Early voting begins Tuesday: Several constitutional amendments on this year’s ballot

Published 5:46 am Saturday, October 22, 2016

Early voting will start Tuesday, Oct. 25, as Louisiana voters decide local, state and national races, as well as six state constitutional amendments.

The early voting will continue until Tuesday, Nov. 1. Election day is Tuesday, Nov. 8.

Early voting locations in Washington Parish are the Washington Parish Courthouse in Franklinton, and Northshore Community Technical College’s Sullivan campus in Bogalusa. Early voting is 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., except on Sundays and holidays.

The constitutional amendments, if they pass, would change the requirements for the local registrar of voters, allow university management boards set tuition rates without legislative approval, eliminate income tax deductions for corporations on state tax returns, exempt property taxes for the widows of anyone killed in the line of duty, create a trust fund for revenue stabilization and change the threshold for spending protected funds and allow college.

Each election year that constitutional amendments appear on a ballot, the Public Affairs Research Council (PAR), a non-partisan public policy group, publishes a guide to those amendments. According to the group, Amendments No. 2, No. 3 and No. 5 could have significant impact on state policy.

Amendment No. 1: Establish new requirements for local registrars of voters

The PAR reports that if this passes, the constitution would require standards of professional and educational experience for local registrars of voters and it would also increase the transparency of the hiring process.

The registrar of voters is responsible for registering voters in each parish. By law, each parish has one registrar appointed by the parish council or police jury. At present, state law requires the registrar to have no educational or professional experience, though they must be a resident and a voter within the parish.

If the amendment passes, it would not affect the position of any current registrar, but it would require any new registrar to have a bachelor’s degree and at least two years of full time work or an associate’s degree and four years of full time work or seven years of full time work or five years of employment in a Louisiana registrar’s office.

An argument for the amendment is that as voting becomes more digital and dependent on machinery, registrars should be knowledgeable and comfortable with technology. An argument against the amendment is that it could set a high bar for finding qualified candidates in rural parishes.

Amendment No. 2: Tuition and fee autonomy to       college management board

The first big policy amendment is the vote for tuition and fee autonomy to college management boards. According to PAR, a vote against this amendment would keep all tuition hikes at the discretion of state lawmakers. Were colleges and universities to set their tuition rates on their own, such freedom could raise the cost of higher education for parents and students, but it would also provide more funds for higher education.

According to the PAR, one argument for voting “yes” on the amendment is that Louisiana is one of only two states that do not allow their colleges and universities to approve their tuition and it is the only state that requires a two-thirds legislative majority before rates may be raised. This means universities and colleges may face budgetary issues and be unable to attract top academic talent.

In addition, allowing universities and colleges to set their own rates would mean they could raise the rates on specific programs that are costlier to operate, such as nursing, medical or engineering programs while allowing other programs to stay at a cheaper rate.

Amendment No. 3: Eliminate federal income tax deduction for             corporations on state tax returns and set a flat rate

If this amendment passes, it would eliminate the deduction for federal income taxes paid by corporations when calculating the state’s income taxes, while triggering a flat corporate rate of 6.5 percent.

Louisiana and two other states allow businesses filing as corporations to deduct the amount of federal income taxes on their state income tax returns. This deduction is protected by the state constitution and PAR estimates it costs the state $200 million per year. The amendment would offer corporations a tradeoff: They would get a flat tax of 6.5 percent (they currently pay up to 8 percent depending on income) but they would give up their federal tax deduction.

An argument for the amendment would be that it broadens the tax base by eliminating deductions while lowering the top tax rate.

However, an argument against the amendment is, as PAR points out, the fact that it is impossible to say what the impact of the amendment would be on the business climate.

First, the amendment could raise disproportionately the taxes paid by smaller corporations that were never taxed at 8 percent anyway, and it is not clear whether this amendment would increase or decrease state revenue. PAR points out that the state’s own Legislative Fiscal Office has attempted to estimate the impact of the amendment and they have drawn all kinds of conclusions, including that it could raise state revenue by $30 million annually by 2019 or it could hurt state revenue, depending on the larger economy and federal tax policy.

Amendment No. 4: Property tax exemption for surviving spouses of persons killed in the line of duty

If this amendment passes, it would give surviving spouses of military, firefighters and law enforcement who died while on duty a full property tax exemption on their home.

The state already allows citizens an exemption from most property taxes up to $75,000 of the home value and spouses of deceased disabled veterans exemptions up to $150,000. The proposed change would now give the spouse a full 100 percent exemption and it would now apply to the spouse of someone who died while on active duty.

An argument for the amendment would be that it is a gesture of support to spouses and the economic impact would be minimal. An argument against the amendment would be that while the eligible population is small, the loss of even a single home’s tax revenue could impact a local tax base.

Amendment No. 5: Creates a revenue stabilization trust fund

If this amendment passes, it would create a separate trust fund from corporate and mineral taxes for use on infrastructure and pension liabilities.

At present, the state already has a budget stabilization fund the state uses for a rainy day fund. The budget stabilization fund is funded through mineral revenue and corporate revenue — two volatile revenue streams. Under the current law, the budget stabilization fund has a cap of 4 percent of state revenue. Once the fund has been filled up to this point, the excess money cannot be saved in the fund.

If Amendment No. 5 passes, a new fund would be created — the revenue stabilization fund — and it would be used when mineral and corporate revenues are down to fund pension liabilities and infrastructure. In short, during flush years less money would go into the general fund but rather more money would be tucked away for special expenses during lean years.

An argument for the fund is, it makes the state more fiscally responsible which looks good to credit rating agencies. An argument against the fund is that the amendment ties legislators’ hands, as it commits money to specific future projects.

Amendment No. 6: Adjusts threshold for tapping        protected funds

If this amendment passes, it would provide legislators a new way to access protected funds during economic downturns and it also extends protections to five existing funds.

At present, the state’s constitution allows the governor and lawmakers to access certain funds that are protected in case of severe financial stress. That stress trigger is a revenue forecast for the next fiscal year of 1 percent below the current year’s projection.

However, even then not all funds can be accessed for emergency spending. These untouchable funds are dedicated to certain priorities, including education and elder care. The proposed amendment would include some of these protected funds to those that the legislature can tap in times of financial stress. It would also use a new trigger to allow the funds to be tapped.

Under the new trigger, funds could be tapped if the official estimate for the next fiscal year falls below 1 percent or more below the previous official revenue forecast.

n argument for the amendment is that the current trigger is so high that it effectively eliminates the legislature’s ability to divert funding until the state is already in trouble. An argument against the amendment, however, would be that it relies on onetime budget fixes on a year-to-year basis instead of long-term budgetary solutions.

To find out more about these amendments, visit parlouisiana.org.