Election Day is tomorrow, and presumably all of us have decided which awful candidates we will hold our noses and vote for this round. If we can avoid retching while we push the buttons for those races, we will be faced with six constitutional amendments that are on the ballot as well.
Now, my general inclination is to reject new amendments on the ballot out of hand, because policy normally should be determined by the legislature, not by an inordinately long state constitution that is amended several times each year with all sorts of minutia. A constitution is only supposed to govern the basic structure of government; ours, sadly, is not so limited.
However, this year I’m split down the middle – endorsing half of the amendments and rejecting the rest. So without further ado, here are my personal endorsements:
Amendment 1: Establishing requirements for registrars of voters.
Yes. Although I’m usually wary of imposing exclusionary rules for public offices that don’t require extensive expertise, I believe that setting some very minimal baselines is a reasonable idea and appropriate to include in the state constitution.
Amendment 2: Allow College Management Boards to increase tuition and fees.
Yes. Due to a 1995 constitutional amendment, raising tuition at public universities requires a two-thirds vote from the legislature (although there is an exception to this rule where certain benchmarks are met). This places universities in a difficult position when their budget from the state is cut. Normal practice is to allow college management boards to set tuition. Moreover, this amendment doesn’t forge new territory; it merely negates a previous amendment. While it is possible that the boards will increase tuition too much, they need some flexibility when the spigot from the state dries up.
Amendment 3: Eliminate federal deduction for corporate income taxes and switch to a flat rate of 6.5% instead of a progressive rate between 4 and 8 percent.
No. First of all, there’s no reason why this issue should be fixed by a constitutional amendment. It’s inappropriate to have tax rates set by amendment; rather, it should be left to the discretion of the legislature (preferably with a supermajority required for most tax increases). Secondly, this amendment will increase taxes on small businesses while lowering them on larger businesses. While the existing top corporate tax rate of 8% is too high, and flat taxes are well worth considering, those are not excuses for raising taxes on businesses that can least afford to pay.
Amendment 4: Full property tax exemptions for surviving spouses of police, military, and firefighters killed in the line of duty.
No. This is one of those “puppy dogs and rainbows” amendments where the subject matter is held in such universal regard that only a callous, miserly crone could possibly oppose it. However, my Scrooge-like tendencies aside, this is still a rotten idea. Many classes of people face hardship and don’t get property tax exemptions. This includes most widows and widowers. We shouldn’t be littering the state constitution with exemptions that shouldn’t exist to begin with.
Amendment 5: Revenue stabilization fund for mineral or corporate taxes to be used on infrastructure and pension liabilities.
No. You can write it on my tombstone: “He opposed all constitutional amendments that limited the legislature’s budgetary authority.” As matters stand, the legislature is absolutely hamstrung in dealing with budgetary issues such that when there’s a budget crunch, there’s little the legislature can do. Although I understand that certain taxes are more volatile and this fund is intended to provide a more stable source of revenue, fiscal responsibility should depend on legislative will, not attempts to micromanage budgetary authority in the state constitution.
Amendment 6: Allowing the legislature limited access to constitutionally-protected funds.
Yes. I’m actually on the fence about this one – not because it’s a bad concept, but rather because it simply doesn’t go far enough. As I’ve said many times before, there are far too many constitutionally-protected funds at present, leaving the legislature with little to cut during difficult economic times (usually health care and education). This amendment doesn’t go nearly far enough in correcting that problem, but it’s what we have now. Without a more comprehensive plan on the immediate horizon, it would seem prudent to take what we can get now.
Whether you agree with the foregoing endorsements or not, I hope that all voters will take heed of the pressing need to keep policy matters out of the state constitution and reverse earlier amendments that have constrained the budgetary authority of the legislature. So many issues have been needlessly “fixed” by amendment, and eventually there is a price to be paid for that.
Thus, until the day comes that we rewrite the state constitution and (hopefully) change the amendment process, we are left with this regular opportunity to make the system a little more sane. We ought to take advantage of it.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.