Win Gruening: Constitutional convention would open up a can of worms

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By WIN GRUENING

In 1972 and four times since, Alaska voters were presented with the question “Shall there be a Constitutional Convention?” Each time, voters have declined the invitation.  In 2002 and 2012, voters turned it down by a 2-1 margin or greater.

On Nov. 8, 2022, voters will once again be asked to answer the question.

The purpose of a constitutional convention seems quite straight-forward but its impact could be far-reaching and potentially lead to unintended consequences.  

Fortunately, there is a better alternative.

Alaska is one of 14 states requiring a mandatory vote on this question periodically. The Alaska Constitution calls for the question to be automatically placed on the ballot every ten years, but it’s only recently that the prospect of a convention has been taken seriously. 

There are a number of reasons for this but the primary cause is voter frustration with persistent partisan gridlock in our legislature.  

For many, a constitutional convention is seen as a way to settle questions surrounding the Permanent Fund.  How the Permanent Fund should be used, including the dividend formulation and which government services it could support, is often promoted as a reason to hold a convention.  But there’s no guarantee that agreement could be reached on that subject or that discussion would be limited to that one issue. Indeed, judicial appointments, statewide taxes, and abortion are also cited as likely topics.  

While arguments have been made that discussion could be limited to certain subjects, the Constitution is explicit:  “Constitutional conventions shall have plenary power to amend or revise the constitution, subject only to ratification by the people. No call for a constitutional convention shall limit these powers of the convention.”

Even more radical changes could be adopted. One proposal would change Alaska’s municipal governments to 5-member county boards with an elected sheriff and an appointed state senator.  Other politically divisive issues such as school choice and subsistence rights could be raised.  

The convention process involves three separate public votes. The first is whether to call a convention, the second is to elect convention delegates, and then a final vote is taken on whether to approve any constitutional amendments.  This entire process could take as long as four years.

During this time, Alaskans and businesses would be in limbo as taxes, environmental regulations, education, and more could be subject to change and create years of economic, legal, and regulatory uncertainty.

It’s questionable that a constitutional convention would accomplish what promoters claim – especially in Alaska where the guidelines and timelines for selecting delegates and proposing and approving amendments are unique.  

Alaska’s Constitution states: “…delegates to the convention shall be chosen at the next regular statewide election, unless the legislature provides for the election of the delegates at a special election. The lieutenant governor shall issue the call for the convention. Unless other provisions have been made by law, the call shall conform as nearly as possible to the act calling the Alaska Constitutional Convention of 1955, including, but not limited to, number of members, districts, election and certification of delegates.”

Proponents frame the arguments for a convention as a way to bypass the Legislature and let the “people” finally have their say.  Yet, the delegates to such a convention, in most cases, will be the currently elected representatives from voters’ districts. Legislators would be expected to run as delegates from their districts to the convention.  They have campaign staffs, name recognition, and popular support.  

It doesn’t seem likely that a convention populated mostly by sitting legislators would be much different than what happens in every legislative session.

Alaskans could spend millions of dollars on an unnecessary, lengthy, and acrimonious process that could have been avoided.

Alternatively, as with 17 other states, Alaska allows constitutional amendments to be referred to a state-wide ballot with a two-thirds vote in the state legislature.  If our constitution needs to be amended, this is a proven approach, having been used successfully 28 times since Statehood.  Unlike a convention, proposed changes are considered individually.  An amendment would be researched, debated and vetted in a deliberative way without the political theater of a convention. 

Requiring a super-majority of legislators to approve a constitutional amendment for the ballot is a high bar for a reason. Once a proposed constitutional amendment is referred to the ballot, only a simple majority vote is required to pass it. The legislative super-majority rule prevents our constitution from being changed without broad public support.

Our founding document has served us well since 1959.  Since then, it has been hailed as a model constitution for its brevity, flexibility and protection of individual rights. Extensive alterations are unnecessary and a constitutional convention is not the mechanism best suited to make incremental adjustments.

After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in Alaska, Win Gruening became a regular opinion page columnist for the Juneau Empire. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations.

