Gov. Tony Knowles put the spotlight on veterans again Tuesday, unveiling a bill to award high school diplomas to those who dropped out to fight in World War II.
One senator, however, questioned the governor's commitment to making veterans a priority in the state-run Pioneers' Homes.
Before a meeting of his Alaska Veterans Advisory Council at the Governor's Mansion, Knowles held a brief ceremony to sign the transmittal letters introducing his new diploma bill in the Legislature. Members of various military-related service organizations were scheduled to fly in to town today and lobby legislators on veterans' issues, he said.
"Alaska would join other states in the national 'Operation Recognition' program designed as society's gesture of gratitude towards World War II veterans," Knowles wrote to legislators.
The bill would direct the Department of Education and Early Development to award diplomas, upon application, to people who served in the military between Aug. 7, 1940, and July 5, 1947.
Appearing with Knowles was Joe Sadlier, a Ketchikan resident originally from Juneau, who made international news this month when he was among World War II vets who sailed a mothballed Navy ship from Crete to Mobile, Ala. Sadlier, 74, has a Graduation Equivalency Diploma but said it still would be meaningful to him to get a formal diploma.
Knowles, a Vietnam vet, also has proposed to create a veterans' preference in the six Pioneers' Homes, adding veterans to the title, reserving 125 of the 600 beds for them and increasing state funding by about $2.5 million for new staff to fill 100 vacancies.
In a legislative committee hearing Monday, Sen. Robin Taylor, a Wrangell Republican, suggested creating an Alaska Pioneers' and Veterans' Homes system was merely "kind of clever."
"In fact, we're not going to change anything," Taylor said. With the additional money, "All we're doing is adequately funding the existing facilities."
The 125 beds represent 21 percent of capacity, while 30 percent of Alaskans 65 and older are veterans, Taylor stressed. "That's a pretty hollow commitment, really."
Administration officials replied that the 125 beds are a minimum, not a maximum.
As of November, there reportedly were 78 veterans in Pioneers' Homes, which counts toward the set-aside, and 42 on the active waiting list.
"What I would hope that Sen. Taylor would be concerned about is the fact that there in the Pioneers' Home in Ketchikan there's an empty bed, and there's people that are seniors that are on the waiting list to fill it," Knowles said. "And frankly they (legislators) have just turned their back on the Pioneers' Homes of Alaska."
Bill McAllister can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.