Recent Alabama execution underscores ongoing need for death penalty reform

This year already has seen a number of Alabama Arise priorities in the news, and death penalty reform is no exception. Unfortunately, Alabama recently became the first state to perform an execution using the unsafe and untested method known as nitrogen hypoxia. The state executed Kenneth Smith using this method on Jan. 25, despite concerns from many Alabamians and even the United Nations.

Smith’s execution could not have legally occurred if he had been sentenced today. After finding him guilty, the jury voted 11-1 for Smith to be sentenced to life imprisonment. However, the sentencing judge overruled the jury’s wishes and imposed the death penalty, a practice known as judicial override. Lawmakers banned this practice in 2017, but the ban wasn’t made retroactive. That means more than 30 people are still on Alabama’s death row against the wishes of a jury.

Arise and other death penalty reform advocates supported more than 150 faith leaders as they petitioned the governor to halt Smith’s execution and called for increasing transparency around the use of nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method. Similarly, we supported advocates, community members and former death row inmates who gathered at the steps of the State Capitol to protest the execution and the state’s new method.

This execution and the advocacy of Alabamians demonstrates, more than ever, our state’s need for death penalty reform. We must make the judicial override ban retroactive to address the injustice experienced by dozens of people who were sentenced to death by a judge, rather than a jury of their peers. Similarly, Alabama is one of only two states that doesn’t require a unanimous jury vote to sentence someone to death. In our state, only 10 of 12 jurors must agree to impose a death sentence.

Grocery tax, protecting voting rights among Arise priorities for 2024 session

The Alabama Legislature began its second regular session of the current quadrennium on Feb. 6. Lawmakers already have voted on numerous hot-button issues early in this session, and Alabama Arise anticipates that trend may continue. The upcoming presidential election, Alabama’s early primary date and other political factors may color what legislative leaders prioritize this year. The regular session will end no later than May 20.

Eliminate the state grocery tax

Arise was thrilled last year to help pass monumental legislation that reduced the state sales tax on groceries by 1 cent on Sept. 1, 2023. That law also authorized an additional 1-cent cut to the grocery tax in a future year. Combined, those reductions will cut the state grocery tax by half over time, from 4% to 2%.

Under the law, the second 1-cent reduction will occur in the first year when Education Trust Fund (ETF) revenues are projected to grow by 3.5% or more. Unfortunately, projections unveiled during this year’s budget hearings indicated ETF revenues will grow by only 2% in 2025. Thus, the additional 1-cent grocery tax reduction likely will occur in a future year rather than in September 2024.

This 3.5% growth provision, however, came as an amendment just before lawmakers passed the bill. The original version of the bill would have reduced the grocery tax by another 1 cent as long as annual ETF revenue growth was at least 2%. During a Feb. 12 meeting of Alabama’s Joint Study Commission on Grocery Taxation, Arise urged legislators to amend the law to reduce the growth threshold to 2%, as originally proposed. This change would allow Alabamians to receive the additional reduction sooner rather than later.

We will continue to push the Legislature to finish what it started with regard to cutting the grocery tax. We also will oppose budget legislation that we find alarming, such as the CHOOSE Act, which would divert at least $100 million of ETF money each year to non-public schools. At press time, the House had passed this proposal (HB 129, sponsored by Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville), and a Senate committee had held a public hearing.

Protect voting rights and preserve child labor safeguards

Lawmakers have advanced two other troubling bills so far this year. The Senate passed SB 1, sponsored by Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, which would criminalize many efforts to attempt to assist people with absentee voting. The Senate also passed SB 53, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, which would eliminate the eligibility to work form for 14- and 15-year-olds. This requirement is an important safeguard that helps protect children from exploitative child labor practices. Arise successfully advocated to amend SB 53 to require data collection about injuries and labor violations.

Arise has reason to be concerned about both of these measures. We have devoted the early weeks of this session to educating Arise members, legislators and communities about these bills’ harms.

Advance criminal justice reform 

It is an understatement to say that Alabama’s criminal justice system is in need of reform. A U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit accuses our state’s overcrowded prison system of violating the Constitution. And our state’s parole rates are abysmally low – just 8% in fiscal year 2023.

With those factors and others, Arise has a lot to keep us busy with regard to criminal justice reform. Thus, we will be devoting a significant portion of our time this year to legislation that would address issues like these. We also will support legislation to reform our death penalty laws. And we will support efforts to reform the felony murder rule, which allows a person to be convicted of first-degree murder even if they did not intend to or did not actually kill anyone.

Fund public transportation

Inadequate funding for public transportation keeps thousands of people across Alabama from meeting basic needs. Though lawmakers created the Alabama Public Transportation Trust Fund (PTTF) in 2018 to help fix our transit issues, the Legislature has never funded it. That is why Arise is urging lawmakers to include a General Fund appropriation for public transportation to rectify this oversight.

Ultimately, the return on transit investment makes allocating money to the PTTF a wise use of public funds. In fact, every $1 million invested in transit creates 49 full-time jobs, many of which are long-term jobs with good pay. An appropriation of up to $50 million from the General Fund to the PTTF also could empower Alabama to double its investment for operation expenses and to draw down up to $200 million of federal matching funds for capital improvements.

Arise will do all we can this year to educate lawmakers on the benefits of investing in public transportation. We also will highlight how a lack of adequate public transit limits workforce participation and shared prosperity across Alabama.

Arise legislative update: Feb. 26, 2024

Arise’s Akiesha Anderson breaks down a flurry of legislation that kept us busy last week. She discusses bills filed in response to the Alabama Supreme Court’s decision on in vitro fertilization (IVF), updates us on anti-DEI legislation and examines the CHOOSE Act, a bill that would redirect public school funding to private schools and homeschooling. She also previews what’s ahead this week, including committee action on a harmful bill that would impose limits on absentee voting and a good bill that would increase help for those who can’t afford a lawyer when charged with a crime.

