IF IT SURVIVES the fight in Congress, the balanced budget amendment could die at the statehouse door in Jefferson City.
Or Springfield, Ill. Or Honolulu. Or Charleston, W. Va.
Observers say its fate would hang on ratification votes in the legislat ures of perhaps 17 states - including Missouri and Illinois - where the question is too close to call. Ratification votes would begin in the states if the House and Senate each approve an amendment by a two-thirds vote. The amendment must be ratified by 38 states to win a place in the Constitution. The amendment would be expected to race to approval in dozens of statehouses, then face a dogged battle in the last few states needed for ratification. An evaluation by the Center for the Study of the States counts 32 states as leaning toward ratifying the amendment. The South is solidly for it, as are most of the Rocky Mountain states. Only one state, New York, is counted a solid no. But 17 states are rated as iffy by the center, a research group at the State University of New York at Albany. Support is weakest in the Northeast. Arguments in the state legislatures would be expected to mirror arguments in Congress, with one exception: Legislators would worry more over what would happen to their state budgets if Washington turned off the federal money spigots. Would states have to raise taxes to build highways or care for the sick and poor? "The first 25 states will ratify easily. But as the end gets near, legislators will say, `Hold on here. Is this just a mechanism to pass the buck?' " says Frank Shafroth, policy director for the National League of Cities. In Missouri, House Speaker Steve Gaw, D-Moberly, has no idea how the vote might go. "I'm concerned about how much we'll pay," says Gaw. "We'll have to be very careful that this is not done by shifting responsibility to the states." Shrinking Washington's Power However, other legislators see a balanced budget as a way to shrink the power of Washington. State Sen. Steven Ehlmann, R-St. Charles, notes that 40 percent of his district is in a flood plain, and residents need a federal permit to build. "The federal government has taken over the local prerogative in land use control," he said. A cash-strapped Uncle Sam might have less weight to throw around in St. Charles, he reasons. Also, Ehlmann likes the way Missouri's balanced budget amendment has controlled spending. "We don't have a $3 trillion debt. …