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Texas Senate approves convention of states legislation

The Texas Senate approved a resolution Tuesday calling for a convention of states to amend the U.S. Constitution, one of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's four emergency items.

Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, listens during a debate over Senate Bill 11 on March 18, 2015.

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

The Texas Senate on Tuesday voted in favor of a trio of measures calling for a convention of states, officially advancing one of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's emergency items this legislative session. 

Senate Joint Resolution 2 by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, calls for a convention of states to propose amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The resolution seeks amendments that place restraints on the federal budget and check power and enact term limits for U.S. officials. The measure was adopted on a party-line vote, 20-11. 

A national convention will only happen if 34 states, a two-thirds majority, sign onto the idea, and amendments proposed at the convention would only be ratified with the support of 38 states. Eight states have adopted similar resolutions.

Convention of states backers say the federal government has exceeded its authority and point to Article V in the Constitution that grants states the authority to amend the document and restore the proper balance of power. Skeptics of the convention say they’re wary of how much power delegates at the convention would have.

“I want to get back to the federalism where states are deciding the policies that aren’t in Article 1, Section 8 [of the Constitution],” Birdwell said.

Senate Bill 21, also by Birdwell, which was approved and sent to the House on a 21-10 vote, outlines qualifications and duties of Texas delegates should a national convention be called. Only current members of the Legislature at the time of the convention would be allowed to serve as delegates, a measure Birdwell said would ensure accountability to constituents and colleagues at the Capitol. Birdwell also said the bill was necessary since statutory guidelines didn't currently exist.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said SB 21 didn’t ensure proper representation of both political parties. “If we’re trying to have a bill that reflects a more perfect union, we’re not doing that,” he said. "I believe that both parties should be represented as part of the delegation in order to get the best ideas put forth, as opposed to having a slant one way or another." 

Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, offered an amendment to SB 21 proposing criminal penalties for rogue delegates at an Article V convention. Under his amendment, a delegate who casts an "unauthorized vote" — one that exceeds or contravenes the Legislature's instructions to the delegate — would be subject to a state jail felony and a fine of up to $10,000. Hughes said the penalty would "give pause" to delegates thinking of casting an unauthorized vote.

Birdwell opposed the amendment, saying, “If we criminally punish legislators, we blur lines between what legislators can be punished for and what regular citizens can be punished for." The Senate approved the amendment over Birdwell's objections.

Also on Tuesday, the Senate unanimously adopted Senate Joint Resolution 38 by Sen. Craig Estes, which would cancel all prior calls made by the Legislature for an Article V convention — some more than 100 years old — except for a balanced budget amendment offered in 1977 during the 65th legislative session.

Estes said the measure allowed current members to work on a “clean slate.” Senators also adopted an amendment to SJR 38 by Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano, that would cancel the state’s call for a national convention if a meeting didn’t convene within 12 years.

In the recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, only 27 percent of those surveyed said a convention of states was needed to amend the U.S. Constitution, while 53 percent said the document has held up well.

In a statement Tuesday, Abbott applauded the Senate on passing SB 21 and said he looked forward to the House's approval.

"Our nation is succumbing to the caprice of man that our Founders fought to escape and I am encouraged that the Texas Senate has taken the first step in joining other states from around the county in reversing that trend," Abbott said.

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