What to know about the 4 Constitutional Amendments on the ballot

Published 7:58 am Tuesday, October 3, 2023

By Rita LeBleu

To everyone who has ever asked, “Why can’t the Louisiana Constitutional Amendments appear on the ballot in words citizens can understand,” the answer seems to be that the staff that does the writing are mostly attorneys. Turning to PAR’s independent nonpartisan guide to the Constitutional Amendments can help.

Steven Procopio, President of the Public Affairs Research (PAR) Council of Louisiana, offered a more diplomatic perspective, saying that “some of these amendments are so complicated, it might be difficult to put them in plain English. The challenge is to make each amendment bullet proof from a legal standpoint because when ballot language is not accurate in that manner, the election results can be nullified.

Since 1974, when the Constitution was ratified – and Louisiana gets the prize for changing its constitution more than any other state –  308 amendments were proposed; 209 have passed. This year, the proposed number goes to 316, Procopio said.

Contrast that with the U.S. Constitution that has been amended only 27 times in more than 200 years.

“Most of the amendments have been fiscal and have to do with tax code, particularly tax code tied up in property taxes,” Procopio said. “Property taxes cannot change without a constitutional amendment.”

Four amendments are on the ballot Oct. 14, and the following information is from PAR’s Guide to the 2023 Constitutional Amendments. Another four amendments will be on the Nov. 18 ballot. The American Press will publish PAR’s Guide to those amendments at a later date.

Amendment 1: Prohibiting donations to conduct elections

A vote “for” would ban the use of financial or other donations from a nongovernmental source or a foreign government to administer elections under most circumstances.

A vote “against” would allow election officials to determine whether to accept financial or other donations from outside sources to conduct elections.

Helping drive this change, according to PAR’s research, is a dispute that arose in 2020. A nonprofit funded by Mark Zuckerberg offered grants to help states and municipalities run elections during the pandemic when elections were more costly because of the need for protective equipment, increased use of absentee balloting and extra hours added at early voting sites. Two prior attempts to enact such a state law were vetoed by the governor in 2020 and 2021. With a constitutional amendment, there’s no need for the governor’s consent.

Amendment 2: Protection for worship in churches

A vote “for” would declare the highest level of constitutional protection for freedom to worship in a church or another place of worship, requiring courts to apply the strictest level of judicial review to challenges when government bodies restrict access.

A vote “against” would maintain current constitutional protections, which provide that the free exercise of religion is a fundamental right, subject to the highest level of scrutiny under Louisiana law but do not specifically single out houses of worship.

Procopio said this amendment language proved complicated, even to PAR experts. During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Louisiana’s governor enacted a series of gathering limits, social distancing rules and other restrictions on churches and businesses that made it temporarily difficult for places of worship to hold in-person services.

Such government restrictions provoked disagreements and litigation in Louisiana and across the country. States varied in whether they limited worship services or let church leaders decide their response to the coronavirus outbreak.

“This amendment would declare the freedom of worship in a church or other house of worship is a fundamental right receiving the highest order of judicial protection,” Prcopio said.

Amendment 3: Surplus spending on retirement debt

A vote “for”would require lawmakers to use 25 percent of any state surplus to pay retirement debt for the four state retirement systems.

A vote “against” would leave the current requirement that lawmakers spend 10 percent of any state surplus to pay retirement debt for two state retirement systems through 2029.

ARGUMENT FOR Louisiana must cover its pension obligations to retired workers, and this approach would lower the state’s long-term financial burden. Spending more one-time money on billions of dollars in outstanding liabilities of the four pension systems will put the state on a stronger financial footing and lessen the money the state must pay annually for retirement debt. That would free up money in the budget to spend on other items, such as education and health care.

ARGUMENT AGAINST Louisiana has a multibillion-dollar backlog in road and bridge work, coastal restoration projects, water system repairs and other infrastructure needs. State surplus dollars help address those backlogs. Removing a larger portion of that surplus from the legislative budget debate reduces the money available for other critical projects and removes lawmakers’ flexibility to determine their own state spending priorities.

Amendment 4: Property tax exemptions for nonprofit organizations

A vote “for” would allow local government officials to remove a property tax exemption from non profit organizations that lease housing and have repeated public health or safety violations.

A vote “against” would maintain the current system of property tax exemptions for nonprofit organizations including for those that have repeated public health and safety violations.

ARGUMENT FOR Nonprofits that don’t correct repeated problems with their apartments or other housing they lease to people and risk the health and welfare of residents or their neighbors should not be rewarded with valuable tax breaks. Local government authorities should be able to hold those nonprofits accountable for decisions that endanger the community. The tax break can be restored once the nonprofit makes the housing safe and livable.

ARGUMENT AGAINST Code enforcement violations can be subjective. Local governing officials shouldn’t make case-by-case decisions on valuable property tax breaks because the authority could be misused and based on politics. Nonprofits may need more time to remedy problems. There are ways to address unsafe housing in state law, rather than use the property tax system in the constitution. Removal of the tax exemption doesn’t guarantee the conditions will be corrected.

Go to parlouisiana.org to see the PAR Guide to Amendments and other publications, resources and news to help voters prepare to hit the polls.