37 COMMENTS

  1. I don’t care about the risks. Not at all. The politburo has brought this down on themselves.

    The legislature rules us, they don’t represent us. They are at the top of a caste system. The voters are at the bottom.

    If the political elite did their jobs and followed the law, we wouldn’t be here.

    If the people of Alaska can’t get organized enough to control the Convention, we deserve what may come next. But if enough alleged conservatives actually bother, good things are likely to happen.

    • I agree 100%. The delegates to the convention will NOT be politicians. Get ready for alot more of these “scare articles” to be pushed all summer and up to the election.
      Article Xlll is very straight forward. All proposed amendments must be approved by the Alaskan voters.
      There are many issues at hand beyond enshrining the original formulation of the PFD into the constitution to be considered. Moving the legislature to the road system to the building they already own for all legislative actions of our government, consideration should be given to moving the entire capitol to the road system. Ban any state income tax. A balanced budget amendment. Eliminate the Supreme court selection committee and allow the governor to make the choice himself, not of 4 preselected candidates selected by the liberal committee. End the shell games played moving money from one account to another, simplify the entire process. Reduce the size and scope of allowed government spending without voters approval. Regain power to develop our state resources. Lastly to greatly limit all federal power exerted over Alaska to the maximum extent possible.
      Why are these liberals so afraid of allowing Alaskans (non-politicians) to fix, or attempt to fix what is broken in Alaska and that our legislature continues to ignore?

    • A thoughtful column, yes. I have some thoughts too.
      1) Every constitutional convention is a “can of worms” and look at the great results they’ve produce.
      2) That the delegates would be current legislators and give us more of the same, is exactly what we have now with 2/3 of legislators being required for an amendment.
      3) Fiscal and Legislative uncertainty is also what I hear complaints of daily. Isn’t the uncertain and constantly threatening tax structure in our state a constant topic of conversation in our oil industry? I also hear from business owners regularly that the Anchorage MUNI is their #1 hinderance to growth and reaching their goals; which speaks to legislative uncertainty.

  2. It’s not just the PFD.

    Term limits for legislature. Move the capital to the road system. No income tax without a vote of the people. Eliminate state govt unions. Cap the length of the legislature and cut back the per diem. Build the road to Juneau.

    It’s the people’s government. It should reflect the will of the people.

    • I believe that Term limits have been determined as unconstitutional. Under the grounds that they “limit the ability of the voters to vote for whomever they want”. That being said – If there is a legal way to term limit the legislature we Must take all efforts to make it happen!

      • Voting limits term numbers. I think Mark Begich would agree.
        What of our US Constitutional term limit set on our President?

        Getting rid of public employee unions and somehow keeping private unions out of politics would serve us well too.

    • Your comment underscores why we should NOT have a constitutional convention. If every one of your grievances, and the many other far right grievances, were addressed in a convention, it would be culture war hell. We already have a good deliberative process to address each of your concerns.

      • Why are liberals do afraid of the people having a voice in their own government?

        It’s almost like you know how badly your politics have screwed Alaska and are desperate the whole truth never comes out.

        We ARE in a culture war. You’re afraid we’ll stop taking it and fighting back

  3. Win, I respectfully disagree with you. Given the chance, Alaskans will step up and do what is right for our state. The fear of crazy left leaning rules being injected in our constitution is unfounded. Even if these are inserted by delegates to the convention we get to vote it down, so where is the downside?

    There are rules in our constitution that need to be clarified or changed. The ambiguity and left leaning Judicial Council rules have caused legislation from the courts, a bloated government that operates unchecked, and a dysfunctional left leaning public school system. We need to re-write the rules and take back our Alaska.

    • Thank you. I agree 100%. We will see many more of these scare tactic articles in the future and we must fight back against every one we see.
      Alaskans will appoint delegates to the convention that are NOT current politicians.
      Why fear a constitutional convention when all proposed amendments must be approved by Alaskan voters?

