Constitutional Convention: supporters and opponents speak out
FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Every ten years, Alaskans are asked a basic question: shall there be a Constitutional Convention?
The Alaska Constitution says the state’s legislature can call for a convention at any time. If this doesn’t happen during a 10 year period, the question then goes to the voters.
Since the state’s constitution was ratified by voters in 1956, the convention question has generally failed by a wide margin. In 2012, two thirds of residents voted “no”. Before that, opposition to a convention never fell below sixty percent of the vote.
One exception was in 1970, when Alaskans voted “yes.” However, that result was overturned by the courts due to the measure’s language being misleading, and when the question was asked again two years later, it was defeated.
This year, supporters in favor of a convention point to the possibility of a stable fiscal plan and enshrining the formula for the Permanent Fund Dividend into the document.
Opponents, meanwhile, argue that a convention will open Pandora’s Box and expose the constitution to partisan and short-sighted changes.
What if the voters approve a convention?
In that case the form it would take is uncertain. Delegates to the convention would be elected by the people of Alaska. These delegates could be elected in a special election, or could wait until the next statewide ballot.
The convention would then meet and once the convention has approved amendments to the document, these changes would all go to the people of Alaska for approval.
Since its ratification, Alaska’s constitution has been amended 28 times without a convention.
Robert Bird, Chairman for the Alaskan Independence Party, says, “The State Constitution ought to be reviewed, if not every ten years, certainly it’s long overdue from stuff that I think everybody agrees needs to be fixed.”
Bird says there are contradictory elements in the constitution. “One of them is the right to freedom of speech. It’s worded very, very badly. This is just housekeeping stuff, but it needs to be fixed.”
Supporters of the ballot measure want to see a stable fiscal plan.
Senator Robert Myers, Republican for Alaska District Q, says, “A constitutional convention is one way for us to get around that gridlock and solve some of our problems.”
Some would like to see the Permanent Fund Dividend enshrined into the constitution.
“So we take that off the table, and that doesn’t take up all the oxygen in the room like it has for the last few years, and it really can prevent us from passing other meaningful legislation,” adds Myers.
There are those who want to reform the body that appoints the state’s Supreme Court Justices, known as the Judicial Council.
Bird argues that because four members of the seven-person council will likely be members of the Bar Association, the court will be denied conservative justices.
Proponents argue the convention’s delegates could also put in language strengthening Alaska’s rights to its land.
“We want to be a first-class state, not a second-class state,” declares Bird.
As of November, the group, “defend our constitution”, which opposes the convention, has outspent proponents be a wide margin.
Bird says, “It is money from the lower-48. It has already poisoned whatever this outcome will be.”
A convention, supporters argue, would involve the people’s voice throughout, and wouldn’t get out of hand.
Myers says, “I don’t buy into the fear campaign. I believe that this is a solid process. The people vote on whether or not there will be a constitutional convention. The people vote for their delegates, and the people vote to approve or disapprove anything that comes out of that process.”
Other topics that have entered the convention conversation include abortion, school choice, and a spending cap.
In the past 50 years, the question of a Constitutional Convention has been voted down by the people of Alaska 5 times. This year, the issue is receiving more attention than in the past.
“The governor has been talking for the last several years about how we should put the Permanent Fund Dividend in the constitution. That gets everybody’s attention because that is money that goes into their pocket,” said John Coghill, former state senator and Co-Chair of the group “Defend Our Constitution.”
Former Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins, who is also a Co-Chair of the opposition group, agreed, arguing “We also have to have a state that operates. We have to have a ferry system for Southeast Alaska. We need roads in populated areas. We need airports and other activities in rural Alaska, and we need broadband. We need all these other aspects, as opposed to just, ‘I want a full P-F-D for my family, for my individual spending.’”
Hopkins said the system as it stands is working well. “This constitution is an incredible document, and I want to see, if there are changes, I want to see one at a time. I want to see them individually proposed, not after a constitution convention is held.”
Coghill argues that a convention, if held now, would devolve into partisan bickering. “The polarization in American and Alaska specifically, just don’t allow for me to be comfortable that we’re going to put our fundamental document on the table,” he said.
Those opposed to a convention say the process would carry much uncertainty, including who would be a part of the convention.
“They may be laypeople. They may be former legislators. They may be former governors, but there’d be such a wide aspect of change that a group of this type would want, I don’t know what the outcome would be and that’s what concerns me,” said Hopkins.
Coghill sees the convention being a multi-year process, creating an economic problem. “People are going to stand by before investing in Alaska while we’re debating the fundamental law of Alaska.”
Hopkins agreed, saying, “Our business sector, our resource sector, they’re all saying ‘Wait a minute. We have a set of laws that are working well enough for us.’ Some want change. Some don’t want change, but we don’t want to have, all of a sudden, commerce be up in the air.”
The process, opponents argue, would also invite interests from the lower-48 to get involved. “The people who have strong environmental concerns, the people who have strong resource development concerns, the people who have global climate change issues, all will come to Alaska, because we’re seen as the center of many of those discussions,” Coghill argued.
Coghill says he agrees with proponents on some of the changes needed in the constitution, but feels a convention wouldn’t guarantee those issues are solved. “So I’ve taken the ‘no’ position on the Constitutional Convention with the caveat that I agree that there are many things in the constitution that we can change.”
Once completed by the convention, it is unclear whether the new constitution would be presented to voters for one yes or no vote, or whether each change would be voted on separately.
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