The legislature approved eight new constitutional amendments during the regular session this year that will need voter approval. Luckily, they will not all be on the ballot at the same time! Four will be on the October 14th primary election ballot, while the remaining four will be on the November 18th runoff election ballot.

In this two-part series, we will discuss the amendments in depth — what the issues are and what the amendments do, so that as a voter, you can make an informed decision before you walk into that voting booth. We will start with the four amendments that will be on the October ballot here in part one. Remember, that early voting starts Saturday, September 30th, and runs through October 7th.

Amendment # 1 is Act 200 authored by Representative Blake Miguez:

This amendment prohibits the use of funds from a foreign government or a non-governmental organization (NGO) from funding elections in the state of Louisiana. However, it does not completely prohibit non-taxpayer funds from being used in elections, but it does grant the Secretary of State the ability to authorize such funding within the confines of current law.

Elections in Louisiana are currently funded primarily with state and local taxpayer dollars, though there are occasionally infusions of federal funding, especially during emergencies and disasters. Funding for elections is provided for in the state’s constitution and is considered non-discretionary, meaning that it is one of the items the state must fund before anything else.

There is currently no provision in state law about accepting or using NGO funds for elections, which means there is disagreement over whether this is allowable. This sort of funding became an issue in the 2020 election cycle when non-profit organizations offered grants to states and local governments to assist with elections due to the increased cost of holding elections because of the pandemic. Election officials had an influx of federal funding to help mitigate the increased costs for longer early voting, increased absentee voting, personal protective equipment, and so on. Some local governments in Louisiana wanted to accept those funds, but legal and ethical issues were raised, and none were accepted at that time. As of January 2023, 24 states have banned or limited NGO funding for elections.

A vote for the amendment would ban the use of foreign or NGO funds in elections without express authorization and rulemaking from the Secretary of State with clear guidelines.

A vote no would leave the law as it is now.

Amendment #2 is Act 30 by Senator Beth Mizell:

This amendment provides that the right of freedom of worship in churches or other places of worship is a fundamental right that is worthy of the highest order of protection. Currently, the state constitution stipulates that there shall be no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. This is similar language to that of the United States Constitution. The amendment adds language that the freedom to worship is a fundamental right worthy of the highest order of protection.

In 2012, a state law passed that declared the free exercise of religion a “fundamental right of the highest order” and that government shouldn’t “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless it can demonstrate a legal standard called “strict scrutiny.” This amendment places this statute in the constitution, and further provides that if a state or local government interrupts this freedom, a court must hear any challenge brought against these actions. The court must apply the standard of strict scrutiny.

This issue arose because at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, the governor instituted a series of orders that limited gatherings, created social distancing rules, and implemented restrictions on churches, schools, businesses, and other organizations that prohibited in-person worship and gathering. These restrictions were challenged by pastors, one of whom was arrested and charged with disobeying the orders. The Supreme Court dismissed the case eventually, but there was much disagreement among the justices and the lower court judges as to the “strict scrutiny” clause in relation to the shut-down orders on worship.

A vote for the amendment would add the language to the constitution.

A vote against would leave the additional language out of the constitution.

Amendment # 3 is Act 107 by Representative Richard Nelson

This amendment requires the legislature to appropriate a minimum of 25% of surplus state revenues to the debt of four of the state retirement systems.

Louisiana’s four main state retirement systems have a combined debt of over $17 billion. This means that current fund balances do not have enough money to pay all retirees without borrowing. This was caused by a series of policy decisions made many years ago that didn’t fully fund the retirement system. The state has been working to rectify these policy mistakes for nearly 40 years.

The state government spends approximately $1 billion of its operating budget every year to make payments towards this debt. Local school systems also spend a large portion of their funding to pay school employee and teacher retirement debt.

Under current constitutional requirements, 10% of any surplus state funds (funds left unspent at the end of the fiscal year) must go to pay down the portion of the retirement debt that existed as of 1988 and is set to be paid off by 2029. There is approximately $1 billion of this original debt remaining. When this debt is paid off, the 10% requirement ends. The payment is divided equally between the two largest retirement systems, Louisiana State Employee’s Retirement System (LASERS) and Teachers’ Retirement System of Louisiana (TRSL). This amendment would increase the required payment from 10% to 25% of surplus funds. It would also change which retirement debt these payments would cover by allowing it to go toward debts that have accrued since 1988 and would remove the 2029 expiration date. This amendment would also make two other state retirement systems eligible to receive some of the surplus money, Louisiana State Police Retirement System, and the Louisiana School Employees’ Retirement System.

A vote for the amendment would increase the amount of surplus, non-recurring state revenue that will go toward the state’s retirement debt, add two retirement systems to the repayment plan, and remove the expiration date of 2029, and will continue until all debts are paid.

A vote against the amendment would leave the current constitutional provisions in place that spend 10% of surplus, non-recurring debt on two of the four system’s original debt and will expire in 2029 when those original debts are paid off.

Amendment #4 is Act 48 by Representative Hughes

This amendment restricts non-profit organizations’ eligibility for property tax exemptions if residential property is found to endanger public health or safety.

The current constitution provides property tax exemptions for non-profit organizations for religious, burial, charitable, health, welfare, fraternal, or educational purposes. The amendment would allow local governments to remove the exempt status of certain non-profit organizations when the property is leased as housing to others and the property has been found to endanger the public health or safety because of repeated code violations. There must be at least three violations within a one-year period for a list of 10 specific health or safety issues for the residents of the property or nearby residents. The exemption can be reinstated if the violations are resolved.

This amendment was brought because of an issue with one out-of-state non-profit organization operating in New Orleans that local officials have been unable to enforce because they don’t pay property taxes.

A vote for the amendment would give local officials the authority to remove the property tax exemption status of a non-profit organization if it met the qualifications of code violations that endanger the health and safety of residents or neighbors.

A vote against the amendment would leave the constitution the way it is now, and not give local officials the authority to remove property tax exemption status.

Stay tuned for Part Two in this series prior to the November 18th election for explanations of the four remaining amendments that will appear on that ballot.