GOP lawmakers in Arizona to plan balanced budget convention

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Arizona State Capitol Building Arizona State Capitol Building

Lawmakers from 19 states are set to convene at the Arizona Capitol on Tuesday to come up with a plan for a constitutional convention that would propose a federal balanced budget amendment.

The four-day meeting is designed to set the stage if 34 state Legislatures approve a call to amend the Constitution through a convention. Currently, 27 states have active requests to convene a convention, all controlled by Republicans.

[RELATED: $9.8 billion Arizona budget heads to happy governor]

A convention has never successfully been used to propose an amendment. All 27 amendments that have been adopted were proposed by Congress.

But a balanced budget amendment is a core goal of conservative Republicans who have gained control of a growing number of state Legislatures in recent years, now controlling both chambers in 32 states.

The goal of amendment backers is to eliminate the federal deficit and drive down the national debt, which is approaching $20 trillion. The current federal budget includes spending of about $4 trillion and has a shortfall of nearly $700 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Congress debated a balanced budget amendment in the early and mid-1990s, but it did not pass.

Arizona is hosting 75 delegates this week, all Republicans. State Rep. Kelly Townsend said efforts to invite Democratic states have not been successful. Proposed rules say delegates must be approved by both houses of their home state Legislature "so that they can legitimately vote and represent their state," Townsend said.

[RELATED: Arizona Legislature set to debate $9.8 billion budget]

"You can't say that we blocked Democrats - I've been begging them to come," she said.

If backers, which include groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Koch Brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity, succeed in getting the required 32 states on board and adopt an amendment, it still must be ratified by three-quarters of the states. That high bar limits the chances of a "runaway convention" where delegates could do a wholesale rewrite of the Constitution, Townsend said.

"There's no way we could do something so nefarious," she said. "Whatever we do when we close down and adjourn, our final product has to be viable. It's not binding yet, and the states have to ratify it - that's 38 of them."

Opponents of a balanced budget amendment argue that a convention could go off-track and move into other areas. They also say a balanced budget amendment could threaten the economy.

"By requiring a balanced budget every year, no matter the state of the economy, such an amendment would risk tipping weak economies into recession and making recessions longer and deeper, causing very large job losses," according to a policy paper by the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

That's because lawmakers would be forced to cut spending during recessions, removing a key way the federal government can boost economic activity.

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