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Lane Grigsby

As the clock is ticking on Louisiana’s chance to hold a constitutional convention ahead of this year’s election, Lane Grigsby?— a Republican megadonor and perhaps the strongest proponent of such a convention?—?made a last-ditch effort Tuesday to convince legislators to play ball.

In a mass email to state lawmakers, Grigsby sent documents detailing proposed changes to the constitution, such as a revamp of the state’s judicial system and the removal of constitutional protections for parish property taxes, including additional taxing power for Orleans Parish. Removing constitutionally protected state funding for public schools was also considered. He told lawmakers the suggestions reflected the work of Gov. Jeff Landry’s constitutional transition committee, which Grigsby chaired.

To rewrite the constitution, lawmakers would first need to call a special session and pass a bill authorizing a convention.

They must complete that whole process ?— convention and all — by early September if they are to get a new constitution on the December ballot, said Joel Watson, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Secretary of State. That agency gave lawmakers an August deadline should they want to get a constitution on the ballot in November, he said.?

“Given these time constraints, it has been determined that sharing the Transition Committees’ work-product might be of some benefit,” Grigsby wrote lawmakers.

It is unclear whether the full transition committee signed off on the documents Grigsby provided. Kate Kelly, a spokesperson for Landry, who has pushed for a convention, did not answer a question Tuesday about whether they represented an official report from his office.

Instead, in a statement supportive of Grigsby, she said constitutional changes were important for fiscal policy. Lawmakers are currently debating whether overhauling Louisiana’s tax structure could help address the half-billion-dollar shortfall the state is expected to face next year, when the 0.45 cent sales tax rolls off.

“Mr. Grigsby’s message is what we have been saying since Day One. With the $500 million cut anticipated, Louisiana clearly needs budget reform and the only way to effectively do that is with refreshing our constitution,” Kelly said.

It’s unclear how lawmakers will respond to Grigsby’s plea. Though a proposal to call a convention passed the House in the spring, it stalled in the Senate amid concerns about a lack of information and fatigue among lawmakers, who have sat through three sessions already this year.

Rep. Beau Beaullieu, R-New Iberia, who authored the bill that would have convened a constitutional convention, was optimistic Grigsby’s email might jumpstart a conversation.

“It’s probably going to put some people at ease as it relates to what they want to change in the constitution,” he said.

But Sen. Franklin Foil, R-Baton Rouge, who sat on the transition committee and who has long wanted a constitution rewrite, expressed skepticism.

“Whether or not we can get an appetite of a majority of the legislature, I still say would be a high bar,” he said. “It was a long spring, and I think initially people were worried that this was being rushed and needed more time for proper vetting.”

Possible constitutional changes

Grigsby, a top booster of Landry’s run for governor and a prolific GOP donor, has for decades sought to dramatically alter the state’s governing structure.

One proposal in Grigsby’s email recommends a revamp of the state’s judicial system that would authorize judges of the state supreme court and state appellate court to elect their chief justices. Currently, the longest-serving judges hold those roles.

Another change would require the state to redraw its Supreme Court districts after every census. Yet another would allow the Legislature to determine how many appellate circuits Louisiana should have, and how many judges should sit on those circuits.

The second document, which Grigsby sent with little explanation, contains a copy of the current constitution with large sections highlighted in different colors. Lawmakers reached Tuesday were uncertain about how to interpret the document.

Steven Procopio, president of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, which had a hand in drafting the proposal, said the recommendation for blue-highlighted sections was that they be taken out of the constitution and folded into state statute.

The green-highlighted sections were to be discussed further, he said, while those in yellow entailed technical changes.

Written in blue are provisions of the constitution that set minimum millages parishes can charge in property taxes and spell out what additional amounts Orleans Parish can charge, among other provisions.

In green and up for discussion, among other items, were the constitutionally protected funds awarded to state public schools. The plan generally would empower legislators to overhaul certain tax policies, regulate state funds and make changes to the state civil service commission without voter approval.

A core group of members

The document did not emerge directly from the full transition committee?— which met three times at the end of last year?— but from a core group of committee members who continued to meet earlier this year, Procopio said. PAR helped craft the document and also had a representative on the full transition committee.

Procopio said he was unfamiliar with the judicial recommendations, but that they may reflect committee suggestions.

Foil said the documents reflected one of the panel’s major conclusions: instead of fully rewriting the constitution, the state should downsize it by putting large chunks of it into state statute.

That would make it easier for legislators to change those laws. Constitutional changes require a vote of the electorate; statutory changes do not.

Regardless of whether they call a convention, lawmakers are considering a special session in the near future that would just deal with state tax policy, Foil said. As a result, voters could see tax-related constitutional changes on the ballot at the end of the year instead of a full overhaul to the constitution.

Lawmakers are scheduled to meet at the state Capitol Thursday to discuss changes to the tax system. Legislators may seek to tinker with constitutionally-protected tax exemptions, such as the sales tax exemption for groceries, as it faces a so-called fiscal cliff next year.

Email Meghan Friedmann at meghan.friedmann@theadvocate.com.

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