The debate over a constitutional amendment to balance the budget moved onto the agenda of the National Governors' Association today with closed-session discussion of a draft resolution designed to derail the amendment passed by the Senate.
The draft resolution, which criticizes the Senate-passed amendment as "needlessly complex," would put the governors on record in favor of an amendment "in a simpler form."
It was scheduled for possible consideration by the governors at their plenary session Tuesday morning, the final day of the NGA's annual meeting being held at a resort called Shangri-La near here in northeast Oklahoma.
Meanwhile in Washington, the White House said that it did not view as a setback Sunday's decision by the NGA executive council to recommend that the governors draft their own "New Federalism" program from scratch, rather than continue negotiations with the White House.
Deputy press secretary Larry Speakes also said that President Reagan would not send his federalism proposal to Congress until next year. Reagan had told members of the governors' federalism negotiating team the same thing last week, which contributed to their decision to move in a new direction.
The governors also were informed that the federal gasoline tax is likely to double--from 4 cents to 8 cents per gallon--next year and that the interstate highway system would not be completed by the 1990 deadline. Highway administrator Ray Barnhart and Rep. Don Clausen (R-Calif.) said the extra revenues would be returned to the states to finance road and bridge programs under Reagan's New Federalism program.
In other activity today, Interior Secretary James G. Watt defended his energy leasing policies as a consumer-oriented program and promised extensive consultation with the governors in his quest to produce more energy from federally controlled lands.
Watt was well received in his first appearance before the governors as he fielded questions about his new offshore leasing policy, the administration's plan to sell federal lands and possible oil and gas drilling in wilderness areas.
At one point, he acknowledged that the administration's projected revenues of $13 billion to $17 billion over the next three years from the sale of excess federal lands and property were far too high.
"I cannot justify those big figures," he said. "They're not Interior's figures."
The movement on a resolution for a more simple constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget arose after a closed session of the governors this morning. Much of the two-hour session involved by a discussion of the amendment.
Governors later said there appeared to be a feeling that reducing the huge federal deficits was necessary, but that Congress was not likely to do the job without the pressure of a constitutional amendment.
At the same time, concern was expressed that the amendment as approved by the Senate was so complex that it would lead, in the words of Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt (D), to "a generation of litigation."
Calling the Senate version "a sloppy piece of constitutional draftsmanship, a grammar school job," Babbitt said later, "It's beginning to look like the constitution of a banana republic."
Babbitt is cosponsor, with Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander (R) of the resolution that was scheduled for Tuesday's plenary session.
NGA rules require the consent of three-fourths of the governors before the resolution can be considered. The rules also require a three-fourths vote for any resolution to become NGA policy.
It was not clear today how the resolution would fare. Jim West, Babbitt's press secretary, said he believed at least half the governors would support the Babbitt-Alexander resolution. "Whether we'll get the other one-quarter, we'll have to see," he said.
Vermont Gov. Richard Snelling (R), outgoing chairman of the governors association, said the discussion at this morning's session did not produce a clear consensus.
"There was significant support for three positions," he said--opposition to any balanced budget amendment, support for the Senate-passed version and the approach followed by Babbitt and Alexander.
"There was a concern, that I share, that because of the details and the length of the Senate amendment, it could lead to a long period of litigation and confusion," said Mississippi Gov. William Winter (D).
"The way you balance the budget is you balance the budget," said Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson (R). "It doesn't take a constitutional amendment. It just takes guts."
The discussion of the balanced budget amendment overshadowed Watt's appearance before the governors and the appearance of Agriculture Secretary John R. Block, who pledged an aggressive export policy but heard criticism of Reagan's sanctions against the Soviet Union in retaliation for the imposition of martial law in Poland.