Copies of the Alaska State Constitution were available outside the Lt. Governor’s office on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, but if voters choose to have a constitutional convention next year, the state’s foundational document could be re-written entirely. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

Copies of the Alaska State Constitution were available outside the Lt. Governor’s office on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, but if voters choose to have a constitutional convention next year, the state’s foundational document could be re-written entirely. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)

Group warns of costs, time and changes from constitutional convention

Group weighs pros and cons of constitutional convention

Correction: Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, is not a co-chair of Defend Our Constitution and the co-chairs oppose a constitutional convention. The Empire regrets the error.

Alaskans will be asked in the next statewide election if they want to hold a constitutional convention. Ahead of that, a group of state and local leaders said they want to help inform people about the full impacts. In a Dec. 12, news release, the group — Defend Our Constitution — said a constitutional convention would be chaotic and expensive.

Alaska’s constitution requires that voters be asked every 10 years to hold a convention to change the state’s foundational document. But a convention would subject the entire document to change, which opponents to a convention say is too risky. The group’s members —which include current and former state lawmakers, mayors and others wary of a convention —said a convention would create the opportunity for special interest groups to try and re-write state laws in their favor.

Speaking on the floor of the Alaska Senate on Sept. 19, Sens. Shelly Hughes, R-Palmer, and Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, suggested that voters may choose to hold a constitutional convention over lack of action on the Permanent Fund Dividend.

“I’m not taking a position for or against having a constitutional convention, my goal is to make sure that folks understand what we’re getting into,” said Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, not a member of the group, but who wrote a research paper examining the costs. “If we choose to do the (constitutional convention), it’s a big thing, it takes a tremendous amount of effort, it takes a long time.”

If the state does hold a constitutional convention the state’s entire founding document will be subject to change, and that’s something the group’s co-chairs said would be dangerous to the state.

[Cities hope to see full state budget, bolstered by federal funds]

In an interview with the Empire Monday, Stevens said a convention would likely be several years before the convention would actually be held, as the process for electing delegates and convening a meeting would be time-consuming and expensive. In addition to his own research, Stevens has asked legislative leaders to convene a special committee to examine the process.

“The process begins with the Legislature,” Stevens said, “How to do it, how to fund it, who are the delegates, how do we elect them, who do we elect.”

A convention would have to be fully staffed, Stevens said, and would have first call on the state’s budget, meaning funds for the convention would be prioritized over all others, including public security and education.

Defend Our Constitution’s co-chairs said they didn’t necessarily oppose changing the constitution but said they wanted the public to understand what that will mean for the state. The group is co-chaired by former Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage; former Sen. John Coghill Jr., R-Fairbanks; Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham; former Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho; former Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins; Gail Schubert, president and CEO of the Bering Straits Native Corporation; Joelle Hall, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO;and former Revenue Commissioner Bill Corbus.

“Obviously everything is subject to a vote of the people,” Botelho said. “But the risk of fundamental changes to the structure of government is too great to take that chance.”

Botelho and other co-chairs said Alaska’s constitution was considered by legal scholars to be a well-written document and argued there was already a process in place to amend the state’s constitution rather than re-write it entirely. Botelho told the Empire that frustration with the state government might entice people to vote for a convention, but that would open the opportunity for special interest groups of all kinds to try and influence state laws.

“It’s not just the delegates but the pressure that will come from outside, truly outside, that will try to refashion state government,” Botelho said.

Speaking to the Empire, Giessel said there were several specific issues with the constitution that might motivate voters such as the PFD, abortion and other divisive issues, but cited the risk of subjecting the entire document to change to achieve targeted goals.

“Emotions are running high, that’s one of the significant risks to holding a convention,” Giessel said. “These are not good times to objectively debate.”

It’s possible voters could simply vote down any proposed constitutional changes, but the process would be contentious and costly, Stevens said. If voters did want to have a convention, Stevens said they should have an “eyes-wide-open” approach to the full process.

“We can change things by the Legislature making amendments, it doesn’t have to be a full-scale rewriting of the constitution,” Stevens said.

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

More in News

A Princess Cruise Line ship is docked in Juneau on Aug. 25, 2021. (Michael Lockett / Juneau Empire File)
Ships in Port for the week of Aug. 7

Here’s what to expect this week.

This photo shows a notice to quit form, which is a first step in the long process of evictions that the Alaska Court System hopes to make easier with a grant-supported Eviction Diversion Initiative. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)
Grant-supported program could mean fewer eviction cases in Alaska’s courts

Eviction diversion program seeks to provide resources before a case is filed.

Supporters of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski wait for an opportunity to talk to her at her newly Juneau campaign headquarters Thursday evening at Kootznoowoo Plaza. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Murkowski opens up at Juneau HQ debut

Senator chats with supporters about U.S. vs. Belgium voting, moose chili and Project Veritas

(Juneau Empire File / Michael Penn)
Police calls for Saturday, Aug. 13, 2022

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

U.S. Senate candidate Shoshana Gungurstein stars in a campaign sign within view of the Alaska governor’s mansion. Gungurstein, an independent, got exposure this week for being a Hollywood actress under a different last name after questions about her past went unanswered throughout the campaign. She is one of 19 candidates seeking to be among the four selected in next Tuesday’s primary to compete in the November general election. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Senate candidate sheds more light on background

Shoshana Gungurstein responds at length to recent report on past film career.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Drug arrest made in Skagway

Police say a suspicious package was intercepted.

This late-April photo shows a damaged sticker on a door at Thunder Mountain High School reminding people to social distance and wear masks inside the building. Masks will not be required in school buildings this year. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
No mandatory masks or COVID-19 tests for new school year

No mandatory masks or COVID-19 tests for new school year

(Juneau Empire File / Michael Penn)
Police calls for Friday Aug. 12, 2022

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

From left, Kelsey Dean, watershed scientist with the Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition, and Kaagwaan Eesh Manuel Rose-Bell of Keex’ Kwáan watch as crew members set up tools to drag a log into place. Healthy salmon habitat requires woody debris, typically provided by falling branches and trees, which helps create deep salmon pools and varied stream structure. (Courtesy Photos / Mary Catharine Martin)
 
The SalmonState: Bringing the sockeye home

Klawock Indigenous Stewards and partners are working to a once prolific sockeye salmon run.

Most Read