  4. I would say the reason people are more seriously considering the constitutional convention is because the constitution is currently giving us leftist judges that are pro-abortion and we can’t get a conservative judge to the Alaska Supreme Court anymore, thanks to the left taking over the process that the constitution calls for to get our nominees. Real conservatives actually like a gridlock in the legislature when it means the left can’t get more pork through, and the gridlock at the legislative branch isn’t the reason we want the convention. It’s the gridlock for judges that are for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Anything worth fighting for comes with risks. To prevent the left or RINOs from taking over the convention, we merely need conservatives educating people on the issues being brought up. Explain that while a sheriff has benefits, there are costs, and why we don’t want an appointed senator instead of an elected one that we the people get to choose. It’s the same reason conservatives have been losing elections until now. Conservatives have been focusing on compromising on an agreement with the left and name recognition of candidates. For once, trust your constituents and delegates to care and think and just present to them the information – all of it.

    • “Real conservatives actually like a gridlock in the legislature”. That’s pathetic. I hope you don’t represent real conservatives. You used the word “sheriff”. Are you a fan of Ammon Bundy’s “posse comitatus” ideology?

  5. Mr Gruening seems to fear only that the public might accidentally have direct input into the shape of government. Judicial appointments, statewide taxes, the dividend and abortion are all good subjects to address at a constitutional convention and have been a legitimate public concern for many years and yet, No action has ever been taken by the legislature to address any of these issues. As to the other concerns he has invented, Perhaps the question of whether or not a sitting or past legislator should be eligible to sit as a member of a constitutional convention is another good question to consider. The idea that the seating of a constitutional convention might throw business into some sort of limbo is almost laughable since the law will continue as it is currently written until such time as the convention acts and the public endorses that action with as Gruening points out plenty of time passing to ensure that there will be no bolts out of the blue.

  6. You are spot on. Who knows what will be written into the constitution if it is opened up. It is a fantasy to think that only good and conservative things will happen

  7. “Our founding document has served us well since 1959. Since then, it has been hailed as a model constitution for its brevity, flexibility and protection of individual rights.”

    Yet this column implies the convention enshrined in the constitution is poorly reasoned.

    Which is it?

  8. Better a can of worms than the steaming pack of parasites infesting Alaska’s government now.
    .
    A constitutional convention might be just what productive Alaskans need to chum the political waters, flush certain politicians and their owners out of hiding, get ’em to eat their own.

  9. “If our constitution needs to be amended, this is a proven approach, having been used successfully 28 times since Statehood. Unlike a convention, proposed changes are considered individually.”

    Unless it is dark-money funded and grossly unconstitutional, but ruled “legal” by a corrupt state judiciary anyway, a la Ballot Measure 2.

  10. We need Constitutional Sheriffs who review for Constitutionality the bylaws written by the representatives that they ignore. Without Sheriffs there is no intent by legislators to do Constitutional acts. We cannot have state Sheriffs to finally bring Alaska into Constitutional compliance without a Convention for this add.

  11. Well, as the author says, most delegates will probably be sitting legislators. They are getting nothing done now, why should I fear a Convention would get out of hand? Especially with a 2/3rds vote required and a ratification by the voters. I’d be more concerned about election vote fraud……

  12. Well, we can’t just give up. A miracle may happen. Worth a shot, anyway, and it would at least be useful time for once.

  13. A constitutional convention may not accomplish all (or any) of the goals of its proponents, but NOT having one will certainly result in no changes for the better. In my view we can’t afford to wait another 10 years, especially when it comes to reforming the PFD and judicial appointments.

  14. Win, I appreciate your concerns, but I think it worth the risk. The binding caucus rule is killing our ability to get anything but leftist goals done through the legislature, and there is no other way to break that caucus boondoggle and make the government accountable. Even if legislators serve on the convention, the binding caucus will not be in effect and they might even do what we want. I also appreciate all the above comments, thank you.

  15. Time to pull the scab off this boil and get it treated. Reform the judiciary where they are accountable to citizens and not the lawyers. Also make sure the legislators are accountable to ALL the laws they make us.

