Anticipating a busy election season, Alaska constitutional convention opponents launch early campaign

Former Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, and former Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, talk to reporters during the first day of the legislature’s second special session on July 8, 2019, in Juneau, Alaska. Giessel and Edgmon are part of the bipartisan group behind the “Defend Our Constitution” campaign. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

A new bipartisan group, citing unusual interest in Alaska’s once-per-decade constitutional convention ballot question, has launched a new campaign to convince voters to reject a convention that could significantly change the state’s laws and government.

The campaign, called “Defend Our Constitution,” was launched by a group of Republicans, Democrats and independents in a teleconference Thursday.

Voters will be asked in November whether they want to convene a convention. Campaign co-chair Cathy Giessel, a Republican and former Senate president from South Anchorage, said it makes sense to begin campaigning early.

“The person who speaks first usually carries the most impact, so we want to make sure Alaskans have the information before they plant themselves,” she said.

Among the group’s other leaders are Democratic former attorney general Bruce Botelho; Republican U.S. House candidate John Coghill; Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham; and Joelle Hall, president of the Alaska AFL-CIO.

Each said they organized their campaign because they fear the unpredictability of a constitutional convention and worry that it could destabilize Alaska.

Alaska’s convention requires the state to ask voters every 10 years whether they want to call a convention as a means to alter the constitution. Alaskans have repeatedly, and by wide margins, rejected the idea. In 2012, voters picked “no” by a 2:1 margin.

The Alaska Legislature’s failure to provide a reliable formula for the Permanent Fund dividend and Christian conservatives’ desire for measures prohibiting abortion are driving unusual interest in the vote this year.

“The sense is it is somewhat different this round,” Botelho said.

Jim Minnery is the director of the Alaska Family Council, which is urging Alaskans to vote “yes.” He said his group is interested in judicial reform — the Alaska Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled in favor of abortion rights — and in school choice — the constitution prohibits state funding for religious schools.

“If you want to know what the conservative Christians in the state are thinking, that’s the reason,” he said.

Frustration over the Permanent Fund dividend is also driving interest. Since 2016, the annual payout has been set by fiat, rather than by a formula in state law, and legislators have been unable to agree on a new formula or a constitutional amendment that would guarantee payouts.

Coghill said he agrees that changes to the constitution are needed, but he believes a convention isn’t the right way.

Because there are no limits on what a convention can change, he and other said it could go in unpredictable directions. Because the state and the United States as a whole has become politically polarized, he said the result would be acrimony, and it would bring little progress.

“Quite honestly, a melee could break loose,” Edgmon said.

This story was originally published by the Anchorage Daily News and is republished here with permission.

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