Why I support a constitutional convention

This November, voters have a once in a decade opportunity to vote to hold a constitutional convention. We should take that opportunity. The Legislature has proved to be incapable of making the necessary adjustments to our new economic and fiscal realities, and we need to make those adjustments.

Constitutions are written with certain assumptions about the state of the economy and government in mind when looking at revenue, spending, and most other policies that affect people’s daily lives. When our constitution was written in the 1950s, there was a vision for what we would be as a state. We were a relatively poor state trying to have local control of our resources. Our constitution, and the Statehood Act in 1958, reflected that.

When the oil money hit the state coffers beginning in 1969, that didn’t reflect our reality any more. We ended up making significant changes to the state constitution as a result. Of the 27 amendments to our state constitution, 16 of them were passed from 1970 to 1982, in part to reflect those new realities, including the creation of the Permanent Fund. Other statutory changes were made as well, such as the creation of the dividend program. While there was a lot of contention in the Legislature over both, things were possible because we were trying to figure out how to divide up a growing pie. Now we have the opposite problem.

While oil production has been declining at various rates for decades, the price crash in 2015 was our wake up call that things had changed. Questions that we have had philosophical conversations about, like ownership of the oil fields and the purpose of the Permanent Fund, but never had to resolve suddenly took center stage. We have to start answering those questions in our constitution.

So why hasn’t the Legislature answered those questions and made the adjustments? In part, it is the nature of the institution. The Legislature is charged with our yearly budget and operations. The House has elections every two years, the Senate every four. Those types of constraints tend to shorten the time horizon that legislators look at. The result is the gridlock that we’ve seen the last eight years. While a few legislators are able to look further ahead, the body as a whole can’t.

The turnover that we’ve seen in the last few years is both a symptom and a sign of the problem. Since 2016, 39 out of the 60 legislators have changed. That much change shows us how unhappy the electorate is with the situation. It also shows us that getting new legislators into office doesn’t fix the problem.

So how would a constitutional convention be different? In the case of Ulmer v. Bess, the Alaska Supreme Court noted that a convention tends to bring in statesmen with a different set of values and visions than a legislature. That is why a legislature can amend but not revise our constitution. While delegates are still elected representatives of the people, they don’t have the same pressures and are often a different type of person than a legislator.

How many people do you know that you would love to participate in politics but would never do it? Maybe they don’t want to bare their lives for an election every two years. Maybe they don’t want to put their lives on hold for four months every year for the session. Whatever the reason, asking people to set aside their lives for a single, three-month period for the good of the state will likely draw a different type of person than asking people to be legislators. I expect that delegates will be able to have longer visions, more frank conversations, and honest compromise that fixes the problems rather than prolonging them to the next election cycle.

This is hardly a new process. Many states have had conventions, the most recent being Rhode Island in 1986. Let’s examine how the process would work in Alaska from the perspective of the average voter.

Whenever the prospect of a convention is brought up, the first objection opponents raise is the possibility of a runaway convention. Let’s examine that possibility. A convention called by the voters has three public votes to hold it in check. The first is the obvious vote as to whether or not to hold a convention. I am advocating that we do. The second vote would be to select our convention delegates. Let’s go over that.

Our current constitution gives us two ways to put out a call for a convention that would outline our delegate selection. First, the Legislature can pass a call. While that is a possibility, the gridlock in the Legislature seems to make that unlikely. Second, the lieutenant governor must put the question to voters every ten years if a convention has not been held in that time frame. If passed by voters, the constitution states that it must be as close as possible to the 1955 convention call. Given the deference for the original call, it is likely that anything the Legislature does would also be based on that call.

The delegates in that call were put on the ballot via non-partisan nominating petitions. We would likely do the same again. The delegates were also selected in a variety of districts. Some were by local district, some by judicial district, and some statewide. While some adjustments would have to be made because of changes in population distribution, the principle still holds.

This gives us the first major difference between convention delegates and legislators. All legislators are elected by local districts. The only person in the system who has a true statewide perspective is the governor, and he has no ability to vote on constitutional amendments. The convention process would give us people with that perspective.

Finally, delegates are elected once. They have to face their constituents with their work, but they don’t have to ask for their vote again. That would likely give us a different type of person running to be a delegate. People who have no interest in running for regular political office might be interested in setting aside three months of their life in order to help their state this one time.

Once delegates are selected and the convention is held, there is still one more public vote to ratify whatever the final product is. But there are two types of products that a convention can create. It can create a whole new, or at least substantially revised, document. Or it can give us a set of amendments to be voted on individually. If the delegates are smart, they will go the second route. While a whole document would be cleaner, it has the fault of possibly failing that final ratification vote. One poison pill can cause the populace to reject the whole thing. A good set of delegates would recognize that possibility and move to avoid it.

A set of amendments is a better route. Amendments can be more extensive than those from the Legislature because we don’t have to worry about that fine distinction between an amendment and a revision, but they can still be much smaller than the whole document. They can be presented to the voters individually, so that even if one or two are rejected, the rest of the work done by the convention won’t be in vain. The delegates won’t want their work wasted and will likely go that route.

The constitutional convention sets up a process by which we can get some finality to our problems as a state for the next generation or two instead of kicking the can down the road for the next two years. A convention would only run away if the people want it to run away. Let’s trust the people, end the gridlock, and hold a constitutional convention.

Senator Robert Myers was elected to the State Senate in 2020. He lives in North Pole and represents Senate District B. 

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Lynn Willis
1 month ago

Too bad you can’t site more specific problems and more importantly solutions. Just cut to the chase Senator and admit this with your allies in the Christian Nationalist movement is to take away Alaskans right to privacy and ban abortion then grab the Permanent Fund. After that, I am certain that last thing you would allow is another vote to hold another convention in 10 years.

Frank Rast
1 month ago

Our Constitution works so well that extreme minority views such as Senator Meyers are represented

Crage
1 month ago

Who care what you think. Now go away 😡

Dan
1 month ago

I was all ready to give Meyers credit for at least having the guts to tell us what he hopes to accomplish with a convention, and why those changes will be a good thing. Nope. Turns out he thinks we should call a convention, mostly because our existing constitution does a good job of describing how to do so. That isn’t a reason. It is clear that Meyers, Minnery and Babcock want to make changes to our constitution, but suspect those changes are unpopular enough that they won’t tell us what they are. Let me help: They want to be… Read more »

1 month ago
Reply to  Dan

Hey Dan,
Easy on these blunts.

Karl C
15 days ago
Reply to  Dan

You say that like it’s a bad thing. Abortion should absolutely be criminalized. It is murder. The judiciary should be accountable to the electorate. What we have now is a cabal. RCV is already a disaster. Case in point: Peltola wins with 40% of the total vote. Criminalizing marijuana is not a position held by the vast majority of Alaskans. Even most evil conservatives feel it should be legal. Even if that amendment was proposed, it would never pass. Regarding ballot initiatives: should it be so easy for organizations outside Alaska to influence what gets put on our ballot? A… Read more »