Full video transcript:

Hi there. My name is Akiesha Anderson, and as you know, I am the policy and advocacy director for Alabama Arise. I’m here once again to provide you with another weekly legislative update.

If you by any chance were following what happened at the State House last week, then you, like me, were probably somewhat exhausted if not depleted by the time the week was over. So before I delve into this week’s update, I do want to hold space for that reality and to thank you for all that you do to help to make this state better. Even in response to the tough political terrain that we often find ourselves in, it’s people like you that continue to show up and stay engaged with the political process that help to position us to create that Alabama that we hope to see.

Also, my apologies in advance — I know that these videos typically aren’t very long, but given all that happened last week and what’s slated to come up this week, I do think that I would be doing you a disservice by not talking about each of the things that I’m about to discuss.

Within the first three weeks of the legislative session, we have already seen a host of attacks targeting women’s health; diversity, equity and inclusion; public education funding; people’s rights to free speech and peaceful assembly; protecting our children from child labor and exploitation; and voting rights.

With regard to last week specifically, we started off with news about the Supreme Court ruling that embryos are human — something that has already had significant implications on women like me whose doctors have recommended IVF or other medical procedures in response to complications with conceiving naturally. In response to that decision, however, I am grateful that legislation like HB 225 designed to protect people’s ability to access IVF treatment without fear of prosecution has been filed by House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels.

Also less than ideal last week, we saw SB 129, the anti-diversity, equity and inclusion bill, be quickly introduced and placed on a committee agenda. Basically was heard the next day, within hours of being placed, or within hours of dropping in the Senate. This legislation unfortunately has already passed out of the Senate at an unprecedented speed. If passed into law, this bill would essentially ban diversity, equity and inclusion departments, programs and staff from existing on the campuses of our public institutions, namely colleges and universities. It would also rob many students of color of one of the few safe spaces that we often feel like we have while on the campuses of predominantly white institutions, or PWIs.

Also unfortunate last week, the CHOOSE Act, or HB 129, was voted out of the out of the House Ways and Means Education Committee. While I myself was someone who attended what would be considered a failing or an underperforming school while growing up here in Montgomery, Alabama, and while I definitely understand the desire of parents to have access to quality education, the truth is we cannot as a state ignore the fact that too many students are being failed by the public education system because of the fact that we have failed to properly fund the education system. Meaning our public schools need more, not less, resources in order to give our children the access to quality education that they deserve. Unfortunately, however, the CHOOSE Act, which would possibly help defund public education, is being backed by some powerful representatives and senators, Rep. Garrett in the House and Sen. Orr in the Senate, as well as being backed by Gov. Ivey. Thus it seems slated to be passed out of the House as early as this week.

Last week, we also saw a piece of legislation sponsored by Sen. Orr that would curb people’s ability to protest in residential areas. In particular, this bill would prohibit any protest near the residence of a public official that’s designed to “disturb” that official. Thus, this bill would have drastically undercut the right to protest public officials — and to be clear, all protests by nature are designed to disturb the peace of people in power. The right of Alabamians to make their voices heard is something that has been a bedrock to our democracy and has long been a tool utilized to transform both local and national policies. This right is also something that’s protected by both the First Amendment and the Alabama Constitution. Yet if passed, SB 57 would undermine both of those.

Looking ahead into this coming week, I am happy to report that things aren’t all bleak and grim. While many of the bills I just discussed may continue to move through the legislative process and advance this week, so too may other bills, including some that we are supportive of.

For example, HB 77 by Rep. Rigsby passed out of the House Health Committee last week, as well as the full House last week. Thus, it is positioned to be heard by the Senate at any point. If passed, this newborn screening bill would help advance some of our goals related to our new issue priority surrounding maternal and infant health.

Similarly, related to another new issue priority, HB 32 by Rep. England is slate to be heard in the House Judiciary Committee this Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. While a public hearing has been called on this bill and a vote won’t take place on it until next week, if passed, this bill could bring Alabama in line with the majority of states regarding the way that we apply the felony murder rule. As you may recall, working on this new issue under our criminal justice portfolio was proposed and approved by our Arise members last fall.

And for the sake of brevity, I’ll simply try to name a few other good bills to have on your radar, as they will be in committee this week as well.

SB 35 by Sen. Smitherman would require all history lessons to be fact-based. SB 83, also by Sen. Smitherman, would help more people in need of indigent defense by increasing the compensation that attorneys get for representing clients that need court-appointed counsel. Currently, many attorneys simply can’t justify taking on court-appointed cases given the low rate at which they’re currently compensated for such work. Also, HB 188 by Rep. Collins would create a uniform due process, procedure, standards and rights for schools to follow when taking certain disciplinary actions against students.

Also worth having on your radar, however, are going to be some bills of alarm that will also be in committee this week. Those include SB 1 by Sen. Gudger. If you recall, this is the bill that criminalizes certain forms of helping people with delivering their absentee ballot. This bill will have a public hearing in Room 418 at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, and if you are interested in testifying or being in that room to witness what happens, I definitely encourage you to show up early, because that is a very small room and the seats are limited.

Also, HB 102 by Rep. DuBose, which is a piece of legislation that mirrors Sen. Orr’s legislation that weakens protections against child labor in the state, will be deliberated in a House committee on Wednesday as well.

And honestly, y’all, I know that that is a lot, and it’s probably not as hopeful as we would like it to be. But those are this week’s updates on what happened during the third week of the legislative session and what we’re on the lookout for as we enter into the fourth week of session.

