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For parents behind 'Bree's Law,' a blunt education in Alaska politics

Just about every day, a mother and father arrive at the Alaska Legislature's Anchorage office to plead with lawmakers. Their names are Butch and Cindy Moore and they are getting a blunt education in politics in this fraught season of Alaska lawmaking.

Cindy Moore looks familiar: Her corkscrew curls and soft features mirror her youngest daughter, Breanna Moore. Police say Breanna was shot and killed by her boyfriend at an Anchorage Hillside home a year ago this month. She was 20, a woman who could load a snowmachine onto a trailer, hunt for grouse and fix a dead jet-ski battery with no help from anyone.

The black eyes her friends later told them about had been hidden behind sunglasses.

After her death, her family dedicated themselves to passing a law they say might have saved their daughter from a violent relationship that turned deadly.

They say that what they want is simple: for dating violence education to be taught to middle- and high-school students in Alaska public schools.

Bree's Law, as the provision came to be known after Breanna's nickname, is attached in the Legislature to "Erin's Law," a bill mandating sexual assault prevention education that has become, to some, a symbol of legislative dysfunction.

Gov. Bill Walker felt so strongly about Erin's Law that he ordered legislators to work on it when they convened for their first special session in April, in addition to budget negotiations that will force a government shutdown if they are not resolved by the end of June.

But as the session enters its sixth week, Erin's Law and Bree's Law, now formally combined as the Alaska Safe Children's Act, House Bill 44, is in a form the Moores say guts its original intent, stalled in a committee. Erin Merryn, the Illinois namesake for the Erin's Law portion of the bill, said virtually the same thing last month.

Butch Moore, a real estate developer in the Mat-Su, had dealt with lawmakers before, on contentious building and zoning issues.

"I've never had an item of such significance that involves the safety of our children where anyone would ever argue it," he said.

They want to see the bill returned to its original form and voted on before legislators gavel out.

So Butch and Cindy Moore return to the Anchorage Legislative Information Office to appeal to their legislators in the way that only grieving parents can. They come so often they joke that a small meeting room with a painting of birch trees and a view of Fourth Avenue is their office. How did something that seemed so simple get so complicated, they ask.

"We feel like we've been caught in a political storm," said Cindy Moore.

They say they've been bewildered by some of the responses they've encountered.

"Charlie Huggins would not return a phone call for two months," Butch Moore said, referring to the Wasilla Republican state senator and former Senate president. "I had to catch him in the hallway. He said, 'Butch, I hope you understand this isn't personal. This is all about the politics.' He says this to me after my daughter has been shot in the head."

A daughter lost

Breanna Moore was born in Anchorage, the youngest of three daughters.

She was a tenderhearted little girl who demanded a proper burial for her pet goldfish, which meant storing the fish in the freezer until the ground thawed, her mother says. She attended the Japanese immersion program at Sand Lake Elementary and used her 5-foot-11 frame to become a star volleyball player at Dimond High School.

As a teenager, she was capable, bubbly and surrounded by friends. To her mother, it seemed that she held romantic relationships at arm's length. "What happened to that boyfriend?" Cindy would ask her. "Oh, him?" Breanna would say. He was a little controlling. He was long gone.

But then she graduated and enrolled at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She met Joshua Almeda, a mechanic who fixed the tailpipe of her truck. Her parents found him polite, well-spoken and mild-mannered. He had a good job and lived with his parents in a nice house on the Hillside.

This relationship was different from the others. They seemed to be together all the time.

"She hardly spent time with her friends," Cindy says.

Later, her mother would recognize that as a warning sign.

But things were otherwise going well in the life of Bree, as her friends called her.

After working as a hostess at Suite 100 restaurant, a union road flagger and a saleswoman at Nordstrom, she fought hard to get a job she loved as a dental assistant and was studying to become a hygienist.

The night she died, June 26, 2014, her sister and nieces were in town visiting from Oregon. Her mother remembers her coming home, excited to show off gifts she'd bought for Almeda's upcoming birthday. They all had dinner together and Breanna went off to her boyfriend's house. Her parents figured she'd be home before midnight because she had work the next day.

Instead, Cindy Moore was awoken by her distraught husband early in the morning. He told her to put on a robe and come downstairs. As soon as she saw two uniformed Anchorage police officers, she knew something had happened to Breanna.

Was it a car accident?

