Friday, October 16, 2020

2020 Constitutional Amendment Thoughts

Source: Public Domain
Because I'm a pastor AND an elected official I’m often asked for my take on elections. I used to give recommendation on candidates but several years ago I stopped doing that. Partly because I often know many of the candidates personally and also because I have friends that support opposing candidates - both of which can create tension! I'm grateful to know that so many good people seek to serve others through political service and I honor them all. So in the last few years I’ve limited my postings to discussing the Constitutional Amendments, mainly because they are often hard to understand.

This year there are seven proposed constitutional amendments to the Louisiana Constitution, and once again some of them are hard to understand. (Except for number 1 - that one's VERY easy to understand!) I'm planning to vote "Yes" on 6 of the 7. I'm voting "No" on number 6 and on the "sports betting" (i.e., gambling) proposition. Below I'm going to briefly discuss each of these based on my research, which includes the excellent non-partisan guide put out by the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, and I'll share my reasons for why I'm voting yes or no. So here is my take on the 7 amendments, plus a proposition that will be on every ballot across the state this fall:
  • Constitutional Amendment 1 would declare that nothing in the Louisiana Constitution protects the right to abortion. Louisiana already has laws in place that would ban abortion if Roe v. Wade were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. However, the Louisiana Constitution has no language that specifically mentions abortion. Some feel that Louisiana’s constitutional rights to privacy or due process may be interpreted by state courts to allow abortion. This amendment seeks to place clear and specific language in the LA Constitution that would prohibit abortion in Louisiana. (I'm voting YES! because I believe strongly that there should be no provision for abortion in the Louisiana Constitution.)

  • Constitutional Amendment 2 changes the way that oil and gas wells are assessed for property taxes. Currently the production of a well is not taken into account when property taxes are assessed and has caused disagreement between producers and assessors as to how to properly assess these wells for property tax purposes. This amendment authorizes the LA Tax Commission to create rules for how the gas and oil well’s production would be included into a method used by local assessors. Interestingly, both producers and assessors have backed this bill as a more fair way of assessing these properties. (I'm voting YES because I believe this is a fairer way to assess property taxes - especially since both sides affected by this agree on it!)

  • Constitutional Amendment 3 allows the state’s Budget Stabilization Fund to be used when there is a federally declared disaster, as opposed to only when there are revenue shortfalls. The “Rainy Day Fund” is a financial cushion the state can use when revenues fall below forecasts that were used to set the budget. This amendment would allow the state to tap into the “Rainy Day Fund” to front the costs associated with a federally declared disaster, with the understanding that those funds would be reimbursed from federal emergency relief funds that typically come into the state some period of time after a disaster. Some feel this amendment passed out of committees without a full vetting due to Covid-19 restrictions on meetings and should go through a fuller review process and are concerned that the “payback” provisions may not have enough teeth. (I'm voting YES because I know the financial burden of placed on governmental bodies to have to "front" the money that will eventually be reimbursed.)

  • Constitutional Amendment 4 establishes a new, more conservative, budget spending limit. The current limit has an upper limit of 5% and is based on changes in the average personal income in Louisiana. The new limit adds three more factors which would seemingly restrict the fluctuations in a single factor limit and create a limit that doesn’t fluctuate as much, making budgeting more consistent. Opponents feel it would constrain government too much, but fiscal conservatives have promoted this as a way to rein in state spending. (I'm voting YES because this will give forecasters more tools to make realistic budget projections.)

  • Constitutional Amendment 5 creates a new economic development tool called “PILOTs” (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) which are used by many other states to attract new developments. This allows for public/private partnerships in economic development where the governmental entity becomes the owner of the property and leases it to the private sector, which makes the property exempt from property taxes. The business then makes scheduled payments back to  the local government bodies in place of property taxes. While it may not generate as much income to the local governments the money is bondable and it’s often viewed as being better for local governments than the 10-year ITEP exemption which is one of the only economic development tools available. Those who support this say it would both attract new businesses and allow existing major industrial sites to expand capacity or add equipment. Those opposed typically point to tax breaks being given to businesses which then shifts the tax burden to others. These agreements must be approved by the local taxing authority (school district, parish, municipality, etc) which provides for local input and control over the process. (I'm voting YES because I believe we need more economic development tools to attract manufacturers to Louisiana. And the jobs created by these new businesses or expansions of existing businesses offset the negatives, in my opinion.)

