Supporters push for convention of states; $150 m. roads proposal heard


February 17th, 2016

Former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn calling for convention of the states (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn calling for convention of the states (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Supporters are pushing for the Nebraska Legislature to join in calling for a convention of the states to propose amendments to the U.S. Constitution – a move opponents fear could turn into a full-fledged convention to rewrite the Constitution. And Nebraska would transfer up to $150 million from its cash reserve to speed up road and bridge construction over the next seven years, under a bill that got a public hearing Tuesday.

The U.S. Constitution provides two ways to amend the Constitution: amendments can be proposed by a two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress and ratified by three-quarters of the states. Or, two-thirds of the states can call for a convention to propose amendments, which three-quarters, would then have to ratify.

That second method has never been used. But Nebraska state Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete wants Nebraska to sign on to the latest effort to try it. She’s lead sponsor of a resolution that would add Nebraska to the five states who have already asked for a convention to propose amendments promoting fiscal restraint, limitations on power, and term limits for the federal government.

Tuesday, former U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma came to Lincoln to boost that effort. Coburn cast the effort not as a question of political positions, but of the best level for decision-making. “The whole question that this whole action is about is ‘Who decides? Who gets to decide?’” Coburn said. “If I’m very progressive and liberal, I still want to decide. If I’m very conservative, I want to decide. I do not want a bureaucrat in Washington, DC making decisions about my future and my freedom.”

The proposal is both similar to and more ambitious than an effort led by then-Nebraska Gov. Ben Nelson in the mid-1990s. In an interview with NET News Tuesday, Nelson recalled that at the time, he and then-Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt were concerned about the federal government forcing unfunded mandates onto the states. He said they called for a “conference of the states,” not to propose amendments, but to show state solidarity and get the federal government’s attention.

But Nelson said even that more limited effort met with opposition. “They thought what we were going for what is called a constitutional convention, which is an entirely different matter. And they started calling what we were doing a ‘con-con.’ They were totally opposed,” he said. “They were worried that whatever we were doing would somehow degenerate into a constitutional convention, in spite of the fact that we explained why that wouldn’t be the case, it never, never, never changed their mind.”

That same fear, that a convention of the states could turn into a full-fledged convention to rewrite the federal constitution, hangs over the latest effort. Nebraska state Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln took issue with Coburn’s insistence that this would be simply a convention to propose amendments. He said such a gathering “opens the door to a constitutional convention and then authorizes there to be one,” accusing supporters of “wordsmithing” around that risk.

Morfeld said there hasn’t been a constitutional convention since the original one to replace the Articles of Confederation with the U.S. Constitution, and expressed doubt one held now would turn out as well. “I don’t know how many Thomas Jeffersons and James Madisons we have right now, particularly with money in politics and particularly with the types of well-financed political interests that would come to a constitutional convention,” he said.

Coburn emphasized a different risk. “The greater risk is letting what’s happening now continue. That’s the risk to our country,” he said.

For his part, Nelson noted that while the states had a smaller gathering than anticipated in the 1990s, Congress nevertheless passed limits on unfunded mandates, adding that it’s never a bad idea for states to try and get Congress’s attention.

Ebke says she expects her resolution to be debated in the next two to three weeks, and she gives it a 50-50 chance of passing.

In other legislative news, the Appropriations committee held a public hearing on a proposal to use up to $150 million of the state’s roughly $700 million cash reserve to boost expressway construction and county bridge repair. The proposal is supported by Gov. Pete Ricketts.

Committee Chairman Sen. Heath Mello asked Ricketts’ Roads Director, Kyle Schneweis, why he wants to use the cash reserve. “From my perspective it’s as simple as if you have a cash reserve that’s in a heathy place and you determine that you have some opportunity to spend some of it, there’s just not a better place to do it than infrastructure,” he said.

Among those supporting the proposal was Dirk Petersen, vice president of Nucor Steel, who said it’s important to improve two-lane highways like U.S. 275 in northeast Nebraska. He said traffic deaths are 62 percent higher and accidents are 152 percent higher on the two-lane portions of that highway than on the four-lane portions.

No one testified against the proposal. But Tiffany Joekel of the Open Sky Policy Institute noted the Government Finance Officers Association, an a U.S.-Canadian group of finance officials, recommends states maintain a cash reserve equal to about two months of revenues, or 16.7 percent of the budget. She said Nebraska’s cash reserve is already projected to drop below 15 percent, even before any additional spending for roads.

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