So hopefully the next time I come to you is with a more upbeat update, and just better news regarding what’s happening at the State House. In the meantime, take care, y’all.

Alabama Arise unveils 2024 roadmap for change in Alabama

Expanding Medicaid and ending the state sales tax on groceries will remain top goals on Alabama Arise’s 2024 legislative agenda. The group also will pursue a multifaceted approach to improving maternal and infant health in Alabama.

More than 500 members voted to determine Arise’s legislative priorities in recent days after the organization’s annual meeting Saturday. The seven priorities chosen were:

  • Adequate budgets for human services, including expanding Medicaid to make health coverage affordable for all Alabamians and protecting public education funding for all students.
  • Tax reform to build a more just and sustainable revenue system, including eliminating the rest of Alabama’s state sales tax on groceries and replacing the revenue equitably.
  • Voting rights, including no-excuse early voting, removal of barriers to voting rights restoration for disenfranchised Alabamians, and other policies to protect and expand multiracial democracy.
  • Criminal justice reform, including legislation to reform punitive sentencing laws and efforts to reduce overreliance on exorbitant fines and fees as a revenue source.
  • Comprehensive maternal and infant health care investments to ensure the health and safety of Alabama families.
  • Dedicated funding for public transportation to empower Alabamians with low incomes to stay connected to work, school, health care and their communities.
  • Death penalty reform, including a law to require juries to be unanimous in any decision to impose a death sentence.

“Arise believes in dignity, equity and justice for everyone,” Alabama Arise executive director Robyn Hyden said. “Our 2024 legislative priorities reflect our members’ embrace of those values, and they underscore the need to enact policies that empower Alabamians of every race, income and background to reach their full potential. Together, we’re working to build a healthier, more just and more inclusive Alabama for all.”

An infographic naming Alabama Arise's 2024 legislative priorities, Arise's roadmap to a better Alabama. The priorities are untaxing groceries, Medicaid expansion, voting rights, criminal justice reform, maternal and infant health, public transportation and death penalty reform.

The time is right to close Alabama’s health coverage gap

One essential step toward a healthier future for Alabama is to ensure everyone can afford the health care they need. Arise members believe Medicaid expansion is a policy path to that destination, and research provides strong support for that position.

Expanding Medicaid to cover adults with low incomes would reduce racial health disparities and remove financial barriers to health care for nearly 300,000 Alabamians. It would support thousands of new jobs across the state. And most importantly, it would save hundreds of lives every year.

“Medicaid expansion would boost our economy and improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of Alabamians,” Hyden said. “It’s time for Alabama’s policymakers to make this life-saving and job-creating investment in the people of our state. Ensuring Alabamians’ health and well-being now will help our state flourish for decades to come.”

Alabama became one of only 10 states yet to expand Medicaid after North Carolina enacted expansion in March. Medicaid expansion would ensure health coverage for nearly 300,000 Alabamians caught in the coverage gap. Most of these residents earn too much to qualify for the state’s bare-bones Medicaid program but too little to afford private plans.

How Medicaid expansion would improve maternal and infant health

Medicaid expansion also would bolster health care access for Alabamians before, during and after pregnancies. This would be a critical life-saving move in Alabama, which has the nation’s worst maternal mortality rate. Those rates are even higher for Black women, who are twice as likely to die during birth as white women. Adding to the problem, more than two-thirds of Alabama counties offer little or no maternity care or obstetrical services.

“Alabama took an important step to help families stay healthy by extending Medicaid postpartum coverage last year,” Hyden said. “However, that step alone was not enough to meet our state’s numerous health care needs. Policymakers should pursue numerous solutions to make Alabama a better place for parents and babies. At the top of that list should be expanding Medicaid to ensure Alabamians of all ages can stay healthy before, during and after conception.”

New to Arise’s agenda this year is a comprehensive policy approach to safeguarding and expanding access to maternal and infant health care in Alabama. In addition to Medicaid expansion, this approach would promote seamless continuity of care between home and clinical settings. It would include coverage for contraception and midwifery services. And it would eliminate the specter of criminal penalties for doctors who provide care to pregnant people who are experiencing life-threatening complications.

Finish the job: Alabama should remove the rest of the state grocery tax

Arise advocacy got results this year when legislators voted unanimously to reduce Alabama’s state sales tax on groceries by half. The new law reduced the state grocery tax from 4 cents to 3 cents on Sept. 1. Another 1-cent reduction will occur in 2024 or the first subsequent year when education revenues grow by at least 3.5%.

Arise’s members have advocated for decades to untax groceries, and they renewed their commitment to continue that work in 2024. Ending the state grocery tax remains a core Arise priority because the tax makes it harder for people with low incomes to make ends meet. The tax adds hundreds of dollars a year to the cost of a basic necessity for families. And most states have abandoned it: Alabama is one of only 12 states that still tax groceries.

The state grocery tax brought in roughly 7% of the Education Trust Fund’s revenue in the last budget year. But lawmakers have options to remove the other half of the state grocery tax while protecting funding for public schools. Arise will continue to support legislation to untax groceries and replace the revenue by capping or eliminating the state income tax deduction for federal income taxes. This deduction is a tax break that overwhelmingly benefits the richest households.

“Reducing the state grocery tax was an important step toward righting the wrongs of Alabama’s upside-down tax system,” Hyden said. “By untaxing groceries and reining in the federal income tax deduction, lawmakers can do even more to empower families to keep food on the table. Closing this skewed loophole is an opportunity to protect funding for our children’s public schools and ensure Alabama can afford to end the state grocery tax forever.”

Here’s what Alabama Arise heard from you in summer 2023!

Alabama Arise listens because we deeply value the input we get from members, partners and most importantly, those directly affected by the work we do together. We depend on what we hear to help guide our issue work and our strategies.