A gunshot wound inflicted by her boyfriend was the last thing she imagined.

Almeda will be tried on murder charges for Breanna Moore's death in August.

Afterward, Breanna's parents learned he had been charged with other violent acts against girlfriends.

And they heard from Breanna's friends of signs of physical abuse. They could not square the independent, feisty daughter they knew with a victim of dating violence.

"Of all people, that this could happen to Breanna … it just didn't make sense," Cindy Moore said.

She researched dating violence and found statistics that shocked her. She talked with the mother of a 23-year-old who was stabbed to death by a boyfriend in Rhode Island. That mother had successfully pushed for a law mandating dating violence education in that state. Moore decided to try for the same here.

"It came down to 'I have nothing more to lose,'" Cindy Moore said.

'Hijacked'

The Moores found legislators like Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, and Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, willing to champion their cause. Initially, a combined Erin's Law and Bree's Law bill passed the House easily as House Bill 44. The vote was 34-6, with all Democrats and most Republicans voting for it.

But things stalled in the Senate, where in the education committee, it was rewritten to include other provisions that ranged from school district local control over testing to barring abortion providers like Planned Parenthood from doing sexual assault education teaching. Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, was the architect of the changes.

"We feel like it has totally killed the opportunity for this bill to pass," Cindy Moore said.

Butch Moore described it as the bill being hijacked. It made the family feel like "one person could screw everything up" in the democratic process.

Dunleavy said he wants to explain himself. He says he's taken heat -- and even violent threats -- for his stand on the bill.

He said the changes and additions to the bill were not an attempt to sink it but meant to give school districts time and resources to do meaningful training, rather than present them with an "unfunded mandate."

Even the hotly controversial change in language -- from saying that school districts "shall" do the training to "may" -- was his effort to "give school districts a a little time" to gear up to offer the training, he said.

"My intent was that all school districts would do this."

Dunleavy says that other added provisions were about freeing up money to fund the training in a time of budget deficits and about "giving parents authority over the education of their children" by enshrining the right to opt out of "values education" in the classroom.

He acknowledges that these ideas are not without controversy.

"If all we do is go to Juneau and pass Flower Day and Beautiful Cloud Week … these are real issues. These are issues that have festered. By definition that means it's going to be painful to deal with them."

Dunleavy knows the Moores are upset. He says he wants the same thing that they do.

"I know for a fact that I will vote for this law. I know for a fact that I want this law to pass. I know for a fact that I want children to be educated and protected."

He has three daughters too, he says.

'All of our focus has been on the budget'

Huggins, one of the senators on the education committee who voted for the changes, said the additions were simply the makings of an omnibus bill -- a common way of bundling legislation.

He had concerns about local control for school districts and costs.

"It's very simple," he said. "There is nothing that prevents school districts today, or yesterday, from doing any of these elements. The question is whether we mandate them to do it or whether there's a local control, and whether there's going to be a fiscal note that costs the state money."

Now, the current version of the bill rests largely in the hands of Sen. Anna MacKinnon, R-Eagle River, and the Senate Finance Committee she chairs. MacKinnon was once the director of Standing Together Against Rape.

"Quite frankly, all of our focus has been on the budget and trying to negotiate a compromise," she said.

She said she supported the original version of the bill, which just contained Erin's Law and Bree's Law.

She says her job is to broker a compromise that can get the votes needed to become law. "I'm hopeful," she said.

The major question of whether the law would be opt-in or opt-out is unresolved.

Dunleavy said he would support a change to allow parents to opt out of the training rather than opt in.

Meanwhile, the Moores wait. They are beginning to wonder if the bill will be addressed before the end of the session.

"I have tried to kind of jar it loose, the bill," said Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage. "I'm just really one of 20. I think sometimes people expect me as the president to sprinkle some magic dust and make things happen. That's not how it works."

Butch and Cindy Moore are not placated. They are writing letters to the editor and planning a memorial for the anniversary of their daughter's death.

They met with the governor last Thursday. Walker told them that if the Legislature gavels out without dealing with Erin's Law and Bree's Law, he will send them to Juneau to get it done, Walker's spokeswoman Grace Jang said.

"That's nice of him," Dunleavy said of the news, with little conviction.

Hearings on the bill are scheduled for Wednesday in the Senate Finance Committee.

The Moores will be there, a reminder of their daughter.

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