Every 10 years, Alaskans are asked to vote on whether they want to hold a constitutional convention. The time has come again this year on Nov. 8.
In the original constitutional convention in the winter of 1955-1956, delegates wrote that Alaska should decide every decade whether to hold another one. The question was first polled in 1970 and the measure passed. However, that vote was later overturned in court because the language was deemed biased and no convention was held. The question was repolled in 1972, and has been defeated five times since.
Those in favor of a constitutional convention, like Alaska Independence Party Chairman Bob Bird, have a laundry list of potential issues, with the Permanent Fund Dividend at the top.
“The PFD is the spark. But when you get the spark like that, and there’s no limit to what a constitutional convention might produce, then we can look at the incredibly long list of things that need correction,” Bird said.
It’s that list of things that worries those against a convention. It’s a veritable “Pandora’s Box of issues,” according to Bruce Botelho, a co-chair of No on 1: Defend our Constitution, the leading group against a convention. He said topics like the PFD, abortion rights in Alaska, changes in how state judges are chosen, moving the capital, and school choice could all be on the table. And that’s just the start.
Bird defended his position at a Sept. 29 debate on the ballot question hosted at UAA.
While Bird wants the PFD constituionalized, he said “the judicial council has to go. I think certainly the constitution already recognizes that all persons have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Who do you want to determine personhood, unelected judges, or your friends and neighbors, or their elected representatives.”
Bird is the former president of Alaska Right to Life and a ConventionYES supporter, the leading group for a convention.
At 98, Vic Fischer is the sole remaining survivor of the first and only Alaska Constitutional Convention, and a co-chair of Defend our Constitution.
“The new constitutional convention can take the existing convention and dump it, just start from scratch and do something completely different. And I’m not sure that makes any sense when we have the best constitution in the United States, which has worked extremely well,” Fischer said.
Alaska already has a process in place for amending the existing constitution, requiring two-thirds of the legislature, which is then voted on by Alaskans with a simple majority. The last time an amendment was approved was 2004, when voters agreed to change how signatures would be gathered for statewide ballot initiatives.
Botelho said a constitutional convention is a broad move when there are specific issues, such as putting strict guidelines in the constitution for the PFD, which would reduce the flexibility of the state to make financial decisions.
The Alaska Permanent Fund was created in 1976 and enshrined in the constitution to capture and invest at least 25% of Alaska oil revenue for a time when oil would run out. The funds are managed by the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation. In 1980, the Alaska Legislature enacted the Permanent Fund Dividend as a way to share some of the oil wealth with citizens.
Now every legislature is faced with a choice on how to allocate limited financial resources to run government and by extension fund the PFD, said Botelho, a former Alaska Attorney General under both Democrat and Republican administrations.
“The government’s role is not to provide a cash payout to citizens, it’s to provide essential services for all,” Botelho said.
Who’s donating to the campaign?
Compared to other political campaigns, there isn’t a lot of money being thrown around either for or against a convention. The latest financial disclosure reports filed with the Alaska Public Offices Commission indicate less money had been spent on either side of this debate than the gubernatorial and U.S. House and Senate campaigns, and far less compared to the $25 million spent on 2018’s clean-water or 2020’s oil tax ballot measures, both of which had similar statewide implications.
The Oct. 3 financial disclosure reported a total $1.4 million donated to Defend Our Constitution. This money came primarily from the Sixteen Thirty Fund and the National Education Association, both based in Washington D.C. NEA-Alaska contributed $50,000 earlier this year.
For Botelho, this comparably low funding isn’t a surprise.
“You don’t have to invest a large amount of money to influence change here,” he said.
A constitutional convention would take a number of years to organize and elect delegates. A whitepage estimate from the legislative office of Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, placed the price of a convention at more than $16 million. And after spending all that time and money, the proposed constitution could still be rejected by voters and not ratified.
Regardless of anyone’s view on why or why not we should hold a convention in the state, Alaskans will get a chance to vote in the Nov. 8 general election.
“Vote, that’s my message, and a prerequisite to voting is being informed,” Botelho said.
by Mike Flunker, Editor-in-Chief, UAS Whalesong