Close to election time, when there are constitutional amendments on the ballot, you’ve seen concise, informative guides published in the Natchitoches Times. In easy to understand language, the guides explain each amendment, lists pros and cons and explains the results of what a vote for or agains really means.
They are essential in understanding the “legalese” used in the amendments and provide answers to what a “vote yes or for” or a “vote no or against” actually mean.
Those informative guides are the work of the Public Affairs Research Council (PAR). PAR president Stephen Procopio spoke at the Natchitoches Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon Aug. 17.
Founded in 1950, PAR was formed to create transparency in state and local government. Procopio said a former governor’s refusal to disclose where funding was used prompted the need for the organization. He said PAR acts as a watchdog concerning governmental issues, but also tracks tax money spending, constitutional reforms, transparency in government, ethics, health care, education, transportation and more.
He said the latest legislative session was clouded by the redistricting issue, and once the fog cleared, there were few major changes. “It’s pretty much the status quo,” he said. “The big story is the override of the Governor’s veto, which was only one of three in the state’s history.”
In the last few years, there has been a budget boom with covid related federal dollars flooding the state’s coffers. Last year’s surplus was $699 million. Much of those funds were one-time events. Next year’s general fund decrease is $45 million.
Procopio likened the state’s influx of funding to a lottery winner. “Most people don’t do a good job when they come into money,” he said. Statistics show 70% of lottery winners are soon bankrupt.
To prevent the same outcome for the state, PAR, in its watchdog capacity, is tracking where the funding is being spent. “A lot is going to education,” Procopio said. “PAR is very concerned with the non-sustainable money. The state could end up in a crush. It must be spent wisely.”
A whopping $441 million was dedicated to education. Pay raises for K-12 education got $148 million; higher education got $159 million; building maintenance got $50 million and early childhood, specifically birth-three years, got $84 million. Natchitoches Parish got a piece of the pie with NSU getting $7 million for Keyser Hall. Procopio said the focus on birth-3 is ensuring the quality is there. He said the programs have a rating system. The higher rated programs are resulting in better students, higher test scores and ultimately better adults. “They are not entering the criminal justice system,” he said. He noted that $40 million is invested in a trust fund. Local school districts can tap into the trusts with matching funds available from the state. He said PAR could assist districts in getting the funds.
He said much of the funds are going to “non-sexy items you will never get reelected for” such as infrastructure. Some highlights include $450 million to water/sewer system upgrades (statewide), $300 million for a new bridge in Baton Rouge, $200 million for I-49 south, $120 million for coastal projects, $100 million for road preservation, $101 million for lawmakers pet projects (specific to their districts) and $33 million for Hurricane Ida recovery. These figures provided by the Legislative Fiscal Office.
And going back to those constitutional amendments, since our current constitution took effect in 1974, there have been 297 amendments passed before the voters, with 203 approved.
This November, voters will decide the outcome of 11 amendments with another already on the November 2023 ballot.
The PAR guides for the Nov. 8 election will be available by the end of September.