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Wyoming committee hears constitutional convention bills

February 24, 2015

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — A Wyoming legislative committee on Monday endorsed a nonbinding bill calling on Congress to amend the U.S. Constitution to authorize congressional votes on whether to approve federal regulations. The committee stopped short of taking action on bills that could commit the state to joining growing ranks of states pushing for a balanced budget amendment.

The Senate Rules and Procedures Committee heard hours of testimony on the balanced budget proposals before Senate President Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, adjourned the committee meeting Monday evening. He said it would take action on the bills Wednesday morning.

Sponsor Rep. Nathan Winters, R-Thermopolis, spoke in favor of House Joint Resolution 1, saying it would require a constitutional amendment to give Congress the power to approve regulations proposed by the executive branch. The committee endorsed the resolution by a vote of 3-2 along party lines, with Republicans voting in the majority.

The committee heard other bills on the balanced budget amendment proposal, including one that would have Wyoming join up with an interstate compact calling for such an amendment.

Sponsor Rep. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, said the compact approach would spell out exactly how a constitutional convention would be organized. He said that was the mechanism to “get to the point where everything is in a box, with a ribbon, and they go and take care of business.”

Nonetheless, Nicholas expressed concern that any constitutional convention must give each state a single vote, not afford votes according to state population as the electoral college does. Wyoming is the least populous state.

While the voting arrangement might be spelled out in the compact in advance, Nicholas said he saw nothing in the Constitution spelling that out. “You’re assuming that the courts will come in and enforce the terms of the compact over the Constitution,” he said.

Rep. Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance, proposed another measure that would petition Congress to call a convention to adopt a balanced budget amendment without the state compact language. He said 25 other states have passed similar bills and said it would take a total of 34 to kick off the convention. Any resulting amendment would have to be approved by 38 states. South Dakota lawmakers approved a similar measure last week.

“Wyoming will have as much power at this convention as California or New York,” Lindholm said. He said he had an amendment to the bill that would specify that if the convention developed any voting system other than “one state, one vote,” Wyoming would be out.

However, Nicholas said constitutional scholars have concluded that such language would be ineffective in reining in a constitutional convention once it gets under way.

Fritz Pettyjohn, a former Alaska legislator, testified that the nation currently is just printing more money to pay its bills. “Now, I would argue, is the most appropriate time in our history for the states to do this,” he said. “I don’t think the federal government’s ever been remotely this out of control.”

Michael Leachman, director of state fiscal research at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C., said Monday that a number of states passed resolutions calling for a balanced budget amendment in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He said the issue then languished until about five years ago when it again started gaining traction.

“In terms of a ballot budget amendment, it sounds good, but it would be disastrous for the country and basically unworkable,” Leachman said.

“In a recession, for one thing, if the federal government was required only to spend what it took in, in that recession year, it would mean very deep cuts,” Leachman said. “If you had a very deep recession, you would actually have the federal government scaling back on what it could do, which would actually make the recession deeper and longer. You would either have to do that or raise taxes.”

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