Join us for Town Hall Tuesdays!

Listening is key to shaping and advancing public policies that matter most to those marginalized by bad policies. Alabama Arise depends on what we hear to help guide our work toward our vision of a better Alabama for all.

Our online Town Hall Tuesdays will return once again this year. These events are a chance to hear issue updates and share your vision for our 2023 priorities.

Please join us this summer to help identify emerging issues and inform our actions. Registration is required for any or all of the sessions. You can register at the link in each session below.

July 12th, 6 p.m.Making the vision a reality: Food & health

Everyone should have access to food and the health care they need to live a long and healthy life. Join this session to discuss issue and advocacy opportunities in areas of access to food and health care. Click here to register for this session.

July 26th, 6 p.m. Making the vision a reality: Democracy & justice

We envision a state where all government leaders are responsive, inclusive and justice-serving. Voting rights barriers and an unjust justice system have hindered our vision. But together, we can move forward. Join us to discuss how to improve voting access and advance criminal justice reforms. Click here to register for this session.

August 9th, 6 p.m. Making the vision a reality: The path forward

Arise’s vision for Alabama can be realized because of our commitment and perseverance. We are committed to issues that matter to those marginalized by poverty, and we persevere in raising our voices together for change. Join this session to discuss issues already identified and to raise others. Click here to register for this session.

 

 

Highs and lows: Alabama Arise’s look back at the 2022 regular session

The Alabama Legislature’s 2022 regular session adjourned sine die late on Thursday, April 7. Lawmakers capped off the session’s last week with intense debates and late nights, with the final gavel dropping just before midnight.

Alabama Arise is grateful for the many positive outcomes that came out of the State House this year. We also were glad to play a role in stopping several misguided pieces of legislation from becoming law. These wins wouldn’t have been possible without the support of Arise’s determined members and various coalition partners.

We were not able to get every good bill across the finish line or stop every harmful legislative effort from happening. But Arise saw real progress on several important issue priorities this year. Keep reading below for recaps on some of the key bills we supported or opposed in 2022. Then visit our Bills of Interest page for updates on all of the legislation we tracked.

Adequate state budgets

Alabama’s fiscal year 2023 General Fund and Education Trust Fund budgets are both the largest in state history. The General Fund budget of $2.7 billion includes a provision to extend Medicaid postpartum coverage from 60 days to 12 months, which will help reduce maternal mortality and improve health outcomes for more than 30,000 women. Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, has been a longtime legislative champion for postpartum Medicaid extension.

The Education Trust Fund budget of $8.2 billion will provide a major boost in teacher pay. The increases will range from 4% all the way to 21% depending on seniority.

SB 140, sponsored by Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, did not pass this session. The bill would have allowed the diversion of hundreds of millions of dollars from public schools to private schools. Arise opposed this effort.

SB 261, sponsored by Sen. Dan Roberts, R-Mountain Brook, passed out of both chambers. This bill will increase the income tax credit filers can claim for contributions to scholarship granting organizations for private schools. Arise opposed this effort.

Tax reform

HB 163 and SB 19, sponsored by Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, and Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, passed out of both chambers. This legislation will increase the standard deduction and dependent exemption. That change will provide a small but significant income tax cut for low- and moderate-income Alabamians. Arise supported this effort.

SB 43, sponsored by Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre, did not pass this session. The bill would have repealed the state’s 4% grocery tax and capped the state deduction for federal income taxes. Despite strong bipartisan leadership from Jones and Rep. Penni McClammy, D-Montgomery, the bill did not come up for committee consideration. Arise supported this effort.

Photo of Arise members rallying against the state grocery tax inside the State House
Alabama Arise members gathered for an Untax Groceries Rally at the State House in Montgomery on March 15, 2022. Bills to end the state grocery tax did not move in the Legislature this year, but the effort continues to enjoy growing bipartisan support.

