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Balance the Federal Budget? Your Chance to Speak Out on Tuesday's Ballot

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Location: Naples, FL

It's just a straw poll.

But on election day, one ballot question will give Florida voters a chance to voice their opinion on the $1.3 trillion federal budget deficit the Congressional Budget Office estimates for fiscal 2010.

The ballot question reads: "In order to stop the uncontrolled growth of our national debt and prevent excessive borrowing by the Federal Government, which threatens our economy and national security, should the United States Constitution be amended to require a balanced federal budget without raising taxes?"

While discussion of a balanced budget amendment has increased recently, fueled in part by tea party activists, such an amendment is in some ways further away from being passed now than it has been in the past three decades.

State Sen. Garrett Richter, a Naples Republican and one of many sponsors of the state legislation that added the question to the ballot, said that will change as people rally around the idea, something he said the straw poll could arouse.

"I think something can come of it, if nothing more than continued attention," Richter said of the poll. "This isn't a new idea, but continued attention to the fact we've got to control spending."

In 1983, the country was two states away from the 34 needed for a constitutional convention to be formed on the idea of submitting a balanced budget amendment to the states for ratification, according to Russell L. Caplan's 1988 book "Constitutional Brinksmanship: Amending the Constitution by National Convention."

Before and since, several pieces of federal legislation proposing the amendment -- the traditional and less-controversial method of doing so -- have come close to being passed and sent to state legislatures for the three-fourths-approval needed for ratification.

In March 1995, when the deficit was an eighth of what it is today, a balanced budget amendment proposal received the supermajority needed in the House, but failed in the Senate by one vote.

The question of whether current public approval is at the 80 percent listed in Caplan's book as having existed in the "80s is something the straw poll may also address.

U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fort Myers, who praised the ballot question and is for an amendment, said criticism over government spending led to recent grassroots movements like the tea party.

"There's no trust that's left, and that's what's driving the tea party and groups like the tea party. These aren't just Republicans," Mack said. "People are speaking out and they are passionate about it. And that's a good thing for our country."

Mack said the "freedom grab" of taxing and spending needs to end. He proposes cutting spending and taxes, even at a time when some economists suggest spending should increase.

"The idea that somehow we need to be spending more right now is crazy," Mack said. "Put money back in the hands of the people who earned it in the first place. They'll invest it, and they'll create jobs."

Generally, balanced budget amendments proposed by legislators in the past have contained exceptions for times of war or economic hardship, something the Florida ballot question doesn't address. Even after being sent for ratification, other amendments have taken years to be made into law.

The founder of the activist group Americans for a Balanced Budget Amendment, Alan Parks, said he is certain that public opinion for an amendment is high now and expects the straw poll will show it. He said such an amendment would be difficult for legislators, no matter how long it took to approve.

"Once it gets passed, there's going to be a lot of screaming and kicking and wailing and gnashing of teeth," Parks said. "But it's got to be done. You've got to undergo the chemotherapy to get through the cancer."


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