HB 800 by Rep. Beau Beaullieu is the most talked-about, and most misunderstood, bill of the 2024 Regular Session. Reformers from both parties who struggled to assemble a responsible, sustainable state budget have been calling for a constitutional convention for nearly 2 decades now. In fact, lawmakers attempted to fix Article VII via a limited constitutional convention as early as 1992. That section, which deals with revenue and finance, has grown over the last 30 years to be as long as the entire length of the original 1974 constitution. After decades of using the constitutional amendment process as legislation by other means, interest in reforming our governing document is stronger than ever. Unfortunately, fear mongering from the status quo special interest swamp is trying to drown out sensible voices advocating for these necessary reforms.

The best place to start dispelling myths about the convention process is with the text of HB 800 itself. What does the bill actually say?

First, the bill calls for a limited constitutional convention. It specifies that Articles I through IV– Declaration of Rights, Distribution of Powers, Legislative Branch, and Executive Branch—are off-limits. Fundamental rights, like the rights to property, privacy, due process, and the rights to the accused, will not be affected. Likewise for our structure of government.

Second, the bill provides that provisions that do not constitute fundamental or foundational law should be transitioned out of the constitution and made statutory. This would include many of the state’s many, many constitutionally mandated funds and tax exemptions, like the infamous cigarette tax. These details are not fundamental or foundational law and could be moved to statute; however, delegates could choose to provide heightened status by requiring a 2/3 threshold to make changes. Revising the document’s amendment process is also worthy of the convention’s consideration.

Finally, the bill allows for some housekeeping. For example, Article IV, Section 12, provides for the election of a commissioner of elections. This section is now moot because the position has been filled by appointment since 2004. The document also references several dates in the past for term limits or a deadline for a provision to take effect. These dates can be omitted without resulting in any policy change. Additionally, several articles contain confusingly-numbered sections as a result of amendment. For example, Art. VII, Section 10 deals with state funds. As the constitution was amended through the years to add additional funds, Section 10 now contains Section 10.1 through 10.16, and even 10-A.

Much has been made of the convention’s brief timeline. The convention could convene work through the summer so that the resulting constitution can be placed on the November ballot. This timing is critical to ensure maximum citizen participation. Historically, voter turnout during presidential election years is approximately 70%. By contrast, voter turnout for the 2022 and 2018 midterm federal elections was and 46.7% and 50.8%, respectively. A mere 36.3% of Louisiana voters turned out to vote on the new constitution on April 20, 1974.

Additionally, the legislators—who make up most of the convention delegates–know exactly which articles prevent them from exercising their judgment. Rep. Mark Wright expressed during a committee hearing that the state is one or two amendments away from budgeting on autopilot due to the amount of funds that are constitutionally dedicated. His point is well taken as only about 11% of the state budget is discretionary. The Governor’s transition council leaders released reports specifying which sections of  Articles I through IV of the constitution should be retained, and what should be moved to statute; additional reports regarding the remainder of the constitution are expected.

The bill also provides that the delegates shall elect officers, form committees, and adopt rules. This process would ordinarily take some time, but the bill instructs the convention to use the rules adopted by the 1973 convention as a starting point.

Several hearings have already taken place and lawmakers heard from Louisianans expressing both support and concern about a constitutional convention. Legislators also report that they receive emails and phone calls from constituents about the process. And they’re listening.

HB 800 has been amended based on feedback from constituents and lawmakers. For example, the first draft of the bill called for a unicameral body of delegates, with members of the Senate, House of Representatives, and delegates appointed by the governor serving together. After hearing feedback from his colleagues, Rep. Beaullieu amended the bill to provide for a tricameral structure, with the House, Senate, and appointed delegates voting separately with a majority vote of each “house” required to conduct convention business. The House of Representatives adopted amendments at Rep. Beaullieu’s request to protect the homestead exemption and the Minimum Foundation Program for K-12 public schools from being moved to statute based on citizen concerns and removed the provision allowing for private donations to the convention.

If a new constitution is approved, life won’t change overnight for Louisianans on January 1, 2025. However, we will see noticeable change when the legislature meets that spring for a budget session. Allowing the legislature the flexibility to craft a state budget, which is an enormous part of the job they’re elected to do, will create predictability. Predictability fosters an environment for investment and assures creditors of the state’s fiscal well-being.

Special interests have worked hard over the years to protect their turf through enshrining deductions in the constitution. The result is a confusing and complex tangle of detail that prevents lawmakers from taking a critical eye to our state’s fiscal health. Streamlining our bulky and confining constitution is a critical step towards writing Louisiana’s comeback story, and we can’t wait another four years for this opportunity.