We held three statewide online events this summer: two Town Hall Tuesdays and one public transportation listening session. And we facilitated eight additional listening sessions around the state, engaging a total of about 375 people.

The town halls happened on July 18 and Aug. 8, and the public transit event was Aug. 9. Other meetings took place throughout the summer. This year we are sharing the direct notes and highlights from each of the meetings as recorded during the sessions.

Town Hall Tuesdays & Public Transportation Listening Session

  • Building on our vision: We had three breakout rooms during this session. We asked folks in each group to discuss their thoughts on current issues and to share other priorities they had. Here’s what we heard:

Group One: Participants generally thought Arise should continue working on the current issues. They noted that the issues are interconnected, and that makes it hard to prioritize. Concerns about criminal justice conviction practices were raised, along with the need for continued work on voting rights and Medicaid expansion. Other issues raised were the need for more affordable housing, paying a living wage versus a minimum wage, and the need to discuss the impact of the opioid epidemic on grandparents now raising children because their parents suffer with addiction. Participants also raised reapportionment as an important issue.

Group Two: Participants strongly believed all of the Arise priority issues are important and that we should continue to work on them. Some of the specific issues lifted up were transportation, voting rights, payday lending and Medicaid expansion. Some issues that are not current Arise priorities raised were housing, disability, mental health access and accountability and prison reform.

Group Three: Medicaid expansion received the most support for continued work. Several people voiced prisons and criminal justice as a concern, including the need for prison reform and bail reform. Voting rights and the concern about the many voter suppression bills was a high-priority topic. Participants discussed passionate concern about payday loans, and the group supported the present slate of issues.

  • Building on our hope: We had three breakout rooms during this session. We asked folks in each group to discuss what motivates them to act on issues and how Arise supports their actions. We also asked them to indicate their priority issues. Here’s what we heard:

Group One: 

  1. The discussion in the group was hot and heavy concerning voting rights and specifically the absentee ballot application. The group concluded that a no-excuse absentee ballot should be the norm and should be an Arise issue for 2024.
  2. The group felt strongly that the 2023 Arise slate of issues should all remain on the 2024 list of Arise priority issues. Medicaid is an issue we need to keep fighting for, they said.
  3. This group had a primary focus and lengthy discussion around voting rights.

Group Two: 

  1. All members of the group strongly believe all the Arise priority issues are important and that we should continue to work on them.
  2. Members also strongly believe affordable housing and public transportation should receive a strong voice like Medicaid expansion.
  3. Members said that to further our support of advocacy work, Arise can help unite nonprofits and grassroots organizations across the state to work together toward shared goals as opposed to working separately toward shared goals.
  4. Members lifted up our education and lobbying work as essential to connecting the people to those who represent them in the Legislature.

Group Three: Voting rights emerged as a strong theme from this group’s discussion. Participants stressed the importance of voter education and folks making the connection between voting and the policies elected officials make that impact their lives. Other voting themes included restoration of voting rights and engaging younger and BIPOC voters. Other issues raised were around public transportation and the need to fund mental health services. One participant expressed appreciation for the storytelling work Arise does related to Medicaid expansion and urged similar storytelling to help move elected officials around other Arise issues.

  • Public Transportation Listening Session: We had three breakout rooms during this session. We asked folks in each group to discuss what’s needed to improve public transit in Alabama, what strategies are needed to move the issue forward and how public transit impacts quality of life in their communities.

Group One: 

  1. Private companies like Uber and Lyft are not equipped to serve the disability community, group members said. This is very important when talking about transportation for the disability community wherever they may be, rural or urban. In other words, the private companies are not a viable resource, participants said.
  2. Rural linkage: Many rural counties have transportation-on-demand systems, but they only serve the county boundaries. Many health services reside in urban centers, and the rider needs to get from Blount County to UAB or Children’s Hospital in Birmingham. These riders are out of luck. Transfer hubs for rural to urban systems do not exist.
  3. A state transportation planning system is needed to coordinate all the existing public systems, rural and urban. Participants hoped Arise’s forthcoming transit study will shine some light on the need for a statewide public transportation planning entity.
  4. The group felt a need for massive public education around the benefits of public transportation. Somehow, Arise or a group of organizations should seek funding for an advertising budget, participants said.
  1. The real cost of owning a car versus using public transportation. This kind of information should be available to the public.
  2. The fact that public transportation is good for business development throughout the state should be targeted to legislators and local business councils and chambers of commerce.

Group Two: 

  1. This group believes public transportation is essential.
  2. There is a need for more hubs and covered stops for locations that already have public transportation in place.
  3. There is a need for more routes with more frequent buses each hour, as well as drivers who are paid livable wages.
  4. Specific strategies discussed included working with for-profits, chambers of commerce, small businesses and corporations to improve transportation for their employees. Participants also suggested surveying the need for transportation by including a question on applications to ask if transportation is needed.
  5. Public transportation impacts the quality of life across the board: health, food, employment, education, leisure, etc.
  6. People have a right to comfort, dignity, pride and independence that public transportation can provide.
  7. One member said reaching out to people who do not need or use public transportation is important to educate them that they can still benefit from it. It helps reduce traffic and road congestion, decreases likelihood of drinking and driving, and helps people out of desperate situations, which can help decrease poverty and crime.
  8. A member of the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind shared how losing the ability to drive caused depression. But oppression is felt when there are no options for transportation other than relying on friends or family if you have them, or simply being unable to go to doctor’s appointments, shop for groceries or pick up medications when needed.
  9. Some members suggested a public Lyft/Uber service.

