AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas legislators who support a convention of states to rewrite the U.S. Constitution are at odds over whether to jail delegates who "go rogue" and impose unwanted changes at the longshot gathering.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott wants to bypass Congress and limit Washington's power via a federal balanced budget amendment and term limits. But some top conservatives fear a "runaway convention" where representatives from liberal area could target things like the Second Amendment's right to bear arms.
After hours of sometimes outlandish debate in February, the Texas Senate agreed to make it a felony punishable by up to two years in jail for convention attendees to support "unauthorized" constitutional modifications, or any change not previously agreed to by the Legislature. Supporters argued that the Constitution is "almost a sacred document" and said that mandating harsh punishment was the only way to safeguard against a "runaway" convention.
On Wednesday, though, the state House offered no debate and took mere seconds to preliminarily approve delegate requirements that wiped out the possibility of jail time for anyone daring to deviate from the convention of states' previously agreed-upon agenda.
"I was surprised there wasn't more intra-party scuffling on the other side," said Rep. Chris Turner, a Democrat from Grand Prairie in suburban Dallas who opposes a convention of states.
More fireworks could come Thursday, when the House votes to formally have Texas endorse the convention. But the change on how to punish delegates could ultimately derail the larger call since what gets approved in the House will have to be reconciled with what came out of the Senate.
If the country's largest Republican state fails to endorse the idea, it would defy Abbott, who made it an "emergency item" to call for the convention states. It also would lengthen the already seemingly long odds of convening such a gathering.
"I can't imagine it happening, but I couldn't ever imagine Donald Trump becoming president," said Turner.
Under Article V of the Constitution, adding an amendment requires a two-thirds congressional vote and then ratification by three-fourths of states, or 38. As an alternative, 34 legislatures, representing two-thirds of the 50 states, can call for convening a convention to draft constitutional amendments — though getting lawmakers in different states to agree on what priorities they'd like to see such a convention tackle hasn't been easy.
While Texas has focused on a balanced budget amendment and other initiatives, lawmakers in neighboring Arkansas focused on endorsing an amendment to effectively ban abortion and gay marriage.
How close a convention actually is depends on how you count. A "convention of states" to impose checks on federal power has been backed by Abbott and already approved by about 10 other states. But a separate effort, the Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force, lists around three times as many as already having passed resolutions calling for constitutional conventions. That tally includes Texas, which approved a past call decades ago, when Democrats controlled the Legislature.
In fact, Texas lawmakers have passed 16 past calls for constitutional conventions since 1899, including one opposing forced busing to integrate public schools.
Also Wednesday, the Texas House voted to scrap every past call except for one previously seeking a federal balanced budget amendment. The Senate has already approved a similar cleaning of the slate.