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Alan Boraas: Special-interest spending could hijack a constitutional convention

Among the questions voters will be asked to decide in the upcoming General Election is Ballot Measure 1, the Constitutional Convention Question. Current law requires that voters decide every ten years whether or not to convene a constitutional convention with the power to revise, subject to voter ratification, the Alaska State Constitution.

The original constitution was drafted in 1956 by 55 delegates holed up in Constitution Hall on the campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In 75 days they fashioned a constitution that was subsequently ratified with statehood in 1959. Reportedly it was a fairly collegial affair with only one delegate, Robert Robertson, objecting to the document. In his case he didn't like how voter districts were formulated and walked out of the convention.

As John Havelock notes in his Alaska Voter Guide statement of support for a constitutional convention, the context of the original convention was statehood and wresting away from corporate interests, such as the salmon canning industry, resource control for Alaskans. Consequently, some of the language is dated and there are modern developments that could not have been anticipated by the original delegates.

Chief among the latter, as Havelock notes, is the role of corporate money in financing campaigns gaining disproportionate influence and power over state government. A revised constitution could encode into law provisions to assure that citizens have the right to vote and not be unduly influenced by uncontrolled, financially shrouded campaigning by national and multinational corporations operating from headquarters outside Alaska.

The fundamental basis of representative democracy, as addressed by James Madison in Federalist Paper #10, is that voters within a district be the ones who choose their representatives. Only registered voters can vote, of course, but influence on those voters is overwhelmingly by big-money interests. For example it is very likely the makeup of the next Alaska Legislature, particularly regarding the fate of the so-called "bipartisan coalition," will be heavily influenced by Citizens United-style campaign spending by interests operating from Outside head offices.

And that could lead to a Legislature predisposed to pass oil taxation revisions favorable to corporate oil giants.

But therein lies a dilemma. If voters pass Ballot Measure No. 1 and a constitutional convention is convened, the same massive influence spending that such a convention might fix would be brought to bear to try to assure that not only are revisions not made, but other aspects of the constitution be amended to be more favorable to corporatocracy.

For example the premise that Alaskans own and have equal access to fish, game, and water and that it be managed sustainably is firmly entrenched in the constitution. But sub-surface state ownership is not so well defined. The basis of the commons appears in Article 8. Section 11 which states, "Discovery and appropriation shall be the basis for establishing a right in those minerals reserved to the State."

Former Gov.Walter Hickel championed the idea of the commons and Alaska as an owner-state where, based on our constitution, resources could be developed, or not, reflecting the common good. In terms of mineral development, that concept has led to the Permanent Fund and oil taxation which translates into roads, schools, healthcare and other foundations for the good of the people and long-term economic development. It has also led to restrictions on development should it be in the interest of the people.

But, should a constitutional convention come to be, one can envision a massive attack against the concept of the commons waged in television, radio and newspaper advertising, direct marketing and some church pulpits. It's socialism, it's communism, it's anti-American. And let's not forget Internet avatar comments, another form of political advertising. In an on-line article in Alaska Commons favorably citing Governor Hickel's owner-state advocacy, an avatar by the name of "Drill Baby Drill" commented, "Governor Hickel was a traitor to the Republican party and to Alaska. He was an environmentalist wacko to the extreme."

Flippant name calling and dismissive contempt are, sadly, the stuff of modern politics. More worrisome is that highly sophisticated marketing of attitudes based on principles developed in the advertising industry are also part of the new politics. Organizations and corporations with the money to pay for it are the ones capable of formulating public opinion and shaping outcomes. Those techniques do not bode well for a 1950s-style convention of serious purpose.

In today's highly contentious, highly manipulative political climate a constitutional convention is just too risky.

Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.



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