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First in a 3-part series.Organizers of the Conference of the States - a much-ballyhooed gathering of representatives from all 50 states to discuss federalism - are still trying to figure out how the wheels came off the movement only moments after the race had started.

And they're wondering whether or not there's still enough time to get back in the race."I have not given up hope we can get back on track and hold it this year," said Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who along with Nebraska Gov. Bob Nelson initiated the states' rights movement last year.

"There is still strong support among governors and legislatures across the country for the conference, and even (the opponents) agree with us that the federal government has stepped beyond its purpose and that states should have a more prominent role."

Maybe so, but as the 1995 legislative season rolls closer to adjournment in most states, only about 15 have passed a resolution pledging to participate in the conference. Several states have defeated the resolution, and many more have refused to even debate it.

The opposition is coming from an unusual alliance that includes United We Stand America, the Eagle Forum, the John Birch Society, labor unions and conservation groups. In the case of labor unions and conservationists, they are opposed to the decentralization of the federal government, arguing the states, if left to their own devices, would not adequately protect workers or the environment.

But surprisingly the most vocal opposition is coming from the political right - groups that share Leavitt's concern about a bloated federal government. But unlike Leavitt, they fear even more that the Conference of the States will somehow evolve into a Constitutional Convention free-for-all that would ultimately destroy freedoms treasured by all Americans.

"I simply don't agree with their concerns (that the conference will become a constitutional convention)," Leavitt said. "They are illogical and really without basis. I don't support a constitutional convention, and I don't know anyone in this process who does."

But Brigham Young University political science professor Bud Scruggs, who has consulted with Conference of the States officials, cautions that so little is known about constitutional conventions and how to hold them that any and all arguments must be taken ser-i-ous-ly.

"The only experience the nation has had with a constitutional convention was the meeting that gave us our Constitution," Scruggs said. "And in that case, the Founding Fathers were called together to amend the Articles of Confederation. They clearly exceeded their charter by drafting an entirely new document. When somebody says this meeting could mutate into a constitutional convention, no matter what length you go to ensure it won't happen, you have a hard time saying it wouldn't. There's simply no track record to say it wouldn't."

The heartburn felt by those opposed to a constitutional convention is in the method proposed for convening the Conference of the States. According to the master plan - endorsed by the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Council of State Governments - there are basically four steps to the process:

- State legislatures will pass a resolution of participation that appoints a bipartisan delegation to attend the conference.

- A planning meeting, held sometime in the summer, to establish bylaws, accept proposals for a rebalancing of powers between the state and federal government, and establish protocol for the actual conference.

- The actual Conference of the States will be held in October, where delegates from all 50 states will debate the federalism problem and vote on possible solutions. The result will be called a "state's petition" reaffirming the states' role in the governmental process.

- The petition will be voted on by all 50 legislatures. If approved by three-fourths, the petition will be presented to Congress as an unequivocal "message" that if Congress refuses to restore the balance, then the states have the political fortitude to pass a constitutional amendment rectifying the problem.

Ironically, the Conference of the States bogged down at Step 1, which Leavitt calls the "least important step in the process."

The most important step, he said, is the ratifying of the conference's action (Step 4).

According to Claire Geddes, executive director of United We Stand America in Utah, the U.S. Constitution has worked well for more than 200 years, and anything opening the way for a constitutional convention must be treated as serious threats to freedom.

"From the very beginning, he (Leavitt) talked about a constitutional convention," she said. "He has pulled back from that, but those were his intentions in the beginning. He talks about fundamental changes, but no one is saying what those changes are. That concerns us greatly."

At the heart of the issue, Geddes says, is that a formal resolution of participation passed by legislatures could be construed by participants and the courts as a legally sanctioned gathering for the purposes of passing constitutional amendments if they so chose.

United We Stand America of Utah has fielded hundreds of requests from all over the nation for information on the Conference of the States, and Geddes said they have never worked on an issue that has generated as much public concern. "It is a hotly debated topic across the nation, much more so than here in Utah. People trust the governor here," she said.

So much so that Utah's resolution of participation was passed without lawmakers or the public having even read it. It received no public hearing, "which should have sent up red flags to everybody" Geddes said.

Leavitt says the resolution in no way can be construed as a call for a constitutional convention. But he also acknowledged that there are enough people nationally who are opposed to the resolution process that he is willing to recommend that states eliminate resolutions of participation and just appoint delegations to participate. By having the delegates appointed without legislative sanction, no one could claim the delegates were acting on behalf of their states as constitutional convention delegates.

Scruggs and Geddes agree it is probably a good idea that would refocus the debate on the balance of governmental powers, not on constitutional conventions.

Gayle Ruzicka of the Utah Eagle Forum says, "I think the governor has been deceived as to what the conference could become. It's not necessarily, `Will the conference turn into a convention?' but `Will the conference lead to a convention?' The answer is absolutely yes."

The organized opposition to Conference of the States caught Leavitt and other proponents totally unaware and unprepared. But it shouldn't have, Leavitt now admits.

The issue is really an old debate that centers on political fights over the balanced-budget amendment. Having met with failure in their attempts to pass such an amendment in Congress, various congressmen and senators, including Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, began circulating resolutions through state legislatures calling for a constitutional convention for the purposes of passing an amendment requiring a balanced federal budget.

The resolutions passed quickly in a majority of states. But five states short of the 38 needed to call the convention - seen more as a political weapon to force Congress to act - a highly organized grassroots opposition emerged that was adamantly opposed to a convention. A constitutional convention, they successfully argued, would become a political free-for-all with issues like gun control, gay rights and abortion rights all on the table. That organized opposition has successfully persuaded other states not to pass the resolution calling for a convention, and some have rescinded their resolutions previously passed.

When Leavitt proposed a Conference of the States - and asked for resolutions of participation - "we walked into a buzz saw we did not understand," he said. "I do not agree with their logic, but they are a well-organized group who are extraordinarily able . . . and they have made it miserable for anyone who supports even the most moderate proposal.

"They took what should have been an easy decision on the part of legislators and made it a vote of courage. The legislators are saying this is not a hassle they need, and they've taken it off the table." In some states, lawmakers have refused to even debate it.

"It (resolution of participation) was a sound step, but it is not worth the level of concern it has generated. We need to get by this debate and get on with finding ways to rebalance the American democracy and not argue over some on which we agree."

Any decision to modify the process to mollify conservatives' objections would first have to be approved by the Conference of the States steering committee, which will meet later this month.