Lawmakers want to change the constitution — again
Yet again, Louisiana voters will be asked to decide on a number of amendments to the state constitution in the upcoming fall elections.
The constitution, ratified in 1974 as a framing document to define state government's basic principles and structure, has consistently been changed through amendments. Items normally placed in state statutes, where lawmakers can more easily regulate them as circumstances change, require legislative approval and support from a majority of state voters.
Last year, voters saw 11 constitutional amendments on the ballot. This year it is eight, with the first four on the Oct. 14 primary ballot and the remainder in the Nov. 18 general election.
According to Ballotpedia, the current version of the Louisiana Constitution has been amended 214 times and has seen the most amendments out of all other states since 2006.
The Council for A Better Louisiana (CABL) pointed out in its recent analysis that the ballot language on some proposals is not as simple and straightforward as it appears. CABL is a nonpartisan organization that works on public policy issues.
“There is a backstory, of sorts, to all of them, and it soon becomes apparent that context is important,” the CABL report said. “The ballot language is usually kept short and simple, but rarely does it tell you what you need to know to make an informed decision.”
This article includes explanations and analysis for the first four amendments. A second article on the remaining four proposals will be published ahead of the Nov. 18 election.
Amendment No. 1: Election Donations
Ballot language: “Do you support an amendment to prohibit the use of funds, goods, or services from a foreign government or a nongovernmental source to conduct elections and election functions and duties unless the use is authorized by the secretary of state through policies established in accordance with law?”
On its face, this amendment would prohibit the use of private donations to conduct elections, though the ballot language frames it as a way to stop foreign countries from corrupting parish election officials. In reality, it stems from an unsubstantiated election conspiracy theory that prompted Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry and other conservatives to block parish election officials from receiving charitable donations to pay for tents, signs, hand sanitizer, and other items needed for the 2020 elections, the first held during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Election officials in other states received the same grants, which came from the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life. CTCL raised the money through large donations from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Knight Foundation, Google, and other American companies and organizations.
Zuckerberg announced his donation with a statement saying, “We should be doing everything we can to make it easier for people to cast their ballots.” The news drew ire from conservatives who claimed the grants would tilt elections in favor of Democrats. Higher voter turnout generally favors Democratic candidates.
Rep. Blake Miguez, R-New Iberia, sponsored the amendment legislation, which marks his fourth attempt to pass such a measure. His previous attempts were all regular bills that sought to codify the proposal as a state statute. Gov. John Bel Edwards vetoed two of those bills, and one failed in the state Senate.
Miguez found a way around the governor this year by introducing the measure as a constitutional amendment. It only needed the backing of the Republican-controlled legislature before heading directly to the voters with language different from what appeared in previous bills.
In those previous bills, Miguez used more straightforward terms that would have prohibited grants “from individuals or profit or nonprofit corporations.” The new ballot language plays on fears of foreign corruption by asking voters if they support prohibiting donations “from a foreign government or a nongovernmental source to conduct elections.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 24 states have since passed laws prohibiting or limiting the use of private money to help conduct elections, but many of those include exceptions that would allow their use in certain circumstances, and none mention anything about foreign governments.
Amendment No. 2: Religious services
Ballot language: “Do you support an amendment to provide that the freedom of worship in a church or other place of worship is a fundamental right that is worthy of the highest order of protection?”
The proposal seems like a basic declaration of religious freedom in line with American democracy. Some might wonder why such an amendment is necessary given the protections already established in the state and U.S. constitutions. In its first article, the Louisiana Constitution has a clause that states, “No law shall be enacted respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
This proposal is a response to the emergency health order Gov. John Bel Edwards enacted during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic to restrict public gatherings, including in-person worship services. Most churches cooperated in an effort to protect their parishioners and help slow the spread of the virus. Even before the governor’s order, many had scaled back in-person gatherings and started offering virtual services.
