Opinions

A constitutional convention is a terrible idea for Alaska

Just when you start to think the Alaska Legislature could not possibly screw up this state any further, its shenanigans and back-biting inaction spawn a very, very bad idea among outliers in what passes for a political class in the Frozen North.

They and their special interest pals — on the right and left alike — view the Legislature’s stumbling and risibility on issues such as Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposal to enshrine the Permanent Fund dividend in the state’s founding document as welcome opportunities to push for a constitutional convention. In their minds, it presents a less troublesome path to press their various and dubious agendas.

Make no mistake, at such a convention, anything and everything would be up for grabs, complete with big money, high-power ad campaigns and arm-twisting that quickly would devolve into something akin to the devil’s playground.

Enshrining the Permanent Fund’s dividend calculation in the Alaska Constitution — a horrible idea, by the way, and a solution to a problem easily solved by requiring IQ tests for elective office — likely would top the flotsam bubbling to the surface in such a confab.

It could get worse from there. How about monkeying with abortion rights? Gun control? Fishing? Locking up natural resources? White-wall tires only on green vehicles? Jailing slow drivers clogging the fast lane? Anything could happen. Anything.

Article XIII of the Alaska Constitution clearly lays out ways the document can be amended: A two-thirds vote by the House and Senate, or a constitutional convention that can be called by the Legislature at any time, or a constitutional convention called by referendum. All, thankfully, require voter ratification.

The constitution requires, “if during any 10-year period a constitutional convention has not been held, the lieutenant governor shall place on the ballot for the next general election the question: “Shall there be a Constitutional Convention?”

If a majority votes yes, “delegates to the convention shall be chosen at the next regular statewide election,” the constitution says.

The last time the convention question appeared on the ballot was in 2012. Known then as Ballot Measure 1, voters gave it a good shellacking at the polls. It has been 10 years and Alaskans again will be asked the question on next year’s ballot.

The good news is that the constitutional convention question has been as popular with voters as scabies. It has appeared on the ballot every decade since 1970, failing miserably each time except for 1970, when it squeaked by 34,911 to 34,472. The Alaska Supreme Court, in Boucher v. Bomhoff, ruled the ballot language asking the convention question in 1970 was misleading because it appeared to require a convention rather than using the constitutional language that asks only whether voters want a convention.

The amended question was placed on the 1972 ballot and it bit the dust 55,389 to 29,192. It died by wide margins again in 1982, 108,319 to 63,816; in 1992, 142,735 to 84,929; in 2002, 152,120 to 60,217; and, in 2012, 179,567 to 90,079.

In those elections, fear of the unknown likely played a large role in shaping votes. It appears many voters believed allowing special interests free rein to muck around in the state constitution was a poor idea. They were absolutely correct. In a state as divided as Alaska — and the current Legislature proves the point — why would anybody believe a constitutional convention simply would not mirror the rampant bozoism of the multiple legislative sessions this year alone?

In the 2012 effort, John Havelock, Alaska’s attorney general from 1970 to 1973, wrote a statement of support in the state’s Official Voter Pamphlet. In it, he said not to worry, good people would step forward; that voters would get to choose delegates and then vote on the final product.

“A convention is a risk worth taking,” he wrote.

Linda Witte, then-president of the League of Women Voters of Alaska — which opposed a constitutional convention in 1972, 1982, 1992, 2002 and 2012 — wrote in opposition.

She said at the time that while the League supported changing the constitution, if necessary, by the state’s “clear and effective process,” she worried the plenary powers of a convention would leave “the entire Constitution … open to change.” She pointed out it “could put the Constitution at risk with unlimited and unpredictable amendments being proposed by special interest groups.”

Witte nailed it. A convention, indeed, could have put the constitution at risk then — and would now. To paraphrase ancient globemakers, here be dragons and that way lie monsters.

In coming months, there likely will be an increasing drumbeat for a constitutional convention. Pay attention to who wants one and weigh why they would want it rather than relying on the tried and true amendment process used successfully 28 times in the state’s first 50 years.

Then ask yourself: Are they seeking the state’s betterment, or theirs?

Paul Jenkins is editor of the AnchorageDailyPlanet.com, a division of Porcaro Communications.

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