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.

Universal school breakfast would benefit Alabama’s children in many ways

 

Universal school breakfast would:

Improve the state of child hunger in Alabama.

  • 23% of school-age children in Alabama are food insecure.
  • Universal school breakfast could guarantee a morning meal for nearly 280,000 Alabama children during their required school day.

Address chronic absenteeism.

  • Alabama’s statewide chronic absenteeism more than doubled from 8% to 18% in 2023 after schools stopped serving universal school meals.

Improve adolescent mental health.

  • Young adults who reported experiencing food insecurity during childhood also reported greater psychological distress in adulthood, according to National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data.

Improve standardized testing and math scores in Alabama.

  • Alabama ranks 46th in average math ACT scores.
  • Student academic achievement increases, especially for math, when accessible breakfasts are made available to school-age children.

Alleviate behavioral problems and the school-to-prison pipeline.

  • Alabama children ages 10 and up are detained at nearly twice the national average, with children of color detained twice as frequently as their white peers.
  • The School Breakfast Program originated from a community pilot program that demonstrated the positive impact of universal breakfast for Black school-age children specifically.

Vote ‘Yes’ on Alabama’s recompiled state constitution!

We’re less than a week away from the general election! One of the most important issues on the ballot in Alabama is the Constitution of Alabama of 2022. This recompilation of the current constitution would clean up and consolidate the document and delete racist language and illegal provisions.

In a new video, Arise policy analyst Mike Nicholson explains the importance of this ballot measure to remove racist language from Alabama’s constitution. Watch the video below for more on why Alabama Arise urges a “Yes” vote on the recompiled state constitution on Nov. 8, 2022. And read Mike’s blog post for even more information.

Why Alabama Arise urges a ‘Yes’ vote on the recompiled state constitution

The stain was there from the start. In his opening remarks, the president of Alabama’s 1901 constitutional convention declared a major goal of the event was “within the limits imposed by the federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in this state.”

The resulting document effectively removed the voting rights of African Americans and poor white people. Federal courts have overturned most of the discriminatory provisions, but the shameful evidence of this legacy persists in Alabama’s constitution.

Alabama Arise is committed to recognizing, teaching about and repairing the damage that state lawmakers perpetrated for generations through codifying racism and racist practices. Racist language and the harmful provisions flowing from it have no place in our state’s most important legal document. That is why we urge Alabamians to vote “Yes” on the recompiled state constitution on Nov. 8, 2022.

A graphic stating: Vote Yes on the recompiled state constitution

In 2020, Alabama voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment authorizing the Legislative Services Agency to clean up and consolidate the constitution and remove explicitly racist content and illegal provisions that have since been repealed. The Legislature approved the proposed revisions in the 2022 regular session without a dissenting vote.

Examples of deleted racist language include references to separate schools for Black and white children and prohibition of interracial marriages. The recompilation also strengthens Alabama’s prohibition of slavery by removing language that allows involuntary servitude “for the punishment of crime.”

Arise’s recommendation: Vote ‘Yes’

On Nov. 8, 2022, Alabama voters will decide whether to authorize those changes by adopting the recompiled state constitution. Arise recommends voting “Yes” on the recompilation, which will appear on the ballot as the Constitution of Alabama of 2022.

The changes in the recompilation wouldn’t address all of the problems with Alabama’s constitution, including harmful limits related to tax policy and local governance. But they still would move Alabama, and our constitution, in the right direction. Arise urges Alabamians to vote “Yes” to help move our state forward.

A dire need for reform: How Alabama’s constitution is holding our state back

The 1901 Alabama Constitution is overreaching, poorly written and harmful to many of the people it governs. Its authors intentionally disenfranchised people of color, women and people with low incomes in an effort to silence them politically. The document also created barriers to governance for local elected officials. More than a century later, these barriers still limit opportunities for change at the local level today.

Alabama voters will have the opportunity on Nov. 8, 2022, to adopt a recompiled state constitution. This amendment would authorize changes such as removal of racist language and illegal provisions that have since been repealed. Arise is urging Alabamians to vote “Yes” on the recompilation in November. These changes wouldn’t address all of the problems with the state constitution. But they would move Alabama, and our constitution, in the right direction.

