My Turn: Bob Robertson might have been right after all

Posted: Sunday, October 19, 2003

R. E. (Bob) Robertson might have been right. The founder of one of Alaska's oldest and most prestigious law firms - Robertson, Monagle and Eastaugh of Juneau - was a delegate to the Alaska Constitutional Convention in 1955-56. He resigned three days before the convention ended because he disagreed with some features and was reluctant to vote against the entire Constitution.

One of his concerns was the section covering initiatives, which he thought was too loosely written. Alaska's procedures for voter-initiated law might not be as bad as California, where much of its fiscal problems are blamed on initiatives limiting taxing but not spending. But Alaska's procedure needs some tightening and District 1 Rep. Bill Williams, R-Saxman, has proposed that in HB31.

Meanwhile, five ballot initiatives, with the required 100 sponsors, have been certified by the lieutenant governor. Supporters are seeking the 23,148 signatures of registered voters needed for each to qualify for the 2004 ballot. Certified are: campaign finance reform, marijuana decriminalization, taxation of cruise ships, prohibiting bear baiting and exempting Alaskans from registering for Selective Service. A sixth proposition requiring an election to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat is before the Department of Law and may or may not be certified. Three rejected initiatives included requiring a 75 percent vote to raise taxes, requiring the state to seek independence, and protecting the earnings and dividends of the Alaska Permanent Fund.

The campaign financing reform initiative would overturn the easing of campaign rules by the Legislature. The tax on cruise ships, $50 per passenger, also repeals an exemption to the corporate income tax that the cruise companies were granted by a previous Legislature (they pay for shore-side operations, but not for ship business). Decriminalizing marijuana comes back to Alaskans as the result of court action. Alaskans approved medical use of marijuana in 1998, but defeated decriminalizing marijuana in 2000. A Superior Court judge has ruled that the issue can go back on the 2004 ballot.

Bear-baiting and exempting Alaskans from registering for Selective Service are less controversial except among hunters and animal rights and peace activists.

Filling U.S. Senate vacancies by election is a reaction to Gov. Frank Murkowski, a Republican, appointing his daughter to his Senate seat. It is pushed by Anchorage-based Democratic legislators who really are looking at Alaska's other U.S. Senator, Republican Ted Stevens, who is 80. Stevens himself was appointed by Gov. Walter Hickel, a Republican, after the death of Sen. E. L. Bartlett, a Democrat. Stevens subsequently won election and re-election - Alaska's good fortune.

Supporters of each issue have until Jan. 12 to qualify an issue for the ballot by collecting the signatures of registered voters equal to 10 percent of those voting in the last general election. The signatures must be collected in two-thirds (27) of Alaska's 40 election districts. Actually, most can be collected in a few districts around Anchorage, adding only one signature from each of the rest. Rep. Williams' proposal, if passed by the Legislature and approved by voters, would require that signatures be collected in three-fourths of the districts (30) and the signatures in each district must total at least 7 percent of those balloting in the last election.

The Southcentral (Anchorage) area continues to outpace Southeast and rural Alaska in population growth. Williams reasons that Anchorage urban residents could end up dictating law regarding fishing, logging and mining vital to rural areas. Activists are working on hunting and tourism. See above. A capital move initiative might appear again.

This Southeast resident shouldn't give our northern neighbors ideas, but we do advance it to support Williams' proposition to tighten up initiative requirements.

Such tightening also is warranted by what is happening in other states. Six major nationwide companies now make a business of collecting signatures for ballot propositions. Initiative supporters say paying for signatures is their biggest expense. Two of those companies collected more than a million signatures for the recent California recall. One company brags that in a year it has collected 2.5 million signatures in 22 states between Massachusetts and California. The problem is that many of the signature solicitors hired by the companies are otherwise unemployable and commit fraud by copying a phone book or tombstones. The fraud is undiscovered until after they collect their pay and are long gone.

As for Bob Robertson, his resignation was never accepted by the Constitutional Convention. A year after statehood he did sign the parchment copy of the Constitution that is on display in the Alaska State Museum.


Robertson was involved in another less known historic event. Completion of the government railroad from Seward to Fairbanks in June 1923 exacerbated the capital relocation issue. Northern and western residents advocated moving the capital to Seward.

Southeast residents saw secession as the only solution. There could be two territories and two capital cities - one in Juneau and one in Seward. On Nov. 1, 1923, Southeast residents overwhelmingly voted to split the territory. Robertson, then Juneau's mayor, took the results to Congress where he was ignored and the idea died.

• Lew Williams Jr. can be reached at

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