Alaska in Brief
Bill to make Juneteenth an Alaska state holiday clears Senate, heads to House
Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson, D-Anchorage, speaks on Wednesday in favor of legislation that would make Juneteenth Alaska's 12th legal holiday. The Senate passed the bill by a 16-4 vote. Gray-Jackson, the bill's sponsor, introduced similar legislation in 2021, but that measure failed to advance out of committee. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
The Alaska Senate on Wednesday approved a bill that would make Juneteenth a paid state holiday. The measure, Senate Bill 22, now heads to the state House for its consideration.
The sponsor, Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson, used her floor debate to describe the significance of the June 19 holiday, which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States and is also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day.
“Alaska, like many states in this country, has a diverse population with a rich cultural heritage. It’s a place where people of all backgrounds and beliefs come together to celebrate their shared values of freedom, equality and justice,” said Gray-Jackson, one of the Black members in the 20-person state Senate. “By recognizing Juneteenth as a state holiday, we can celebrate and honor our African American community’s contributions and acknowledge the injustices they have faced in our state and in our nation.”
She noted that the federal government in 2021 established Juneteenth as a legal holiday. Additionally, 21 other states, “from the north and the south, the east and the west,” and the District of Columbia have already made Juneteenth a paid or legal holiday, she said, so Alaska would join a large group, she said.
More recently, the Anchorage Assembly on Feb. 21 unanimously approved Juneteenth as a paid municipal holiday, Gray-Jackson said. Anchorage already has an annual Juneteenth celebration, which is regularly attended by the governor and several state legislators, she noted.
Along with designating Juneteenth as a paid municipal holiday, the Anchorage Assembly gave the same status to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
However, another Black member, Sen. David Wilson, R-Wasilla, cast one of the four votes against Gray-Jackson’s bill.
One of his arguments was economic. He cited the $4.2 million annual cost estimated by the state Office of Management and Budget, as well as additional costs for lost productivity. “The state has limited financial resources and adding another paid state holiday to the calendar could put significant strain on our state budget,” he said, citing potential cuts to essential services like education, health care and infrastructure.
Gray-Jackson later said the cost estimate that Wilson was using was out of date, from a March 1 fiscal note submitted by OMB. Subsequent fiscal notes from individual departments, submitted on April 17, provided cost estimates that totaled under $1.2 million, though the Department of Administration said on March 1 couldn’t determine its costs.
The Office of Management and Budget said in its fiscal note that actual costs will depend on labor agreements and other factors.
Wilson also made some philosophical arguments against establishing Juneteenth as a paid state holiday, saying in some ways the date’s message has been cheapened and fails to address the serious issues of racial inequities.
He described commercial exploitation, with sales on items associated by the media with African American culture. “A lot of times these Juneteenth-branded products are tone-deaf,” and some experts argue that commercial operators “are only profiting off the Black suffering,” Wilson said.
He also said employers may feel pressure to grant the holiday.
An earlier Juneteenth bill introduced by Gray-Jackson in 2021 in the previous legislature failed to advance out of committee.
The Alaska Legislature in 2001 passed a bill designating the third Saturday in June as Juneteenth Day, but that measure fell short of establishing a paid state holiday.
Note: This article has been updated to include more information about the fiscal notes for the bill.
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