A shameful start

In his opening remarks, the president of the 1901 constitutional convention declared a major goal was “within the limits imposed by the federal Constitution, to establish white supremacy in this state.” The resulting document effectively removed the voting rights of African Americans and poor white people. By concentrating power in the hands of a few special interests, it allowed wealthy landowners to keep their property taxes low at the expense of school funding for low-income children.

Federal courts have overturned most of the discriminatory provisions, but the shameful evidence of this legacy persists in our constitution. This concentration of power remains an obstacle to effective local government. The constitution similarly hinders state officials from modernizing our tax system to serve Alabama’s current economic realities. And the document limits lawmakers’ ability to change policies that perpetuate the harmful and racist objectives overtly codified in 1901.

The home rule question

In Alabama, counties must seek constitutional amendments to conduct many routine functions of local government, known as home rule. At 977 amendments and counting, the Alabama constitution is 12 times longer than the average state constitution and 40 times longer than the U.S. Constitution. Because many amendments require a statewide vote, and because legislators can override many proposed local actions, the rights and privileges of people in one county are often granted or denied by residents of other counties that would be unaffected by such changes.

One example came in 2015, when legislators from across Alabama blocked Birmingham’s attempt to institute a $10.10 minimum wage. The law effectively prevented cities from setting minimum wages responsive to their local needs – even though Alabama has set no state minimum wage at all. An earlier example came in 2004, when Trussville officials sought to raise local property taxes that fund their public schools. Because of tax-related provisions in the state constitution, the move required statewide approval of a constitutional amendment. The measure won 68% support from Trussville voters, but 55% of Alabama voters rejected the amendment. People living hundreds of miles away from Trussville thus helped prevent the city from improving funding for its local schools.

Both instances demonstrate state lawmakers’ carefully preserved ability to undermine the autonomy and political authority of local communities. Those restrictions are especially egregious when a mostly white Legislature limits the authority of Black local officials.

Our antiquated tax system

The 1901 constitution perpetuates a tax structure that favors wealthy people, overtaxes people with low incomes and fails to provide adequate funding for vital services. The state property tax rate, for example, has not increased since the constitution was written. The document requires a voter referendum to raise local property taxes to support schools. Amendments in the 1970s restricted the assessment of taxable property value, which further limited funding for public schools. And for decades, the now-illegal poll tax ensured only prosperous white voters had a decisive voice in elections.

Some prosperous districts in Alabama spend more than twice as much per pupil as high-poverty districts. Because our state and average local property tax rates are among the nation’s lowest, our education system is one of the most poorly funded. When a 1933 amendment established the state income tax, it was designed to affect only the wealthiest residents. But because income brackets for these rates have changed very little in 75 years, most Alabamians now pay at the top rate. As a result, Alabama’s income tax is among the highest in the nation for families at the poverty line. Similarly, those with the highest incomes no longer pay a fair share. Writing tax policies into the constitution made these policies difficult to modernize in response to inflation and changing needs.

The sales tax is perhaps the most regressive tax. It takes nearly eight times the share of income for the state’s lowest earners as for its wealthiest families. Sales taxes rise and fall with the economy, like income taxes but unlike property taxes. As a result, our state education budget, which relies heavily on income and sales taxes, is at risk of sharp cuts when the economy slows.

Barriers to meeting Alabama’s basic needs

The constitution limits Alabama’s ability to provide needed services for struggling families. For example, a 1952 amendment prohibits use of state gas tax revenue for public transportation. As a result, inadequate transportation keeps thousands of Alabamians from meeting basic needs, such as getting to work, going to the doctor or traveling to the grocery store. Every year, Alabama frustratingly leaves millions of federal matching dollars on the table because we can’t put up the state share.

Our antiquated tax system places a straitjacket on state funding for other vital services, too, such as health care and child care. Most states earmark, or set aside for use, a little more than 20% of their tax revenues. But Alabama earmarks more than 80% of our revenues. That leaves the governor and the Legislature little flexibility to match available resources to pressing needs. Alabamians suffer when earmarking impedes an opportunity to maximize federal matching funds or increase health coverage.

Advocates for a new Alabama constitution have been divided for decades over how to best achieve their goals. Some want to hold a convention at which elected delegates would craft a new constitution all at once, subject to voter approval. Others have favored a gradual, article-by-article rewrite. Lawmakers have taken the latter approach in recent years, revising several articles but avoiding meaningful changes to tax policy or home rule.

