My turn: Amending the state's constitution isn't easy

Posted: Thursday, March 23, 2006

The framers of the Alaska Constitution wrote a document that was short and to the point. They produced a flexible framework of citizens' rights and government powers, not a detailed plan requiring frequent amendment as is the case in most of the older states.

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While they realized that the constitution must be open to amendment or revision as needs and circumstances change, the framers hoped that the document would remain a model of brevity and clarity.

Because constitutional amendments affect the foundations of government, the framers agreed with the principle that a constitution should not be too easy to amend. They specified that amendments should be proposed by the Legislature, have the support of two-thirds of the members in each house, and obtain a majority of votes in an election.

For broader revision of the constitution, they provided that the Legislature could call a convention at any time and that the people should have an opportunity to authorize one in an election every 10 years.

How has the framers' constitution held up in the nearly half-century since statehood? To what extent has it been amended or revised?

No convention has been called since statehood. In fact, the people have rejected the question four times by decisive majorities. Since no limits can be placed on the scope of a convention, it appears that neither legislators nor the people have believed it is worth exposing the constitution to potentially radical revision.

It also appears that legislative referrals of proposed amendments have been sufficient to meet changing needs. Alaskans have adopted 28 amendments to the constitution since statehood. This is well below the average of states generally during this time.

About half the amendments are relatively minor or technical. About a third changed some of the basic structures, rules, and policies of government. And about a fifth expanded or redefined citizen rights and liberties.

Among the minor amendments are those that changed the title of secretary of state to lieutenant governor, removed the requirement that voters must speak or read English, and modified voter residency qualifications.

Some basic elements of government are affected by amendments that changed the voting age to 18, limited the length of legislative sessions to 120 days, established a commission on judicial conduct and created a budget reserve fund.

Two of the most significant public policy amendments authorized limited entry in the fisheries in 1972 and creation of the Alaska Permanent Fund in 1976.

Only one amendment substantially rewrote a whole article of the constitution, Article 6 on legislative apportionment and redistricting, in 1998.

Citizen rights and liberties have been expanded, redefined, or limited in amendments that have spelled out crime victims' rights, affirmed an individual right to bear arms, prohibited discrimination based on sex, and, in 1972, recognized the right to privacy. In part to counter a potential application of the privacy right, a 1998 amendment limited the definition of marriage.

With some exceptions, including the legislative apportionment and budget reserve amendments and an inoperative appropriations limit, the amendments are brief and clear in keeping with the framers' style.

Alaskans have rejected 12 amendments put before them by the Legislature. Most of these rejections occurred when the Legislature was perceived to be encroaching on the separate powers of the executive and judicial branches.

The people voted down amendments that would have given the Legislature power to annul administrative regulations (three times), approve or disapprove executive appointments (twice), veto executive disposal of state land and resources and limit the jurisdiction of the courts.

When the Legislature in 2000 presented the people with an amendment to prohibit statutory initiatives restricting methods of hunting, including controversial methods of hunting wolves, the people voted it down.

The people have adopted or rejected relatively small numbers of constitutional amendments since statehood. This is due in part to the difficulty of amending the constitution, but more so to the wisdom of the framers who wrote a document that would not need a lot of amending. Most of the amendments adopted by the people are consistent with the framers' vision of a brief, flexible document that would respond well to changing times.

• Thomas Morehouse is a professor emeritus in political science for the University of Alaska Anchorage and a member of the advisory board for Creating Alaska, honoring the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Constitutional Convention.

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