Arise legislative recap: May 3, 2021

Arise’s Dev Wakeley brings us up to speed on where we stand in the final days of the Alabama Legislature’s 2021 regular session. He provides overviews of meaningful bills we hope will pass — and of harmful bills we hope won’t.

 

Alabama Arise Action 2021 annual meeting

The Arise policy and campaign teams gave updates on criminal justice reform, voting rights, Medicaid expansion and other issue priorities during Alabama Arise Action’s annual meeting last week. Sen. Kirk Hatcher, D-Montgomery, also called in to provide insight from the legislative side of the 2021 regular session.

(Note: The video captions were generated live during the meeting and include some typos. We apologize for any resulting confusion or inconvenience.)

Needed changes still possible as Alabama Legislature’s 2021 regular session winds down

The Alabama Legislature’s 2021 regular session has been a difficult one, to say the least. Public access remains limited, and lawmakers have advanced some of the most damaging bills in years. And many legislators have forced attention onto high-profile, controversial bills to foment conflict and remove focus from priorities that would benefit all Alabamians. But even so, together we have opportunities to create significant positive change in the session’s waning days.

Legislators have advanced bills to increase penalties for violation of the monuments bill passed three years ago. This law prohibits removal of monuments to slavery and oppression erected primarily to symbolize Jim Crow policies and intimidate advocates for civil rights for Black people in the 1950s and ‘60s. At the same time, the Legislature has halted movement on HB 8 by Rep. Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham, which would repeal the existing bill’s ban on removing Confederate monuments.

The legacy of oppression enshrined in these monuments to long-dead traitors continues even now. The House this year passed HB 445 by Rep. Allen Treadaway, R-Morris. This anti-protest bill would have seen Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth charged and imprisoned for organizing marches. And much of the rhetoric supporting this bill was copied straight from Bull Connor’s playbook. This included supporters’ proclamations that the bill would secure law and order and accusations that “outside agitators” were behind protests.

Lawmakers act swiftly on voting restrictions, corporate lawsuit protections

Bills to restrict Alabamians’ voting rights also have advanced this year. These include bans on curbside voting that would prevent legally required and morally necessary reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities and older Alabamians.

These harmful high-profile bills have not distracted from another legislative priority: protecting businesses that have harmed people. Early in the session, lawmakers fast-tracked SB 30 by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur. This bill provided broad corporate immunity from lawsuits related to coronavirus exposure or contraction of COVID-19.

The news isn’t all bad, though. Even with the Legislature’s deprioritization and blocking of reform bills, some substantial reforms still have been advancing. And several good bills are in position to become law before the session’s end.

Progress on sentencing reform, ending license suspensions

HB 129 by Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, would end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for nonpayment of fines and fees. This practice is cruel and counterproductive. Forcing people to break the law to drive to work and see to their basic needs shows a misguided belief that punishment is the answer to poverty. This bill has been the subject of much discussion in the House Judiciary Committee, where Pringle has gathered considerable support for this needed reform.

Next, HB 107 by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, would repeal the state’s archaic, broken Habitual Felony Offender Act (HFOA). Like all mandatory minimum laws, the HFOA creates harsh punishment out of a mistaken belief that keeping people locked up longer for crimes that don’t warrant long sentences, even under Alabama’s heavily punitive sentencing standards, makes communities safer.

In reality, the HFOA keeps people locked up long after they are unlikely to reoffend, both because they have worked hard to gain education and skills that make repeat offenses unlikely or because they have “aged out” of criminality. Statistics show 70-year-olds rarely commit crimes, yet the state has many older adults locked away on the bad reasoning that they pose a danger to the community. HB 107 has passed the House Judiciary Committee over opposition and is in position to pass the full House.

Community corrections expansion on the verge of passage

While HB 129 and HB 107 face significant opposition that has slowed their movement, other sentencing reforms have advanced further and are in good position to become law. HB 24 by Rep. Jim Hill, R-Odenville, would allow people convicted under the HFOA to petition for resentencing if they would be sentenced under the state’s less severe sentencing guidelines today.

Hill’s HB 73 would create community corrections programs in every judicial circuit. The bill would create community corrections programs for each judicial circuit in Alabama. These programs allow people to serve sentences in their communities. This approach reduces repeat offenses by allowing people to maintain support structures as they rebuild their lives. These programs are also smart budgetary decisions, reducing the state’s supervision costs and reducing horrific overcrowding in the state’s prisons.

