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Balanced Budget Amendment Roadblocks Abound

Some conservatives in Washington, D.C., can’t wait to send a balanced budget amendment to the states. But it’s not clear whether the states would be excited to get it.

A constitutional amendment requiring the federal budget be balanced in most years would face a bruising and most likely fruitless fight in the states, 38 of which would need to approve the amendment.

Even if the 26 GOP-controlled states are able to pass a balanced budget amendment in unison, coastal liberal states could band together to block it. By adding up left-leaning states on either coast — including Vermont, Massachusetts, California and Washington — it is relatively easy to get to 13, the number required to block an amendment to the Constitution.

When Republicans seized control of the House in last fall’s wave election, they swept in GOP legislators who now control statehouses at a record high number. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the GOP has not held so much power in the states since 1952.

Despite the high-water mark, which Democrats predict won’t last long, the odds for passage of a balanced budget amendment are slim.

Seth Masket, a politics professor at the University of Denver who has written extensively on state legislatures, thinks it is “pretty unrealistic” for an amendment to earn enough support in the states.

“It would be pretty impressive if all 26 Republican state legislatures pass this,” he said.

The process for passing an amendment can take decades, and Masket said it looks unlikely the GOP would be able to strike quickly while it holds this much power.

After all, the proposed amendment has not made it far in Congress. Though the recent bill raising the debt ceiling requires a vote on the amendment by Dec. 31, other stand-alone efforts have garnered little bipartisan support. Conservatives have consistently filed bills for a balanced budget amendment since the Reagan administration. But they’ve never gone anywhere. Though it has not always been the case, recent votes on balanced budget amendments in Congress have fallen almost entirely along party lines as Members eye the 2012 elections.

But if Congress is a major obstacle to the amendment now, the states would be an even bigger one down the road, in part because of the partisan split.

The GOP’s Cut, Cap and Balance Act included the amendment as its centerpiece during the recent debt limit negotiations. Just five Democrats in the House supported it. In the Senate, a prominent proposal from Utah Republican Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee was co-sponsored by all 47 Republicans, but no Democrats. That bill would cap domestic spending at 18 percent of gross domestic product unless a two-thirds majority was reached in Congress.

According to Democratic state Rep. Chad Campbell, Minority Leader in the Arizona House, if a partisan balanced budget amendment somehow makes it through Congress, which is a tough climb as it is, support might not be strong enough to bring in the required states for ratification.

He said he was not even sure all the conservative Western states would come together to vote for it, though he conceded it would likely pass his state.

“I would not consider that a bellwether,” he said. “It will be up for a tough debate in most Western states.”

One of the problems with a balanced budget amendment in the eyes of its state-level opponents is the possibility of losing federal assistance. Every state but Vermont has a legal requirement of a balanced budget, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Many states depend on the federal government to help prop up social services. Democratic state Rep. Jon Sesso, Minority Leader in the Montana House, said he worries that funding for his and other state’s safety nets might be one of the first things to go if the government was forced to carry a balanced budget.

“I am very concerned that the programs we have supported that are designed to help the least advantaged in our state are at risk,” he said. “That is a big deal.”

According to Sesso, states faced with their own budget cuts may no longer be able to count on the federal government to support social services. They would be forced to make even more cuts than many already have.

Republican state Rep. Jeremy Hutchinson, who authored a resolution in Arkansas in favor of the amendment, dismissed those concerns. “We don’t care what Vermont does,” he said.

Despite these divisions, there has been some movement on the state level in favor of a balanced budget amendment. Six states have passed resolutions this year calling on Congress to pass an amendment and send it to the states; in Oklahoma, 64 lawmakers signed a letter of support from their state.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott and the state’s legislative leaders also pledged support for the balanced budget amendment, though a resolution supporting the amendment died in the Florida House of Representatives earlier this year.

“Florida will be the first state to set a special session to ratify it,” should Congress send an amendment to the states, Scott said in a July statement.

Alan Parks, director of Americans for a Balanced Budget Amendment, sees a path to victory for the amendment. He thinks it is Congress that is the major obstacle.

“If it gets passed through Congress, it could pass the states,” he said.

That’s a big if. And supporters will need to exercise patience.

The 27th Amendment, which limits  changes to Congressional pay, took 203 years to be ratified.

Some have suggested that to try to boost the chance of ratification, conservative supporters could do something similar. The thinking is with more time, supporters would be able to convince more states to get on board.

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