Group Three: 

  1. Needs: Money/state funding, alternative models, transit-oriented development at local levels, accessibility, buy-in from agencies like ALDOT, changed perception of public transit.
  2. Strategies/tactics: Collect public transit stories, share statistics on earning power with vs. without good public transit and other data relevant to workforce development, and highlight workforce development as a theme for legislative lobbying. Participants discussed a license plate fee, tire fee or special license plate (like public schools have, for example).
  3. Quality of life: A visually impaired participant described how a trip to the grocery store or polling place only a couple miles away is a $25 Uber ride one way. Another participant who works with clients described how their lack of access to public transit affects not just work but health appointments, visiting DHR to secure SNAP, applications for housing, etc. They also mentioned that even “low-cost” transit can be a barrier to low-income folks who may not have a dollar for a ride.

Additional listening sessions

Following are the brief notes/summaries from eight other sessions our organizers held during the summer. In general, all participants strongly affirmed Arise’s work on the current issue priorities. They also highlighted some other issues of concern.

  • Cullman, July 26 (Stan Johnson) – This was a well-informed group with a lot of comments and questions concerning criminal justice, public transportation, death penalty and new prison construction.
  • Opelika, July 26 (Formeeca Tripp) – This group discussed issues surrounding housing, transportation, food insecurity, health care and the legal system. Housing was a top issue.
  • Zoom, Aug. 3 (Formeeca) A death penalty group discussed issues related to recent executions in Alabama, as well as upcoming executions nationwide. Participants said more attention and connections are necessary to bring more awareness to death penalty reform.
  • Tuscaloosa, Aug. 7 (Stan) – The most passionate suggestion from this meeting was the need for legislative action to provide funding for mental health.
  • Opelika, Aug. 17 (Formeeca) – Arise conducted listening sessions in the form of a series of small group meetings.

Group 1: Predominantly parents, people of the community and law enforcement. They supported all current issues but wanted to focus on housing and transportation.

Group 2: Predominantly school staff, counselors, superintendents, principals, resource providers, etc. They wanted resources for non-English-speaking families, housing, transportation and effective mental health services.

Group 3: Predominantly youth, teenagers and support staff. They wanted to learn more about their representatives and how to lift up their own voices, as well as better wages and job opportunities.

  • Montgomery, Aug. 17 (Formeeca) – This group discussed their strategic plan to add to the existing public transportation priority issue. They want to add a $1 fee to license plates to fund the Public Transportation Trust Fund.
  • Birmingham, Sept. 10 (Stan) – This group showed special interest in fair housing and criminal justice reform. Voting rights also was a concern to the group, specifically absentee voting bills that may be reintroduced in the upcoming session.
  • Auburn, Sept. 21 (Formeeca) Students from an Auburn University class filled out a 2024 issue proposal survey form asking them to rank issues of priority. The top three issues that seemed to rank the highest were public transportation, voting rights and criminal justice reform.

June 2023 newsletter

Arise members and supporters gather in front of the Alabama State House during our Legislative Day.

At last: Alabama Arise members celebrate grocery tax reduction

By Chris Sanders, communications director | chris@alarise.org

The grocery tax bill passed. After more than three decades of persistent advocacy, Alabama Arise members turned that longstanding vision into reality this year. Every Alabamian will benefit as a result, and the benefits will be greatest for families struggling to make ends meet.

This breakthrough highlighted a 2023 regular session during which Arise members made a difference on numerous priorities at the Legislature. Our advocacy helped an important criminal justice reform become law and helped block efforts to undermine voting rights.

What the grocery tax bill will do

Alabamians will begin paying a lower state grocery tax this Labor Day weekend. HB 479, sponsored by Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, will cut the state sales tax on groceries from 4% to 2% in two steps. The reduction will apply to all items defined as food under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). When fully implemented, the law will save Alabamians the equivalent of about a week’s worth of groceries every year.

The first step will take effect Sept. 1, when the state grocery tax will drop from 4% to 3%. The next reduction, from 3% to 2%, will come in September 2024, as long as Education Trust Fund (ETF) revenues have grown by at least 3.5% over the previous year. If they haven’t, the reduction will occur in the first year when revenue growth does meet that threshold.

HB 479 also allows (but does not require) cities and counties to reduce their sales taxes on groceries. The law allows localities that reduce their grocery tax to reverse some or all of that reduction later. But localities cannot increase local grocery taxes above their current rate.

Garrett’s bill emerged late in the session but quickly gained overwhelming bipartisan support. The House passed the bill 103-0 on May 25, and the Senate followed with a 31-0 vote June 1. Gov. Kay Ivey signed the bill into law June 15.

Garrett joined with Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre, and Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth to guide HB 479 through the Legislature. But the bill’s passage also rests on the foundation laid by many other legislative champions through the years. They include former Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery; former Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma; Sen. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove; and Reps. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, Penni McClammy, D-Montgomery, and Mary Moore, D-Birmingham.

What comes next in our work to untax groceries

HB 479 is a watershed moment in Arise’s work for tax justice. That work will continue. The bill doesn’t eliminate the entire 4% state grocery tax, and it doesn’t replace the revenue. The state grocery tax is an important funding source for public education, bringing in about $600 million annually. That is about 7% of this year’s ETF budget.

“Revenues are strong enough for now to reduce the grocery tax without causing severe harm to education funding,” Arise executive director Robyn Hyden said. “But history tells us that good economic times won’t last forever.”

Legislators this year created a study commission to recommend sustainable ways to eliminate the rest of the state grocery tax. HJR 243, sponsored by McClammy, requires the commission to report its findings and recommendations by November 2026.

Arise will seize that opportunity to push lawmakers to close tax loopholes skewed in favor of wealthy people and highly profitable corporations. One such loophole is the state income tax deduction for federal income taxes (FIT). Alabama is the only state that still allows a full FIT deduction.