HB 73 would go a long way toward allowing Alabamians to rebuild their lives after a conviction. And importantly, it’s just one step from final passage in the Legislature. With just a few legislative days remaining, HB 73 is in excellent position to become law. Email your senator today and ask them to support HB 73 on the Senate floor.

New limits on civil asset forfeiture within reach

Alternative courts aren’t the only area where substantial progress has occurred in passing criminal justice reforms. HB 394 by Rep. Andrew Sorrell, R-Muscle Shoals, would rein in the abusive practices of civil asset forfeiture. This tactic often is used to take people’s personal property without a criminal conviction ‒ or even a charge. (SB 210 by Orr is the Senate version.) Alabama doesn’t report racial data on forfeitures, but research in other states has shown they are disproportionately used against Black people.

Far from the supposed “drug kingpin” justification for civil asset forfeiture, this practice is used heavily in Alabama to seize small amounts of cash and property. Because these seizures are classified as civil actions, forfeiture victims are not provided attorneys. Often, the amounts seized are less than the fee that an attorney would charge to fight the seizure.

HB 394 would rein in some of the worst abuses of civil asset forfeiture. Alabamians deserve to have their personal property protected from seizure when they haven’t been convicted of a crime. But under our state’s civil asset forfeiture policies, people can lose their property, including their home or their only vehicle, without being convicted – or even charged. And law enforcement has an incentive to seize property because agencies are often allowed to keep the property they take.

The Senate passed SB 210 just this week. And HB 394 has cleared the House Judiciary Committee. If the full House votes to pass HB 394, it would go to the governor once the Senate approves a straightforward technical fix to make it identical to SB 210.

HB 394 would increase due process protections for Alabamians who can’t afford to fight to keep the property they own. Email your representative today and ask them to support HB 394’s reforms to civil asset forfeiture.

Your voice can make a difference

Even though the Legislature has spent time this session advancing bills that do nothing to help Alabamians, good opportunities remain to advance reforms that have built momentum during this session. But as time grows short, it’s essential for legislators to hear from constituents urging them to advance legislation to help Alabamians.

With your help, we can help push these bills across the finish line. With your help, we can make Alabama more equitable, inclusive and just.

Arise legislative recap: April 19, 2021

We take a break from our usual legislative coverage this week as Arise’s Pres Harris (and her nephew!) bring you all the details you need for the Alabama Arise Action spring membership meeting this Thursday. You can find more information and register at alariseaction.org.

You give me hope for a brighter future in Alabama: A farewell column from Brenda Boman, former Arise development director

Brenda Boman retired in January after 16 years as Alabama Arise’s development director. We’re grateful for her hard work to build our membership and strengthen our movement for change.

When I joined the Alabama Arise staff 16 years ago as its development director, I came to this work with little to recommend me other than a sincere desire to help the organization achieve its mission: to improve the lives of Alabamians with low incomes.

As a retired English teacher who had spent several years at a small rural school in the Black Belt, I had seen the struggles my students and their families faced on a daily basis. I observed how circumstances beyond their control compounded on one another to push them deeper into poverty.

Alabama’s lopsided tax structure creates great inequities in educational opportunities compared to more affluent communities. This can forecast a future of low-paying jobs without the benefits of health insurance, paid sick leave or child care.

Without public transportation, keeping a job often depends on being able to purchase a vehicle and keep it running. That’s a need that can send a panic-stricken mama or daddy to high-cost payday lenders. And Alabama’s insistence on taxing groceries makes this one of the most expensive states for struggling families to keep food on the table.

What I came to realize is that changing these and other conditions would take policy shifts at the state level. And that’s what led me to Arise.

I wish I could say that more progress has been made. But I do know one thing: As Arise has grown, so has its reputation and influence. With my retirement effective Jan. 31, 2021, I leave Arise with the hope for great opportunities on the horizon.

I have great confidence in the current staff and membership, many of whom have become friends as well as supporters. I’ll be cheering from the sidelines as I continue to support Arise, and I hope you will, too!

Money matters: Budgets top priority for session; lawmakers also discussing Medicaid expansion, criminal justice reform, voting rights this year

As the Alabama Legislature approaches the 2021 regular session’s final days, both state budgets are halfway to passage. The Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget has passed in the Senate and is in the House’s education budget committee. The General Fund (GF) budget, which funds all non-education services, has cleared the House and awaits Senate committee approval. Despite the COVID-19 recession, both budgets eked out small increases – 3% in the GF and 6% in the ETF. This will allow pay raises for teachers and state employees. It also will fund one-time additional 2022 teacher units and a new salary matrix for certified math and science teachers.

