Louisiana House votes to call convention to overhaul state constitution

Representative Beau Beaullieu at a podium with a microphone. He holds a piece of paper in his hands.
Representative Beau Beaullieu at a podium with a microphone. He holds a piece of paper in his hands.
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Rep. Beau Beaullieu, R-New Iberia, is carrying legislation that sets up the framework for a constitutional convention. (Allison Allsop/Louisiana Illuminator)

The Louisiana House of Representatives voted 75-27 Tuesday to call a convention to overhaul the state’s 50-year-old constitution, even as there is little clarity about what supporters hope to accomplish during such an event.

“Our people are leaving the state,” House Speaker Phillip DeVillier, R-Eunice, told the chamber, advocating for the proposal. “I’m going to go back home and I’m going to tell them I did everything that I could to make sure that my children have an opportunity here.”

“This convention is going to impact people for the next 50 years,” said Rep. Wilford Carter, D-Lake Charles, who voted against legislation to enable the convention.

The Louisiana Senate, whose members are more skeptical of the proposal, will next review House Bill 800. The full Legislature must pass the bill by June 3, when its regular session concludes.

Gov. Jeff Landry made holding a constitutional convention a central portion of his legislative agenda over the past two months, but he has refused to offer details about what constitutional changes he wants to see happen. 

Landry and other convention supporters have said constitutional revisions could help Louisiana achieve “wholesale tax reform” and assist with the state’s estimated $558 million budget shortfall next year. 

Rep. Beau Beaullieu, R-New Iberia, is author of House Bill 800. He said the constitutional convention would address broader issues besides financial matters, Articles VII and VIII, but he, Landry and other convention supporters have refused to identify what other items they want to address. 

There has been no information about what Landry wants to specifically remove from the state’s foundational government document. That’s created an information vacuum for legislators, who have been left to guess what might be on the chopping block.

In interviews, advocates and legislators have speculated that Landry and convention supporters might be interested in weakening collective bargaining provisions, local government authority, and levee board governance. Constitutionally-protected tax breaks that lower the cost of food, residential utilities and prescription drugs for residents may also be on the chopping block, according to advocacy groups.

“Right now, I don’t know if any of us actually know what’s on the menu. We don’t know what we’re really ordering,” Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Port Allen, said before voting against the bill.

While they won’t say what they are willing to change, Landry and the Louisiana House agreed to try and take a few constitutional provisions off the table for alterations. 

Beaullieu amended his constitutional convention bill to wall off public school funding protections and the homestead exemption property tax break in the constitution. The House also agreed on Tuesday to protect retirement benefits for public employees and teachers as well as the authority and pay of sheriffs and district attorneys. 

But the House voted against insulating Southern University or judges from constitutional changes.

During the convention, Landry and Beaullieu have also promised no laws would be immediately changed. Instead, the governor has proposed only moving language out of the constitution and into what he has called a “super statute” in regular state law. 

“We are not rewriting the constitution. This is a refresh of the constitution,” Beaullieu said.

While relegating language from the constitution into statute won’t immediately change any law, it will make it easier for legislators to eliminate or change those provisions at a later date.

In spite of Beaullieu’s assurances on protecting certain areas from constitutional cuts, legal experts have questioned whether that is possible. 

Several lawmakers and attorneys believe state law doesn’t allow for a “limited” constitutional convention, where certain items are declared off limits. If a convention is held, delegates could open up any portion of the constitution for alterations if they wanted, they said. 

Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, Landry put pressure on several House members who were hesitant to support a constitutional refresh. His team pushing the convention, former Rep. Neil Abramson and former House Speaker Jim Tucker, have been pulling aside state representatives for chats in the House chamber over the past two weeks.

Landry also showed up in person on the House floor Tuesday to talk to a handful of lawmakers who have been publicly skeptical of the convention, including Republican Reps. Stephanie Hilferty of New Orleans, Neil Riser of Columbia and Joe Stagni of Kenner. He stayed in the House chamber until a vote on the constitutional convention took place, a rare moment for a governor. 

Hilferty and Riser voted to hold a convention. Stagni opposed the proposal, the only Republican to do so. Democratic Reps. Roy Daryl Adams of Jackson, Dustin Miller of Opelousas, Chad Brown of Plaquemine and Robby Carter of Amite joined GOP members in support of the bill.

Higher education system leaders and large health care providers who largely depend on public funding also released statements this week supporting the concept of a convention. 

If a convention was held, it would take place in three stages. An organizational session – where they pick the convention’s leaders – could take place as soon as May 30. Convention committees would then meet in June and July to discuss potential constitutional changes, and wrap up their work by Aug. 1.

The full convention would then meet from Aug. 1-15, according to the bill. 

Beaullieu’s legislation already lays out who would serve as constitutional convention delegates. They would include the 144 members of the Louisiana Legislature and 27 delegates Landry has selected. 


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