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Solid foundation: Don't open constitution to wholesale amendment

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Posted: Sunday, October 28, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 4:16 pm, Fri Jan 25, 2013.

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner editorial

Shall there be a constitutional convention? Alaska hasn’t had such a convention during the past decade — or for the past five decades, for that matter — so the question will once again appear on the general election ballot this year.

Alaskans would do well to vote “no.”

The Alaska Constitution, written 56 years ago, still works well. While each of us might have an amendment or two that we’d like to see, nothing justifies a free-for-all convention.

Even without any conventions, the constitution has evolved with the times. The Legislature can propose amendments with a three-quarter majority vote. Legislators have done so 40 times since statehood.

Alaskans approved 28 of those proposed amendments and rejected 12. This record shows that Alaskans are more than willing to amend the constitution when they feel strongly about an issue. This is not a document trapped forevermore in the mindset of the mid-1950s.

Take one example that has been lately in the news. The original constitution required that voters be required to “read or speak” English. Alaskans removed that language, a relic of its time, in 1970. While that wasn’t enough to escape federal elections oversight (a quest that our governor recently revived), it did reflect the way in which Alaskans could rapidly adjust the constitution to a changing culture.

Still, when Alaskans feel the courts are interpreting the constitution in ways that move too far from that 1950s mindset, they also are willing to provide clarifying amendments. Thus, in 1998, voters approved language that said “to be valid or recognized in this state, a marriage may exist only between one man and one woman.”

Whether one agrees or disagrees with such decisions, it’s clear that they should be made on a case-by-case basis. That way, voters can focus on the individual issues and express their will.

A convention would open the constitution to innumerable amendments all at once. Special interests would seek to influence the process, sometimes by spending enormous amounts of money.

The creation of the original constitution was relatively free of such influence. In 1955, Alaskans elected 55 delegates from among their communities and sent them to Fairbanks, where they met for a few months in what is now Constitution Hall on the University of Alaska Fairbanks. As noted in the introduction to the pocketed-sized constitution printed by the Creating Alaska Project in 2006, the Territorial Legislature chose the campus as a “more academic setting” and “neutral ground, away from the politics and partisan wrangling dominant in Juneau.” In today’s world, there’s no such place to which convention delegates could retreat.

The work done here in the winter of 1955-56 remains a solid foundation. We can continue to build on it, but there is no reason to dig it up.

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