It took until Day 22 of the 30-day special session for a sexual abuse prevention bill to get a hearing. And when it appeared before the Senate Education committee Tuesday, it was in a radically different form than the original.
Of the three items on the special session call, legislation known as “the Alaska Safe Children’s Act” or “Erin’s Law,” should have been the most straightforward.
It’s not a multibillion-dollar question, like the budget bill, or a national-level political football like Medicaid expansion. The idea is to establish a sexual abuse prevention program in schools. It passed the Senate in the previous Legislature, and it passed the House this year with bipartisan support. Four separate versions of the bill had been introduced this year alone.
And yet, when a new version was unveiled by the Senate Education committee, the legislation became much more complicated — to supporters’ chagrin.
“We’ve taken a well manicured bill, and we’ve basically turned it into a junkyard.”
Cindy Moore is the mother of Breanna Moore, who was murdered by her boyfriend last summer and whose death became a catalyst for the dating violence portion of the bill. Cindy and her husband Butch appeared before the committee to plead with them to move the original version.
The document the Senate Education committee had substituted had ballooned the legislation from three pages to twelve, rolling in other bills on standardized testing and parental control. The new version also included a controversial bill that would prevent school districts from contracting with groups like Planned Parenthood, who provide abortions.
Butch Moore said the changes were inappropriate.
“To stamp this House Bill 44 with 17 cosponsors coming out of the House with items included in here of abortion and charter schools and boarding schools and all these other items … This House Bill 44 is designed to do two things. It’s designed to protect our children from being molested and raped and sexual and physically beaten and murdered like my daughter. That’s what this bill is.”
Perhaps most significantly, the new version cut to the heart of the original bill by making the establishment of these prevention programs optional. Rep. Charisse Millett, an Anchorage Republican and the bill’s sponsor, says the changes do not match her original vision for the bill.
“It does basically make the bill a suggestion. It doesn’t have any force of law behind it.”
Millett says she has not had a chance to review many of the other significant changes, but it is common for legislators to try to attach their priorities to a moving bill.
“You see this a lot, I think, at the end of session when legislators have their bills that haven’t made it fully through the process. They look for a vehicle to attach similar issues onto — that being education for this bill — to ‘Christmas tree’ as they call it a bill to get their bills passed and signed into law by the governor.”
While Millett is not exactly a fan of the changes, she says she will still support it because she does not want to lose momentum on the bill. She also thinks she can eventually strengthen the language instructing schools to teach sexual abuse prevention.
“Can we change that down the line? Yes. Do I want to see the Alaska Safe Children’s Act in statute and then work on making that change from ‘may’ to ‘shall’ next session and the session to go past? Yes.”
Much of the Senate Education hearing on the bill focused not on the original bill but on the new add-ins, which were supported by committee chair and Mat-Su Republican Mike Dunleavy. Dunleavy was not available for a follow-up interview to explain the changes.