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With Senate vote, Wisconsin joins call for unprecedented convention to amend U.S. Constitution
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With Senate vote, Wisconsin joins call for unprecedented convention to amend U.S. Constitution

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Constitutional convention protesters

Protesters hold up signs in opposition to a convention to amend the U.S. Constitution as people enter the Senate chambers at the state Capitol on Tuesday. 

State lawmakers have made Wisconsin the 28th state to request an unprecedented national convention to amend the country’s founding document, the U.S. Constitution.

The state Senate voted 19-14 Tuesday to pass a resolution that completed Wisconsin’s application for a convention, which does not require the governor’s signature. The state Assembly passed the resolution in June.

The vote moves the nation one step closer to a process outlined under Article V of the U.S. Constitution, in which a national convention occurs if two-thirds, or 34, of state legislatures request it.

A resolution that passed the Senate Tuesday, as in the other 27 states, says the convention would be to propose amendments “for the limited purpose of requiring the federal government to operate under a balanced budget.”

But critics, which include Democrats but also some conservatives and Republicans, call that meaningless. They say there’s no way to enforce limits on the convention’s scope once it’s underway.

Sen. Kathleen Vinehout and others fear a “runaway” convention, what they describe as a free-for-all in which other far-reaching proposals could surface — even ones that undermine basic constitutional freedoms.

“There is no safeguard for what gets dealt with when this constitutional convention gets started,” said Vinehout, D-Alma.

Supporters say that any amendments emerging from the convention would need to be ratified by three-fourths, or 38, of the states. They say the greater threat to the nation’s future is a Congress that can’t control federal spending.

Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, said the country is too sharply divided to undertake something as momentous as a constitutional convention.

“It is not our time in history to think we have the right to do this,” Erpenbach said.

Proponents of the convention said critics are ignoring the country’s mounting $20 trillion national debt. The sponsor of the convention resolutions, Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, said he has little faith in lawmakers to address the problem.

Sen. David Craig, R-Town of Vernon, described the debt as the chief threat to national security.

“I’ve talked to Democrats in other states who recognize that we have a debt problem,” Craig said.

Earlier this year, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald initially resisted Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ push to fast-track the convention resolution. Fitzgerald said in March that he had questions about the scope of such a convention.

Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, who voted for the resolution, acknowledged after Tuesday’s vote that he’s not convinced restrictions on the scope of a convention could be enforced once it’s underway.

“It depends on who you talk to,” Fitzgerald said. “It always should be a concern when you have something that could be wide open.”

Gov. Scott Walker’s approval of the resolution applying for the convention is not required, but he has said he favors it.

Whether to put a time limit on Wisconsin’s call for the convention looked like a potential point of contention among Republicans who control the Senate.

Senate President Roger Roth, R-Appleton, proposed an amendment that would sunset the convention call in seven years.

Roth withdrew his amendment on the Senate floor during debate Tuesday evening. He later became the only Republican senator to vote against the measure.

A related bill passed Tuesday would require, if the convention were held, the Legislature and the governor to appoint seven delegates to attend and represent the state. The bill also allows a majority of the state’s convention delegates to vote to dismiss one of their fellow delegates if he or she voted to consider or approve an “unauthorized amendment,” or one outside the expected scope of the convention.


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