By: James Brooks
In five hours of public testimony late last month, a line of Alaskans criticized members of the Alaska Legislature for failing to come up with a reliable formula for Alaska’s annual Permanent Fund dividend.
Legislators have heard similar testimony since 2017, but this year’s comments brought a new wrinkle: A growing number of Alaskans, dissatisfied with a lack of change, are calling for a constitutional convention to address the issue.
Voters are asked once every decade whether they want to call for a convention, and the next vote is in November 2022.
Because conventions aren’t limited to one subject, conservatives and libertarians are embracing the trend, saying it could allow them to pursue long-held goals like a ban on abortion, public funding for private schools, or changes to the way judges are picked.
Michael Chambers is a libertarian who is urging Alaskans to vote yes on the convention next year. He has a list of items he’d like to see addressed and said the PFD issue is “100%” helping the cause.
“I don’t mean this in a negative way, but for the low-information voter, it absolutely makes a difference,” he said. “The more the PFD festers out there and sits there, the more … the low-information voters are the ones that say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, this is enough!’”
Legislators say they’re not certain that a constitutional convention will bring conservative nirvana. Alaska’s political divides could mean a convention split between conservatives and progressives, just as the Legislature is today.
”What may start out looking like a solution on the PFD could turn into a social battleground like we’ve never seen in this state,” said Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna.
”I think there is a potential for unintended consequences beyond the scope of anything we can currently imagine,” he said.
In a convention, uncertainty abounds
Alaska hasn’t had a constitutional convention since its first, which took place in late 1955 and early 1956, but voters are asked every 10 years if they want to hold one.
In 1970, 1972, 1982, 1992, 2002 and 2012 they said no, mostly by wide margins. (The 1970 vote passed by about 500 votes but was overturned by the Alaska Supreme Court, which said the wording of the question was too leading. A re-vote in 1972 changed the result.)
Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said things could be different this time around.
“I think there’s a real chance that people could vote for a constitutional convention,” he said, adding that any convention would be unpredictable.
“If you go to a constitutional convention, you just don’t know where it goes. You don’t know who’s going to be the delegates, you don’t know how the decisions will be made. And you just don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.
Unless the Legislature passes a different guiding law, a convention would generally follow the rules in place in 1955.
That means voters would likely be asked to vote for delegates during the 2024 election, and might be asked to approve a resulting draft in 2026.
Bob Bird, chairman of the Alaskan Independence Party, has been trying for years to convince Alaskans to vote for a convention, most recently in columns published by the Watchman, an Alaska-based Christian website.
He said he’s been talking to groups he considers “Ron Paul constitutionalist” and said concerns about the Permanent Fund dividend unite them, but so does a desire to change the state’s judicial system.
The Alaska Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled in favor of abortion rights, and there has been a steady conservative push to change Alaska’s judicial selection laws in order to overturn those rulings.
“I can’t tell you which is the most energizing in regards to the call for a con-con,” he said, using shorthand for the constitutional convention.
Chambers said that while it might seem ironic, he’s seeing libertarian interest in a PFD amendment.
“We libertarians believe in less government, and the best way for you to have less government is if they don’t have money. And the easiest way in Alaska for them not to have money is to give it directly to the people,” he said.
Bird said he’s seeing growing interest in a convention, regardless of the issue.
“I think it’s a small snowball that’s picking up momentum,” he said.
Those concerned about a convention are also seeing that momentum.
A group called the Permanent Fund Defenders has been urging lawmakers to guarantee Permanent Fund dividend payments in the state constitution. For at least two years, members have been warning legislators that unless they act, voters might seek a convention.
Juanita Cassellius, a spokesperson for the group, said the prospect of a convention is worrying because it could turn into a “can of worms.” Despite that prospect, many Alaskans might be willing to risk it in order to end perennial debates over the dividend.
“There is a very vocal group that will get attention because it’s a simple message,” she said. “I think it would be very catchy. And now, the people in our group are very afraid of that.”
Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, represents one of the most conservative legislative districts in the state. He said that when the topic comes up in small groups, he reminds people that a convention of delegates is likely to resemble the mix of views present in the Alaska House of Representatives.
There, a coalition of independents, Democrats and moderate Republicans holds a narrow majority.
“I think that’s part of the issue: There’s a lot of unknowns,” he said.
The Alaska Senate is taking the prospect of a convention seriously enough that some state senators have begun researching the potential costs and how a convention might operate.
Chambers and others said that if the Alaska Legislature fails to settle the dividend issue by the end of the 2022 regular legislative session, it will become a significant issue in next year’s races for governor and Legislature.
He speculated that the push will begin ramping up around February, “because that’s where campaigns start coming out and people start taking positions.”
James Brooks: Juneau-based James Brooks covers state government, the Alaska Legislature and general assignments for the Daily News. He previously reported and edited for the Juneau Empire, Kodiak Daily Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.