Voting rights

HB 53 and SB 6, sponsored by Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, and Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, passed the Senate but did not advance to the House floor. This bill would have eliminated application requirements for voting rights restoration. It also would have restored the right to vote for many indigent individuals. Arise supported this effort.

HB 63, sponsored by Rep. Debbie Wood, R-Valley, did not pass this session. The bill would have criminalized the prefilling of any voter application or absentee ballot application. Arise opposed this effort.

Hall’s HB 167 failed to pass this session. This legislation would allow inmate identification cards to be used as valid ID for voting. Arise supported this effort.

HB 194, introduced by Rep. Wes Allen, R-Troy, passed out of both chambers. The bill will prohibit state and local election officials from soliciting, accepting or using donations for election-related expenses. Arise opposed this effort.

Criminal justice reform

HB 52, sponsored by Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody, passed out of both chambers. This bill will allow judges to use discretion in the length of someone’s sentence if their probation is revoked. Arise supported this effort.

HB 95, sponsored by Rep. Jeremy Gray, D-Opelika, passed out of both chambers. The bill will create a 180-day grace period for people to repay court-imposed fines and fees following release from incarceration. Arise supported this effort.

SB 203, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, passed out of both chambers. This bill will require the Administrative Office of Courts to establish a database of municipal fines and fees. Arise supported this effort.

HB 230, sponsored by Rep. Rolanda Hollis, D-Birmingham, passed out of both chambers. This bill will ban the routine shackling of incarcerated individuals during pregnancy, delivery and immediate postpartum time. Arise supported this effort.

HB 200 and SB 117, sponsored by Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham, and Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Montgomery, failed to pass this session. The bill would have ended driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay fines and fees. Arise supported this effort.

SB 220, sponsored by Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, failed to pass this session. The bill would have required that time served awaiting a hearing for parole violation be applied retroactively. Arise supported this effort.

HB 2, sponsored by Rep. Allen Treadaway, R-Morris, did not pass this session. This anti-protest bill would have created minimum holding periods for people accused of the crimes of rioting or interfering with traffic. It also would have penalized certain local jurisdictions that reduce funding for law enforcement. Arise opposed this effort.

Hill’s HB 55 failed to pass this session. The bill would have required every judicial circuit to establish a community corrections program. Arise supported this effort.

Unemployment insurance benefits

SB 224, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, passed out of both chambers. This bill will impose additional job search requirements as a condition of eligibility for unemployment insurance benefits. Specifically, individuals will have to show a “reasonable and active effort” to find work by providing proof every week that they have contacted at least three prospective employers. Unless a new job notice has been posted, a job seeker cannot apply for or seek work at an employer where they already made contact. Arise opposed this effort.

Food security

SB 156, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, did not pass this session. The bill would have required both custodial and non-custodial parents to cooperate with child support enforcement to qualify for SNAP food assistance. Arise opposed this effort.

‘Divisive concepts’

HB 312 and SB 292, sponsored by Rep. Ed Oliver, R-Dadeville, and Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Montgomery, did not pass this session. The bill would have prohibited the teaching of “divisive concepts” related to race, religion and sex in public K-12 schools, colleges, universities and certain state training programs. Arise opposed this effort.

Arise legislative update: April 12, 2022

Arise’s Robyn Hyden breaks down successes and missed opportunities from the Alabama Legislature’s 2022 regular session, which ended Thursday night. She highlights breakthroughs on federal ARPA funds, postpartum Medicaid extension and criminal justice reform, among other issues.

March 2022 newsletter

On Feb. 15, dozens of well-wishers gathered for an online retirement party for outgoing Arise policy director Jim Carnes. We salute Jim for his 18 years of service at Arise and his lifelong dedication to building a better world. Thank you, Jim!

Grocery tax, health care key Arise focuses this year

By Chris Sanders, communications director

Untax groceries. Expand health coverage. Make the criminal justice system more just. Those are a few of Alabama Arise’s major priorities during the Legislature’s 2022 regular session. And we’re making real progress toward turning those goals into realities.