  16. Our Legislature is out of touch, and out of control and we Alaskans are out of patience, I am all for a change,. I was born and raised in Juneau, I have always been against the Capital Move, but common sense must prevail , something has to hold our dishonest Legislators accountable, I do not approve of being Ruled by someone I elected to Represent.

    • We already voted and approved to move the legislators to Willow. In 1974, Alaska’s voters adopted an initiative that ordered the state capital moved from Juneau. When the move was voted the understanding was that it would be carried out by 1988, at a cost of $110 million. In 1976, the voters selected a site on vacant state land near the tiny town of Willow, about 50 miles from here, from among three that were proposed by a site selection committee.

      Since then, no forward steps have been taken. In 1978, the voters turned down a proposal to issue state bonds of $966 million to finance the capital shift. This was the first step toward a city that would cost $3.5 billion and house 37,000 people as well as the state government. The deadline in the 1974 initiative has come and passed (along with many of the sponsors) and we have the same cluster #### in Juneau. A Constitutional Convention is needed on this matter and many others the legislators in Juneau continue to ignore (90 day session, statutory PFD based on 5 yr rolling average of the earnings of the Permanent Fund NOT the price of oil, etc, pick your favorite subject, there are so many!).

  17. I want this festering can of worms opened immediately. And not so fast on who goes to the convention. The convention is NOT the failed legislature we will be bringing back into compliance with the US Constitution which this state as a prerequisite to being accepted into the nation agreed to adopt in equal footing with other Americans. After the convention our NEW Alaska Constitution must be ratified by the nation, again, Congress, for total US Constitution compliance. This is our nationhood integrity. Or not. WE ARE NOT PULLING DEMOCRAT SLIGHT OF HAND TACTICS HERE. Yes, this will result in smaller government of and by and for the people not the damned esquires and bureaucrats for a change of culture and the fresh air of freedom. That ratification by Congress of the Article 5 Convention is OUR DUE PROCESS. You do not want to remove the procedure that is due the people do you? What kind of person are you.

  18. How has the Alaska Constitution failed us ???

    It has failed us by not being responsive to one half the state’s population in the the largest city in Alaska. Due to spiritual corruptive acts of a mayor the city reorganized itself outside of compliance with the charter and caused the actual loss of our representative form of government in the US. Health syndicates unilaterally seized power which has not been delegated to them. Anchorage lost a representative seat and even attendance was foreclosed in opposition to the US Constitution. Juneau were stupid and accepted this at face value. Merchants, corporations were harmed. Representation became insular, exclusive and still work actively to harm and thwart the people. The judiciary didn’t recognize this loss of representative government. Only by the slimmest of margin was it saved, if it is, in Alaska. The form of “elections” was surreptiously changed. If someone was wanting to overthrow OUR government how would they have done it. Pretty much by actions like we have seen in the last two years. What was lost? For some lifetimes of investment. I’m not sure we will receive an apology from those who purposefully forced this harm on America. Wake up. Not everyone likes your liberty, they see you in a devalued way. Government marginally functioned for the people. Habitual ways of thinking need to be brought back into Constitutional application in every jurisdiction. The Constitution needs to be let out of its faux, foolish constraints.

  19. How has the Alaska Constitution failed us ???

    It has failed us by not being responsive to one half the state’s population in the the largest city in Alaska. Due to spiritual corruptive acts of a mayor the city reorganized itself outside of compliance with the charter and caused the actual loss of our representative form of government in the US. Health syndicates unilaterally seized power which has not been delegated to them. Anchorage lost a representative seat and even attendance was foreclosed in opposition to the US Constitution. Juneau was stupid and accepted this at face value. Merchants, corporations were harmed. Representation became insular, exclusive and still works actively to harm and thwart the people. The judiciary didn’t recognize this loss of representative government. Only by the slimmest of margin was it saved, if it is, in Alaska. The form of “elections” was surreptiously changed. If someone was wanting to overthrow OUR government how would they have done it. Pretty much by actions like we have seen in the last two years. What was lost? For some lifetimes of investment. I’m not sure we will receive an apology from those who purposefully forced this harm on America. Wake up. Not everyone likes your liberty, they see you in a devalued way. Government marginally functioned for the people. Habitual ways of thinking need to be brought back into Constitutional application in every jurisdiction. The Constitution needs to be let out of its faux, foolish constraints.

