After years allowing state dollars to be dedicated and ignoring constitutional limitations on spending, there are finally murmurs in the halls of the capitol that it just may be time for a constitutional convention to unlock so many dedicated funds. Since the current constitution was adopted back in 1974, it has been amended 186 times, often to dedicate tax dollars for a specific purpose. This means fewer dollars for the legislature to appropriate for current and changing needs.
To put into perspective as to just how often the present document has been amended, the United States Constitution, which has been around for 231 years, has been altered only 27 times. One might argue that the legislature really isn’t all that necessary with so many constitutional amendments, approved by the voters, which require how the annual state budget is to be spent.
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Currently, almost $2.5 billion have been constitutionally dedicated in 40 different funds. Programs that have such protected revenue include a Transportation Trust Fund that receives $1.2 billion of revenue for road construction, the TOPS scholarship program, and the minimum foundation program to fund public education. All these programs are noble and necessary to improve Louisiana’s quality of life. The question is whether or not the legislature in Louisiana should be able to set spending priorities to adjust for changing needs. Right now, lawmakers are, for all practical purposes, impotent to adapt as other financial concerns arise.
This lack of any fiscal flexibility was not always the rule. The original 1974 constitution gave specific instructions as to how state funds were to be disbursed. Spending was set out in Article VII, stating: “except as otherwise provided by this Constitution, money shall be drawn from the state treasury only pursuant to an appropriation made in accordance with law.”
What this article meant was that all state funds would be put into the state treasury, and then appropriated by the legislature, who were entrusted with the duty of evaluating and setting priorities for state spending on an annual basis. Initially few tax dollars were locked in to the constitution.
I have first hand knowledge about the spending protections built into article VII of the 1974 Constitution. I was an elected delegate, and during that time, I served as co-chairman of the revenue committee along with future Gov. Buddy Roemer. We often went to a local Pizza hangout, and debated for hours the pros and cons of giving the legislature the authority to set spending priorities.
We concluded that a constitution should be flexible enough to allow for changing times. A responsible legislature should have the tools to deal with current emergencies, catastrophes, new innovative programs that needed state funding, and have the ability to curtail or eliminate programs that had outlived their usefulness. What was important in 1974 maybe irrelevant in 2018.
Others will argue that they just cannot trust legislators to be directly responsible. Maybe that’s a good reason not to re-elect them. You might agree with a motto some will adhere to next year of “in the fall, fire em’ all.” But any private business would be on the verge of bankruptcy if it functioned as the Bayou State is being run now. A good start, by any measure, would be a new constitution.
Louisiana was just named the worst state in the nation (again) by U.S. News and World Report when it comes to healthcare, education, infrastructure and other aspects of day-to-day life. Going back to square one with a new constitution could be a new demarcation line. After all, it can’t get any worse.
Peace and Justice
Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers throughout the nation and on websites worldwide. You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at http://www.jimbrownusa.com. You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9:00 am till 11:00 am Central Time on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at http://www.jimbrownusa.com.