Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom is seen during the governor’s annual holiday open house on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2022 at the Governor’s Mansion in Juneau. (James Brooks / Alaska Beacon)

Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom is seen during the governor’s annual holiday open house on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2022 at the Governor’s Mansion in Juneau. (James Brooks / Alaska Beacon)

Alaska lieutenant governor disqualifies legislative term-limits ballot measure

Alaska Supreme Court ruled in 1994 legislative term limits require a constitutional amendment.

Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom has rejected a proposed legislative term-limits ballot measure, citing a Department of Law legal analysis that found the measure was likely unconstitutional.

“The precedent set by the Alaska Supreme Court establishes that legislative term limits violate the Alaska Constitution,” she wrote in a Wednesday letter directed to the sponsors of the measure.

As written, the proposed ballot measure would have limited state legislators to no more than 12 consecutive years in office and no more than 20 years in total.

“I’m unhappy about it,” said Elijah Verhagen of Nenana. He cosponsored the measure with Heath Smith of Homer and Trevor Shaw of Ketchikan.

“To say that it would be unconstitutional, in my opinion, is a cop-out,” Verhagen said.

State attorneys also found technical flaws with the petition used to propose the measure, noting that proposers’ documents lacked legally required language.

Smith said that problem could be fixed, leaving the legal determination as the main challenge.

Proponents could challenge the state’s determination, but without a challenge, the term limits measure will not advance to the signature-gathering stage and will not appear before voters next year.

Various groups attempted in the 1990s to impose term limits on state legislators and Alaska’s members of Congress, but each was ruled unconstitutional.

In 1994, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that because the Alaska Constitution sets the qualifications for legislative office, and because the Constitution does not set term limits for legislators, “the only way that term limits might be imposed would be a constitutional amendment.”

Verhagen and Smith said they don’t agree with that interpretation. Article 1, Section 2, of the Alaska Constitution states that “all political power is inherent in the people,” Smith said.

“I think that should override every other consideration,” he said, and based on that principle, he believes that Alaska voters should be allowed the chance to decide term limits.

Smith said he was “discouraged” by the lieutenant governor’s decision and that the sponsors have begun considering whether to challenge that decision in court.

“We’ll see, but we’re not going to give up,” he said.

An alternative approach could involve the Alaska Legislature, he suggested. Lawmakers could advance a constitutional amendment that allows term limits to be imposed by law, he said.

“They don’t have to actually put in there that term limits exist,” Smith said. “They just need to provide the court some kind of assurance that it’s OK to let the people decide if they want to have their legislators have term limits.”

With the term limits measure disallowed, four other ballot measures remain in contention for next year’s elections.

One measure, repealing the state’s ranked choice voting system, has already passed legal muster and is in the signature-gathering stage.

Three other proposed measures are still being examined by the Department of Law, with review deadlines set for Sept. 3. One measure would increase the state’s minimum wage and mandate sick leave. Another would prohibit the state from spending public funds on partisan political primary elections. The third measure would reimpose financial limits on campaign contributions.

• James Brooks is a longtime Alaska reporter, having previously worked at the Anchorage Daily News, Juneau Empire, Kodiak Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. This article originally appeared online at Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government.

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