The state grocery tax is a cruel tax on survival that drives many Alabamians deeper into poverty. Arise is committed to building on this year’s success and ending this tax forever. With our members’ continued advocacy and support, that is another vision we’ll turn into reality together.

2023 was a momentous session on Alabama Arise priorities

By Mike Nicholson, policy analyst | mike@alarise.org

June 6 ended one of the most significant legislative sessions ever for Alabama Arise and our supporters. Through timely and persistent advocacy, Arise members helped build a better, more equitable Alabama.

While our work continues, we want to highlight the many important strides this year in our movement for a better Alabama for all – and celebrate Arise members’ role in advancing that goal. This article summarizes some of the key bills on Arise priorities during the Legislature’s 2023 regular session. For information on all bills we tracked this year, visit the Bills of Interest page on our website.

Tax reform

Lawmakers proposed many significant tax reform bills this session. But none will have more lasting significance to Alabamians than reducing the state sales tax on groceries, a longstanding Arise priority. Thanks to phenomenal member advocacy, our state is finally removing part of this regressive tax.

HB 479, sponsored by Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, became law this year. This legislation will cut the state grocery tax by half in the coming years. This huge victory for tax justice resulted from decades of hard work by Arise members.

Adequate state budgets

Alabama’s 2024 General Fund (GF) and Education Trust Fund (ETF) budgets are both significantly larger than 2023. The GF budget is about $3 billion and includes a 2% pay raise for state employees. It also includes significant funding increases for Medicaid, mental health care and other state services. The 2024 ETF budget is nearly $8.8 billion, half a billion dollars more than the previous year’s ETF.

HB 295 and SB 202, known as the PRICE Act, were sponsored by Rep. Ernie Yarbrough, R-Trinity, and Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia. These bills would have allowed parents to take tax dollars that otherwise would support local public schools and use them to pay for private schools or home schooling. Arise and other advocates helped defeat this legislation, protecting nearly $600 million of public education funding.

Voting rights

HB 209, sponsored by Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, did not pass this session. This bill would have criminalized many efforts to assist voters with absentee ballot applications or completed ballots. Arise and other groups successfully stopped this bill, which passed the House but never reached the Senate floor.

Criminal justice reform

SB 154, sponsored by Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, became law this year. This legislation will make it harder for the state to suspend people’s driver’s licenses for failure to pay traffic tickets. Arise and our partners at Alabama Appleseed strongly supported this bill.

HB 24, sponsored by Rep. Reed Ingram, R-Pike Road, passed despite Arise’s opposition. This bill will criminalize asking for money on the side of roads, punishing many Alabamians facing housing insecurity. Federal courts have found similar laws unconstitutional in recent years.

HB 229, sponsored by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, would have allowed resentencing of certain incarcerated individuals sentenced to life imprisonment without parole under Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act. This bill passed the House and gained Senate committee approval, but it never reached the Senate floor. Arise supported this bill and expects a similar one to be filed next session.

Death penalty reform 

England’s HB 14 would have required a unanimous jury sentence to impose the death penalty. The bill also would have made the state’s judicial override ban retroactive. This bill received a public hearing but did not leave the committee. Arise supported this bill and expects a similar one to be filed next session.

Other issues 

SB 196, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, would have increased government transparency by improving Alabama’s open records process. This bill passed the Senate and gained House committee approval but did not pass in the House. Arise supported this bill and expects a similar one to be filed next session.

SB 242, sponsored by Sen. Keith Kelley, R-Anniston, would have undermined tenant protections by removing the cap on the amount of the security deposit that landlords can charge to renters. Arise opposed this bill, and it died without reaching the Senate floor.

Building momentum for closing the coverage gap

By Debbie Smith, Cover Alabama campaign director | debbie@alarise.org

Cover Alabama has built powerful momentum to expand Medicaid and close the state’s health coverage gap in recent months. In March, Alabama Arise’s Cover Alabama campaign held its first in-person Medicaid expansion lobby day. With the participation of 80 passionate individuals, this event created a powerful platform for advocating Medicaid expansion.

Alabamians living in the coverage gap – who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to qualify for financial help to buy private insurance – shared their personal stories during the rally before engaging in meaningful conversations with their lawmakers. The event garnered great press attention, shining a spotlight on our state’s urgent need to expand health care access.

A man stands at a podium to give a speech on Medicaid expansion.
Arise board member Kenneth Tyrone King speaks to the importance of expanding Medicaid to ensure affordable health coverage for nearly 300,000 Alabama adults with low incomes.

Other recent wins

In an encouraging development, the House Health Committee held a hearing this year specifically focused on the benefits of closing the coverage gap. This hearing came on the heels of Cover Alabama’s rally. And it marked a significant milestone, as the first time legislators formally discussed Medicaid expansion in a committee hearing. The hearing provided an important platform to educate lawmakers and the public about the positive impact Medicaid expansion can have on our communities.

Meanwhile, we also celebrated the recent success of North Carolina, which passed Medicaid expansion in March. That move means Alabama is now one of only 10 states that has not yet expanded its Medicaid program.

We are determined to change that. We will continue advocating for our state to join others in providing vital health care access to those in need.

Looking forward

In April, Arise and Cover Alabama partnered with Doctors for America to conduct a highly engaging half-day advocate training session. Fifty people attended the event in Birmingham or online on a Saturday morning. This event equipped our advocates with the knowledge and tools needed to advocate effectively for Medicaid expansion, empowering them to make a difference.

Thank you to each and every one of you for your unwavering support, dedication and passion for health justice. Together, we are making significant strides toward Medicaid expansion in Alabama.

Let’s continue to raise our voices, engage with lawmakers and advocate for equitable health care access for every Alabamian.

