Copies of the Alaska State Constitution were available outside the lieutenant governor’s office on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021. If voters choose to have a constitutional convention, the state’s foundational document could be rewritten entirely. (Peter Segall/Juneau Empire)

Copies of the Alaska State Constitution were available outside the lieutenant governor’s office on Monday, Dec. 13, 2021. If voters choose to have a constitutional convention, the state’s foundational document could be rewritten entirely. (Peter Segall/Juneau Empire)

Cost estimates for constitutional convention in Alaska range widely

Issues include the length of the session and the amount of support delegates will need

By Lisa Phu

Alaska Beacon

This November, voters will be asked whether or not to call a constitutional convention, which could pave the way for changing the Alaska state constitution. If Alaskans vote ‘yes,’ cost estimates to hold a convention range from a few million dollars to $20 million.

One Republican senator said a gathering to propose amendments and changes to the state constitution likely costs around $3 million, while another Republican senator puts the price tag closer to $17 million.

There are only two ways to change the constitution — either through the amendment process or by holding a constitutional convention.

The amendment process has resulted in 28 changes to the constitution. It involves two-thirds of each house of the Legislature voting to put a proposed amendment on a ballot and then a majority of the votes cast in favor of the proposition for the amendment to go through.

To hold a convention, either the Legislature can call one, which it can do at any time, or the majority of voters have to be in favor of it when the question is on the ballot. Any proposed amendments or changes coming from a convention would have to be ratified by the public.

Every 10 years, the state constitution requires the lieutenant governor to place the question “Shall there be a Constitutional Convention?” on a general election ballot. Voters will be asked the question during the upcoming general election in November. A “yes” vote supports holding a constitutional convention. A “no” vote opposes holding a convention.

If the majority votes no, the question will be asked again in another 10 years. If the majority votes yes, what comes next can be hard to predict because the constitution leaves room for variability.

For instance, the constitution says, “delegates to the convention shall be chosen,” but this can be done at the next regular statewide election or at a special election.

Then the constitution says: “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, and submission and ratification of revisions and ordinances.”

The Legislature has the option to pass a law detailing how the delegates are picked and how the convention will go. One proposal to do that didn’t advance this year. The convention can also be run similar to how it was done in 1955.

To process some of these unknowns, the office of Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, issued a white paper in September 2021. He chairs the Senate Rules Committee.

“There were a lot of questions about a constitutional convention and what would happen and how it would work and, as Rules chair, we wanted to make sure that people had all the information that we had,” Stevens said. “So, we put that paper together really for other legislators and for anybody else that wants to see it. The idea was to let folks know what could happen if the public in November votes to have a constitutional convention.”

Many factors to determine cost

One aspect the paper considers is financial cost.

“It’s really, really impossible to say right now, but I would guess it’s going to be between $17 to $20 million to fund the convention,” Stevens said.

The paper’s estimate of $16.7 million is based on current costs for legislative operations, including for things like security, legal and research staff, and legislators’ compensation per day, known as per diem. It assumes a 75-day convention and includes costs for 60 days of support and preparation leading up to the convention and a 30-day wind-down period, totaling 165 days of costs. Stevens’ office consulted with the Legislative Affairs Agency to get actual costs associated with a legislative session.

The figure inputs other current unknowns, like how many delegates will be at a convention, which won’t be determined until after a potential yes vote. The figure accounts for a 60-delegate convention based on current legislative districting as opposed to the original 55-member convention, which was based on judicial districts and the districts used for property records at the time.

Stevens, a former history professor at the University of Alaska, is not aware of any other effort to come up with a financial cost estimate. He said the paper itself doesn’t take sides, though he does have a personal opinion on the issue.

“I’m not necessarily in favor of a constitutional convention, but if we have one, we’ve got to be prepared, and that’s the purpose of this paper. Be prepared,” he said.

Stevens is not a member of Defend Our Constitution, a group of Alaskans from various political backgrounds who oppose a convention. The group, which cites the overall “about $17 million” cost estimate from Stevens’ paper, calls the convention “expensive.”

“As Alaskans prepare to vote on holding a constitutional convention, an important element of that decision will be just how much such an event might cost. And while concrete numbers are somewhat elusive, a combination of historical data and past research indicates a convention will be incredibly expensive,” the group’s website says.

Convention supporter says cost is a nonissue

Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, said calling the cost of a convention expensive is “fear mongering.” He estimates the cost at closer to $3 million.

“That’s nothing. That’s not even a drop in the bucket for what the state spends on anything they want to spend and nobody is out there complaining about that. But when they oppose a constitutional convention, ‘Oh my gosh, the cost is going to be astronomical. We’re just going to break the bank.’ It’s fear mongering,” he said.

Shower is a vocal proponent of having a convention. He said the cost of a convention is a nonissue.

“It shouldn’t, frankly, even be a consideration based on how little it’s going to cost,” he said.

Shower said Stevens’ estimate is “too high.”

“I’m going to say we got 55 delegates times 200 bucks a day times 30 per month, right? That’s $330,000. And I’m going to go big and say it takes three months, which it’s not. That’s $990,000,” Shower said. “I’ll take that number right there and I’ll triple it. Triple that cost just to say, you know, renting a space and other kinds of things, that’s about $3 million.”

With so many unknowns and variables, Shower said “there’s no way to know” the cost and it’s all guessing.

“People that are opposed to it are probably going to do the standard tactic of trying to make it sound more expensive. Those who support it are probably going to come in and say it’s less expensive. I’m not doing either because I honestly don’t know. I hate when we do this stuff and we use our own political lens to flavor something we support or oppose and make it expensive, cheap, etc.” Shower said.

Loren Leman, a Republican former lieutenant governor and former legislator, also thinks the $17 million estimate is high. He supports having a convention.

“I would have estimated it in the single digit millions,” Leman said.

He doesn’t think a convention would involve all the same support the Legislature does, “but the reality is we still would need to have research capability and support. It will cost money.”

Leman said there are ways to reduce costs, “streamline it and still get the job done.” If a convention were to have a projected cost upwards of $17 million, Leman would support changing the scope and a lesser expenditure, “but one that still gives adequate time and opportunity to do the job.”

“I would say let’s not do a convention like that. Let’s deliver it a different way. Let’s deliver it more — maybe I’ll say — the Alaskan way. We can get together — doesn’t have to be an ornate hall, I mean, not that we even have such a thing in Alaska,” he said.

While people have different projections of how much a convention might cost, they seem to agree on the interpretation of this part of the constitution: “The appropriation provisions of the call shall be self-executing and shall constitute a first claim on the state treasury.”

“They can’t not fund it,” said Shower. “There’s no legislative arm-twisting to say we’re just not going to fund this because we don’t like it; they can’t do that.”

Stevens said, if voters vote ‘yes’ to holding a convention, it would take precedence over any other budget item.

“First claim on the state treasury means that it takes precedence over education issues or Marine Highway, over everything else,” he said. “The first claim on the treasury would be a constitutional convention.”

Lisa Phu covers justice, education, and culture for the Alaska Beacon. Previously, she spent eight years as an award-winning journalist, reporting for the Juneau Empire, KTOO Public Media, KSTK, and Wrangell Sentinel. 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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