While budgets progressed, the Senate divided over whether to pass a gambling bill that would increase revenue for one or both. After Sen. Del Marsh’s lottery and gaming bill failed March 9, Sens. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, and Jim McClendon, R-Springville, introduced lottery bills. Meanwhile, Marsh, R-Anniston, introduced both a new lottery and a new gaming bill.

The Senate may consider some combination of these measures later this session. If approved by legislators and voters, expansion of gambling could increase state revenues anywhere from $118 million to $550 million. (Arise takes no position for or against gambling legislation.)

Health care

A big change on the health care front this year is the prominent role of Medicaid expansion in legislative discussions, both on and off the chamber floors. Gov. Kay Ivey can propose expansion through administrative steps, but lawmakers still control the purse strings. So legislative advocacy is essential!

As the pandemic highlights the need for rigorous health data, Alabama had been one of only two states lacking a statewide hospital discharge database. Now we’ll be shedding that dubious distinction with the enactment of HB 210 by Rep. Paul Lee, R-Dothan, a bill that Arise supported.

The Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) has been the target of several proposals to increase political control over the agency’s leadership and decision-making. McClendon’s SB 240, for example, would abolish the State Board of Health, the medical body that appoints the state health officer, and make ADPH’s director a gubernatorial appointment. Other bills would limit state and county health officials’ authority to declare health emergencies. One such measure, SB 97 by Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, passed the Senate in early April.

Criminal justice reform

Several criminal justice improvements have moved forward this year. These include partial reform of sentencing under the Habitual Felony Offender Act (HFOA) and expanded alternatives to imprisonment. Bigger reforms like HFOA repeal and abolition of driver’s license suspension have been slowed due to opposition, though. That inaction has persisted even in the face of a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit over unconstitutional prison conditions.

Voting rights

Efforts to protect and expand voting rights continue to face an uphill battle. Bills prohibiting curbside voting have advanced, despite the practice’s success in Mississippi and other states. Meanwhile, a bill allowing no-cause absentee voting stalled, as did measures on early voting and same-day voter registration. Legislation improving voting rights restoration did advance, but only after removal of a provision that would have ended a de facto poll tax: the requirement for people with convictions to pay all fines and fees before regaining voting rights.

American Rescue Plan Act offers path to recovery

As vaccinations continue across Alabama, COVID-19’s viselike grip on our lives is loosening. The pandemic has caused immense physical, emotional and economic suffering, and those aftereffects will not fade quickly. But the American Rescue Plan Act – the federal relief package that President Joe Biden signed March 11 – includes many important policies to begin the healing.

Some of the most crucial investments come in health care. The law increases subsidies for marketplace health coverage under the Affordable Care Act. It also creates new incentives that would more than offset the cost of Medicaid expansion. The incentives would remove Alabama’s last financial barrier to extending coverage to more than 340,000 adults with low incomes.

If Gov. Kay Ivey agrees to expand Medicaid, Alabama would receive between $740 million and $940 million over two years. That would result from a 5-percentage-point federal funding increase for traditional Medicaid coverage.

Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery

“Medicaid expansion is the single biggest step Alabama can take to recover from the pandemic,” Alabama Arise campaign director Jane Adams said.

“Congress did their job. Now it’s time for the governor and state lawmakers to do theirs.”

The act also slashes poverty by boosting unemployment insurance and nutrition assistance benefits and expanding the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit. It funds rental and mortgage assistance to help prevent evictions and foreclosures. And it provides Alabama’s state and local governments with $4 billion of federal assistance to help avoid cuts to education and other vital services.

Persistent disparities – and how to end them

The relief package provides opportunities to begin dismantling longtime structural barriers in Alabama. Arise offers many such policy recommendations in our recent report, The State of Working Alabama 2021, which details how COVID-19 cost hundreds of thousands of Alabamians their jobs and fueled a rapid surge of hunger and hardship across our state.

COVID-19’s toll has been especially heavy for women and people of color, the report finds. The pandemic exacerbated Alabama’s preexisting racial, gender and regional disparities in health care, housing, nutrition and economic opportunity. These inequities – the legacy of bad policy decisions – prevent Alabama from reaching its full potential.

