Changing the budget 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. (Mitchell and Tuszynski, “Institutions and State Spending,” p. 35.)
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 (Cited in Ibid., pp. 37-38). 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. (Cited in Ibid., p. 43.)
Because the proposals in this paper look to change the state’s fiscal institutions, several would require not just changes to existing state law, but amendments to the state Constitution. As noted above, 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. While comparatively young, the Constitution has undergone dramatic changes since its enactment in 1974. Whereas Congress and the states have amended the federal Constitution 27 times in 231 years, the Legislature and voters have amended the state Constitution seven times as often (189 times) in less than one-fifth the time (43 years). 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. (Louisiana Constitution of 1974, Appendix B, Constitutional Amendments by Year.)
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). (Fascinating Facts about the U.S. Constitution, State Constitutions by Ballotpedia)
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.
The Legislature should pass a bill providing for a Constitutional Convention to reform Louisiana’s 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, including but not limited to:
- Local government, including parish boundaries;
- State revenue and finance;
- The civil service and state pension systems;
- All dedicated funds included in the state Constitution; and
- Workers compensation.
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, as outlined in above.
- Renew the relationship between state government and local/parish government, as outlined in a forthcoming paper. 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 outlined in a forthcoming paper.
Enacting bold constitutional reforms will provide a necessary—but not sufficient—complement to the proposals listed in this document, and future reports in this series. Many 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.