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Constitutional Convention “Risks Unintended Economic Consequences”

Helen Gibbins and other members of the League of Women Voters of West Virginia oppose calls for a new constitutional convention. (Dan Heyman)
Helen Gibbins and other members of the League of Women Voters of West Virginia oppose calls for a new constitutional convention. (Dan Heyman)
February 22, 2016

CHARLESTON, W. Va. – Civic and economic watchdog groups are warning state lawmakers not to join the call for a new constitutional convention.

Five different bills at the legislature this year would add West Virginia to the states calling for a convention. Proponents want a balanced-budget amendment - making any kind of federal deficit unconstitutional. Economists, including many conservatives, say that would tie the government's hands in a crisis.

Helen Gibbins, on the board of the League of Women Voters of West Virginia, agrees that in a recession, a balanced-budget amendment could have a terrible impact.

"It would depress the economy rather than helping the economy," says Gibbins. "So then, it would be hard to grow, to be able to pay the taxes to support the government. It's just kind of a snowball."

By one count, 27 state legislatures have called for a convention, although some did so years ago and it's unclear if the resolutions still apply. West Virginia could be among the seven more states that might be needed to reach two-thirds and trigger a convention.

However, Gibbins points out the rules for the process are all but unwritten. She says, for example, a convention could be called to pass a balanced-budget amendment – but decide to do something else, even something as radical as getting rid of the Bill of Rights.

"That's one of the problems," she notes. "We like the idea of a single-issue convention for that reason. But everything is unknown, because we haven't had one before, since the original."

Gibbins says tinkering with the Constitution can have unintended consequences, and points to Prohibition as an example of an amendment that had to be undone later. She adds some of the language in the bills now before the West Virginia Legislature could have a drastic impact on the federal government.

"They couldn't do anything for stimulating the economy. They couldn't provide funds for infrastructure, for instance, that we badly need, and that would have jobs," she says.

The bills are HB 4449, HB 2424, SCR 4, SCR 10 and HCR 36. They can be read and tracked on the West Virginia Legislature's website.

Proponents say the nation needs a balanced-budget amendment to stop out-of-control spending. Critics of the idea point out that the federal deficit has shrunk by nearly three-quarters from its peak. They say that's typical as an economy recovers from a recession.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV