Friday, September 28, 2018

Constitutional Reform in Louisiana

Changing the fiscal culture in Louisiana requires changing some of the state’s existing institutions. While institutional change involves greater effort, it can also lead to more lasting and meaningful impacts:

Although reformers look for ways to reduce spending on particular budget items, tomorrow’s legislatures may easily reverse these cuts. In contrast, a change in the rules that govern the political process—the “institutions” that shape a budget—can have a lasting effect on spending for years to come. Codified in statutes and in constitutions, these institutions include the rules of budgeting, electioneering, and legislating. They influence the decisions of legislators, governors, presidents, bureaucrats, voters, and even lobbyists. Institutional reform can be a more effective and sustainable path to fiscal probity than a one-time budget cut.[1]

Those words come as part of a 2012 article summarizing prior work on how effectively various institutions can reduce state spending. For instance, multiple studies have found that states with strict balanced budget requirements spend $184-89 less per capita.[2] Other studies suggest that increasing the number of state Senate districts increases spending, presumably because lawmakers in larger Senate chambers feel less responsibility to constrain themselves from making “pork barrel” spending requests of their colleagues.[3]

True fiscal reform in Louisiana means changing the state’s fiscal institutions, several of which would require amendments not just to existing state law, but also to the state Constitution. Currently, the Constitution contains provisions that both restrict the budget through various monetary dedications and impede the state’s ability to bolster savings via an arbitrary cap on the Budget Stabilization Fund. Reforming the budget process in a way that will put Louisiana’s fiscal house in order for the long term of necessity requires constitutional reform.

That reform couldn’t come soon enough—because the Louisiana Constitution itself needs fundamental changes. The current Constitution dates to a convention held in 1973, which proposed a new document that took effect at the end of 1974.[4] While comparatively young, the Constitution has undergone dramatic changes since its enactment. Whereas Congress and the states have amended the federal Constitution 27 times in 231 years, the Legislature has approved a whopping 275 constitutional amendments in less than one-fifth the time (44 years).[5]

Of the 275 amendments proposed by the Legislature, voters have approved more than two-thirds—189 amendments in all.[6] In the four decades since 1978, the state has enacted at least one, and often more than one, constitutional amendment in every year save three—1984, 1988, and 2000.[7] Of those 189 amendments, nearly half (92) focused on fiscal issues, adding complexity to the annual budget in a way that has tied the hands of current legislators.[8]

The constant changes and frequent additions to the state Constitution have turned the state’s foundational document into a grab bag of special interest provisions that have collectively made Louisiana difficult to govern. At roughly 75,000 words and more than 100 pages in length, the state Constitution is nearly ten times the size of the federal Constitution (including its amendments), and three times longer than the average state constitution (approximately 26,000 words).[9]

All of these special interest provisions and dedicated funds in the current state Constitution impede good governance, at both the state and local levels. Louisiana needs fundamental constitutional reform, so that both state lawmakers and parish governments have the tools they need to manage their revenues and their expenses.

In the coming months, Louisiana should call a Constitutional Convention to reform state government. The delegates to the convention should be directly elected by, and answerable to, the people. And the convention should have a broad and bold remit regarding fiscal responsibility, including but not limited to:

  • Local government, including parish boundaries;
  • State revenue and finance;
  • Education;
  • The civil service and state pension systems;
  • All dedicated funds included in the state Constitution; and
  • Workers compensation.

This remit would echo legislation proposed during the 2018 regular legislative session, which called for a constitutional convention addressing specific sections of the Constitution, including those related to local government, finance, education, public officials, and the myriad budgetary funds included in the Constitution.[10] While that bill did not receive the supermajority necessary for passage this year, a majority of lawmakers in the House of Representatives did support the measure—a sign of the growing consensus for constitutional reform in Louisiana.[11]

Over the coming months, Pelican will release a series of papers outlining a fiscal reform package in greater detail. But in general, the Constitutional Convention should:

  • Examine, with an eye toward eliminating, the many dedicated funds in the Constitution that impede lawmakers’ ability to manage the budget as a whole,.
  • Renew the relationship between state government and local/parish government. Give localities more flexibility to manage their own affairs—and tax levels, provided local residents agree—while lowering subsidies provided by the state to parishes.
  • Eliminate tax deductions currently enshrined in the Constitution, as part of broader reforms to the tax code.

Louisiana can make reforms to its Constitution without a formal convention, as evidenced by the 189 amendments passed since the last convention in 1973. And the convention itself entails some political risk, most notably in outcomes not originally foreseen. However, should the Legislature pass a bill providing for a convention with a bold remit on fiscal policy, that action in and of itself would send an important signal—demonstrating to Louisiana families and businesses alike that the flawed status quo must change.

Enacting bold constitutional reforms will provide a necessary—but not sufficient—complement to the proposals discussed above. Some of the ideas described cannot fully succeed without constitutional reform. However, lawmakers must leverage constitutional reform to bring the other policies to fruition, or else the process of modernizing Louisiana will remain incomplete.

This post was originally published by the Pelican Institute.


[1] Matthew Mitchell and Nick Tuszynski, “Institutions and State Spending: An Overview,” The Independent Review 17:1 (Summer 2012), pp. 35-49..

[2] Cited in Ibid., pp. 37-38.

[3] Cited in Ibid., p. 43.

[4] Documents from the 1973 Convention are available on the Louisiana House of Representatives website,

[5] Louisiana House Legislative Services, “Amendments to the Louisiana Constitution of 1974,” October 14, 2017,

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Will Sentell, “Push for New State Constitutional Convention Squashed in Louisiana House, Likely Dead for the Year,” The Advocate May 9, 2018,

[9] “Fascinating Facts about the U.S. Constitution,”; Ballotpedia, “State Constitution,”

[10] Section 5 of House Bill 500 of the Regular Session of 2018.

[11] Sentell, “Push for New State Constitutional Convention Squashed.”