Untaxing groceries

Ending the state’s regressive sales tax on groceries has been a longtime Arise priority. It was the centerpiece of Alabama Arise Action’s online Legislative Day on Feb. 15, which attracted nearly 200 advocates from across the state. It also will be the focus of a March 15 rally in Montgomery.

Legislative Day attendees heard from two lawmakers working to untax groceries: Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre, and Rep. Penni McClammy, D-Montgomery. Jones’ and McClammy’s bills reflect growing support for untaxing groceries while protecting funding for public schools.

McClammy said the grocery tax is a policy concern that transcends political lines. “It’s important that we stand together united as one and show the citizens that we all care about what’s going on in our homes,” she said.

Jones expressed optimism that lawmakers are nearing a breakthrough on the grocery tax. “This is not a partisan issue,” he said. “Montgomery is not Washington, D.C., so we get a lot of bipartisan work done here.”

Nearly 200 advocates from across Alabama attended Arise’s virtual 2022 Legislative Day on Feb. 15. Supporters gathered to learn more about our issue priorities and get updates on where things stand legislatively on them. Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre (top right), and Rep. Penni McClammy, D-Montgomery (bottom left), joined us for a discussion of their bills to untax groceries.

Expanding health coverage

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored a cruel fact: Hundreds of thousands of Alabamians can’t afford the health care they need. Gov. Kay Ivey can remove that financial barrier by expanding Medicaid to cover nearly 300,000 adults with low incomes. Arise and our Cover Alabama campaign are working hard to make that happen.

Public support for Medicaid expansion is strong and growing. More than seven in 10 Alabamians support expansion, according to a statewide Arise poll conducted in January. Expansion would create more than 20,000 jobs and save the state almost $400 million annually, a recent report estimated.

Extending Alabama Medicaid’s postpartum coverage to one year (up from the current 60 days) is another key goal this year. Nearly 70% of Alabama’s maternal deaths in 2016 were preventable, one study found. That’s why Arise is working hard to ensure legislators fund this life-saving coverage extension in the General Fund budget.

Advancing justice

Numerous reforms of Alabama’s criminal justice system are moving in the Legislature this year. Arise supports two bills – HB 200 by Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham, and SB 117 by Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Montgomery – to end driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay fines and fees. Arise also backs HB 57 by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, and SB 215 by Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, which would increase transparency in parole decisions.

Together, we can make a difference. Subscribe to our email list for timely alerts on these bills and others. And visit the Bills of Interest page to track legislation throughout the year.

Join us for the Untax Groceries Rally on March 15!

By Matt Okarmus, communications associate

Join Arise in Montgomery to tell lawmakers that now is the time to untax groceries! We can’t miss this opportunity to help families make ends meet.

The Untax Groceries Rally will be from noon to 1 p.m. on Tuesday, March 15. We will gather outside the State House steps. In the case of inclement weather, we have a backup plan for those who feel safe to gather inside.

Visit untaxgroceries.org today to register for the event. Please note that we will observe COVID-19 safety precautions should we gather indoors. Masks will be required for rally participation.

We see you, Alabama, and we’re with you

By Robyn Hyden, executive director

As I think about each of you receiving and reading these updates, in the midst of a hectic and uncertain time, I’m amazed by the strength and resilience of the people like you who make up Arise’s membership and our community.

The single parent who has been holding it together during COVID-19 child care closures and home schooling, all while trying to keep their family safe.

The college student who isn’t sure what the future holds but just wants to make the world a better place.

The full-time essential worker who goes home and works a second shift as a community organizer, caregiver or volunteer, keeping the threads of society woven together.

The person living with disability or mental illness, struggling to find dignity, care and inclusion.

I see you. Alabamians. United in our belief that our state can be better. We’ll make it happen together.

Untaxing groceries is the right path for Alabama

By Carol Gundlach, senior policy analyst

Alabama’s sales tax on groceries is a cruel tax on survival, particularly in times of economic insecurity. It increases hunger rates and drives struggling Alabamians deeper into poverty.

