National move to require balanced budget stalls in California

When California voters get their ballot pamphlets in the mail in late October , there will be four blank pages where Proposition 35 should have been. When the state Supreme Court struck the Balanced-Budget Initiative from the November ballot this week, supporters of the initiative found themselves suddenly disarmed and unhorsed just as they began a California election battle they thought might win them the national war against federal budget deficits.

''If we had won California, there would be no stopping us in the next couple months,'' says David Keating, executive vice-president of the National Taxpayers Union. The group is a major sponsor of the movement to amend the US Constitution to require balanced federal budgets.

If the ballot measure passed, California would become the 33rd state of 34 needed to call a constitutional convention, where the amendment could be written in. The last constitutional convention was the original one in 1787. But most observers expect that Congress itself would pass the balanced-budget amendment - if pushed to that point - before it would allow such a convention to be called.

There is still a chance Proposition 35 could be reinstated to the California ballot, although the ballot pamphlets went to the printers on Tuesday without it. Backers of the measure, including California Sen. Pete Wilson (R) and Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R), immediately applied to the US Supreme Court for a stay of the California ruling, arguing that many of issues in the case are federal.

''Hopefully, we're slipping punches,'' says Lewis Uhler, president of the National Tax Limitation Committee, another prominent backer of the drive.

If the stay is granted, the proposition will remain on the ballot while the high court weighs the case. If not, the nationwide drive to banishing red ink from the federal budget has been stalled, though by no means beaten.

Even if California is ruled out, proponents may still have their 34 states lined up by the start of next year. The two best prospects for states 33 and 34 are Michigan and Montana.

In Michigan, a bill has passed the state Senate that urges Congress to pass the balanced-budget amendment (now stalled in a House committee). If Congress does not act, the bill then petitions for a constitutional convention for the limited purpose of drafting such an amendment.

The Michigan bill must survive two battles in the state's House. First, it must be voted out of a nine-member committee, where the one or two swing votes are getting intensive pressure from both sides. After the bill goes to a floor vote in the House, its prospects are somewhat better.

''I would assume that it will be a close contest,'' says Linda Ewing, legislative assistant for Michigan's AFL-CIO branch. The union federation has been the chief opponent to the amendment nationally.

''It's an emotional issue that, frankly, evokes a lot of demagoguery.''

Michigan state Sen. Ed Fredericks (R), who wrote the bill, hopes it comes to a vote during September. ''We would hope to vote before the election with time to make it a campaign issue.''

In Montana, backers of the balanced-budget initiative collected nearly twice the signatures they needed to get the question on the ballot, and so far it has no organized opposition.

''I'm confident that if left alone to the voters of Montana it will pass,'' says Cliff Christian, co-chairman of the drive.

His concern is that the California court ruling will inspire similar court challenges in Montana.

The California court ruled the initiative off the ballot because the US Constitution says the petition for a convention must come from state legislatures. California voters, it ruled, cannot direct the Legislature through the initiative process except to make state law.

The ballot measure here had teeth in it. If the state lawmakers had not yet followed the directive 20 days after it was in force, it would have revoked their pay. That amounted to coercion, the court ruled.

The contention of the measure's proponents is that it is up to Congress and the federal courts to gauge the legitimacy of the petitions from state legislatures.

''We're charging ahead,'' Mr. Uhler says of the balanced-budget amendment. ''Five years ago the question was when and if. Now the question is only when.''

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