Unlike the U.S. Constitution, it’s quite common to see the Louisiana Constitution amended. In fact, since it was adopted in 1974, it has been amended 189 times.
There are six proposed amendments on the ballot this fall, plus a ballot initiative. During a recent radio program, three state senators – two Republicans and one Democrat – got together to talk about what was being proposed and their thoughts on whether they supported or opposed the measures.
State Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, hosted his colleagues, Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria, and Sen. Norby Chabert, R-Houma, on his weekly “According to Claitor’ program on Talk 107.3. The trio devoted the majority of their hourlong discussion to the proposed amendments.
The first amendment on the ballot forbids convicted felons from running for office for five years. Luneau mentioned that the impetus for the measure was the conviction of former Gov. Edwin Edwards. While he supports the amendment, he said he does have some concerns.
“I think that maybe that somebody who’s convicted of a felony can come back because their constituents want them back,” he said. “And I think that's the answer, is whether or not the people that are out there that are going to elect him, let him come back.”
Chabert, who also supports the amendment, had similar qualms.
“One of the things that surprised me when I started serving [in the Legislature] was just how easy it is to get a felony in this state,’ he said. “You know, we haven't addressed that yet as it relates to criminal justice reform. But there are some felonious convictions that should not bar you from running for office.”
The next amendment relates to jury trials in the state. Louisiana is one of just two states, along with Oregon, that allows for conviction with only 10 of 12 jurors agreeing. The amendment would require unanimous verdicts.
“The history of it, according to the minutes from the legislation that was passed that created the situation, it was to disenfranchise blacks in the jury system,” Luneau said. “I think it speaks strongly, we often get called an outlier in things, and we are an outlier in many things. And this is one of them.”
Luneau also suggested that it wouldn’t have a significant effect on convictions in the state, which Claitor disputed.
“I can tell you, I prosecuted under this law for a good while, and I got a fair amount of 10-2’s and 11-1’s, particularly on these heroin cases where I was putting people away for life,” he said. “And I felt strongly about it. But if there was somebody out there that had a different view, well, their one and two votes didn't count under those circumstances. So I expect it to pass. I encourage other people to vote for it.”
The third amendment, which would allow municipalities and parishes to loan each other equipment, drew qualified support from the three senators. Luneau mentioned instances where a small town might need to borrow rescue equipment during a flood.
“It's something that has its possibilities of abuse, but we’ve got the legislative auditor where he can get in there and keep an eye on that,” Claitor said. “But when our neighbors are in need, we certainly want to be able to help that.”
The fourth amendment disallows the state police from drawing from the Transportation Trust Fund. Chabert, while making pains to emphasize his support of police, noted that the fund is the only standing mechanism in Louisiana to improve state roads, which are rated among the nation’s worst.
“Not everyone knows this, but really the only way that we have money for roads and bridges, repair and new construction is from that little bitty ol’ gas tax we have,” he said. “And depending on how you look at it, we’re either the third or the seventh lowest in the country.”
The fifth amendment on the November ballot was the first to create a strong divide between the senators. Chabert came out strongly in favor of the measure to retain tax exemptions on property when it is gifted to family or placed into a trust, while Luneau opposed it.
“This is for rich people that want to put their property in trust and maintain a tax exemption,” Luneau said. “I don't think that's the real reason why we have this homestead tax exemption that we have, and this is one that I don’t view too favorably.”
Chabert argued that it was about citizens’ constitutional rights to own property.
“Your ability to own property … [is] what sets apart this democracy from others in the history of human civilization,” he said. “And [it’s wrong] for a property owner not to be able to transfer property to heir heirs without it being aggressively taxed, and we do aggressively tax a lot of stuff.”
For the sixth amendment, the senators returned to their previous unanimity, all supporting a measure to phase in property tax increases above a certain threshold when property values jump suddenly.
“Classic example of that would be if you own a home and you’ve been there for 20 or 30 or 40 years and a real nice, upscale subdivision is built next door to you and increases the property values in that area and you fall, if you will, prey to that,” Luneau said. “And all of a sudden you have this huge tax bill.”
The ballot measure, which is not a constitutional amendment, relates to the allowance of fantasy sports betting and will be approved or disapproved on a parish-by-parish basis. Chabert was strongly in favor while Luneau was on the fence, but all agreed that it was good that each parish could make up its own mind.
Chabert said that when voters see constitutional amendments on the ballot, they can usually trust that they have the strong bipartisan support of the Legislature, thanks to the need for two-thirds approval in each chamber.
“If a constitutional amendment actually makes it to the ballot, you should be predisposed to vote for it,” he said. “It’s kind of gone through a proper vetting in a Legislature where we can’t normally agree what color the sky is.”