A step forward: the recompiled state constitution

Efforts to modernize and improve the state constitution continue despite the challenges. In 2020, Alabama voters overwhelmingly approved an amendment authorizing the Legislative Services Agency to clean up and consolidate the constitution and remove explicitly racist content and illegal provisions that have since been repealed. Examples of deleted racist language include references to separate schools for Black and white children and prohibition of interracial marriages. The Legislature approved the proposed revisions in the 2022 regular session without a dissenting vote.

On Nov. 8, 2022, Alabamians will vote on whether to authorize those changes by adopting the recompiled state constitution. Arise recommends voting “Yes” on the recompilation, which will appear on the ballot as the Constitution of Alabama of 2022.

Alabama Arise urges a ‘Yes’ vote on the recompiled state constitution

Alabama Arise is committed to recognizing, teaching about and repairing the damage that state lawmakers perpetrated for generations through codifying racism and racist practices. Racist language and the harmful provisions flowing from it have no place in our state’s most important legal document. That is why we urge Alabamians to vote “Yes” on the recompiled state constitution on Nov. 8, 2022.

A graphic stating: Vote Yes on the recompiled state constitution

The recompilation will appear on the 2022 general election ballot as the Constitution of Alabama of 2022. Here is the full text that voters will see:

Arise legislative recap: Feb. 28, 2022

Arise’s Jilisa Milton discusses HB 312, which would prohibit teaching certain “divisive concepts” related to race, religion and sex in public K-12 schools, public colleges and universities, and state employee training programs. This bill could undermine a healthy educational environment in Alabama by chilling full, truthful discussions of key historical and current events. Jilisa also provides an update on the General Fund budget.

Click here to subscribe to our action alerts and be notified on when to take action on these and other bills.

Arise legislative recap: Nov. 9, 2021

Arise policy analyst Dev Wakeley looks back at the Alabama Legislature’s second special session, which ended last week. Dev discusses lawmakers’ actions related to redistricting and COVID-19 vaccinations, as well as federal relief funding for hospitals and nursing homes.

Join us for Arise’s Membership Mondays!

Membership Mondays are an opportunity for Alabama Arise members to network and get more energized in our work together. In these online sessions, members will get the latest updates on the legislative session. Then they will break into groups to talk to other Arise members around the state.

In the breakouts, participants can share about their advocacy actions and learn what others are doing. Meeting attendees will choose the issue topics for the breakout sessions.

Ideally, we are designating these meetings for Arise members. If you are not yet a member of Arise, we invite you to join thousands of other Arisers advocating for our vision of a better Alabama for all.

Click here to join Arise for as little as $15 a year. Add the strength of your voice to the work of making policies that improve life for struggling families across Alabama.

Registration is required. Sign up for one or both events below:

Membership Monday 2021 – March 15th, 6 p.m.

Register here.

Membership Monday 2021 – April 12th, 6 p.m.

Register here.

We still make change: Advocating in Alabama in the time of COVID-19

The voices and needs of people matter. And engaging those voices in the policymaking process is key to building the better, more inclusive Alabama that we envision.

Alabama Arise remains committed to informing and equipping our members to influence policies that affect their lives and communities. As we look toward the Alabama Legislature’s 2021 regular session, we’re prioritizing ways to keep constituent voices at the forefront of the policymaking process.

The legislative session beginning Feb. 2 will be the most constrained in decades due to COVID-19’s impacts. Access to traditional methods of contacting and monitoring legislators in person at the State House, including public hearings and floor debates, will be severely restricted for the general public.

The Alabama Legislature’s 2021 regular session will begin Feb. 2.

In fact, there is considerable uncertainty about how long and exactly which days the Legislature will be in session. While many bills will be introduced, the only constitutional requirement for lawmakers is to pass state budgets.

Lawmakers will meet for three days in each of the first two weeks before pausing until Feb. 23 for further assessment, House Speaker Mac McCutcheon said last week. The full Legislature can gather for up to 30 meeting days in 15 calendar weeks.

