The Legislature should approve a constitutional amendment for a rural subsistence priority and repeal an education law from 1998 that discriminates against rural schools, according to a report released today by the Governor's Commission on Tolerance.
The commission, formed this spring by Gov. Tony Knowles after a well-publicized paintball attack on Natives in Anchorage, made nearly 100 recommendations. They range from new legislative funding priorities to symbolic measures such as modifying the state seal and flag song.
Knowles, who held a news conference in Juneau, said he's seeking "a more tolerant Alaska that celebrates the diversity of people and cultures" and he will put together an action plan for implementing the recommendations.
"Alaska is the second most diverse state in the nation. Only Hawaii has more cultural diversity than Alaska does," said Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer. "We ought to begin to talk about how rich Alaska is to have such diversity."
But the governor said it's no surprise that the commission heard from numerous Alaskans "relating personal experiences of pain and discrimination."
"Our challenge is to address it directly and forcefully," he said.
The 14-member commission, chaired by the Rev. Chuck Eddy of Anchorage, found that "protecting subsistence rights is a primary priority" and said failure to establish a rural preference is "a recurring flashpoint of institutional intolerance."
A separate committee appointed by Knowles already has drafted a proposed constitutional amendment that will be presented to the Legislature, although the governor appears to be four votes short of the necessary two-thirds in the Senate to put the issue on the general election ballot.
The Tolerance Commission also targeted Senate Bill 36 from 1998, which funded enrollment increases in rural schools at a lower rate than in urban schools.
"This policy sends the clear message that a rural student is 'worth less' than an urban student," the commission wrote. "In every rural community we visited, community leaders, parents and students expressed strong feelings of personal hurt or anger because too many Alaska leaders do not respect or support education in communities other than their own."
Knowles described the legislation as a "poison pill" included in an overall funding increase.
"It was a time bomb, really, for intolerance in the future," he said. "That's the kind of legislation we have to take off the books."
Sen. Randy Phillips, an Eagle River Republican who was the primary sponsor of the bill, wasn't immediately available for comment.
Other commission recommendations:
Raise the minimum wage.
Outlaw discrimination based on economic status and sexual orientation.
Pass hate crimes legislation.
Require diversity training for all state employees.
Increase funding for public television and radio.
Create a permanent tolerance commission.
Bill McAllister can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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