Oct 052018

Southern Poverty Law Center advocate Curtis Davis II, New Orleans League of Women Voters President Rosalind Blanco Cook, and State Senator J.P. Morrell discuss constitutional amendments on the Nov. 6 ballot. (photo by Danae Columbus for UptownMessenger.com)

Danae Columbus

Danae Columbus, opinion columnist

The Nov. 6 election ballot doesn’t just include federal, state and local races. Citizens will also have the opportunity to vote yes or no on six statewide constitutional amendments and on legalizing fantasy sports betting in Orleans Parish. “New Orleans voters should get the information about the pros and cons of the constitutional amendments on the November ballot so they can make informed choices at the polls,” said New Orleans League of Women Voters President Rosalind Blanco Cook.

Cook, State Senator J.P. Morrell and Southern Poverty Law Center advocate Curtis Davis II explained the constitutional amendments earlier this week at Justice & Beyond, the grassroots coalition. Cook was equally direct about her very real fear of voter “roll off.” While Louisiana has a high percentage of citizens registered to vote, turnout is often quite low — and lower still on the amendments than the contested public offices, according to a NOLWV study. “Citizens who have not educated themselves about amendments tend to skip them,” Cook explained.

The Louisiana Legislature approved the six proposed amendments earlier this year by at least a two-thirds vote. State law does not give Governor Edwards veto power over constitutional amendments.

Passage of Amendment 1 would allow a felon to seek or hold elected or appointed public office 5 years after completing his or her sentence. It replaces a previous law struck down by the Louisiana Supreme Court in 2016 that required felons to wait 15 years before running. Legislators’ decision to reduce the wait time by two-thirds is seen by some as an indication that public sentiment is leaning toward giving felons the opportunity to reintegrate into society without undue delays. Under the new law felons could also accept state employment.

Amendment 2 would require a unanimous jury verdict in non-capital felony cases for offenses committed after 2018. Louisiana is currently only one of two states (Oregon being the other) which still convicts felons when juries are split. According to the Public Affairs Research Council, the current law has a disparate effect on minorities. The amendment enjoys a broad constituency across the state and is also being supported by the arch-conservative Koch network which launched digital ads earlier this week through Americans for Prosperity-Louisiana. “This opportunity to correct a 138 year-old mistake is one time only,” said Senator J.P. Morrell, the legislation’s author. “If we don’t pass this constitutional amendment to be in-line with 48 other state in requiring unanimous juries for criminal convictions, we will continue to be weighed down by this last vestige of Jim Crow and Louisiana citizens will have fewer rights than those in other states.”

Amendment 3 would allow political subdivisions to exchange public equipment and personnel for authorized activities. Cook said this amendment was drafted to make it easier for parishes to share resources. The previous law only allowed exchanges in cases of emergency. Proponents say that donations between government entities improve efficiency.

Amendment 4 would prohibit the State Police from using money from the Transportation Trust Fund (TTF) for traffic control purposes. The TTF was created and constitutionally protected in 1990 to ensure that state fuel taxes would be used to build and maintain roads and bridges or fund projects such as flood control or ports, like the Port of New Orleans which played a major role in its passage. Since its creation, the TTF has periodically been used to cover expenses of traffic enforcement but is not being used for that purpose at this time. Proponents claim that proceeds from the fuel tax should be used only for purposes directly related to improving transportation.

Amendment 5 would allow special assessments for homes held in trust by certain categories of individuals. Currently all homeowners receive a $75,000 homestead exemption for their primary residence which is not included in the local property tax. Assessments are also frozen for those over the age of 65, disabled vets, surviving spouses of military members killed in action or the totally disabled. Disabled veterans or their surviving spouses as well as surviving spouses of military members, state police, local law enforcement or firefighters who die in the line of duty currently receive additional exemptions. If for estate planning purposes these owners place their homes in a trust, this amendment would allow the other exemptions to apply to the trusts, just as they have to the individual property owner.

Louisiana voters have traditionally supported the disabled and the elderly receiving special tax treatment. Opponents say this practice dilutes the local tax base.

Amendment 6 would require a property tax phase-in for primary homes when an assessment increases by more than 50%. This amendment is being supported by assessors statewide who are concerned about property owners living in neighborhoods that are quickly being gentrified. Orleans Parish Assessor Erroll Williams, former president of the Louisiana Assessor’s Association, explained that some neighborhoods have experienced a significant rise in market values. The next city-wide property tax re-evaluation in 2020 could cause a tax increase of more than 50% for affected homeowners.

To shield those homeowners, the new property tax increase would be phased in over a four year period. “This phase-in would only apply to those property owners with a homestead exemption. I support this amendment but I would have preferred a straight out cap on property taxes,” said Williams, “Unfortunately, we couldn’t get a cap passed by the Legislature.” Texas law caps annual property tax increases at 10%. In Cook County Illinois (Chicago), the maximum annual increase is 7%.

“Providing relief to homeowners burdened with over inflated property taxes due to overwhelming outside investment of Airbnb, VRBO and other speculative STR investors, was a priority for everyone in the New Orleans Delegation,” said Morrell, also the bill’s author. “Phasing in increased property taxes allows families to address these realities in a way that prevents them from being thrown from their homes or forced to sell overnight.”

Voters are also being asked if playing fantasy sports for money should be legal in their parish. Popular websites like Fanduel and DraftKings allow players to create a fictional (or fantasy) team made up of real-world athletes. Based on how well their made-up team performers, players win or lose money. This law would become effective in any parish that approves it.

With early voting set to begin on October 23 and end on October 30, voters still have almost three week to familiarize themselves with the candidates and the issues. Voter registration is still available for the November 6 elections. People who want to register in person or by mail must complete that process by Tuesday, October 9. Voters who wish to register online can do so until October 16. In-person voter registration is available at City Hall Room #1W24 or at the Algiers Courthouse Room 105 from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. weekdays.

Danae Columbus, who has had a 30-year career in politics and public relations, offers her opinions on Thursdays. Her career includes stints at City Hall, the Dock Board and the Orleans Parish School Board and former clients such as District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, City Council members Stacy Head and Jared Brossett, City Councilwoman-elect Helena Moreno, Foster Campbell, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell.

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