Three bills in the 2022 regular session – SB 43 by Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre; HB 173 by Rep. Mike Holmes, R-Wetumpka; and a forthcoming bill by Rep. Penni McClammy, D-Montgomery – would end the state grocery tax while protecting funding for public schools.

Why and how to end the state grocery tax in Alabama

Alabama lawmakers have a real opportunity this year to untax groceries responsibly. Here’s why it needs to happen this year – and how the state can do it:

  • Alabama is one of only three states with no tax break on groceries.
  • The state grocery tax is 4%, equal to two weeks’ worth of groceries each year.
  • Alabama can untax groceries and protect education funding by limiting its state income tax deduction for federal income taxes (FIT). The FIT deduction is a skewed tax loophole that overwhelmingly benefits rich households.

All three bills would end the state grocery tax and protect education funding by capping the FIT deduction for individuals. McClammy’s bill also would remove the state sales tax on over-the-counter medicines. All of the bills would require voter approval of a constitutional amendment. The graph below shows how millions of Alabamians would benefit.

Under SB 43 and HB 173, the FIT deduction cap for Alabamians who file as single, head of household or married filing separately would be $4,000 annually. For married couples filing jointly, the limit would be $8,000 a year. Under McClammy’s bill, those annual caps would be $3,500 and $7,000, respectively.

Both sales tax revenue and individual income tax revenue go to the Education Trust Fund. By capping the FIT deduction, these bills would allow Alabama to untax groceries without cutting school funding. This plan would be a significant tax cut for nearly all Alabamians, and the largest benefit would go to people with low and middle incomes who need it most. The Legislature should pass this proposal this year and send it to voters for final approval.

Bottom line

Untaxing groceries quickly and responsibly would boost economic and food security for all Alabamians. By ending the state grocery tax and capping the FIT loophole, lawmakers could protect funding for public schools and make life better for families across our state.

You are the strong force behind Arise’s advocacy

By McKenzie Burton, development associate

Your support holds lawmakers accountable during this legislative session. Will you donate to Alabama Arise today?

Right now in Montgomery, elected officials from across Alabama are proposing laws that would infringe on our constitutional right to protest, limit our children’s access to a quality, well-rounded education and increase barriers to receiving unemployment insurance benefits, even as the pandemic rages on.

There is so much at stake. But our members are the strong force behind our sustained advocacy at the State House – and we are already seeing progress. Lawmakers are willing to hear our concerns, and we need your help to ensure they listen. Your donation will strengthen our calls to stop this harmful legislation and pass laws that ensure all Alabamians have the opportunity to live happy and productive lives.

Will you join or renew your Arise membership today to demand our elected officials promote fair policies to alleviate poverty?

Together, we can make a difference in the lives of our children and neighbors. You can donate online at al-arise.local/donate, or send a check to P.O. Box 1188, Montgomery, AL 36101.

Welcome, Rebecca!

Photo of Rebecca HowardRebecca Howard joined Arise as our new policy and advocacy director in January. She is an Alabama native who grew up in Alexander City. She earned a B.A. in political science from the University of Alabama and an M.A. in European public policy from King’s College London. Before joining Arise, Rebecca worked for former U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, serving as his legislative policy adviser on education and agriculture policy, among other issues. She most recently worked as a federal policy adviser at the Learning Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., where she worked on teacher shortages, early childhood education and school discipline issues.

Grocery tax, health care key Arise focuses this year

Untax groceries. Expand health coverage. Make the criminal justice system more just. Those are a few of Alabama Arise’s major priorities during the Legislature’s 2022 regular session. And we’re making real progress toward turning those goals into realities.

Untaxing groceries

Ending the state’s regressive sales tax on groceries has been a longtime Arise priority. It was the centerpiece of Alabama Arise Action’s online Legislative Day on Feb. 15, which attracted nearly 200 advocates from across the state. It also will be the focus of a March 15 rally in Montgomery.

