Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
One of Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency items moved one step further Thursday when a Senate committee recommended a resolution that would back a convention of states.
The Senate State Affairs Committee approved Senate Joint Resolution 2, by state Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, which calls for a national convention that would allow states to propose amendments to the U.S. Constitution — an action that could only happen with a two-thirds majority, or 34 states, signing onto the idea.
"I believe we're at the precipice of history that we've not seen before," Birdwell said, adding that Congress has shown an unwillingness to return to federalism. "For years, we have watched the executive, judicial and legislative branches usurp more and more power from the states, issuing dictates that become de facto law by either completely bypassing the legislative branch or acting upon issues the federal government has no constitutional authority to manage or act upon."
Pointing to eight states passing similar resolutions since 2013, Birdwell said Article V of the U.S. Constitution clearly defined the states’ authority to assemble, propose amendments and ratify them into the Constitution, as long as 38 states approve the motion. A convention of states is needed to discuss restraints on the federal budget, check federal government power and enact term limits for U.S. officials, Birdwell said.
The State Affairs Committee voted out another measure by Birdwell, with Senate Bill 21 outlining the qualifications, duties and limitations of Texas delegates who would be tapped to go to a convention of the states. The measure, also known as the "faithful delegate bill," would ensure accountability to Texans, Birdwell said, adding that the state didn't have statutory guidelines in place for delegates should states call a convention. The bill would allow only current members of the Legislature at the time of the convention to serve as delegates and prohibit delegates from receiving compensation or gifts, among other things. Both SJR 2 and SB 21 have companion counterparts in the House.
A convention of states under Article V of the U.S. Constitution has long been high on Abbott's list of priorities. Last year, Abbott proposed nine constitutional amendments, including one that would require Congress to pass a balanced budget and another that would enable states to overrule U.S. Supreme Court decisions with a two-thirds majority.
As the 2017 legislative session began, the Texas governor earmarked approving a resolution to show Texas supported a convention of states as one of his four emergency items, which built on remarks he made in December that maintained the measure remained necessary despite a Republican in the White House.
"All three branches of government have so far strayed from what the Constitution provides, it's impossible to put that genie back in the box by just one president," Abbott said. "It's going to take far too long."
The State Affairs hearing included testimony from several people who had serious concerns about the legislation.
Barbara Harless, with North Texas Citizens Lobby, said a convention of states would open "a Pandora's box" where all special interests would be at the table.
“What if a real Article V convention proposed amendments without unintended consequences?," asked Harless, referencing a recent simulated Article V convention where she said mock delegates, most of them Republican, unintentionally passed amendments that increased the powers of the federal government instead of restricting them.
Anthony Gutierrez, executive director for Common Cause Texas, said his group felt there were too many unanswered questions about the convention of states process, adding the U.S. Constitution didn't address any of the matters his group had questions about explicitly.
“I think there’s a reason why we’ve never in our nation’s history had an Article V convention,” Gutierrez said. “There are just too many questions about the process. Who defines the scope of the convention? How does the delegates’ election process work? What are the rules for voting?”
Senate Joint Resolution 38, authored by state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, was the third and final measure voted out of the State Affairs Committee on Thursday. The resolution would cancel applications by prior Texas legislatures in calling for a national convention, some more than 100 years old and still valid, instead providing a clean slate for future applications.
Those advocating for a convention of states said the federal government has long overstepped its power granted to it by the Constitution.
“Texas should be leading this effort toward liberty because we understand the process, and we are guardians and champions of liberty,” Texas co-state director for COS Action Tamara Colbert said. “We in this chamber right now are using a process our founding fathers gave us.”
Jonah Blackman, who also testified in support of the legislation, said the norm in Washington, D.C., now consisted of federal lawmakers adopting measures that only seeked to regulate the lives of citizens.
“It’s time to solve the problems of today that benefit my generation and the generation of tomorrow,” Blackman said. “If now’s not the time to run our principles enshrined in the Constitution, I don’t know what that time is.
State Sens. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, both backed Birdwell's measures while also recommending the Legislature move carefully to achieve the proper balance of protecting state sovereignty and the Constitution.
"I think we need to be very, very cautious and move slowly," Nelson said. "For many people, it's frightening to think what could happen if a group of appointees were given this kind of power."
“No one’s motives are in question,” Hughes said at the end of the hearing. “We should all be motivated by a healthy fear of real dangers, but it shouldn’t stop us from moving forward wisely.”