JUNEAU — One of the framers of Alaska’s constitution spoke in opposition Friday to a constitutional amendment that would allow public funds to be appropriated to private educational institutions.
Vic Fischer, a delegate to Alaska’s Constitutional Convention in 1955 and 1956, told the House Education Committee Friday that those attempting to change the constitution must prove there is a fundamental problem with the existing language. He doesn’t believe one exists.
“This is a very serious matter, amending the constitution” Fischer said. “This is the reason why you have to vote two-thirds of a majority in each house in order to even put it (the proposed amendment) before the people.”
Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla and the sponsor of HJR1, argues that the measure would give Alaskans the choice of whether to allow the government to propose a system in which public funds could be appropriated to private schools. Critics fear it could hurt a public education system already seeking additional funding.
Fisher classified the “let the people vote” defense for the measure as a “lousy” argument based on his beliefs regarding the intent and serious nature of constitutional amendments.
During Friday’s hearing, Keller was adamant the resolution does not set up a specific voucher system, and therefore in and of itself would not cost the state a dime minus printing costs.
“This resolution has absolutely nothing to do with funding,” Keller’s aide, Jim Pound, reiterated to the committee. “That is a discussion down the road.”
Rep. Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage and a former Anchorage school board member, told Keller that argument “appears to be skirting the issue.” She added that if he wanted to allow the appropriation of public funds to private or religious educational institutions, she wants to know where that money is coming from.
“I do believe we have to consider the down-the-line implications of a positive vote on this constitutional amendment,” she said.
The committee itself appeared to be divided on whether it has the responsibility to debate certain ramifications of the amendment, particularly the cost of a voucher system that the amendment would pave the way for.
Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, said it’s the job of the legislature to discuss in-depth the possible ramifications in order to help the public be as informed as possible if, or when, the measure were to make it to the ballot.
“If we don’t ask some of these questions,” Wilson said, “then they will be going into it blind.”
Another committee member, Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, reiterated that sentiment.
“We have questions that have been posed, and so far the sponsor has just said that the additional dollars or where that money will come from doesn’t account at this time (for) the approximately 9,600 kids that are currently in those private or religious schools,” Seaton said. “We really don’t talk about those because those aren’t in a bill at this time, but all of those things are ramifications for if this is passed and what that (resolution) would allow.”
Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla and chair of the committee, said she believes there needs to be a “grand” discussion in the committee about the ramifications of the amendment, but did not want to discuss specific financial ramifications of a voucher system that would be legal if the amendment were to pass.
“Should this get passed and the voters of Alaska make the choice, then we’re definitely going to have to sit down and really have those hard conversations on what this may mean to our state,” Gattis said. “I think we’re way ahead of ourselves asking these questions.”
Voters in November overwhelmingly defeated a ballot measure to call a constitutional convention to make changes, of any kind, to the constitution. That issue goes to voters every 10 years.
The bill was held in committee and will be discussed again on March 1.