Alaska marks constitution's anniversary

After 50 years, state still has growing pains as it wrestles with the federal government

Posted: Monday, February 06, 2006

Fifty years after delegates signed the Alaska Constitution, the state continues to show its youth.

Such growing pains, policymakers say, include ongoing tiffs with the federal government, as the Murkowski administration tries to wrestle away control over Glacier Bay and Alaska's congressional delegates seek funding for major construction projects.

Opportunities abound as well. Lawmakers this year will make major decisions that will affect future generations. These include deciding how to spend a $1.2 billion surplus, signing a contract to build a natural gas pipeline and reforming its oil tax system.

"It's kind of ironic that this year will be historic," said House Finance Co-chairman Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage.

Today is the anniversary of the signing of the constitution. In November 1955, some 55 delegates spent 75 days at the University of Fairbanks drafting the constitution, Alaska's supreme body of law, which has three major functions: establishing the executive, judicial and legislative branches of government; ensuring civil rights; and singling out significant public policies.

The constitution was adopted by Alaska voters on April 24, 1956. Three years later, Congress approved statehood for Alaska.

Writing the constitution before Congress granted statehood was a gesture to show Washington D.C. that Alaska was capable of governing itself.

Five signers of the document are still living: Victor Fischer from Anchorage, Seaborn Buckalew from Anchorage, Jack Coghill from Nenana, Burke Riley from Haines and George Sundborg from Juneau.

Coghill said there's still work to be done. Congress yanking the earmarks for two bridges near Ketchikan and another near Anchorage was telling of how areas with larger populations "run over us," he said. The projects were ridiculed in the national spotlight as "bridges to nowhere," but Alaska needs the chance to build infrastructure so it can spur development, he said.

"When they built the Golden Gate bridge, there wasn't anybody over there," Coghill said.

This opportunity to pick the brains of the surviving founders of the state government is what makes Alaska unique, said Sen. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage.

"We don't have to use a telescope," to interpret what they meant, Bunde said. Managing the state has been easier with them around; the hard part will come 50 years later when lawmakers will have to go to the history books for answers, he added.

Even last week presented a debate over interpretation of the constitution. Legislators are trying to pass a bill to overturn a 1975 court case that allows Alaskans to keep small amounts of marijuana in their homes under a right to privacy clause in the constitution.

Coghill said the signers didn't want to second-guess future Alaskans. The constitution is written so that each generation gets the chance to decide what is best for the state within the framework of the document, he said.

The National Municipal League said it was "one of the best, if not the best, state constitutions ever written."

It is praised for centralizing its courts, creating a borough system for urban and rural areas and giving residents control over natural resources.

But not everyone shares that opinion.

"It seems to me when the constitution was written, Natives didn't have much input on it," said Rep. Woody Salmon, D-Beaver.

Only one delegate to the convention was Alaskan Native, during a time when the population was 30 to 40 percent Native, Rep. Reggie Joule, D-Kotzebue, said.

Salmon said if a community is economically sound, then a borough is a good idea. But for the villages in the Bush, they don't have a tax base to support such governments. The villages are expected to pay their share in taxes when it's not possible for many communities, he said.

"It completely ignores, I think, the people that were here even before the pioneers came," said Joule, of the constitution's preamble.

Much of the state's funds go to urban areas and not the Bush, Salmon said.

"Our voice is even smaller now than it was before. When I'm talking about our voice, I mean rural Alaska," said Joule. "How do you make a dent in the system with a tiny voice?"

And while jails are flooded with Alaska Natives, ground needs to be broken for tribal courts, Joule said.

Salmon said historically the federal government has been a better revenue source for Natives than the state government.

Most Alaska newspapers, wrote editorials opposing statehood,including the Daily Alaska Empire, which became the Juneau Empire.

"The general argument was that we couldn't afford it," said Sundborg, who published his own weekly near the time of the convention, but also was an editor at the Empire.

Coghill said critics were looking at a narrow view of the present-day economics.

Meyer said the state faired pretty well to start with little reserves and build up a $33 billion bank account known as the Alaska Permanent Fund.

"Thank God we got it when we did," said Coghill, doubting that Washington's web of bureaucracy and special interests would allow statehood to be granted today.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at

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