One day next month, each of the 50 state legislatures will be asked to join a campaign to change the way that states do business with the federal government.

A sponsor of the movement says the proponents want an equal partnership to replace the "master-servant relationship" with Congress.Not that state leaders haven't been talking about it for years. This time it will be different, said Gov. Mike Leavitt of Utah, because the states intend to do something about it, together, in a forum that's never been tried before, a conference of 200 governors and legislators to seek fundamental change.

"States are not a special interest, and we're not lobbyists," said Leavitt, chairman of the Republican Governors Association. He and a Democratic colleague, Gov. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, are leading the drive to be included in congressional action that affects the states.

"Now you've got to go in and lobby them, generally on a bill that's already been written," Nelson said in a joint telephone interview with Leavitt. "We ought to be parties to the process from the beginning."

Nelson and Leavitt seek to convene a Conference of the States next summer, before the 1996 presidential campaign, because they want it kept bipartisan and devoted to the structure of governing, rather than to haggling about details.

And the details are bearing down in a hurry, with leaders of the new Republican-run House planning a Jan. 19 vote on a constitutional amendment to require balanced federal budgets. In the GOP Senate, there'll be an early vote to bar unfunded mandates.

The governors favor both measures, but Nelson said the more important question is of state and federal roles, of defining what each level of government ought to be doing instead of debating who ought to be paying.

Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, a Democrat and chairman of the National Governors' Association, has said it's hypocrisy for Republicans in Congress to push a balanced budget amendment without a constitutional guarantee that the price won't just be forwarded to the states.

Republican governors agree.

Leavitt said it is almost unanimous that the state leaders would rather have an amendment covering both points. "But we also have received very clear signals from the leadership of Congress that they don't see that as politically practical."

In fact, the balanced budget amendment may be put on hold in the states until they see a constitutional safeguard against shifting the costs to their treasuries.

Long before that could happen, they seek to have the states convene a conference like none before, to rebalance the federal system. Each state would have one vote; with a majority, they could present Congress with a states' petition for action, not legally binding but, the governors hope, politically potent.

"With the likely prospect of a balanced budget amendemtn and tax cuts on the horizon, states are at considerable risk that Congress could push its budget problems down to the states," warns a paper approved by the Councilo of State Governments. "No matter which party controls Congress, it is not likely to relinquish power without feeling the pressure of an electorate that demands it."

Nelson said he has yet to talk with a fellow governor or a state legislator who doesn't agree with what he and Leavitt are pushing.

So they plan an all-state sendoff in January, with resolutions of participation in the Conference of the States to be introduced everywhere on a single day.

It's a novel idea, but nothing extreme, Nelson said.

And Leavitt added a note from history, quoting James Madison in "The Federalist" papers:

"Ambitious encroachments of the federal government on the authority of the state governments would not excite the opposition of a single state, or a few states only. They would be signals of general alarm..."

"Plans of resistance would be concerted."

Nelson and Leavitt are campaigning to make it happen.

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