The last living member of the Alaska Constitutional Convention got a warm reception by from the Legislature on Tuesday afternoon and he had plenty of nice things to say about the Legislature.
The 95-year-old Vic Fischer did not, however, have particularly nice things to say about Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s slate of proposed constitutional amendments.
The House State Affairs Committee opened a special hearing on Tuesday to allow Fischer to testify about the governor’s three proposed constitutional amendments, which include a spending limit, an enshrinement of the PFD and a requirement that the Legislature approve all voter-initiated taxes.
Fischer panned the amendments on everything from messy drafting to undermining not just the ideals embodied in the state’s founding document but also the state’s future.
Earlier this year, Fischer also had harsh things to say about the steep cuts proposed by the governor, penning an editorial titled “The Alaska I helped build is under attack.”
“OK, the amendments,” Fischer said after giving a rundown of the history behind the Alaska Constitution. “I was shocked when I read them. If you have a constitution nearby you can see how the constitution is drafted. It is concise, short, declarative statements of policy, of process, of organization. The amendments are atrociously written. … Whoever drafted these proposed amendments was basically legislative drafting and I have nothing wrong with legislative drafting … but there is a time and a place for everything, but the language—especially in (House Joint Resolution) number 7—is just atrocious, it doesn’t belong in the constitution.”
House Joint Resolution would set a restrictive spending limit in the state constitution that has been met with opposition in both chambers and both sides of the political aisle.
Fischer stressed that the Alaska Constitution was intended to be clean and easy to understand. Rules that function like legislation don’t belong in there, he said, but that’s precisely what Dunleavy has proposed with his slate of amendments.
House Joint Resolution 5 would require any taxes passed by the Legislature also be approved by a public vote before being implemented. It would also require any taxes approved by voter initiative to be approved by the Legislature before going into law, effectively giving the Legislature the power of a pocket veto over initiatives.
The initiative would dramatically grow Article IX, Section 1 of the Alaska Constitution on taxation, which Fischer held up as a particularly clean and concise statement of policy. Currently the section 23 words spread out over two sentences: “The power of taxation shall never be surrendered. This power shall not be suspended or contracted away, except as provided in this article.”
Dunleavy’s amendment, which has the support of the conservative right-wing group Americans for Prosperity, would add an additional 227 words spread out over seven sentences in two new subsections to the just that section alone.
“Do it in one sentence,” he said when asked for advice about successful constitutional amendments. “Don’t do pages in the constitution because then you get involved in minutiae and future legislators are going to have to come and clean up the mess you’ve made.”
It wasn’t just the drafting of House Joint Resolution 5 that caused Fischer problems. He said requiring putting taxes to a public vote would essentially prohibit any changes to taxation whatsoever.
“In effect, what it says is what is in law today will stay law forever so long as people don’t vote to change it,” he said. “Somebody’s thinking today that may be totally inappropriate 20 or 50 years hence. These amendments shackle the Legislature. The constitution is written not to just impose one’s will or values of today on future generations. This constitution has been in effect for 60 years, it has worked.”
As for the requirement that taxes passed by voter initiative be approved by the Legislature to go into effect, Fischer was having none of it. He said it would be such a radical departure from the original intent of the constitution and initiative process that they shouldn’t be called initiatives anymore.
“The weirdest thing is this talk about initiatives,” he said. “It says if the people approve the initiative then it has to go to the Legislature and approved by the Legislature to take effect. That’s preposterous. The initiative is the exercise of the legislative power by the people. That’s one of the stupid things proposed.”
‘It’s what you put before the people’
Ultimately, Fischer reminded the committee that the constitutional amendments are up to the Legislature to send to the people not the governor. Amendments need two-thirds of each chamber to be put on the ballot to be approved by voters. At this point, none of the amendments stand much of a chance to be approved this session, especially in their current forms.
“It’s what you put before the people with a two-thirds vote of your membership,” he said.
But taken together, Fischer said he has grave concerns about the amendments. He reminded the committee of constitutional delegate Bob Bartlett’s warning of “exploitation under the thin disguise of development” and the outside influence to stifle Alaska’s development.
“What seems to be behind the proposals is a strategy of reducing the wealth of the people of Alaska,” he said. “If you apply those into the future, Alaska will become impoverished. It’s a downhill spiral.”