SENATE (copy)

Sen. Chris Kapenga in the Senate chambers at the State Capitol in Madison on Tuesday, November 7, 2017. PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

Wisconsin became the 28th state to call for a convention to amend the U.S. Constitution, with a 19-14 vote Tuesday in the Republican-led state Senate. 

Lawmakers also approved measures to limit the scope of the convention to the passage of an amendment requiring a balanced federal budget and to determine who would represent the state at such a convention. The first two resolutions do not require Gov. Scott Walker's signature to take effect; the third does. 

Walker tweeted Tuesday morning that he supports the measures, which were approved by the Assembly in June.

Senate President Roger Roth, R-Appleton, joined Democrats in opposing the proposals. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, had previously voiced hesitations about the effort, but said the members of his caucus ultimately lined up to support it. 

Supporters say they would use the opportunity only to get the federal government's finances in order — in particular, the country's $20 trillion national debt. 

"The founders put this in place specifically for times when the federal government was not taking action when there is severe risk," said Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, the bill's Senate author.

Critics of the effort fear a convention would open the door to major constitutional revisions in a "runaway convention," since delegates would not be required to abide by proposed limitations.

"To turn around and open that document up to a convention of people, I think, is extremely risky and dangerous," said Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison. 

Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, cited the current political climate, rife with disagreements between political parties and within them, as he argued the time is not right to open the Constitution. 

"Do you want to leave the fate of our country in the hands of people on both sides right now who are more full of rage than they are of acceptance?" Erpenbach asked.

Asked later whether he believes restrictions on the scope of the convention can be enforced, Fitzgerald said "it should be a concern."

"It always should be a concern when you have something that could be wide open," Fitzgerald said. "It's just hard to really forecast that right now." 

Sen. Tim Carpenter, D-Milwaukee, insinuated during debate that the proposals were brought to the floor as part of a negotiation with several Republican senators, including Kapenga, who held out on voting for the state budget until certain requests were granted.

"No, it wasn't anything like that," Fitzgerald said after the Senate adjourned. "This is something he's been talking about from day one as his number one priority to get through."

Fitzgerald said he was asked about the effort last spring and didn't think at the time it had enough momentum to move forward. He said voters in his district are relatively split on the issue.

Some Democrats also objected to the idea of a balanced budget amendment, questioning whether it would prevent the federal government from spending on emergency services to respond to natural disasters. 

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"Taking on some debt is healthy," argued Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee.

Sen. David Craig, R-Town of Vernon, said Democrats who opposed the measure are keeping their "heads in the sand" by ignoring the threat the country's debt poses to its national security.

The national debt "has ramifications in all of the states," Craig said, arguing it is the job of the states to intervene "when the federal government gets out of control." 

"I don’t have a lot of faith in Washington getting this done," Kapenga said.

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, or 34, 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.

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.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.