Allen v. Milligan ruling is a shot in the arm for democracy

By Robyn Hyden, executive director | robyn@alarise.org

Alabamians received good news this month with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Allen v. Milligan. This decision upholds key parts of the Voting Rights Act and requires Alabama to draw new congressional districts by July 21. The Legislature likely will hold a special session in July to approve two majority-Black (or close to majority-Black) districts. Alabama has had only one majority-Black district for decades, diluting the voting power of Black residents.

The ruling came a decade after Shelby County v. Holder, a decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance protections. As we commemorate this anniversary, we are reminded of why protecting Black voting power in Alabama is so critical to achieving our vision of a strong, participatory democracy.

Alabama Arise salutes our partners at Alabama Forward, Alabama NAACP, Greater Birmingham Ministries and ACLU of Alabama for their hard work and vision in the Milligan case. Arise will continue working to advance legislation to protect and strengthen voting rights. And we will keep fighting to ensure that every vote counts and elected officials are accountable to their constituents.

Leave a lasting legacy

By Jacob Smith, development director | jacob@alarise.org

Alabama Arise has set long-term goals like a fairer state tax system and state budgets that provide opportunities for all. Together, we have made meaningful steps toward these goals. And our members – with monthly or one-time gifts – help us keep up the momentum every day. We are so grateful.

However, this vision won’t happen overnight. There’s a type of gift that you probably haven’t considered – one that will ensure you continue to join us in Alabama Arise’s work even past your lifetime. That’s leaving us in your will.

Regardless of your income, making a will is an important step to ensure your end-of-life wishes are known. There are online tools that can help. And consulting a financial planner would be a great idea, too. You don’t even have to tell us that you included us. (Though we would be glad if you did!)

We would love to share sample language or chat about the legacy you want to leave Alabama. Reach out to me at jacob@alarise.org.

Thank you for your ongoing work and contributions to building a better Alabama.

Arise Legislative Day: Making the state grocery tax cut a reality!

 

We were excited to see more than 120 people participating in Arise’s 2023 Legislative Day on April 11 in Montgomery. Arise’s longtime push to decrease the state sales tax on groceries took center stage, and our members’ energy was palpable. Our supporters’ passionate advocacy, this year and in so many previous years, got the bill across the finish line! Top: Arise’s McKenzie Burton (left) and Whitney Washington (right) pose for a photo with longtime Arise member Helen Rivas. Next: Arise’s Robyn Hyden (right) and Carol Gundlach (left) and Anna Pritchett of AARP Alabama meet with Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre, to thank him for championing the fight to untax groceries. Next: Policy analyst Mike Nicholson speaks about criminal justice reform.

2023 was a momentous session on Alabama Arise policy priorities

June 6 ended one of the most significant legislative sessions ever for Alabama Arise and our supporters. Through timely and persistent advocacy, Arise members helped build a better, more equitable Alabama.

While our work continues, we want to highlight the many important strides this year in our movement for a better Alabama for all – and celebrate Arise members’ role in advancing that goal. This article summarizes some of the key bills on Arise priorities during the Legislature’s 2023 regular session. For information on all bills we tracked this year, visit the Bills of Interest page on our website.

Tax reform

Lawmakers proposed many significant tax reform bills this session. But none will have more lasting significance to Alabamians than reducing the state sales tax on groceries, a longstanding Arise priority. Thanks to phenomenal member advocacy, our state is finally removing part of this regressive tax.

HB 479, sponsored by Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, became law this year. This legislation will cut the state grocery tax by half in the coming years. This huge victory for tax justice resulted from decades of hard work by Arise members. (See page 1.)

Adequate state budgets

Alabama’s 2024 General Fund (GF) and Education Trust Fund (ETF) budgets are both significantly larger than 2023. The GF budget is about $3 billion and includes a 2% pay raise for state employees. It also includes significant funding increases for Medicaid, mental health care and other state services. The 2024 ETF budget is nearly $8.8 billion, half a billion dollars more than the previous year’s ETF.

HB 295 and SB 202, known as the PRICE Act, were sponsored by Rep. Ernie Yarbrough, R-Trinity, and Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia. These bills would have allowed parents to take tax dollars that otherwise would support local public schools and use them to pay for private schools or home schooling. Arise and other advocates helped defeat this legislation, protecting nearly $600 million of public education funding.

Voting rights

HB 209, sponsored by Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, did not pass this session. This bill would have criminalized many efforts to assist voters with absentee ballot applications or completed ballots. Arise and other groups successfully stopped this bill, which passed the House but never reached the Senate floor.

Criminal justice reform

SB 154, sponsored by Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, became law this year. This legislation will make it harder for the state to suspend people’s driver’s licenses for failure to pay traffic tickets. Arise and our partners at Alabama Appleseed strongly supported this bill.

HB 24, sponsored by Rep. Reed Ingram, R-Pike Road, passed despite Arise’s opposition. This bill will criminalize asking for money on the side of roads, punishing many Alabamians facing housing insecurity. Federal courts have found similar laws unconstitutional in recent years.

HB 229, sponsored by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, would have allowed resentencing of certain incarcerated individuals sentenced to life imprisonment without parole under Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act. This bill passed the House and gained Senate committee approval, but it never reached the Senate floor. Arise supported this bill and expects a similar one to be filed next session.

Death penalty reform 

England’s HB 14 would have required a unanimous jury sentence to impose the death penalty. The bill also would have made the state’s judicial override ban retroactive. This bill received a public hearing but did not leave the committee. Arise supported this bill and expects a similar one to be filed next session.

Other issues 

SB 196, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, would have increased government transparency by improving Alabama’s open records process. This bill passed the Senate and gained House committee approval but did not pass in the House. Arise supported this bill and expects a similar one to be filed next session.

