Our opinion: Let’s try this reform thing again

Momentum continues to build for a rewrite of the state constitution, something Louisiana has needed for years.

Proponents see it as a way the state can start from scratch on a tax and spending structure that will put Louisiana on solid financial footing for the long-term. It would have sweeping effects on who pays taxes and how much. And it would set spending priorities for important state services such as health, education, roads and saving coastal communities like Terrebonne and Lafourche from inundation.

Louisiana’s governing document, enacted in 1973, is a patchwork of laws that includes nearly 200 amendments. At more than 72,000 words, it’s now 10 times longer than the U.S. Constitution.

“More important than the length of our constitution is its effectiveness,” the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, an independent, good-government group, says in a new report.

A chief complaint has centered on the constitution’s locked-in, or dedicated, funding for a vast number of state programs, leaving higher education and health care -- services that should be top priorities -- among the most vulnerable to cuts.

“Nearly two-thirds of all state general fund dollars are already committed to specific priorities and programs as a result of mandates and restrictions contained in our constitution, leaving the governor and Legislature little flexibility to deploy funds on other pressing priorities,” PAR says. “It is not surprising that over the last four years, the Legislature has held seven special sessions solely to craft a workable state budget.”

We’ve said it for years: This is no way to run a state.

Unfortunately, state lawmakers have consistently dragged their feet or rejected reform proposals. Critics claim lawmakers, lobbyists and special interests are unwilling to undo constitutional protections for pet projects, tax breaks and favored programs. Opponents say another convention, which has no guarantee of success, could ultimately be a waste of time and money given the state’s political gridlock.

One thing reformers have going for them is the Oct. 12 elections for governor and state legislators. Now is the time for voters to press candidates for a commitment to reforming the state constitution. And we’re talking about responsible reform with safeguards that put the interests of the state and its people as a whole ahead of powerful special interests that might tilt tax policy or other laws in their favor.

PAR’s report, “Louisiana Constitutional Reform: Getting the Foundation Right,”is a good place to start. You can read it at parlouisiana.org. It does a great job of explaining in straightforward language how we got here, why reform is necessary and what the underpinnings of a good constitution should look like. The first of two reports, it focuses on broad issues and principles that should guide the process. A followup will include more-detailed recommendations.

Stay tuned for a closer look.

Editorials represent the opinion of this newspaper and not any single individual.