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On the ballot: Is it time to change Alaska's constitution?

Kyle Hopkins

Abortion and a capital move. Gay marriage and fishing rights. Some of Alaska's thorniest political issues are hidden in just six words appearing on the statewide ballot Tuesday:

"Shall there be a constitutional convention?"

As required by the Alaska Constitution, the question is back on the ballot this year for the fifth time in state history. If approved, it would require the lieutenant governor to call for a meeting of elected delegates who would consider changes to the 56-year-old blueprint.

Voters routinely reject the idea by landslide margins. This year, the Alaska Federation of Natives called on members to reverse that trend. The federation approved a resolution in October urging Alaskans to launch the first convention since 1955 in order to make a series of amendments. The federation is seeking to expand Native hunting and fishing rights, grow the size of the Legislature to include more rural lawmakers and to "recognize Alaska Native tribal and sovereign rights."

Sealaska Heritage Institute President Rosita Worl said she wrote the resolution after a recent study by the institute found Alaska Natives were denied a meaningful role in drafting the original state constitution.

Other influential political groups, both on the left and the right, say placing the constitution on the operating table is far too risky. Who knows what might be changed, they say.

"As divided as we get over some hot-button issues, we think it's kind of a dangerous thing to open up," said Joelle Hall, political director for Alaska AFL-CIO, the state's largest labor union.

The group in October mailed about 25,000 fliers opposing the convention to members at a cost of about 50 to 60 cents each, she said. "Alaska is known for having one of the strongest constitutions in the country," the cards read. "Now is not the time to monkey around."

Above the text is a picture of a barrel full of monkeys. Alaska Family Council President Jim Minnery used a different analogy.

"It's a can of worms," he said. "For those things that we want changed, we just are working on getting a Legislature in place that, if we need to do something through a constitutional amendment, that we can do it through an improved Legislature."

Lawmakers can propose amendments to the constitution, but it isn't easy. Two-thirds of each house must approve the amendment, which then goes to the public for a statewide vote.

That has happened 40 times in Alaska history. Voters approved 28 of the proposed amendments, outlawing gender discrimination in 1972, for example, authorizing the Permanent Fund in 1976 and limiting the definition of marriage to one man and one woman in 1998.

A dozen other constitutional amendments failed at the ballot box.

Minnery said he worries gay rights advocates might push to reverse the gay marriage ban if a convention is held. Still, he said, the Family Council has not campaigned against the ballot question. "There's some possible upside to (a convention). But there's also some possible downside. So we just made a decision to stay out of it," Minnery said.



PASSED ONLY ONCE BEFORE

Among the likely candidates for debate if there were to be another constitutional convention:

 

 

Moving the state capital from Juneau to Southcentral Alaska.

 

Allowing for public funding of private and church-affiliated schools.

 

Amending or adding an exception to the privacy clause that has prevented efforts to limit abortion in Alaska.

 

Enacting term limits on lawmakers.

 

Former state Rep. Andrew Halcro has insisted on term limits for legislators in his political blog, but said a constitutional convention is the wrong way to seek such a change.

"For every one great idea I think I have, somebody else has another that might be directly opposite my values or beliefs," he said.

At the AFN convention, some Southeast Alaska delegates opposed the call for a convention, fearing a capital move. Others were concerned that Alaska Native rights would be, in their view, further eroded, Worl said.

An AFN board member, Worl said she is not worried about the convention effort backfiring.

"To me, we're at the bottom of the barrel," she said. "I just didn't see that we could lose any further rights."

AFN board members have long sought an overhaul of hunting and fishing oversight in the state. The federation also is calling for an amendment to "recognize the cultural and linguistic diversity of Alaska Natives."

Worl conceded that Alaska voters were unlikely to approve a convention.

The measure has passed only once, in 1970. The Alaska Supreme Court later nullified the vote, saying the wording of the ballot question was misleading. The idea has since failed to gain more than 40 percent of the vote in any election, losing by the largest margin in 2002 when 72 percent of voters rejected a convention call, according to Division of Elections numbers.



'MODEL CONSTITUTION'

The constitution calls for voters to decide on whether to hold a new convention at least once every ten years.

While often lauded as a "model constitution," Alaska's founding document was also short on innovation, former Attorney General John Havelock wrote in this year's state voter pamphlet. Havelock argued in favor of holding a convention, which he says could lead to a raft of constitutional improvements such as creating a unicameral (single house) Legislature, cementing protections for the Permanent Fund dividend and requiring a public vote on expensive state construction projects.

Linda Witt, president of the League of Women Voters of Alaska, wrote the counter view, saying a convention would be unnecessary, costly and "perilous."

"The entire constitution would be open to change," Witt wrote. "This could put the constitution at risk with unlimited and unpredictable amendments being proposed by special interest groups. The convention could be slated toward special interest rather than the good of the general public."

There's no estimate for how much a convention would cost the state, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell said in a phone interview. That figure would be hard to predict, he said, because it's unclear exactly when and where a convention would be held.

Unless the Legislature called for a special election, delegates would be selected at the next statewide election in 2014, he said.

"There was only one Alaska Native member of the (original) constitutional convention," Treadwell said. "There would have to be efforts to include more Alaska Natives. A vote yes on this issue would almost surely commence a discussion in the Legislature."

Any changes to the constitution proposed by convention delegates would go to the general public for a vote, Treadwell said.

Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email him at khopkins@adn.com.


By KYLE HOPKINS
khopkins@adn.com
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