Legislative Day attendees heard from two lawmakers working to untax groceries: Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre, and Rep. Penni McClammy, D-Montgomery. Jones’ and McClammy’s bills reflect growing support for untaxing groceries while protecting funding for public schools.

McClammy said the grocery tax is a policy concern that transcends political lines. “It’s important that we stand together united as one and show the citizens that we all care about what’s going on in our homes,” she said.

Jones expressed optimism that lawmakers are nearing a breakthrough on the grocery tax. “This is not a partisan issue,” he said. “This is something that really meets the full criteria of being a bipartisan issue.”

Nearly 200 advocates from across Alabama attended Arise’s virtual 2022 Legislative Day on Feb. 15. Supporters gathered to learn more about our issue priorities and get updates on where things stand legislatively on them. Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre (top right), and Rep. Penni McClammy, D-Montgomery (bottom left), joined us for a discussion of their bills to untax groceries.

Expanding health coverage

The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored a cruel fact: Hundreds of thousands of Alabamians can’t afford the health care they need. Gov. Kay Ivey can remove that financial barrier by expanding Medicaid to cover nearly 300,000 adults with low incomes. Arise and our Cover Alabama campaign are working hard to make that happen.

Public support for Medicaid expansion is strong and growing. More than seven in 10 Alabamians support expansion, according to a statewide Arise poll conducted in January. Expansion would create more than 20,000 jobs and save the state almost $400 million annually, a recent report estimated.

Extending Alabama Medicaid’s postpartum coverage to one year (up from the current 60 days) is another key goal this year. Nearly 70% of Alabama’s maternal deaths in 2016 were preventable, one study found. That’s why Arise is working hard to ensure legislators fund this life-saving coverage extension in the General Fund budget.

Advancing justice

Numerous reforms of Alabama’s criminal justice system are moving in the Legislature this year. Arise supports two bills – HB 200 by Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham, and SB 117 by Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Montgomery – to end driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay fines and fees. Arise also backs HB 57 by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, and SB 215 by Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, which would increase transparency in parole decisions.

Together, we can make a difference. Subscribe to our email list for timely alerts on these bills and others. And visit the Bills of Interest page to track legislation throughout the year.

Criminal justice debt creates major barriers to economic health

It is unconstitutional to jail someone just because they owe money. But Alabama has no set process for courts to determine if a defendant can afford to pay fines and fees. And though debtors’ prisons are illegal, thousands of Alabamians are in danger of going to jail or are driven further into poverty because they can’t pay high costs attached to the criminal justice system.

Fines and fees are everywhere

Alabama relies heavily on fines and fees to fund its court system. Largely as a result, fees are attached to every phase of criminal justice proceedings in our state.

People pay bail bonds and related fees to avoid jail before trial. They pay fines and costs if convicted. They pay fees for drug testing, parole supervision and public defender representation. And they pay for diversion programs to keep convictions off their record and community corrections programs to maintain jobs and lives while serving sentences.

The financial damage continues beyond the courthouse and jail. People pay fees to reinstate driver’s licenses and higher costs for some mandatory types of insurance. They pay interest and surcharges because they can’t pay the full amount at once. And they even pay a fee for paying in installments.

Criminal justice debt adds up

A 2014 survey by TASC, Jefferson County’s community corrections program, found 90% of participants owed court debt averaging $7,885. Costs for possessing 1 ounce of marijuana in Shelby County could total $2,611, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama found. Probation could add $960, and driver’s license restoration would add another $300.

Legal financial obligations (LFOs) often lead to incarceration and debt. In much of Alabama, a person who falls behind on payments can be jailed. TASC’s survey found nearly one in five respondents (18%) had been jailed for failure to pay fees or fines.