However, one far-right Pentecostal pastor was notoriously defiant — Tony Spell of the Life Tabernacle Church in Central. After openly defying the governor’s orders, Spell received six misdemeanor citations that were later dismissed by the Louisiana Supreme Court, which ruled the executive orders were an unconstitutional “infringement of the fundamental right of the free exercise of religion.”
The court didn’t outright deny the governor’s authority to order shutdowns during times of emergency but said such orders must be narrowly tailored to serve a compelling interest. Justices ruled that Edwards’ orders weren’t narrowly tailored.
Proposed Amendment No. 2 essentially echoes the state Supreme Court ruling and might have no impact on current law. But some worry about the vagueness and uncertainty of the phrase “highest order of protection” in the ballot language. It’s possible that future justices could interpret that to mean the state may never, in any circumstances, restrict religious services.
In its analysis, CABL said it doesn’t oppose the amendment but noted that it “seems unnecessary.”
Amendment No. 3: Budget surpluses
Ballot language: “Do you support an amendment to require that a minimum of 25% of any money designated as nonrecurring state revenue be applied toward the balance of the unfunded accrued liability of the state retirement systems?”
This amendment would allow the Louisiana Legislature to use a larger percentage of surplus dollars to reduce debt in the retirement pensions for teachers and other state workers.
Budget surpluses occur when the state government has money left over that it didn’t spend after the close of a fiscal year. Currently, the constitution requires that at least 10% of those surplus dollars be used to pay down debt in the retirement systems. Amendment No. 3 would raise that minimum percentage to 25%.
The state has roughly $17 billion worth of debt on its four retirement systems but is already on track to pay it off by 2029 — just six years from now.
In its analysis of the amendment, the nonprofit Louisiana Budget Project noted retirement benefits are constitutionally guaranteed for the state employees who participate, so teachers and state workers will get their pension money regardless of whether Amendment No. 3 passes. Also, the proposal could reduce the amount of money that could be used for other priorities such as coastal restoration or road and bridge projects.
“Without this amendment, policymakers would still have the option to direct as much surplus money as they wish to the state’s retirement systems,” the Budget Project said in its report. “But they would also have the flexibility to invest those funds into one-time projects that may have a more immediate positive impact on the state.”
CABL made those same points but said there is “very little downside” to paying off pension debt early except that it could reduce funds that might be available for other uses, though CABL views that as a reasonable tradeoff.
“Retirement debt eats up huge amounts of revenue that state agencies, local school boards, and colleges could use for providing services,” CABL’s report said. “Reducing that debt ultimately helps all of them and strengthens the retirement systems, as well.”
A separate 25% of surplus dollars is already earmarked for the state’s “Rainy Day Fund,” so the approval of this amendment would leave half of any budget surplus dollars for other uses.
Amendment No. 4: Revoking tax breaks for slumlords
Ballot language: “Do you support an amendment to deny a property tax exemption to a nonprofit corporation or association that owns residential property in such a state of disrepair that it endangers public health or safety?”
Currently, Louisiana’s constitution exempts nonprofit organizations from having to pay property taxes. This amendment would give local governments the right to revoke that exemption from individual organizations if their properties are cited for at least three serious code violations within a 12-month period.
The proposal aims to address chronic housing issues in New Orleans, where some residents live in apartments with partially collapsed roofs, water damage, and moldy walls. Some of the properties in question are owned by nonprofits that don’t have to pay property taxes, so local officials are limited in what they can do in terms of enforcement.
The amendment passed with overwhelming support in the Louisiana House and unanimous support in the Senate.
CABL noted that some conservatives in the House raised concerns about potential government overreach, but the organization said the amendment largely avoids that possibility.
To lose the tax exemption, a nonprofit would have to receive three health and safety related violations within a one-year period. The nature of those violations is well-defined to include only things of a serious or potentially dangerous nature, not a broken fence or cracks in the sidewalk, CABL said.
“Receiving a tax exemption is a privilege, and to maintain that privilege, it is not unreasonable for a property owner to provide a certain level of maintenance and repair to assure that residents of their complex, which often include young children, are safe and protected,” CABL said in its report.