Alaska constitutional convention on the ballot next year with focus on the PFD

Alaskans will vote next November on whether to hold a constitutional convention.
Published: Nov. 1, 2021 at 4:22 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Alaskans will vote next November on whether to hold a constitutional convention. It’s a vote constitutionally required to take place every 10 years.

For the past five cycles, a convention has been handily rejected by voters, but Tuckerman Babcock, former head of the Alaska Republican Party, thinks the 2022 vote might be close.

“People may be ready to go back to the drawing board to reassess the structure of how we govern ourselves,” he said.

Babcock says he intends to vote in support of a constitutional convention, but said he isn’t planning on joining any campaigns in favor of it. For Bob Bird, head of the Alaska Independence Party, it’s a different story.

Bird has campaigned for a convention for decades and has drafted a model constitution that could guide delegates. His priorities include getting Alaska’s subsurface mineral rights back.

“Alaska is not on an equal footing with other states,” Bird argued.

At least one group is being formed to oppose a convention and provide information to voters about the risks associated with it.

Former Republican Senate President Cathy Giessel is heading that group alongside former Alaska Attorney General Bruce Botelho, who served under Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles. The group hasn’t been named or registered yet with state regulators, but that is expected to happen soon.

“It is a very wide swath of Alaska citizens,” Giessel said. “It is nonpartisan. There are people from both sides of the aisle and in the middle.”

For opponents, the concerns about holding a convention are related to its unpredictability. It would essentially “shred” the current constitution, Giessel said, and could see special interests and lobbyists push for their own priorities.

There could be attempts to amend the state’s current judicial selection process which conservatives have long-criticized as resulting in a too-liberal judiciary. There could also be discussions about adding pro-life or abortion rights articles to the constitution, or talks about approving state funding for private and religious schools.

Botelho cautioned that anything could happen during a convention, resulting in a founding document for Alaska that frustrates conservatives and progressives alike.

“We do not want to subject what is considered a model constitution to an all-comers, ‘let’s see what we can fix’ kind of mentality,” he added.

Babcock doesn’t agree, saying it’s perhaps time to “tweak” the state’s constitution 65 years after the first convention finished its work.

“I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t trust Alaskans in 2022 to get together, elect delegates and put together a constitution and then vote on whether to approve it or not,” he said.

In the state Capitol, discussions over a convention have been focused on the Permanent Fund dividend and embedding it in the state constitution.

Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, calls a convention “high risk” and says her focus is passing a constitutional amendment to end the dividend debates. Some legislators have been frustrated, saying they have felt pressured by their colleagues into passing a dividend amendment now to head off passage of the convention vote next year.

All eyes are on Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

He says he’ll stay neutral on the constitutional convention, but stressed that could be an option voters take if the Legislature does not act on the PFD. He said his focus will be on working with legislators to pass a fiscal plan during the next regular session that starts in January.

“There will be other folks that will decide on whether they will campaign for a constitutional convention or not. I’m going to be focused on running the state,” Dunleavy said.

There are those who doubt that the governor is truly neutral on the constitutional convention vote.

“That’s laughable,” said Rep. Zack Fields, D-Anchorage. “He’s already campaigning on it.”

Fields suggests four largely fruitless special sessions on a fiscal plan and Dunleavy declining to back new revenue measures to pay for his 50-50 dividend and the budget is evidence of that support.

“What’s the only way to get a giant dividend?” Fields asked rhetorically. “Constitutional convention.”

Botelho says Dunleavy’s criticisms of the Alaska Judicial Council and support of his dividend amendment are evidence of the governor’s support for a convention.

“I would argue that the proof would be in the multiple constitutional amendments that he has proposed in the last three and a half years,” Giessel said.

Dunleavy has proposed an amendment to implement a tighter spending cap, another to require Alaskan voters to approve of new taxes and a third that would put a dividend formula in the constitution. All of those amendments require two-thirds of legislators to support them before they go before voters. None have gotten close to passing.

Babcock, Dunleavy’s former chief of staff, said confirmation of the governor’s “explicit” support for a convention would need to come from him. But, he stressed that Alaska would benefit with all three of Dunleavy’s proposed amendments being added to the state’s constitution.

“And yet, the Legislature has been absolutely immobile,” he added, echoing a common refrain from the governor. “Special session after special session with nothing accomplished.”

If approved by voters, a constitutional convention could cost over $3 million, depending on its length, according to a white paper prepared by Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak. It could also be complicated to work out basic logistics like where a convention would be held and who the delegates would be.

Bird argued it’s mostly progressives who are opposed to a convention and said selection of delegates through town hall meetings held across Alaska could ameliorate concerns that special interests, sitting legislators and big-money donors would step in to run the process.

“The risks are there, but things have reached such a rock bottom,” Bird said about holding a convention and the current state of Alaska politics.

Giessel, who served in the Legislature until 2021, said she understands the frustration among Alaskans who have watched legislators make little progress to pass a fiscal plan. But, she stressed that a convention is not the answer to the state’s problems.

“The political system is broken, but the constitution is not broken,” Giessel argued.

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