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4 lawmakers offer identical 'Erin's Law' bills countering sex abuse

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 17, 2015

JUNEAU -- Alaska lawmakers this year are making a second push at passing legislation to teach children how to recognize and report sexual abuse, and after a failed effort last year, the open question in the Capitol is not whether the measure will pass but whose name will be on it.

Four legislators -- two Democrats and two Republicans -- have each introduced identical versions of a bill known as Erin's Law, named after a sexual abuse survivor from Illinois who last year testified before the Alaska Legislature in support of the measure.

Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, introduced the original version of the bill last year and coordinated the testimony of the survivor, Erin Merryn, but the measure got stuck in the House Finance Committee and didn't pass.

Over the summer, Tarr sent letters to school superintendents and contacted tribal health groups in an effort to build momentum, and she ultimately filed the same bill before the start of the 90-day legislative session last month.

At the same time, Rep. Charisse Millett, the Republican House majority leader, was in the process of filing her own version of the bill. And meanwhile, Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, the Senate minority leader, has an identical piece of legislation, as does Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage.

Gardner's bill had its first hearing in a Senate committee last week, while both Millett and Tarr have asked for hearings in the House Education Committee.

In a news conference Tuesday, Tarr said she was "frustrated" her bill hadn't been heard yet. But Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, the Education Committee's chair, said he had been busy with informational hearings on the state education department's budget and wants Millett and Tarr to resolve their differences first.

"I would assume they would work together," Keller said in an interview Tuesday. "Let 'em duke it out."

Tarr said in an interview that she began pushing for the bill last year at the request of a constituent. Last year's version attracted broad bipartisan support, and a parallel measure McGuire introduced in the Senate ended up passing unanimously.

The bill would require public schools to teach students how to prevent and report sexual abuse, and Tarr said she wants students' responses to become as reflexive as when they are taught to "stop, drop and roll" if their clothing catches fire.

Millett, who last year joined Tarr's bill as a co-sponsor, said she had her own version drafted before this year's legislative session because she wanted to make sure the measure was introduced again. Millett said her office tried to contact Tarr to find out if the Democrat would be sponsoring her own measure, but never heard back.

Millett said Tarr had done a "fabulous job" working on the bill and had been "nothing but a champion" on the issue, and praised an informational session Tarr held last week with David Holthouse, an Alaska survivor of sexual abuse.

But Millett also questioned Tarr's approach of recruiting testimony last year from Merryn, the Illinois sexual abuse survivor.

"You can get more people to sign on if you go and talk with them in their office and work on their issues," Millett said in a phone interview. "It's not about any one person."

Millett said she had no "pride in authorship," but added she would keep working on her measure because she'd lose control over her bill if she signed on to Tarr's -- and Millett said she needs control to make sure members of her House majority caucus are comfortable with the bill.

Tarr said she had issued a press release in November saying she planned to reintroduce Erin's Law, and was surprised Millett had missed the announcement given that the House majority has two press aides.

Tarr said she'd be proud if her version of the bill passed, but pointed out that she'd already signed on to Millett's measure and added: "The important thing here is that a bill passes."

"If that needs to be a majority bill, I will support that legislation," she said.

Gardner and McGuire, the two Senate sponsors, both said they would support whichever version of the bill ends up moving most quickly, though each said their measure could change.

McGuire said she wanted to add a section to require that athletic coaches be required to report sexual abuse if they hear about it from students, while Gardner said she wanted to look at ways the Legislature could reduce other training requirements for schools if it adds new ones through the passage of Erin's Law.

McGuire said in a phone interview that the number of versions of the bill was a reflection of its emotional resonance. The legislation has also attracted Gov. Bill Walker's support -- a spokeswoman Tuesday said he'd support any version -- and McGuire said that ultimately, which one ends up on his desk could be determined by something as simple as whether the House or Senate takes up budget negotiations first.

"You can expect a bill signing where the governor will be involved, and all of the women that are sponsors," McGuire said. "I really don't think it matters a lot which vehicle moves -- we'll all put our names on it."

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