“Alabama’s economic, racial and gender inequities are preventable and reversible,” Arise policy director Jim Carnes said. “By making better policy choices now and in the future, we can chart a path toward a more equitable economy.”

Arise legislative recap: April 10, 2021

Arise’s Carol Gundlach provides an update on the lottery and medical marijuana bills moving through the Alabama Legislature and discusses how they could shape the policy landscape for Medicaid expansion and the grocery tax as the 2021 regular session nears its final days. (Correction: The lottery and medical marijuana bill debates were on Wednesday, not Tuesday.)

A healthier Alabama is just over the horizon

340,000+ Alabamians need our help. The time is now! Together, we can expand Medicaid.I am thrilled to report that Alabama is closer to expanding Medicaid today than we’ve ever been before! Thanks to your strong advocacy, our leaders are beginning to see the connections between the COVID-19 pandemic and unequal access to health care. They’re facing the fact that rural communities, primary care providers and everyday Alabamians are buckling under the weight of a broken health care system.

Hundreds of thousands of friends and neighbors with low incomes have had to navigate the pandemic without health insurance. Alabama can do better. We can close the coverage gap now.

Alabama Arise has a goal of raising $50,000 before June 30 to accelerate our efforts to expand Medicaid in 2021. Will you consider making a contribution of any amount you feel comfortable giving?

How your support has helped protect and improve health coverage

For nearly 11 years now, Alabama’s leaders have stemmed the national tide of Medicaid expansion. They’ve let the three-year grace period of full federal funding for Medicaid expansion expire. They’ve watched most rural hospitals teeter on the brink and eight of them close.

Our lawmakers have allowed hundreds of thousands of Alabamians with low incomes to face a pandemic without health insurance. And they’ve ignored a report from their own legislatively authorized review committee recommending Medicaid expansion as the single biggest step to address Alabama’s maternal mortality crisis. Meanwhile, 38 states and the District of Columbia have opened Medicaid coverage to adults with low incomes. No state has reversed this life-saving decision.

It might feel like an 11-year stalemate, but we have slowly moved the ball forward. And your persistence has changed the game. Arise members and our partners have engaged policymakers on their own terms to protect and improve Medicaid.

  • When they said we couldn’t expand a “broken” system, you helped shape reforms that brought community voices to the Medicaid policy table.
  • When they said we needed to scrap the Affordable Care Act and risk losing Medicaid altogether, you pushed back and stopped the effort cold.
  • And when they said Medicaid consumers needed more “skin in the game,” you helped collect more than 1,800 public comments opposing a Medicaid work requirement and blocked the proposal.

Photos of Alabama Arise members speaking out for Medicaid expansion at our annual meeting and Legislative Day.

Medicaid expansion is now within reach in Alabama

Now, as news reports confirm that Alabama policymakers are no longer “dug in” against Medicaid expansion, 11 years of hard work and steady vision have brought the prize within reach. As you know, the federal government pays 90% of the cost for Medicaid expansion. In Alabama, more than 340,000 adults with low incomes would receive affordable health coverage in the bargain. The state would chip in just a dime on the dollar for their care.

That bargain would pay wider dividends as the new funding creates jobs and generates new tax revenues throughout the economy. As one Alabama hospital executive put it, if our state recruited a new factory with the same economic impact as Medicaid expansion, we would have a parade from Huntsville to Mobile!

For 11 years, our leaders have left this offer on the table, claiming a dime was too much to pay for a dollar’s worth of health care. Now, the pandemic has put Alabama’s health care – and our health itself – in a harsh new light. Our state leaders are finally getting the message.

It’s been a long 11 years, some of them dark and dreary. But you’ve kept pushing, and the light is breaking through.

We have bipartisan Medicaid support. We have a new administration in Washington that has dedicated funding to incentivize Medicaid expansion. And we have a community of more than 340,000 Alabamians who deserve access to affordable medical care.

We need your support now more than ever to support what we hope is our final push. Will you consider making a donation of any amount today to help Arise reach our goal? Please give today to support our Medicaid expansion campaign.

Arise legislative recap: April 5, 2021

Arise’s Jim Carnes provides an update on several good bills that won committee approval, including legislation to repeal Alabama’s broken and harmful Habitual Felony Offender Act. He also acknowledges a disturbing trend of bills that aim to limit the power of Alabama’s public health officials to respond to pandemics and other emergencies.