Walker leads Choose Respect rally as senators cut funding

A Senate subcommittee today cut all of the proposed funding for statewide programs targeting domestic violence and sexual assault prevention in Alaska for the budget year beginning in July.

Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Walker led about 100 people in Juneau’s Choose Respect rally, which is supported by that funding.

The initiative to raise awareness about Alaska’s high rates of domestic violence and sexual assault started six years ago, and grew in prominence after then-Gov. Sean Parnell embraced it.

Advocates say proposed cuts in the governor’s budget would slow, but not stop their work.

Early in his speech at the rally, Gov. Walker asked for a round of applause for the previous administration’s efforts to raise the profile of Choose Respect. Between 2009 and last year, Gov. Parnell and his team helped organize marches and rallies in nearly 200 communities statewide. Walker called what they did “a great start.”

“Our administration also chooses respect, but we also choose action,” Walker said. “And we have taken action. We have taken action in a number of ways. We’re going to continue to take action to make sure that this doesn’t continue on.”

As an example, Walker cited his administration’s hiring of a special investigator to look into allegations of sexual misconduct and other issues within the Alaska National Guard, which played a role in his campaign for governor against Parnell. He also touted his support for expanding Medicaid.

Walker said Alaska takes great pride in being first in a lot of things – first in size, first in beauty – but he said being first in rates of domestic violence and sexual assault is not something to be proud of.

“This is one day out of 365 days, and it’s a great day from the standpoint that we’re very aware of this. But we need to make sure the other 364 days are also just as much empowering people like yourselves to take action,” Walker said.

The governor also said this is not the time to cut funding for prevention, though his own budget slashes nearly $1.3 million from such programs.

With a drop in oil prices leading to a state shortfall in the billions of dollars, Alaska Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Executive Director Lauree Morton says the administration’s cut was not a surprise. She says it would slow, but not stop the progress made so far.

“It’s too soon to stop trying to prevent these crimes,” Morton said.

The House left $1.5 million in the governor’s budget for prevention. A Senate subcommittee has zeroed that out, for now.

Morton says the money goes to programs like Girls on the Run, Coaching Boys into Men and Green Dot, designed to raise awareness about sexual assault and domestic violence. She says the governor and House’s reduction would mean each of these programs get enough funds to launch efforts into one new community instead of three statewide.

Morton says the council did a study on The Fourth R – a program that teaches students about healthy relationships – and found it’s having an impact on Alaska kids.

“There was less adherence to rape myths, you know that, ‘she deserved it’ or ‘she shouldn’t have dressed that way,’ those kind of things,” Morton said. “There was less tolerance for physical aggression in relationships. So we have shown that is effective here in Alaska.”

Morton says she doesn’t think the Walker administration is any less dedicated to ending domestic violence and sexual assault than the Parnell administration. She says if anything, there’s more focus on partnering with communities.

“They’re committed to eliminating these crimes. I think there’s just a different way of looking at how to do that,” she said.

Mandy O’Neal-Cole with Juneau’s AWARE shelter says organizations that receive money from the state for prevention efforts will just have to get creative in light of the state’s fiscal problems.

“It’s our main goal to continue with the programming that we have,” O’Neal-Cole said. “We are committed to this movement and to this cause, and I think we will figure it out.”

She adds that it gives Alaskans an opportunity to step up and show how much progress has been made, by supporting organizations trying to end domestic violence and sexual assault.

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