In November, voters will be asked whether or not to call a constitutional convention, which could pave the way for changes to the Alaska state constitution. If Alaskans vote “yes,” cost estimates for hosting a convention range from a few million dollars to $20 million.
One Republican senator said a rally to propose amendments and changes to the state constitution would likely cost around $3 million, while another Republican senator puts the price closer to $17 million.
There are only two ways to change the constitution – either through the amendment process or by having a constitutional convention.
The amendment process resulted in 28 changes to the constitution. This involves two-thirds of each house in the legislature voting to put a proposed amendment on a ballot, and then a majority of the votes cast in favor of the proposal for the amendment to pass.
To hold a convention, either the legislature can call one, which it can do at any time, or the majority of voters must be in favor when the question is on the ballot. Any proposed amendment or change resulting from a convention should be ratified by the public.
Every 10 years, the constitution of the state requires the Lieutenant Governor to ask the question “Will there be a constitutional convention?” on a ballot for the general election. Voters will be asked the question in the next general election in November. A “yes” vote supports the holding of a constitutional convention. A “no” vote opposes the holding of a convention.
If the majority votes no, the question will be asked again in 10 years. If the majority votes yes, the outcome may be difficult to predict because the constitution leaves room for variability.
For example, the constitution says that “the 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 otherwise provided by statute, the appeal shall conform as closely as possible to the Appellant Act of 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 legislation detailing how delegates are chosen and how the convention will run. A proposal doing that has not advanced this year. The convention can also be organized in the same way as in 1955.
To address 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 Chairman, we wanted to make sure people had all the information we had,” Stevens said. “So we prepared this document for other lawmakers and anyone who wants to see it. The idea was to let people know what might happen if the public in November votes to have a constitutional convention.
Many factors to determine the cost
One aspect that the document considers is the financial cost.
“It’s really, really impossible to say right now, but I’m guessing it’s going to be between $17 million and $20 million to fund the convention,” Stevens said.
The document’s estimate of $16.7 million is based on current costs for legislative operations, including items such as security, legal and research staff, and legislators’ per diem, known as of per diem. It assumes a 75-day agreement and includes the costs of 60 days of support and preparation leading up to the agreement and a 30-day wind-up period, totaling 165 days of costs. Stevens’ office consulted with the Legislative Affairs Agency to get the actual costs associated with a legislative session.
The figure contains other current unknowns, such as the number of delegates to a convention, which will only be determined after a possible yes. The figure represents a 60-delegate convention based on the current legislative district as opposed to the original 55-member convention, which was based on judicial districts and districts used for property records at the time.
Stevens, a former history professor at the University of Alaska, is unaware of any other effort to come up with a financial cost estimate. He said the newspaper itself does not take sides, although he has a personal opinion on the matter.
“I’m not necessarily in favor of a constitutional convention, but if we have one, we have to be prepared, and that’s what this document is about. Be ready,” 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 cost estimate of “about $17 million” from Stevens’ paper, calls the convention “Dear.”
“As Alaskans prepare to vote on whether to hold a constitutional convention, an important part of that decision will be how much such an event might cost. And while hard numbers are somewhat elusive, a combination of historical data and past research indicates that a convention will be incredibly expensive,” the group’s website reads.
Convention supporter says cost isn’t an issue
Sen. Mike Shower, R-Wasilla, said calling the cost of a convention expensive is “fantasy.” He estimates the cost at nearly $3 million.
“It’s nothing. It’s not even a drop in the ocean for what the state spends for all it wants to spend and nobody complains about it. But when they get object to a constitutional convention, ‘Oh my God, the cost is going to be astronomical’. We’re just going to break the bank. It’s fear,” he said.
Shower is a strong supporter of having a convention. He said the cost of a convention is not an issue.
“Frankly, that shouldn’t even be a consideration based on how little it’s going to cost,” he said.
Shower said Stevens’ estimate was “too high”.
“I’m going to say we have 55 delegates times $200 a day times 30 a month, right? It’s $330,000. And I’m going to go further and say it takes three months, which it doesn’t. It’s $990,000,” Shower said. “I’m going to take that number and I’m going to triple it. Triple that cost just to say, you know, renting space and stuff, 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 guesswork.
“People who oppose it are probably going to take the standard tactic of trying to make it look more expensive. Those who support it are probably going to come out and say it’s cheaper. I’m not doing either other because I honestly don’t know. I hate when we do this stuff and use our own political agenda to flavor something we support or oppose and make it expensive, cheap, etc. Shower said.
Loren Leman, a former Republican lieutenant governor and former lawmaker, also thinks the $17 million estimate is high. He supports the holding of a convention.
“I would have estimated it at a figure in the millions,” Leman said.
He doesn’t think a convention would entail the same support as the Legislative Assembly, “but the reality is that we would still need to have research capacity and support. It will cost money.
Leman said there are ways to cut costs, “streamline it, and still get the job done.” If a convention were to have a projected cost of more than $17 million, Leman would favor changing the scope and lowering the expense, “but still providing enough time and opportunity to get the job done.”
“I would say that a convention like this should not be held. Let’s deliver it in a different way. Let’s do more – I would say maybe – the Alaskan way. We can get together — it 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 on the cost of a convention, they seem to agree on the interpretation of this part of the constitution: “The appropriation provisions of the appeal will be self-executing and will constitute a first claim on the public treasury. ”
“They can’t not fund it,” Shower said. “There’s no legislative pressure 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 hold a convention, it will take precedence over any other budget item.
“The first claim on the public treasury means it takes precedence over education issues or the highway of the sea, over everything else,” he said. “The first claim on the Treasury would be a constitutional convention.”
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