  20. With great opportunity also comes great risk. From Our Side, the greatest risk is simply to get people to participate. It took a great deal of effort to turn out Our Side for the revision of the redistricting map. I am not confident that turning out the necessary number of like-minded people will be possible.

    OTOH, I know of no other way to deal with the basic problem of Alaskan governance – an out of control and completely unaccountable state judiciary. Will got the the 1972 date for the first rejection of the constitutional convention correct. But he did not tell you that the very first time the question was on the ballot in 1970 it passed. But the state judiciary got itself involved, determining voters really didn’t understand what they were voting for, and that the ballot language was unclear. They threw out the results the first time around, gave the opposition a year or two to properly craft a campaign which defeated the question in 1972 at around the 2:1 rejection it has failed the last 4 times on the ballot.

    If these black robed politicians want to make law, perhaps it is time to elect and term limit them. Cheers –

  21. I want to compliment Mr. Gruening for actually reading the AIP’s proposed model convention, even though he fears some of the ideas. As the public preamble states, it was produced to throw ideas out that ought to be considered. The time for counties and sheriffs is rolling like a growing avalanche. Just keep in mind the rogue FBI and IRS, who must clear all no-knock raids with a sheriff. County boards appointing state senators would give the counties (or Alaska’s regions) a voice. This is akin to how the US Senate was constituted before the maladroit 17th amendment. The people already have a voice in the State House. State senators would be responsible to their County Boards, known for the time being as Borough Assemblies. Conventions are meant to air these ideas out, compromise, accept or reject them. The concern about state legislators being convention delegates ought to be dealt with asap, as well as using the precinct/townhall method of choosing delegates, avoiding the usual campaign circus-and-money system. Truly, those who favor the status quo fear a con-con, which is argument enough to take the risk.

  22. In this day and age and, in the muddled state of politics in the state of Alaska and in most of the country, it might be well to look at other states past performances with constitutional conventions.

    In the 1960’s I lived in rural part of New York where one was actually held. This Constitution had been in existence since 1894 and contained a very large number of detailed amendments approved by voters during subsequent years that should have been handled through statutes and had become very cumbersome, and in some cases, outdated. Sound familiar?

    In 1965, the legislature, as required by law every 20 years, put the question before the voters of whether or not to hold a convention to review, rewrite and otherwise update it. The voters approved a convention, to be held in 1967. This meant that during the November 1966 elections, 186 delegates were also to be elected, three from each legislative district of New York and a slate of delegates at large.

    When originally discussed and planned, the announced noble intent was to have a “non-political people’s” convention with delegates elected from all walks of life. I and several others from our district actually ran for these delegate positions as more or less independent “citizens”.

    This quickly degenerated into candidates put forth by the Democratic and Republican parties consisting of current legislators, influential lawyers, government lobbyists, foundation executives, power brokers and even mayors in each party that ended up being elected due to name recognition!

    The actual convention was a “mish-mash” of many crazy proposals and the final version of changes was put to the voters in the fall of that year and was roundly defeated, having spent millions of 1960’s dollars of the state’s money to conduct the whole pointless exercise!

    A lesson for Alaska today!

  23. A constitutional convention seems to send fear to those currently “representing” us. If they did a good job this would be a non-issue. It is time to remind them that this country runs on “we the people”. So here are the issues I see to be addressed:
    Move the legislature/capitol to the road system
    Term limits for legislators (there should be no constitutional conflict as there are already term limits for other elected officials)
    Eliminate the Blaine amendment and let the money follow the child
    Return the PFD to the statutory formula and declare it a transfer
    Eliminate the judicial council and instead allow the governor to nominate and the legislature to confirm
    Require the legislature to pass a budget before any other issue can be brought to a floor vote and stipulate that members have to be physically present until such time.

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