OPINION: A constitutional convention would undermine Alaska’s economic interests

State Capitol

Investing within Alaska is inherently difficult. Extreme weather, daunting logistics, geographical isolation and workforce limitations pose tremendous challenges, even in a good year. The workers, employers and investors willing to overcome these problems are a tough strain of business people. They take on the risks because they enjoy the challenge, and believe in a vision of a functional state with good, family-wage jobs.

Yet, a web of new problems makes current conditions significantly worse. Businesses throughout Alaska are dealing with runaway inflation, crippling supply chain shortages, tremendous increases in fuel and energy costs, extreme lead times on critical items, the inability of vendors to fulfill prior quotes, housing shortages for workers, a “Great Resignation” following dynamic shifts in workforce expectations, and operational challenges related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Zooming out, macroeconomic conditions have achieved a point of toxicity. U.S. monetary supply has increased by 40%. The country has experienced more than 20 years of deficit spending, with annual increases outpacing the growth of the Federal Reserve since 2016. Stocks just closed out the worst first half of a year since 1970. The price of used cars has increased by 50% in Alaska since 2020, and vegetarianism and bicycling are on the rise in parallel with meat and gasoline costs. While opinions vary whether America has again achieved recession, to most normal people, it certainly feels like one.

One thing is clear, though – it is an incredibly difficult time to be in business, whether as a worker, a manager, or an investor. Many Alaskans in the small business community are all of the above.

Into this chaotic environment comes the amazingly ill-timed question of whether Alaska should have a constitutional convention — a matter automatically placed on the ballot every 10 years. For decades, Alaskans have had the good sense to vote a resounding “no” on this issue. This year could be different, because some political theorists are speculating aloud that a constitutional convention might be a way to circumvent the Legislature and achieve larger dividends from the Alaska Permanent Fund, or effect other changes not likely to make it through the standard legislative process. Unlike most normal Alaskans with non-political, non-legal jobs, these theorists have little at stake, and little to lose through attempts at political experiment.

If you are displeased by the dysfunction of Alaska’s Legislature, you will find yourself even more aggrieved by the experience of a constitutional convention. The cast of characters and political factitiousness of the delegates will be very similar to what is currently seen in the legislative session, but with far more at risk, and less time to develop mutually acceptable solutions. There will be significantly fewer hours — possibly none — for meaningful information sessions, fact-checking and public testimony from ordinary Alaskans. Instead, out of temporal necessity, there will be hasty horse-trading, hostage taking and deal-making. If you have been dissatisfied by how the political caste currently improvises solutions, how well are they likely to do when you add time pressure and increase what is at stake?

Unlike a bill or ballot referendum, a constitutional convention will not be limited to the single matter of the PFD, or whatever else you might find of personal interest — everything will be up for grabs, all at the same time. The convention will attract every special interest group imaginable from outside Alaska. In fact, many are already amassing on the border, like Russian tanks. A sea of dark money from other states will flood the arena, drowning out the voices of reason, and causing “information wars” on a naval scale. Whatever your interests are, you will find yourself needing to defend them from outside misinformation. Everyone will be oppressed by this environment.

While no one can reliably predict the outcome of a constitutional convention, one thing is for certain — the newly-created constitution will be subject to years of litigation. At present, Alaska is fortunate to have a history of settled case law associated with its current constitution. Changing the constitution, for better or worse, will open that settled law to reinterpretation and re-litigation, destabilizing Alaska’s economy for years to come.

Development projects and new family-wage jobs for ordinary Alaskans will be held up for years as the lawyers fight and appeal arcana of jurisprudence. Most sane businesses and investors will not have the bankroll or inclination to fight over legal ambiguities, and many will simply opt out, taking their investment dollars and resulting jobs outside of the state. Alaska’s working people need to be where the work is, which is rarely where the lawyers swarm.

While Alaska’s current constitution does not resemble any one person’s utopia, it is relatively well-reasoned, and well supported by many years of established case law. The existing Alaska Constitution provides a predictable environment in which a business can invest and operate. It is a wonderful asset to the state in its current form.

Considering the wide range of external problems Alaska businesses and families are already struggling with, voting to add the risks and uncertainties of a constitutional convention would be terrible timing. While the legal chaos created by the convention may admittedly be good for a handful of political or legal careers, it will have a resoundingly negative impact for the majority of working Alaskans.

As someone who has been able to live, work, and invest successfully in Alaska, and who wants to keep doing the same, I will be voting strongly against a constitutional convention, and encourage you to vote it down, as well!

Jason Custer is a business professional and investor living in Juneau. He works as vice president of Alaska Power and Telephone and chairs the Supervisory Committee for Tongass Federal Credit Union. Custer serves on the board of the Alaska Chamber, and is an alumni of the Alaska Top 40 Under 40, as well as the U.S. Peace Corps.

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