Politics

Advocates say a constitutional convention could end gridlock in Juneau. Opponents say it would open a ‘Pandora’s box.’

Alaska Constitution

The leading group encouraging Alaskans to vote yes for a constitutional convention this November is led by conservatives emphasizing that it could end gridlock in the state Capitol — particularly with the Permanent Fund dividend. The leading bipartisan group campaigning against a convention argues it’s not necessary and that it could lead to chaos.

The constitutional convention question appears on the ballot every 10 years. It has been soundly defeated in recent decades, but supporters and opponents both agree that it appears to be running closer this year based on polling.

Unless the Legislature passes a different guiding law, a convention would generally follow the rules used for the 1955 convention, which drafted Alaska’s Constitution before statehood. That means that if it’s approved in the November election, Alaskans would likely vote during the 2024 election to choose delegates, which can include sitting legislators. Cost estimates for a convention range from a few million dollars to upward of $20 million.

Supporters stress that any draft changes to the constitution approved through a convention would then need to go before Alaska voters, likely in 2026. If a majority didn’t support them, those proposed changes would be rejected.

Opponents say that’s still too risky and that Outside special interests would flood in leading up to the convention and during the convention itself to advocate for their own priorities.

Republican former Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell is the chair of Convention YES, a group formed in August. Campbell, who said he hasn’t supported a convention until this year, believes the state is in “crisis” and that it’s time for a wholesale look at Alaska’s governing structures.

“Our group will emphasize the fact that in the last decade the execution of the Legislature, the process of the Permanent Fund, the activities of the court system, the failure of the education system, have all created an environment where we need to go back and have a constitutional convention,” he said.

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The PFD has been a focus for the yes campaign. Several leading convention opponents have argued that is because resolving the dividend question is broadly popular, but it helps mask support for more contentious conservative goals like ending abortion access and expanding school choice.

Last year, a group called Defend Our Constitution formed to oppose a convention. The campaign is stressing that there would be no restrictions on the draft constitutional changes it might approve.

“We just don’t know what is in Pandora’s box and there’s no reason to open it,” said campaign chair Bruce Botelho, a former state attorney general who was appointed by Republican Gov. Wally Hickel and continued to serve under Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles. “There are no imminent threats to the social, economic or governmental framework that necessitates a convention.”

The perceived risks of a convention have led a bipartisan group of hundreds of prominent Alaskans to sign on to oppose a convention, including 98-year-old Vic Fischer, the last surviving delegate of the 1955 convention.

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The group has a list of more than 40 organizations opposed to a convention from the Alaska Miners Association, which is interested in protecting access to resources, to five chambers of commerce, which argue that it would bring uncertainty to Alaska’s business climate.

[Alaska Public Media and the UAA Debate Team is set to a host constitutional convention debate, joined by moderators from the ADN and the Alaska Beacon, on Thursday Sep. 29 at 7 p.m. in the Wendy Williamson Auditorium at UAA. It will also be livestreamed.]

The no campaign is emphasizing potential impacts to public lands access, taxation and resource development while highlighting that the Alaska Constitution can already be changed without a convention. Two-thirds of the Alaska House of Representatives and the Senate can vote for an amendment and it would be adopted if a simple majority of voters then supported it. The Alaska Constitution has been amended 28 times that way, the last time in 2004.

The question doesn’t split along party lines, but it can split administrations. Former Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski is against a convention, but his lieutenant governor, fellow Republican Loren Leman, wants one.

The Alaska Democratic Party is opposed to a convention. The Alaska Republican Party’s State Central Committee debated a motion to support a convention in July. It failed to pass.

The Alaska Libertarian Party wants some specific changes to the constitution but it is against a convention, saying that under the current political climate, the party does not believe it would benefit Alaskans or individual liberty. The conservative Alaska Independence Party, headed by Bob Bird, is strongly in favor of a constitutional convention, having campaigned for one for decades.

Among the groups supporting the measure: the conservative Christian advocacy group the Alaska Family Council. Several sitting conservative Republican legislators have come out publicly in favor of a convention. No sitting Democrats or independent legislators have indicated support for a convention.

‘Stop the steal!’

