By Todd Richmond, Associated Press
Wisconsin Republicans moved within a step Wednesday of calling on Congress to hold a convention of states to add a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passing a resolution demanding the meeting through the state Assembly.
The GOP-controlled chamber passed the resolution 54-41, sending it on to the state Senate. If that chamber approves it, Wisconsin would be the 28th state to request such a convention, according to the Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force, a Florida nonprofit organization advocating for the amendment. It takes 34 states to trigger a convention.
Republicans insist the amendment is needed to rein in federal spending. The national debt stood at $19.8 trillion dollars at the end of May, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.
"Congress has failed to act in any meaningful way to curb our growing debt," Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said. "It's up to states like Wisconsin to stand up and do the right thing for our future."
Article V of the U.S. Constitution lays out two paths for amending the document. The U.S. House and Senate, by a two-thirds vote of each chamber, can refer an amendment to the states. Two-thirds of state legislatures, or 34 states, also can request that Congress call a convention of the states. Both methods require at least 38 states to ratify an amendment before it can take effect.
The convention process has never been used to amend the Constitution. Assembly Democrats warned a convention could lead to wide-ranging revisions that would dramatically reshape the nation's founding document.
"There is no way I trust you with our Constitution," Rep. Katrina Shankland of Stevens Point told Republicans. "Our constituents' rights are far more important than you having one more campaign talking point."
Seven Republicans broke with their party and voted against the resolution calling for the convention. Rep. Todd Novak of Dodgeville, one of the Republicans who voted against the call, said he had heard concerns from both liberal and conservative constituents about opening up the Constitution for changes.
"People don't want to mess with the Constitution," he said.
Republicans tried to blunt the criticism with two side proposals.
The first was a resolution that would require Wisconsin's convention delegation to abide by the rules the Assembly of State Legislatures drafted last summer for a potential convention. The rules limit amendment proposals to the subject for which the states called the proceeding.
The Assembly adopted the resolution Wednesday 61-37. It goes next to the Senate. Approval there would put it into effect.
The second measure laid out the delegate appointment process. Republican leaders would select six legislators, three from each house. Gov. Scott Walker would select one lawmaker from either house. Minority leaders would pick two delegates, one from the Assembly and one from the Senate.
Delegates would be prohibited from working on anything outside the scope of the convention call. The delegation could dismiss anyone who tries. The chamber passed the bill 58-37, sending it on to the Senate. If the measure gets through that chamber, it would have to go to Walker's desk.
Democrats complained that the delegation would never expel one of its own and there's no legal or historical evidence showing a convention could be limited.
"This should scare you all," Rep. Chris Taylor of Madison said.
Republican Rep. Michael Schraa responded that the country's founding fathers clearly believed in the convention process since they included it in the Constitution. Vos accused Democrats of "fear-mongering."
The bill's chief Assembly author, GOP Rep. Kathy Bernier, called Democrats' concerns "amazing rhetoric." She said states wouldn't ratify anything coming out of a runaway convention.