Because of the session’s uncertain flow and the difficulty of meeting with legislators to discuss issues, we must use every method possible this year to inform and influence our legislators at the local level. Below are some of the key approaches you can take.

Methods of contact to use

Personal letters

Legislators may have significant breaks and limited contact from constituents during the session. An old-fashioned and powerful way to ensure they hear your voice is to write and mail them a letter. Be sure to make your case in your own words. (Information from Arise can help with explaining the issue and your stance.) Letters sent to lawmakers’ personal addresses or district offices are best, but letters to their Montgomery offices are important, too.

Phone calls

Give your local legislators a call on the issues that matter to you. To develop a connection with them, ask them for information and tell them about yourself in addition to asking them to support or oppose particular bills. When you reach out to lawmakers, ask for their preferred contact number. If they give you a cell phone number, ask if you can text them about important matters during the session.

Facebook

Most legislators have Facebook accounts. You often can use them to message lawmakers directly or provide critical information privately or publicly. Arise organizers are compiling an up-to-date list of Facebook accounts to share with you for your local legislative delegation.

Twitter

Twitter can be a quick, powerful and public way to contact legislators, even as they debate issues on the floor. Arise organizers are compiling an up-to-date list of Twitter accounts for you to use to contact your local delegation.

Texting

Text messages can be the most effective way to contact your legislator quickly at any time. Legislators invariably read text messages on the floor, during the session and at many other times. If you don’t already have a close relationship with the lawmaker, consider limiting your use of this method to critical moments when there isn’t time to use other approaches. Note: It’s important that you call and ask your legislator if you have permission to text them.

Email

Email is sometimes seen as an overused tool, but it remains an important and necessary one. When the session is underway, tons of emails come in to lawmakers. You should email them as well to ensure they hear from people who believe as you do. Emails sent while legislators are not in session have a better chance of getting read and influencing their position.

A few basic tips for speaking with legislators

  • Always be courteous and address lawmakers as “Senator” or “Representative.”
  • Remember to tell them where you live and that you vote in their district.
  • If you are asking them to support a certain position or bill, ask them for a response.
  • If they support your position, be sure to thank them.
  • If they oppose your position, ask them politely to explain why.
  • Share what you hear with Arise. (Find the organizer for your area here.)

Alabama Arise condemns insurrection, demands protection and expansion of voting rights

Alabama Arise executive director Robyn Hyden released the following statement Friday on this week’s events in Washington, D.C.:

“The assault on the U.S. Capitol this week was a violent and racist attack on the very idea of democracy. It was an effort by white nationalists and other extremists to reject the results of a free and fair election and to tear the fabric of our shared freedoms. Alabama Arise condemns this disgraceful, reprehensible insurrection in the strongest possible terms.

“The peaceful transfer of power is essential to the continuation of our representative democracy. Everyone’s freedoms are jeopardized when lawmakers attempt to disregard the results of free and fair elections or when mobs attempt to overrule those elections by force.

“Arise denounces incitements to violence and insurrection by elected leaders and political extremists. We also denounce the white supremacist ideologies that fuel attempts to reject legitimate votes from people of color.

“Alabama has a painful history of overturning legitimate election results by disregarding the will of Black voters. Similar strategies were used to ratify our racist 1901 state constitution, which disenfranchised Black voters and explicitly aimed to establish white supremacy under the law.

“Our ability to progress as a state and a nation will be limited as long as any person or group is unable to exercise their constitutional right to vote. We call upon all of our elected officials to acknowledge and affirm the 2020 election results. And we demand that everyone involved in carrying out or inciting Wednesday’s insurrection be held accountable for their actions.

Steps toward a better, more inclusive future

“Arise applauds the grassroots organizers and elected leaders who have worked for years to expand access to free and fair elections. In recent months, we have witnessed amazing levels of mobilization and grassroots engagement to ensure that all eligible voters can participate in deciding their political future. The fact that nearly 160 million Americans voted despite a pandemic, a crushing recession and rampant voter suppression efforts is a testament to these organizers’ work.

“Ensuring that every eligible voter can access the ballot must be a top priority to protect our democratic republic. We call upon Congress to strengthen the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and provide protections from further attempts to suppress votes. And we urge Alabama lawmakers to protect and expand voting rights by instituting automatic voter registration and lifting barriers to voting rights restoration.”