Organizers of the Conference of the States have agreed to make changes to the format of their summit on federalism. But they refused to make the changes that opponents - mostly conservatives - had demanded.
"State leaders around the country felt it was important to continue on the same path," even if it means delaying the conference until next year, said Gov. Mike Leavitt, who has spearheaded the effort nationally."I found it encouraging in an unusual way. It tells me the idea has broad and deep roots, that people are feeling a sense of potential importance and they are prepared to give it renewed effort."
That is not the message that opponents had wanted to hear. Conservative organizations around the country, led by the Eagle Forum and the John Birch Society, have been opposing the Conference of the States because they fear the gathering could evolve into a constitutional convention. And they are adamantly and unequivocally opposed to any meddling with the Constitution.
Central to opponents' fears is the requirement that each state pass a "resolution of participation" wherein they agree to appoint a bipartisan delegation to the conference. So far, 14 states have passed the resolution and 10 others have passed it through one house of their legislatures.
Opponents had demanded that states discard the resolution of participation, thereby removing any claim the delegation was acting in a legal capacity should the conference decide to start drafting constitutional amendments.
Proponents of the Conference of the States repeatedly have stated their opposition to a constitutional convention. The resolution, Leavitt said, was the mechanism "giving every state legislature the opportunity to vote on rebalancing the equation." And it sends an unequivocal message to Congress that governors and state legislatures are united on the issue of restoring the proper balance of power between the states and the federal government.
The Conference of the States steering committee, made up of the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Council of State Governments, did extend a small olive branch to opponents of a constitutional convention.
"All three organizations have formally restated their opposition to a constitutional convention, and we are encouraging state legislators to redraft the resolution in such a way to make them (legislators) comfortable the conference is not and could not become a constitutional convention," Leavitt said.Still, getting enough states to pass the resolution in time to hold the conference by October is unlikely. Getting the states together for a planning meeting by July is near impossible.
So the steering committee has opted to delay the Conference of the States until sometime in 1996, probably after the legislative sessions around the country. If enough states express interest, Leavitt said, an informal federalism summit could be held in October "on the roles of state and national governments" from a "philosophical and practical aspect," Leavitt said.
If 26 states have passed the resolution by that time, it could also become an organizing meeting for the actual Conference of the States in 1996.
In the meantime, the Conference of the States will focus its efforts on conducting a massive education campaign on the importance of the federalism debate and on broadening its base of support among state and local government leaders.
Members of the steering committee expanded the number of "convening organizations" by adding the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council and the State Legislative Leaders Foundation to the steering committee. They are also discussing whether to include city and county government organizations on the committee.
"A substantial amount of work is also being done to set the record straight," Leavitt said. "The Heritage Foundation (a conservative think tank) and a number of conservative constitutional scholars are drafting scholarly position papers stating the conference could not, would not become a constitutional convention."
Leavitt said the steering committee has committed to education efforts directed at legislators and the public. To this point, the proponents have relied on word of mouth from legislator to legislator to get their message across. There has been no paid staff or budget.
"In those states where we have been unsuccessful in getting the resolution passed, there haven't been a lot of people there to speak for it, but there were groups energized against it," Leavitt said.
The steering committee authorized the creation of a nonprofit foundation for the purpose of providing information to legislators and interested groups. "One thing about the debate, it is causing a substantial amount of education to take place," he said.