Since then-Gov. Bill Walker vetoed half the dividend in 2016 with the Legislature deadlocked on how to reduce a multibillion-dollar deficit, the size of the PFD has been decided each year as part of the annual budget making process. Political consultants say that has led to widespread dissatisfaction with the political process and the direction the state is moving in.

Convention YES has made that a focus of its campaign. It held rallies in four Alaska cities Tuesday when the PFD started to be distributed to say, “Stop the steal!” Campaign member Jake Libbey, publisher of the conservative Christian news website the Alaska Watchman, appeared in an online advertisement on the same day to reiterate the message.

“On Sept. 20, PFD day, state legislators put on cloaks and snuck into your bank account and stole almost $1,000 from you and every member of your family,” he said

Alaska Legislature

Despite that messaging suggesting support for a full statutory dividend, Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, said the campaign isn’t necessarily saying the 1982 dividend formula should be put into the constitution because that could “paint delegates into a corner” and require ever-increasing broad-based taxes to pay for it. Instead, delegates should discuss a “comprehensive” fiscal plan with a state spending cap paired with a new dividend model, she said.

Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy has said he will stay neutral on the constitutional convention question, but he has advocated for similar constitutional amendments in the past. He and Convention YES have both said Alaskans should be trusted to make the decision themselves and highlighted the safeguards in place to prevent “crazy” outcomes.

Matt Shuckerow, a former Dunleavy staff member and current spokesman for Defend Our Constitution, said there are no certainties that the dividend issue, or any other specific policy goal, would be resolved through a constitutional convention.

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Supporters have said a convention could approve a series of amendments that go before voters for an up-or-down vote. Shuckerow said that model is not assured; more popular draft changes could be packaged together with unpopular ones once horse trading starts. The whole constitution would be opened up and anything could be changed, he said. Or nothing.

Several opponents of a convention have argued that Convention YES’ focus on the dividend is being used to mask plans to enact less popular conservative policies. Campbell was on conservative Christian Jim Minnery’s radio show in June and the two men discussed their three priorities for holding a convention: school choice, judicial reform, and opposition to abortion.

Campbell argues that Alaska’s public school system is leading to poor outcomes and that it is run by an “ultra liberal group.” If school choice is allowed, he believes that “a majority of students will go out of the public school system.”

The Alaska Constitution mandates funding for a system of public schools across the state, and prohibits funding in most instances for private and religious schools. Tom Klaameyer, president of the National Education Association of Alaska, said the guarantees from that provision are why the state teachers union donated $50,000 to oppose a convention.

“We do view it as one of the biggest threats to public education right now,” he said. “We take it very seriously.”

Last month, Campbell said his personal priority is changing how judges are appointed in Alaska. The independent Alaska Judicial Council currently selects multiple candidates before one is chosen by the governor, a system that supporters say has resulted in a nonpartisan judiciary and a merit-based judicial selection process. But prominent conservatives have long argued it has resulted in “liberal” court decisions, such as on abortion.

The role of abortion

When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade in June, it had no immediate impact in Alaska because state courts have repeatedly ruled that the Alaska Constitution’s privacy clause extends to abortion access.

Minnery, president of the conservative Christian advocacy group the Alaska Family Council, had long prepared for the day and thought it was auspicious that a constitutional convention vote would be on the ballot a few months later.

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“I’ve used the word fortuitous, but I would even say, ‘divinely appointed’ for those of us who believe that God controls the heavens and the earth,” he said at the time.

Hughes, an abortion opponent, was the lead supporter of a constitutional amendment she introduced to exclude the procedure from the constitution’s privacy protections and allow the Legislature to make abortion decisions through statute. The amendment failed to pass and both sides of the abortion debate say a constitutional convention is the most likely way that abortion access would change in Alaska.

The Alaska Family Council wants to end abortion in Alaska while it stays neutral on the PFD debates as its members have a diverse set of opinions on the dividend. As a member of the steering committee for Convention YES, Minnery is staying focused on campaigning to end gridlock, saying convention supporters are coming at it from all angles, like wanting to end ranked choice voting after Democrat Rep. Mary Peltola’s special election victory.

“If the story is simply on abortion, it’s kind of missing the point because there’s a whole slew of things that can be addressed by a constitutional convention. And ensuring that the courts can’t manufacture a right to abortion is just one of those,” Minnery said recently.

