Wisconsin took another step in the conservative movement to amend the U.S. Constitution with the passage of three proposals in the state Assembly on Wednesday.
After hours of debate, the Assembly's Republican majority voted 54-41 to approve a resolution that would make Wisconsin the 30th of 34 states needed to call a constitutional convention under Article V of the Constitution. Lawmakers also approved measures to determine who would represent the state at such a convention and to limit the scope to the passage of an amendment requiring a balanced federal budget.
All three measures await approval from the Senate, which is also led by Republicans.
Critics of the push fear a convention would open the door to major constitutional revisions, while supporters say they would use the opportunity only to get the federal government's finances in order.
Constitutional amendments can be ratified by one of two methods: The first, which has been done 27 times, requires a two-thirds vote by both the U.S. House and Senate before being sent to the states for ratification by their legislatures.
The second, which has never been used, allows two-thirds of the states to initiate a convention, with ratification of an amendment requiring approval by three-fourths of the states, or 38.
Critics of the proposals say there's no reason the Constitution can't be amended in the way it always has — but those backing the convention argue Congress would never vote on its own to make itself pass a balanced budget.
"If you’re not going to do it, our job under the Constitution is to make sure that you do," said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, of state lawmakers' responsibility.
The national debt — currently at nearly $20 trillion — affects the ability of state governments to function, Vos said, noting that state programs including transportation, education and health care rely in part on federal funding.
Rep. Kathleen Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, an author of the proposal, acknowledged the fears of a "runaway convention," but noted that anything that comes from a constitutional convention would have to be ratified by 38 states.
The odds of 38 states ratifying a "runaway" amendment in that fashion are long, she argued.
But those arguments did nothing to assuage the fears of Democrats like Rep. Cory Mason, D-Racine, who called the proposals "deeply troubling" and an "extreme measure."
"I think these resolutions are before us for a much more nefarious purpose (than balancing the budget)," said Rep. Fred Kessler, D-Milwaukee. "I think they are supported by extreme right-wing groups that want to change the Constitution of the United States, repeal some of the Bill of Rights that have protected us since 1787."
While the call for a balanced budget amendment has been led by conservatives, some liberal groups have previously supported a constitutional convention to reverse the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling on campaign finance.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, who served in Congress in the 1990s, acknowledged the national debt is skyrocketing, but argued against the use of an Article V convention. He said he would not support a convention even to reverse the Citizens United decision, a change he would like to see.
The resolutions calling for a convention and limiting its focus to a balanced budget amendment only require Senate approval to take effect. The bill designating who would represent Wisconsin at the convention requires Gov. Scott Walker's approval.