FRANKFORT — At the urging of Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, the state Senate approved a measure Tuesday urging Congress to convene a national constitutional convention that would consider a balanced budget amendment.
The vote was 22-16 along party lines except for Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville, who opposed the legislation.
In his nearly eight-minute speech to the Senate, Paul said the balanced budget amendment is necessary "to get our nation's fiscal house in order."
Paul, who ran last year on a pledge to seek a balanced budget amendment, said if federal spending is not limited, "within a decade the entire budget will be consumed between entitlements and interest. That means no money for roads, no money for education, no money for national defense."
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Earlier in the day, Paul and Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, testified before the Senate State and Local Government Committee, which approved the resolution on a 7-3 vote.
Senate Concurrent Resolution 134, sponsored by Williams, now goes to the Democratic-controlled House, where it is expected to face stiff opposition.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said the House will approve the measure "when pigs fly." He called a constitutional convention "an untested, untried and a very dangerous path to go down."
Other critics of the legislation also expressed fear that a constitutional convention would lead to unwanted changes to the U.S. Constitution and said the state legislature should not meddle in federal policy.
Senate Minority Leader R. J. Palmer II, D-Winchester, said in a statement on behalf of the Senate Democratic Caucus that it supports a balanced federal budget but opposes asking Congress to call a convention to amend the U.S. Constitution.
"Calling a constitutional convention opens a Pandora's Box of uncertainty that places all of our rights and liberties at risk," Palmer said.
Paul, of Bowling Green, and Williams said they did not actually expect a constitutional convention to be called. Instead, they said calls for a convention would put pressure on Congress to pass a balanced budget amendment by a two-thirds majority in each chamber. The measure would then have to be ratified by three-fourths of the states.
There has never been a constitutional convention to amend the Constitution. To hold a constitutional convention, two-thirds of the legislatures of the states would have to call for it. Any amendment from a convention would have to be approved by three-fourths of the legislatures.
During debate in the Senate, Sen. Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, expressed concern there would be no judicial oversight of a constitutional convention.
"We could see an entire rewrite of the Constitution," Jones said.
Williams contended that his resolution would restrict a convention's business to only a balanced budget. He also said delegates to a convention would be chosen by state legislatures and could be recalled at any time.
Norman Davis of Clarkson, with the conservative group Take Back Kentucky, said a constitutional convention could lead to widespread changes in the Constitution. He and others against the measure wore stickers that read, "No Con Con."
Homer White of Scott County, with the environmental advocacy group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, said it's not the job of state legislators to debate federal fiscal policy.
"Legislators should spend their valuable session time on the real problems that confront Kentucky, problems regarding which they have the local wisdom and local authority to act effectively," White said.
Several members of the Northern Kentucky Tea Party were in the audience to oppose the measure. Paul, who rode to office last year with strong Tea Party support, said "good people can disagree."
Some Senate Democrats also questioned the timing of Williams' resolution, suggesting that it was done to promote his candidacy for governor.
His two opponents in the May Republican primary election — Louisville businessman Phil Moffett and Jefferson County Clerk Bobbie Holsclaw — held news conferences at the Capitol Tuesday.
Moffett said he disagreed with the call for a national constitutional convention. President Barack Obama and other Democratic leaders in Washington might repeal the Bill of Rights if given the chance to rewrite the Constitution, he said.
Also, Moffett said, the Kentucky Constitution already requires a balanced budget. But that hasn't stopped Williams from helping to pile on billions of dollars in bonded debt and unfunded liability in the state pension funds, he said.
"A balanced budget to a government does not mean the same thing that it does to me as a business person or to you as a family member," Moffett said. "Only in government can a balanced budget mean that you can borrow as much money as you want as long as you think you're gonna have enough revenue to pay it back."
Holsclaw did not address the balanced budget amendment but said she is asking the state attorney general and the U.S. Attorneys for the Eastern and Western districts of Kentucky to investigate the legislature's passage of a bill that would allow optometrists to perform certain eye treatments now reserved for ophthalmologists.
Holsclaw did not provide any evidence that any wrongdoing occurred in the passage of the optometry bill, saying she only knew about it what she has read in newspapers.
"That's a real reason to call for an investigation," Stumbo said sarcastically. "That's damn good evidence, isn't it?"