Mounting debt also can prompt cynicism about a system that preys on people of color and people who live in poverty. Many of the worst abuses of criminal justice debt have occurred in places with large Black and Hispanic populations. Four out of five people charged with crimes are indigent. And 60% of people surveyed by TASC said they had to choose between paying LFOs or meeting basic needs like groceries, utilities and housing.

Fixing Alabama’s criminal justice debt problems

Lawmakers have numerous policy solutions available to help repair a court system that traps many Alabamians in debt. These options include:

  • Standardize determination of ability to pay.
  • Create an income-based sliding scale for fines, fees and other legal financial obligations.
  • Eliminate cash bail for misdemeanors.
  • Stop requiring payment of fines and fees before restoring the right to vote for Alabamians who are otherwise eligible.
  • Prohibit jailing people for unpaid debt.
  • Study and remedy racial disparities in criminal justice debt.
  • Encourage courts to use alternatives to monetary sanctions, such as community service or treatment programs.
  • End driver’s license revocations and suspensions for offenses unrelated to driving, such as a drug crime or missed court date.
  • Eliminate fees for reinstating driver’s licenses.

Bottom line

Alabamians deserve a justice system that helps people rejoin society and doesn’t squeeze every cent from people with limited resources. Funding courts through adequate general appropriations instead of fines and fees would be a major step toward a more just, inclusive Alabama for all.

Alabama’s death penalty practices remain unjust and unusually cruel

Americans increasingly oppose the death penalty. Gallup found that opposition to the death penalty more than doubled in the past 25 years. This may result from disturbingly high error rates in the system. For every 10 people executed since 1976, one innocent person on death row has been set free.

Alabama took an important step toward death penalty reform in 2017, but the state’s death penalty scheme remains broken. That year, the state finally outlawed judicial override in capital cases. That change means judges no longer can impose the death penalty when a jury recommends life without parole.

But the ban was not retroactive, and 35 people who were sentenced that way remain on death row. Fixing that failure is one of several key reforms that would bring Alabama’s capital punishment system in line with national standards and federal court rulings.

Alabama’s death penalty practices are behind the times

Alabama’s death penalty scheme has failed to keep up with reforms in the rest of the United States. Under state law, prosecutors do not have to prove a defendant was at least 18 years old when the crime occurred. State law also lacks protections against executing people with mental disabilities. U.S. Supreme Court precedent is the sole authority preventing executions of defendants with IQs below 70.

An increasing number of states are abandoning capital punishment. Most recently, Virginia became the first Southern state to do so when Gov. Ralph Northam signed an abolition bill in March 2021. In all, 26 states either have abolished the death penalty or have seen their governor impose a moratorium, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Racial disparities abound in our state’s capital punishment system. In Alabama, people convicted of killing a white person are more than four times more likely to get a death sentence than people convicted of killing someone who is not white, the Equal Justice Initiative found in 2011. And Alabama has more people on death row per capita than any other death penalty state.

How to reform Alabama’s capital punishment system

Ending judicial override in future cases was an important first step toward fixing Alabama’s broken death penalty system. But other recent changes have aimed to enshrine that system instead. In 2018, the Legislature authorized a backup execution method, nitrogen hypoxia, in case courts outlaw lethal injection. This new procedure would kill people through suffocation, and it has never been used on a human before.

Efforts to prop up the state’s broken death penalty system are misguided. Alabama can and should enact numerous reforms to reduce the unfairness of its death penalty practices. Those changes include:

  • Make the 2017 judicial override ban retroactive.
  • Require unanimous agreement from the jury to sentence people to death.
  • Amend state law to require prosecutors to prove a defendant was 18 or older at the time of the crime.
  • Amend state law to forbid executions of people who have serious cognitive impairments.
  • Impose a moratorium to study and end racially biased death penalty practices.
  • Provide state funding for appeals of death sentences, as all other states with capital punishment do.
  • Ultimately eliminate capital punishment.

Bottom line

Alabama should reduce and eliminate the unequal, unfair practices present in the state’s death penalty scheme – and ultimately should end capital punishment entirely. Alabamians deserve a fair, unbiased justice system, and these death penalty reforms would be steps toward a more just state.

