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Conservatives eye Constitution to cut spending

Some Mississippi lawmakers are again seeking constitutional changes to balance the federal budget and limit federal government power.

The House last week voted for a resolution calling for a convention of the states to propose amendments to the U.S. Constitution, passing the resolution and sending it on to the Senate on a 76-42 vote.

This may sound familiar to Magnolia State voters, and with good reason. In 2015, the state House and Senate passed a different resolution to mandate a balanced budget convention. That was a complicated mousetrap that sought to limit a convention to a single vote on a balanced budget amendment written in the identical measures passed by each state, and to provide for automatic approval of the pre-agreed amendment by the states.

But besides Mississippi, only four other states have joined that effort.

The current effort, spearheaded by former South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, is a little different. Instead of that model of one vote for one amendment, it seeks to call a convention that could consider a range of amendments “that impose fiscal restraints on the federal government” or that “limit the power and jurisdiction of the federal government.”  If 34 states agree, supporters envision a gathering where each state would have one vote. Besides a balanced budget, supporters want Congressional term limits and an end to “crushing regulations on states and businesses.” Any proposals would then have to be passed by 38 states.

The Convention of States plan is a further along than the earlier balanced budget effort — Mississippi could become the 13th of the 34 required states to join the call. But both efforts are ultimately driven by a tea party-infused vision that spending and federal overreach are the most important problems facing the United States today and that Congress is so fundamentally broken that it’s hopeless to elect better officials. Instead citizens should focus on changing the nation’s fundamental charter.

“Every minute of every day, our debt goes up by a million dollars,” said Rep. Dan Eubanks, a Republican from Walls. “Congress seems incapable of doing anything to get us toward a balanced budget.”

This is a vision popular among Mississippi Republicans, thanks in part to advocacy by the American Legislative Exchange Council, which provides model legislation supported by conservative and business interests. A total of 45 Republicans sponsored House Concurrent Resolution 56 , and the only Republican who voted against it was Jackson’s Bill Denny.

Eubanks said he feels the same away about overspending in Republican- and Democratic-led Congresses, and many fiscal conservatives flinched at the $1.3 trillion spending bill that the U.S. House and Senate agreed to last week. But the plan found little backing among Democrats, winning the votes of only four.

The minority party worries about Mississippi’s dependence on federal money. Of the $21 billion state government is spending this year, $9.2 billion comes from the federal government. That’s 44 percent of overall revenue. In 2015, the last year with available Census Bureau data, only Louisiana edged out Mississippi when ranked by the share of revenue coming from the feds.

“Where in God’s name would the people of Mississippi be without the help of the big brother?” asked Rep. Steve Holland of Plantersville.

Eubanks, though, predicts an apocalyptic future where federal largesse will dry up because all revenue will be spent paying off debt.

“If we get to a place where there are no more federal dollars because every last dollar is going to service the federal debt, it will not matter,” he said.

For now though, Mississippi will keep spending federal cash even as it seeks to turn off the spigot.

Jeff Amy has covered politics and government for The Associated Press in Mississippi since 2011. Follow him on Twitter at jeffamy.