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State leaders converge on Arizona House to plan constitutional convention

Republican State Senators Steve Smith of Maricopa, left, and Sylvia Allen of Snowflake watch as delegates from 19 states deliberate rules and procedures for a hypothetical convention of the states. (Photo by Ellen O'Brien/Arizona Capitol Times)

Republican State Senators Steve Smith of Maricopa, left, and Sylvia Allen of Snowflake watch as delegates from 19 states deliberate rules and procedures for a hypothetical convention of the states. (Photo by Ellen O’Brien/Arizona Capitol Times)

State leaders who descended on Arizona’s Capitol to make plans for a potential convention of the states hope that their meeting of the minds helps legitimize their effort to amend the U.S. Constitution.

The Balanced Budget Amendment Planning Convention, a gathering of 73 delegates sent by 19 states, including Arizona, is the precursor to the real deal: A convention of the states provided for through Article V of the U.S. Constitution, with the intention of limiting federal spending by way of a balanced budget amendment.

Two-thirds of the states must call for such a convention to occur, and so far, lawmakers in 27 states have passed resolutions doing just that, according to the national Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force. With seven states to go, hosting a planning convention helps validate the effort and educate the public and other lawmakers, said Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, an alternate Arizona delegate.

“This is really more of an introduction to people, to understand the history of conventions,” said Thorpe.

Alabama GOP Sen. Arthur Orr, the lone delegate from his state, said the movement to call for a balanced budget convention is gathering steam. There have been many meetings in anticipation of a bona fide convention of the states, including a mock convention held last fall in Williamsburg, Virginia. But the purpose of the planning convention, hosted by Arizona at the House of Representatives through September 15, is important to show that lawmakers who call for an Article V Convention are committed to the cause, Orr said.

“We’re just one of 50, but everyone that shows up gives greater momentum in this regard to the seriousness of our needing to address the federal deficit,” Orr said.

Broadly, the planning convention serves as a time to debate rules and procedures that the delegates propose to use during a convention of the states, and to recommend to Congress a way to determine the date, time and location of a convention of states.

However, they’ll first need to convince seven more states to call for a convention. The national Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force is targeting nine states in 2017-2018, including some blue states like Kentucky, Minnesota, South Carolina and Virginia, according to its website.

Rep. Kelly Townsend (R-Mesa)

Rep. Kelly Townsend (R-Mesa)

In the meantime, delegates delved into a 13-page draft of rules, written by delegates from Tennessee, in sometimes excruciating detail. When asked about some of the minutiae that has crept up in subcommittee discussions, such as a roughly 25-minute debate over the words “delegate” and “commissioner,” Rep. Kelly Townsend, elected by the delegations as president of the planning convention, rolled her eyes and smiled.

“That’s a legislator for you. Wordsmiths,” she quipped.

Townsend, R-Mesa, acknowledged some concern that getting bogged down in the details was hindering the work of the convention, but called it “a lesson learned.”

“One of the good things about doing this is, we are currently writing a love letter to the next convention. Whoever those delegates are, we’re going to say, this is what we did wrong, and this is what we thought went well. You can do yourselves a favor if you don’t repeat our mistakes,” Townsend said. “I wish somebody had written us a love letter, but we’re figuring it out on our own.”

Simply hosting the planning convention showed that, as Townsend put it, the effort to hold a convention of states is “starting to get real.” By showing up to make plans in Arizona, those interested in a convention of states are taking ownership of the effort, she said, while in the past, such efforts have been led not by legislators, but private interest groups like the National balanced Budget Amendment Task Force and the Convention of States Project.

“We’re very grateful to the various groups, the interest groups that want to see this happen as well. And we’re thankful to that. But I think it’s time now where we’ve graduated from, those who’ve known about it, we’re the ones who should’ve known about it and been pushing this, we as legislators,” Townsend said. “We have now in our hands the ability to organize and move forward and not needing the interest groups.”

Delegates appointed from 19 states that have called for a Convention of the States pledge allegiance to the flag before beginning sessions to plan for that very convention. (Photo by Ben Giles/Arizona Capitol Times)

Delegates appointed from 19 states that have called for a Convention of the States pledge allegiance to the flag before beginning sessions to plan for that very convention. (Photo by Ben Giles/Arizona Capitol Times)

For the delegates in attendance, the timing of the planning convention could not have come sooner. The convention opened the same day it was announced that the national debt exceeded $20 trillion. That led Gary Banz, an alternate delegate and former Oklahoma representative, to declare that a balanced budget amendment isn’t a “red or blue” issue.

The makeup of the delegates attending the planning convention says otherwise. The push for a balanced budget amendment is admittedly a Republican-dominated cause, but it’s not for a lack of trying to recruit blue states to participate, said Townsend, who led the efforts to plan the planning convention and sent invitations to all 50 states.

“You can do a FOIA on my emails,” Townsend said. “I sent it out to everybody multiple times, and in particular asked California, please come. And they declined.”

Reaching out to blue states was like “pulling teeth,” and Townsend added that it was tough for states where each chamber is controlled by opposing parties — in order to be sent as a delegate, delegates needed authorization from leadership in both Houses. But generally, blue states just didn’t show.

“That’s the problem. The blue states haven’t had an interest in coming,” she said. “If we were talking about overturning Citizens United, they’d probably be here. This isn’t their issue. It’s a Republican issue.”

To keep that momentum going, delegates have discussed holding a second planning convention next year, perhaps on September 17, 2018 – a fitting day, delegates noted, since it’s celebrated as Constitution Day.

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