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House committee considers convention of states measures

The House Select Committee on State and Federal Power and Responsibility considered measures that aim to pull powers from the federal government and hand it to the states.

State Rep. Rick Miller, R-Sugar Land, listens to testimony in the State & Federal Power & Responsibility Select Committee on April 13, 2017. Miller's House Joint Resolution 39 calls for a convention of states under Article V of the U.S. Constitution. 

Editor's note: This story was updated April 20 to note that a House committee approved several of the measures.

Jim Dettman waited outside a hearing room at the Texas Capitol on Thursday, straightening his white button-down shirt, which had his name, an American flag and the phrase “convention of states” emblazoned across the front.

“We have a better chance this year than we’ve ever had, but the testimony today doesn’t matter," the Austin resident said. "When lawmakers hear stuff in committee, they’ve already decided how they’re going to vote.”

The House Select Committee on State and Federal Power and Responsibility considered measures that aim to pull powers from the federal government and hand it to the states.

The main proposal, House Joint Resolution 39, calls for a national convention where states would assemble, propose and ratify amendments to the U.S. Constitution under Article V of the document. The event could only happen if 34 states, a two-thirds majority, endorse the idea.

“I think we can all agree we have a problem in Washington that needs addressing and that needs fixing,” said state Rep. Rick Miller, R-Sugar Land, who’s carrying the measures. “Never would I want to change the core principles in this document.”

Miller carried the same proposal in 2015, which passed the House but died in the Senate.

HJR 39 backs amendments that would enact term limits for U.S. officials, impose spending limits on the federal government and limit its power. If a convention were to be held, proposed changes could only be added into the U.S. Constitution with the support of 38 states.

The Texas Senate approved identical measures in February, carried by state Sens. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, and Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls.

Supporters of the measures say a convention is needed to renew the balance of power between states and the federal government and point to Article V of the U.S. Constitution, which lays out methods for proposing constitutional amendments.

“Whether the Democrats are in control or Republicans are in control, it’s out of control,” said Steve Miller, who said he's from the Houston area and backs the resolution. “The growing government is like a cancer, and it must be stopped,” he said, comparing his own experience with the disease a couple years ago. “I’m here, years later, because I took action. Inaction is not an option, but we gotta do something.”

Some against a convention of states said they were using the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality, and questioned why the U.S. Constitution needed changes if it has worked well the last 200 years. Others say they’re concerned with the power delegates would be granted at a national convention.  

“We would be opening a Pandora’s Box no matter how limited we thought it would be,” said Michael Sullivan, who testified against HJR 39. The issue was especially important within the state, he said, because Texas was regarded as a leader of the convention of states movement.

Another proposal considered Thursday would cancel all but one of the Legislature’s prior calls for a national convention — some more than 100 years old. Senate Joint Resolution 38 would provide a “clean slate” for current lawmakers, according to Estes, who’s carrying the measure.

The third measure, House Bill 506 by state Rep. Phil King, outlines the duties and qualifications of Texas delegates if a national convention were to happen. Only current members of the Legislature at the time of a convention would be allowed to serve as delegates.

Earlier this year, Gov. Greg Abbott named the call for a convention of states as one of his four emergency items this legislative session. Ten states have already passed resolutions calling for a convention, with Arizona and North Dakota most recently joining the list in March. Utah voted down a convention-of-states proposal in February.

“Texas needs something in place so that if a convention is called, our state has the mechanism to appoint and control our delegates,” King said during the hearing, adding that the Legislature would have “total authority” to rein back its delegates at any time. “We need to be prepared for the possibility.”

Almost every person who testified on King’s proposal opposed it, including one who likened a convention to “a flaming zoo.” Others challenged the notion that lawmakers could control the state’s delegation at a convention.

“This issue is not how you could control them,” Chris Blystone said. “You would have no authority to control them, and to believe you could influence this sovereign body is very ill-advised.”

The committee also considered HJR 44 by state Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, which would call for an Article V convention but only to propose an amendment mandating that the U.S. government pass a balanced budget.

All legislation was left pending in committee Thursday night. (Update, April 20: HJR 39, House Bill 506 and SJR 38 were voted out of the committee on Thursday)

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • 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.

  • The Senate State Affairs Committee addressed one of Gov. Greg Abbott's four emergency items Thursday: passing a resolution showing the state backs an Article V convention.   

  • Gov. Greg Abbott squared the new political reality Tuesday with his long-standing crusade to amend the U.S. Constitution by arguing President-elect Donald Trump "epitomizes exactly why we need a convention of states.

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