Convention YES has not focused its campaign on ending abortion access in Alaska, despite prominent members having long called for that. That could be because polling has consistently shown around 60% of Alaskans are in favor of legal abortion, and political consultants say it is an issue driving left-leaning Alaskans to the ballot box this election cycle.

Defend Our Constitution, the leading group against a convention, is not campaigning on abortion either because its diverse group of members don’t have a unified position on the procedure. With neither leading campaign focused on abortion, another group formed in August is filling the void. The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska and the Alaska Center’s Education Fund established “Protect Our Rights: No on 1.”

The group is running separately to Defend Our Constitution, but shares its goals to oppose a convention. A spokesperson for the Alaska Center said it would be campaigning to protect subsistence rights, access to voting, and blocking threats to personal privacy.

“Our group’s purpose is focused solely on making sure voters are informed about the ways a convention risks giving the government the ability to intrude upon Alaskans’ personal lives and interfere with their personal medical decisions, including abortion,” said Michael Garvey, the ACLU of Alaska’s advocacy director, through a prepared statement.

Special interests

With other high profile contests, Botelho said it’s unsurprising that otherwise politically engaged Alaskans have been unaware that the constitutional convention question is on the ballot. But the campaigns have started to ramp up.

Money has poured into Defend Our Constitution’s coffers and it had raised $834,000 by Sept.10. The Sixteen Thirty Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit described by the New York Times as a left-leaning dark money group, donated $500,000.

A spokesperson for the Sixteen Thirty Fund said by email simply, “That (it) supports campaigns and causes across the country, including the nonpartisan No on 1 Defend Our Constitution campaign. We are proud to support Defend Our Constitution.”

That donation has helped sparked criticism that the no campaign is supported by special interests interfering with Alaska’s political process. Botelho said he won’t apologize for getting donations from Outside as the campaign has sought to ensure it can deliver a message to all Alaskans why a convention would be a mistake.

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Other major donors to the no campaign are unions. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ political action committee donated $50,000 along with $50,000 from the American Federation of Teachers. The state’s largest union for public sector workers’ political action committee donated $25,000 and Alaska’s nurses’ union donated $15,000.

President of the Alaska AFL-CIO Joelle Hall, a member of Defend Our Constitution’s executive committee, said that opposition is because the labor movement sees a convention as a threat to workers’ rights, particularly to collective bargaining.

Protect Our Rights has raised just over $76,000 with virtually all of that money coming from the Alaska Center Education Fund, which has then gone back to the fund to pay for canvassing.

Convention YES says it has raised less than $10,000 but it is not required to post a campaign disclosure report until Oct. 10. Joshua Church, a Fairbanks financial adviser, was listed until recently as one of Convention YES’ three largest donors on advertisements. He said that shows how small and grassroots the campaign is.

“I think I gave 600 bucks to make it on there,” he said.

Tom Lucas, campaign disclosure coordinator with the Alaska Public Offices Commission, said expenditures should be reported within 10 days of them being made. Despite forming six weeks ago, Convention YES has so far filed none, Lucas said.

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The yes campaign is being dwarfed in terms of funding and supporters who have signed on, but Shuckerow is also concerned about special interests. If a state constitutional convention is approved, it would be the first since Rhode Island held one in 1986. He said it could turn Alaska into “a playground” for Outside groups flooding in during debates, trying to turn the state’s foundational document into a test case for their own policy goals.

Hughes said the state’s founders planned for a constitutional convention question to appear on the ballot once in a decade with a specific process, which allows for a simple majority of voters and a simple majority of delegates to change the constitution while bypassing the two-thirds majority threshold of the Legislature required to advance a constitutional amendment. Maybe that was deliberate to solve seemingly unsolvable problems, she said.

Hall said it’s understandable why a convention, with its lower bar for amending the constitution, is an appealing option for conservatives. They have been frustrated after having their priorities consistently blocked in the state Capitol. Hence, why they are focused on ending gridlock.

“Gridlock is the term you use when you don’t get your way,” she said.

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Sean Maguire

Sean Maguire is a politics and general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Juneau. He previously reported from Juneau for Alaska's News Source. Contact him at smaguire@adn.com.

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