Committee formed to defend state’s current constitution

Stevens: Voters need to know what it will cost and what it will do

Senator Gary Stevens in Cordova on Friday, April 12, 2019. (Photo by Emily Mesner/The Cordova Times)

A committee of eight co-chairs with a broad spectrum of political views has formed to defend Alaska’s constitution and educate voters on the costs and impact of residents of approving a constitutional convention.

State law dictates that every 10th year the lieutenant governor is required to place on the general election ballot the question “shall there be a constitutional convention?”

That question is scheduled to appear on the Nov. 1, 2022, general election ballot.

The group has filed as a ballot measure group opposing the ballot question.

“The Alaska Constitution was carefully crafted in 1955 based on the benefit of lessons learned from the other 48 states that had come before Alaska,” said Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, in a statement released by the eight co-chairs on Sunday, Dec. 12. “As a living breathing document, it should be subject to the scrutiny of voters through the statewide election process. But there is no compelling reason to scrap the entire document and start from scratch. To do so would engender chaos and disruption for Alaskans of all walks of life.”

Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, said it’s a good thing to have that vote, but that voters need to know what it will cost and what it will do.

“We need to enter this with eyes wide open,” Stevens said, a retired University of Alaska history professor and veteran legislator.

If there are reasons for a constitutional convention “we should do it, but I want to avoid damaging the document we have,” Stevens said. “It is a complex issue; it needs a lot of analysis.”

Stevens said once the Legislature convenes in Juneau in January, he would like to see the House and Senate have a committee appointed to look at the constitution and let the public know what could happen if there is a convention. The document was written in 1955 by 55 people who got together in Fairbanks, and it was a nonpolitical event, just as the document itself is nonpolitical, he said.

Stevens also noted that parts of the constitution can and have been changed in the past.

“You don’t have to have a constitutional convention for one little thing,” he said.

If there is a constitutional convention it has a priority call on the state’s budget, to pay for the convention above anything else, he noted.

“If we pass some amendments (to the constitution) before the election they will be on the ballot (too),” he said.

“Alaska’s constitution is a model of simplicity, brevity and clarity in allocating the powers of government and protecting the rights of citizens,” said former Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho, another of the committee co-chairs.

Botelho, who was born in Alaska before statehood, has spent most of his professional career in state government.

“When circumstances have dictated the need for change, this has been readily accomplished through a rigorous amendment process that requires a two-thirds vote of each House and an affirmative vote of the people. A constitutional convention has the power to start from scratch, with all of the trade-offs and license to abandon the very institutions that have served the people of Alaska well since statehood.

Other committee co-chairs include:

  • Former legislator Cathy Giessel of Anchorage;
  • Sen. John Coghill, R-Fairbanks;
  • Gail Schubert, president and CEO of Bering Straits Native Corp.;
  • Joelle Hall, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO;
  • Former Alaska Revenue Commissioner Bill Corbus;
  • And former Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins.

“Our political system is broken, but our constitution is not broken,” Giessel said. “Alaska’s constitution provides the foundation needed for economic and social stability. This is not the time to emotionally shred our guiding document. A constitutional convention would risk special interests and big money lobbyists rewriting it to suit their goals, not to the benefit of Alaskans.”

In a white paper shared with fellow legislators Stevens noted that if voters approved a constitutional convention at the general election in 2022 that delegates to convention would be elected at the next general election, in 2024. On a theoretical “fast” track the Legislature could provide for a special election earlier than the 2024 general election, he noted.

Legislators would then likely have to pass a bill to provide for a constitutional convention and sitting legislators could likely run for election as delegates to the convention or be otherwise employed by the convention, Stevens said.

In 1955, the Legislature provided $300,000 for the pre-statehood constitutional convention. How much to donate for a future convention would require several considerations, including whether the convention would utilize the 75-day limit with a 15-day recess provision to allow travel of delegates to meet with Alaskans around the state, as it did in the 1955 call. Calculating the appropriation would also include consideration of whether delegates would be reimbursed for travel expenses and where the convention would be held — in a leased or perhaps gifted space or in existing legislative space.

Stevens concluded that a constitutional convention would likely be a slow, deliberative, contentious and costly process, with the entire state constitution open for delegates to consider and revise.

Proposed revisions to the constitution could either be ratified by voters or rejected in whole or in part.

Voters are likely aware that a constitutional convention may resolve contentious issues, but may also raise more contentious issues than it resolves, Stevens said. Perhaps, he said “that is why the voters of Alaska have rejected conventions with sweeping plenary powers over the years and relied on the amendment process to make necessary and discreet changes to the existing constitution as necessary.”