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Vos, Nygren Assembly

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, right, and Joint Finance Committee co-chairman John Nygren, R-Marinette, left.

Wisconsin would join states requesting an unprecedented convention to amend the U.S. Constitution under a measure that passed the state Assembly Wednesday.

The resolution requests the convention “for the limited purpose of requiring the federal government to operate under a balanced budget.” It passed the Assembly on a 54-41 vote, with seven Republicans joining Democrats in opposition.

Meanwhile, Gov. Scott Walker will be next to act on a separate bill that would give lawmakers power to block administrative rules put forth by state agencies. That bill also passed the Assembly Wednesday.

For the resolution seeking a convention to amend the U.S. Constitution, the state Senate would be the next stop. Its fate in that chamber is uncertain.

The threshold to trigger such a convention, under Article V of the Constitution, is if two-thirds, or 34, of the states pass resolutions requesting a convention.

For now, 27 other states have requested such conventions for the purposes of a balanced budget amendment, according to a group advocating a convention.

Critics of the resolution say it could open the door to a “runaway” convention — a free-for-all in which other far-reaching proposals could surface. They say there’s no mechanism to enforce limitations on the scope of a convention once it’s underway.

In Wisconsin, most of those critics are Democrats — but some are conservative, including the John Birch Society, which has advocated against an Article V convention.

“You could have this convention and the whole thing could go off the tracks and before we know it, some of our most important rights could be stripped away,” Rep. Christine Sinicki, D-Milwaukee, said during the Assembly debate.

The resolution’s sponsor, Rep. Kathleen Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, said the safeguard against a runaway convention is that amendments emerging from the convention would need to be ratified by three-fourths, or 38, of the states.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said a greater threat than a runaway convention is a U.S. Congress that can’t control federal spending.

“The runaway Congress is the danger to our future,” Vos said.

Critics of a balanced budget requirement say the federal government should be permitted to run deficits, especially during wars, recessions or other emergencies. During Wednesday’s debate, Rep. Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg, described the requirement as a “Trojan horse” to force sweeping cuts to popular entitlement programs.

A related bill, which passed the Assembly 58-37 Wednesday, calls for the governor and lawmakers to appoint seven delegates to serve as Wisconsin’s delegation to a constitutional convention if one is called. Under the bill, if one of the delegates votes at the convention to consider or approve an unauthorized amendment — defined as being outside the scope of the call of the convention — the delegate may be immediately dismissed by a majority of the state’s other delegates and replaced.

The U.S. Congress can propose individual constitutional amendments. But requesting a convention is the only way for state lawmakers to initiate the process.

Congress mulled a federal balanced budget amendment in 1992. It fell just shy of the two-thirds majority needed to pass the U.S. House.

Majority votes in the state Assembly and state Senate are all that’s needed for Wisconsin to join the states requesting a convention.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald was notably cool to the idea in March, saying he had questions about the scope of a constitutional convention.

Fitzgerald spokeswoman Myranda Tanck said in an email this week that “the Senate Republican caucus will continue to discuss the measure.” She did not respond to an inquiry about what position Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, takes on the measure.

State agency rules

A bill giving a legislative panel power to block implementation of proposed state agency rules passed the Assembly on a 62-34 vote Wednesday.

The state Senate passed the bill last month.

Under the bill, which supporters call the REINS Act, state agencies could not impose rules projected to cost businesses or local governments more than $10 million. Lawmakers and the governor would have to enact a law instead.

It also would allow the Legislature’s Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules to contract for an outside party, rather than the agency proposing a rule, for an alternate projection of costs associated with a rule.

Vos, in a Wednesday press conference, cast the bill as a check on the power of the governor.

“It is a really important thing for the rebalance of power between the executive branch and the legislative branch,” Vos said.

Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, said the bill would allow industries and other groups override experts in the agencies meant to regulate them.

“It turns the reins of our legislative action over to special interests,” Hebl said.

There may be questions about the constitutionality of the provision of the bill allowing the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules to indefinitely block agency rules.

The question is addressed by a memo, provided to reporters by Rep. Dianne Hesselbein, D-Middleton, penned by Legislative Council, the nonpartisan agency that gives lawmakers legal advice. The memo says a series of opinions from the state Attorney General “have concluded that the Legislature, or a legislative committee, cannot act independently to revoke an administrative rule.”


Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.