates in 1973 was $50 per day for an entire year.

"It wouldn't be a cheap proposition," Speer says. "It couldn't be accomplished in a short period of time, either. We would need several months to write a proposal. Then we'd have to elect delegates. Just deciding who would go would be a complicated and time-consuming process."

The Legislature has not been receptive to constitutional conventions in recent years; most proposals have failed to garner enough votes to make it through the process. Sen. Jay Dardenne, a Baton Rouge Republican, says there has been some chatter about it, but it has yet to gain any real momentum.

Dardenne calls a convention unnecessary at this time, especially in light of the policy changes required in coming months and years. He also questions whether there is true leadership present to guide the state through such a process. But he says it's an option that should be closely monitored.

"Looking ahead to the future, the best way to safeguard these coming changes could be with the constitution," Dardenne says. "It's all just premature right now. But it will be an ongoing topic as we draw closer to election time, and it's a very legitimate topic for discussion."