Funding boosts bring opportunity to invest in Alabama’s future

Alabama’s broken tax system usually starves our state of money to fund basic responsibilities adequately. But 2022 may be different. Record tax revenues and a surge of federal recovery dollars could allow lawmakers to address longstanding state needs and inequities – if they have the political courage.

State revenues that pay for our schools, including income taxes earmarked for teacher salaries, went up 16% in 2021, according to the Legislative Services Agency. Internet sales taxes and other revenues for non-education programs grew more than 11% in 2021. Alabama also has received federal funds under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to aid recovery from the COVID-19 recession. Alabama has $580 million remaining in 2021 ARPA funds, plus another $1.06 billion coming in 2022.

Coming fast behind ARPA are federal infrastructure dollars for roads, bridges and public transportation. And if the U.S. Senate passes it, the Build Back Better Act will include new funds for child care, health care and senior services.

Transformative changes for a better Alabama

Legislators already have begun talking about how to spend this money. Alabama Arise believes wise use of these funds can make Alabama a better place for generations to come. Many of our recommendations are in our statement of principles for spending recovery dollars. A few key Arise recommendations include:

  • Untax groceries. Tax cuts should help struggling Alabamians who already pay a disproportionate share of state taxes. Ending the state grocery tax is a good place to start.
  • Expand Medicaid. Federal recovery dollars can help free up state money for Medicaid expansion. This would save hundreds of lives and ensure affordable health coverage for more than 340,000 Alabamians every year.
  • Make the criminal justice system more just. Legislators just made a misguided decision to spend $400 million of ARPA money on new prison construction. They now should invest in meaningful policy changes like sentencing reform and other alternatives to incarceration.

Alabama lawmakers have a chance to make far-reaching and lasting changes in 2022. Arise and our members will work hard to ensure they seize this opportunity.

Recovering from Alabama’s costly mistake on COVID-19 recovery funds

This post originally appeared on the Economic Policy Institute’s blog.

When the Alabama Legislature gathered for a special session in September, it made a shortsighted and costly mistake. Lawmakers chose to allocate $400 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money ‒ about 20% of Alabama’s federal COVID-19 relief funds ‒ to help finance a $1.3 billion prison construction plan.

Alabama prisons are decrepit, dangerous and massively overcrowded. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has sued the state over the unconstitutional conditions in the institutions. Moreso, raiding funds designed to help people and communities recover from pandemic-related economic distress will do nothing to make Alabama more humane and inclusive. That is particularly true when Black Alabamians are three times more likely to be incarcerated than white Alabamians due to discriminatory practices in policing and incarceration.

The state has a better path to build a more sensible criminal justice system and avert a looming federal takeover. New buildings to house the same old problems won’t get us there. Real change will require meaningful changes to sentencing and reentry policies.

Sentencing reform is vital to build a more humane criminal justice system in Alabama

Alabama’s sentencing scheme still relies on outdated ideas about punishment and limits availability of services shown to improve reentry. One example is the state’s Habitual Felony Offender Act (HFOA), which increases sentences for even minor offenses. Like other mandatory minimum laws, it is a relic of earlier racially motivated “tough on crime” practices and leads to higher rates of incarceration throughout the South.

The Legislature made minor improvements to the HFOA in 2015 but refused to make them retroactive. That failure has left hundreds of Alabamians still serving sentences for convictions that today would result in less time under current presumptive sentencing guidelines.

Alabama Arise supports full repeal of the broken HFOA. Until then, the state at minimum should ensure people aren’t serving wildly different sentences for the same conviction.

Those efforts have been an uphill battle for reform advocates. During September’s special session, lawmakers failed to pass a bill to allow some people to petition for resentencing under current standards. Legislators also have failed in recent years to expand medical release and releases for older people who have aged out of reasonable likelihood of recidivism. Efforts to expand and improve diversion programs have stalled as well.