  • Constitutional Amendment 6 allows homeowners with higher incomes to qualify for the existing property tax assessment freeze that is currently available to homeowners with lower incomes. Currently homeowners with incomes of $77,030 or less can request that the assessment of their primary residence be “frozen” and not be raised during reassessment years. This amendment raises the threshold to $100,000 and would be adjusted each year for inflation beginning in 2026. Proponents argue that this would make Louisiana more attractive to retirees. Detractors argue that since the median household income for those aged 65-74 is $52,465 this amendment is unnecessary since most people over 65 already qualify for the existing assessment freeze. (I'm voting NO on this because I think it extends the freeze protection beyond the original intention of protecting seniors on limited budgets. Through the Homestead Exemption Louisiana already exempts the property tax on the first $75,000 of every owner-occupied home in Louisiana. This relief would be minimal to a small number of individuals but the impact on school systems, parishes and other local governments could be significant.) (P.S. I expect my position to be an unpopular one and I expect this amendment to pass overwhelmingly. But I'm simply sharing MY opinion and why I'm voting the way I am.)

  • Constitutional Amendment 7 could create a new fund in which to place unclaimed property money. Each year the LA Treasury Department receives millions of dollars in unclaimed moneys from companies that can’t find the people those moneys are owed to. (Examples include unclaimed bank accounts, insurance payments, utility bill excesses, etc.) The Treasurer’s office receives these moneys and holds them in trust, allowing for citizens to search for and recover their unclaimed property. Current law allows for a percentage of the unclaimed money to be used for state general fund appropriations. This bill would create a fund for all excess unclaimed property funds and then only the interest and investment earnings would be eligible to be passed on to the State General Fund. This would prevent a situation that has already happened twice where more claims came in than were available in the Treasurer’s escrow account since the surplus had been used by the State General Fund. (I'm voting YES on this because it protects the property rights of Louisiana citizens. While much of this money goes unclaimed forever, it's still NOT the property of the state and should be held in trust for the original property owner and their heirs. In the short-term the state will have to plug the hole this creates because they've come to depend on this extra "free" money. But it's not right. The state will receive the interest and earnings off of investing this money, which eventually will be significant. But in the short-term I believe in protecting the property of the citizens that is held in trust for them.)

  • "Proposition to allow sports betting by parish." Although this is not a constitutional amendment, this proposition will appear on all ballots throughout the state on November 3. A vote for this proposition would allow sports betting in the voter’s parish. While “gambling” is forbidden under the LA Constitution, courts have ruled that many forms of “gaming” (including casinos, video poker, lotteries, racetracks, and fantasy sports contests) are allowed. Voting for this proposition will legalize and formalize sports wagering, bringing in new tax revenues to state and local governments, but is also an overt effort to attract younger people, expanding gambling to homes and mobile devices across the state. According to Wallethub, Louisiana is the fifth most gambling addictive state and this vote will decide if this major expansion of gambling will be allowed. (As you can tell by my description, I'm voting NO on this proposition as the negative side of gambling does not outweigh whatever financial windfall the state receives. In my opinion.)  

Well, there you have it - those are my recommendations for the seven proposed constitutional amendments and the sports betting proposition. There is a lot more on the ballot, including the President, Senate, House of Representatives, LA Supreme Court Justice, Rapides Parish District Attorney, as well as Alexandria City Marshal, Pineville City Marshal and Alexandria City Council races ... and maybe more! One resource on the various candidates you may appreciate is the Louisiana Voter Guide published by the Louisiana Family Forum

Don't forget you can find your sample ballot by going to the GeauxVote website. You can even print it out to help you remember how you plan to vote when you go into the voting booth, since you'll only have a limited time there to cast your vote. And that's the important thing - whether you agree with me or not, please remember to cast your vote in this important election!!!