SB 242, sponsored by Sen. Keith Kelley, R-Anniston, would have undermined tenant protections by removing the cap on the amount of the security deposit that landlords can charge to renters. Arise opposed this bill, and it died without reaching the Senate floor.

Arise legislative update: June 7, 2023

The Alabama Legislature’s 2023 regular session has come to a close. Arise’s Akiesha Anderson takes us through some big wins – including reducing the state’s grocery tax! – and other highlights from the session. We want to thank you for speaking out to support good bills and oppose harmful bills. Please visit alarise.org and follow us on social media as we continue to bring you updates throughout the year on our work for a better Alabama.

It’s time to provide older Alabamians with a second chance: Pass Rep. England’s HB 229

Alabama’s prison population has steadily been getting older and more expensive to house. 

  • In 2005, about 36% of people in Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) custody were between ages 15 and 30. By 2021, that number had been halved and is now around 18%. 
  • Our state’s crime rate fell dramatically – by nearly 17% – from 2005 to 2019. 
  • This aging trend among incarcerated Alabamians will have an enormous impact on our state’s ability to pay for and house people in prison, now and in the future.

We can’t afford – financially or morally – to keep incarcerating people who were convicted of offenses involving no physical injury and who already have served more than 20 years.

  • The falling crime rate and the severely harsh nature of Alabama’s 1977 three-strikes law mean the share of older people in ADOC custody who were convicted of offenses involving no physical injury but have lengthy sentences has grown dramatically over time.
  • This has resulted in a disproportionately older and more expensive prison population. And it has contributed greatly to severe prison overcrowding, leading to a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit.
  • These older inmates are the least likely to reoffend but the most costly to incarcerate, most commonly due to health care costs. Between 2000 and 2022, the state’s aging prison population contributed to a dramatic increase in the cost of incarceration. In this period, the average cost of incarceration per inmate rose from about $25 a day to more than $80, a cost increase of 220%.

HB 229 would allow a narrow group of people who were convicted of offenses involving no physical injury and who already have served more than 20 years of a life sentence a chance to petition for resentencing.

  • Only a narrow group of people serving enhanced sentences due to three-strikes guidelines would have the chance to be resentenced. This one-time opportunity would expire within five years.
  • Incarcerated individuals would qualify for resentencing only if all of the following apply:
    1. Their sentence was not the result of an offense causing serious physical injury to another person.
    2. They were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
    3. They received a final sentence at a trial court prior to May 26, 2000. 

The bottom line: We need to reform Alabama’s three-strikes law.

  • This bill would offer the possibility of resentencing only to older people who are incarcerated for offenses involving no physical injury and who already have served more than 20 years of a life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) sentence.
  • Alabama’s punitive sentencing practices have caused disproportionate harm to people with low incomes and people of color. This bill would be one important step to begin addressing some of the injustices resulting from those practices.

It’s time to provide older Alabamians with a second chance: Pass Rep. England’s HB 229

  • Alabama’s prison population has steadily been getting older and more expensive to house, adding to the state’s overcrowding problem.
  • We can’t afford – financially or morally – to keep housing people who were convicted of offenses involving no physical injury and who already have served more than 20 years.
  • HB 229 would allow a narrow group of people who were convicted of offenses involving no physical injury and who already have served more than 20 years of a life sentence a chance to petition for resentencing.
  • We need to reform Alabama’s three-strikes law. This bill would help address the injustices of sentencing practices that disproportionately have harmed people with low incomes and people of color.
A line graph showing the number of people aged 15-30 in Alabama prisons was cut in half from 2005 to 2021. ALEA says crime fell by 17%.
Data and graphic shared by Alabama Appleseed in its report “New Prisons for Old Men.”

It’s time for Alabama to end outdated death penalty practices: Pass Rep. England’s HB 14

HB 14 by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, would require unanimous jury sentencing in death penalty cases and make the ban on judicial override retroactive. Here’s why Alabama Arise supports this legislation:

Alabama is one of only two states* that doesn’t require a unanimous jury verdict to sentence someone to death.  

  • In Alabama, only 10 jurors need to agree to sentence someone to death. Every other state with a death penalty requires a unanimous jury sentencing verdict.
  • The Supreme Court recently ruled in Ramos v. Louisiana that criminal convictions for serious offenses must be unanimous, because the Constitution requires a jury to find a person guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • Decisions to impose a death sentence should have to be unanimous, too. There’s a reason nearly every other state with the death penalty requires unanimous jury sentencing in death penalty cases: taking someone’s life isn’t something that can be undone.
  • Alarmingly, one person is exonerated for every eight people executed from Alabama’s death row.

Judicial override ended in 2017, but more than 30 people are still on death row in Alabama because a judge overruled the jury’s sentence. 

  • Until 2017, Alabama was the last state allowing judges to override a jury’s decision to impose a life sentence and instead sentence someone to death. 
  • Judges used this practice, known as judicial override, to undermine the sentencing decisions made by juries. This practice was one of the factors that contributed to Alabama’s consistent top-five ranking in executions per capita. 
  • Judicial override in Alabama ended in 2017, but that legislation didn’t benefit everyone because the ban was not retroactive.
  • More than 30 people now on Alabama’s death row would benefit from this provision as they were put there by a judge who undermined a jury’s decision not to execute someone.

It’s time for Alabama to end outdated death penalty practices: Pass Rep. England’s HB 14

  • Alabama is one of only two states that doesn’t require a unanimous jury verdict to sentence someone to death.
  • Judicial override ended in 2017, but more than 30 people are still on death row in Alabama because a judge overruled the jury’s sentence.

*Florida passed a law in 2023 that allows a non-unanimous jury to impose a death sentence in the state.