All of these policies would save Alabama money in the long run. They also would demonstrate respect for the humanity of incarcerated people. But legislators have chosen not to act.

This persistent refusal to engage in meaningful reform may cost Alabama dearly. Failure to take even small steps to reduce overcrowding and improve atrocious conditions may spur the DOJ to conduct a wholesale takeover of the state’s prison system. If that happens, the Legislature will have only its own inaction to blame.

How federal aid should help Alabamians

The consequences of prioritizing bad spending go beyond federal intervention in the broken prison system. ARPA relief funds represent an opportunity to move Alabama forward in many areas that would increase opportunity and stability for people across the state.

Provide health care to hundreds of thousands of uninsured Alabamians

More than 220,000 Alabamians live in a Medicaid coverage gap. They make too much to qualify for Medicaid under the state’s bare-bones eligibility limits but too little to qualify for subsidized coverage through the Affordable Care Act. Another 120,000 Alabamians have stretched their finances seriously to pay for coverage they can’t truly afford.

Federal ARPA funds would allow Alabama to expand Medicaid. Alabama could use these dollars to meet other critical spending priorities. This would free up state funds to pay for the startup of an expanded Medicaid program to cover adults left out of coverage.

Update infrastructure and invest in equity

Alabama should use ARPA funds to update and expand infrastructure and support services. Economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has placed a disproportionately heavy burden on women, Black Alabamians and communities with few resources upon which to fall back. Investments in child care, expanded early childhood education and long-term postpartum health coverage would deliver major improvements in quality of life for people hit hardest during the pandemic.

Federal relief should be used both to lessen the pandemic’s immediate harm and to break the pattern of long-term, intentional disinvestment in the Black Belt and other areas. Community-based organizations offer valuable connections and expertise to guide investment to where it is needed. The state should ensure these groups have the capacity and pathways to provide input on best uses for relief money.

Finish implementing solutions on housing and public transportation

ARPA funds also represent an opportunity to take steps forward where lack of political will has hindered full implementation of state solutions. Within the past decade, the Legislature created both the Public Transportation Trust Fund and the Affordable Housing Trust Fund (AHTF). It also has failed to provide a single dollar for either.

Transportation investment would improve quality of life for everyone. Robust public transit creates long-term, high-wage jobs and enables people to get to work reliably and inexpensively. It is a vital public good that helps older people and people with disabilities fully participate in public life.

Housing investment would help alleviate the state’s severe affordable housing shortage. State AHTF funding would increase community resilience by allowing struggling families to spend less of their incomes to keep a roof over their heads. It also could help speed up rental assistance and prevent evictions during future recessions.

Increase transparency and modernize technology

Alabama’s technological infrastructure has lagged behind contemporary standards. Early in the pandemic, this resulted in major delays of unemployment insurance payments. The patchwork of IT systems at all levels of state government has contributed to public confusion and delays. Technology investments would reduce duplication of effort and increase public access to the public’s information.

A new path forward

ARPA provides a generational opportunity to begin remedying policy shortcomings that have held back progress, perpetuated inequality and furthered Alabama’s history of racist policy choices. This chance is too valuable to waste by doubling down on past failures like foolish and overly punitive criminal justice policy.

The Legislature’s recent misuse of $400 million is inexcusable, but this bad decision has not blocked the path forward. The remaining ARPA funds are a chance to invest in adequate resources and transparent, responsive government. Our state must seize this opportunity to improve life significantly for every Alabamian.

Arise legislative update: Oct. 6, 2021

Alabama legislators passed a reentry reform bill during last week’s special session, but they declined to approve sentencing reform. Lawmakers also allocated $400 million of federal COVID-19 relief funds to new prison construction. Arise’s Dev Wakeley breaks down what 2021’s first special session meant for the future of Alabama’s corrections system and talks about how we’ll continue our criminal justice reform work in 2022 and beyond.