Fourteen Louisiana constitutional amendments were on the ballot last week, and if the 43% survival rate is any indication, Pelican State voters are getting weary of further expanding our statewide charter. Only six amendments survived on a night when Republicans swept both houses of Congress, as eight amendments failed to pass amidst a more conservative and likely more skeptical state electorate. Although final voting statistics for each amendment are not yet final, election night registered voter (RV) turnout never reached above 45% for the amendments and speculation abounds that white males (45% RV), Independents (26% RV) and GOP-registered voters (28% RV) turned out in numbers higher than their registration percentages to decide the ballot issues–reflecting a collective conservative desire for less state government and more fiscal responsibility.
Amendments #1 and #2 were overwhelmingly approved by a 56% margin, in part due to a moderate ad campaign funded by the state health care industry. Amendment #1 gives constitutional protection to the Louisiana Medical Assistance Trust Fund and sets a baseline compensation rate for nursing homes and other healthcare providers that pay a provider fee. Amendment #2 allows an assessment on hospitals to draw down more federal Medicaid dollars for health institutions and creates a Hospital Stabilization Fund. Both of these amendments were meant to protect their fees from budget raiding and stabilize their fund base, and although passage of these amendments will result in a higher priority for healthcare spending, higher education now may be at greater risk for budget reductions as the only large spending category left without such constitutional protections.
Speaking of constitutional protection, Amendment #8 passed by almost 75% of the vote which moved the statutory Artificial Reef Development Fund into the state constitution and prohibits other uses of the money other than those set forth in the amendment.
Fiscal restraint by voters resulted in losses by Amendments #3, #4, #9, #11, #13 and #14. Amendment #3 would have allowed local governments to use a private firm for the collection of delinquent property taxes and tax sales while Amendment #4 would have allowed the state Treasurer to invest public funds into a Transportation Infrastructure Bank in the event that a funding source was later created. Amendment #9‘s failure to pass means that permanently disabled citizens under age 65 will have to continue to certify their income each year to meet the assessment freeze requirements. The rejection of Amendment #11 will not allow the creation of a 21st state department, the Dept. of Elderly Affairs. Amendment #13 would have allowed government-owned property in New Orleans damaged by Katrina to be sold at below-market values, while the failure of Amendment #14 means that legislators can continue the current practice of filing legislation related to tax rebates, tax incentives or tax abatements in general sessions held in even-numbered years.
Voters were also not keen on raising the mandatory retirement age of judges past the age of 70 (Amendment #5) and did not care to change the current membership of the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission (Amendment #12). However, voters did Louisiana veterans a favor by approving Amendment #7 by more than 74% which will give parishes the authority to double a veteran’s homestead exemption for being “100% unemployable”, removing the federal obstacle to receiving the disability designation with minimal impact to local governments.
Running against the grain of “No” (more taxes) and passing was Amendment #6, raising the millage cap in New Orleans for police and fire protection, and Amendment #10, allowing all parishes to shorten the redemption period for vacant blighted or abandoned property sold at a tax sale from three years to 18 months.
The Louisiana Constitution of 1974 has now been amended 181 times, reflecting a long history of frequent constitutional changes which apparently continues to this day. Whether the many changes are the result of voter sentiment to enact more specific provisions rather than guiding principles, and why the Constitution continues to evolve from a permanent statement of laws to an oft-amended document are issues for future historians to ponder. What is clear is that our state Constitution will continue to reflect voter attitudes–whether enticed by new programs, anti-tax views or special interest protections from budget cuts–and grow larger accordingly.