Former Democratic state Rep. Beth Kerttula holds up a sign reading “Vote No Con Con,” during a recent rally at the Dimond Courthouse Plaza in Juneau. Opposition to a constitutional convention, which could alter the Alaska State Constitution to allow for banning abortions was a frequent topic during the protest. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)

Former Democratic state Rep. Beth Kerttula holds up a sign reading “Vote No Con Con,” during a recent rally at the Dimond Courthouse Plaza in Juneau. Opposition to a constitutional convention, which could alter the Alaska State Constitution to allow for banning abortions was a frequent topic during the protest. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)

Alaska Voices: A constitutional convention would be doomed to fail

Principled compromise has given way to the unyielding demands of performative politicians

  • By Rich Moniak
  • Friday, July 1, 2022 11:59pm
  • Opinion

By Rich Moniak

In Alaska, voters have the final say on whether a woman’s right to an abortion remains protected under our constitution’s privacy clause. But before that question can be put on the ballot, a proposed amendment must be approved by either the two-thirds of each house of the Legislature or the majority of delegates we elect to serve at a constitutional convention.

It’s unlikely either track will succeed. And in our current political climate, it’s a terrible time to even consider convening a constitutional convention.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy wants voters to believe he can get the Legislature to put the issue on the ballot. Immediately after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last week, he issued a press release stating he’ll “be introducing a resolution for a proposed constitutional amendment to the legislature in the next session to answer the question whether abortion shall, or not be a constitutionally protected right.”

The press release should have been sent from Dunleavy’s campaign headquarters, not the Office of the Governor. His statement is accompanied by the assumption he’ll be reelected in November. Which means he wasn’t the governor explaining an action he’ll take during his current term but rather a candidate making a campaign promise.

Even if he is reelected, his resolution asking the Legislature to vote on the proposed amendment will likely fail in the same fashion as one sponsored by Sen. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, last year.

Her amendment would have added a one-sentence clause to the constitution’s Declaration of Rights. “To protect human life, nothing in this constitution may be construed to secure or protect a right to an abortion or require the State to fund an abortion.” It cleared two committees. But neither the House nor the Senate ever held a vote, probably because the leadership recognized there wasn’t nearly enough support to pass it.

It might seem easier to get such an amendment approved by a constitutional convention. And this year voters will be asked if one should be convened.

But the constitution prohibits restricting the scope of a constitutional convention in any manner. That means abortion won’t be the only contentious issue delegates have to wrestle with.

At least two of the three amendments proposed by Dunleavy in 2019 would be subjected to intense debate. One would establish constitutional protection for the formula used to calculate the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend. The other would require voters approve any new taxes.

Because every decennial redistricting decision has been successfully challenged in court, the method for determining House and Senate district boundaries should be clarified or revised. We should also expect the constitutionally prescribed role of the judicial council, the process for enacting laws by initiative and the grounds for recalling an elected official to be challenged.

Given that it’s been more than six decades since voters ratified the constitution, there are certainly other sections that need to be examined.

But it’s doubtful enough delegates would be willing to cooperatively work at even understanding their differences of opinion. Because where most people once respected the political opposition as fellow citizens, too many today imagine them as existential enemies of freedom and democracy.

The 55 delegates who drafted the constitution in 1955 began their work with the common goal of becoming the 49th state in the world’s greatest democracy. As Gordon Harrison explains in “Alaska’s Constitution – A Citizen’s Guide,” that didn’t mean they “saw everything eye-to-eye or failed to argue differences of opinion. It did mean, however, that compromises were negotiable when disputes arose and that the convention was spared deep, bitter, divisive conflicts over basic policy issues.”

Furthermore, the decision to draft a constitution before being admitted to the union was partly “meant to help sell Congress on the statehood idea. … Alaskans sought to demonstrate to Congress that they possessed political maturity and the ability for self-government. This consideration further encouraged convention delegates to compromise their differences (which often meant deferring difficult decisions to the future legislature).”

Today, principled compromise has given way to the unyielding demands of performative politicians. It’s hindered the ability of legislative bodies to make progress on any of the very difficult issues we face. And until we regain some semblance of political maturity, it would be a fool’s errand to expect a constitutional convention to be any more successful.

Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector.

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