The Alabama Legislature’s 2020 regular session has begun, and we’re excited about the opportunities ahead to make life better for struggling Alabamians. Arise’s Pres Harris explains why we need you with us at Legislative Day on Feb. 25. She also highlights some early progress on payday lending reform.
Most people recognize the vital role that voting plays in a democracy – even if they don’t vote. But fewer understand the citizen’s role in lawmaking. Using your power as a constituent to influence legislators is called lobbying.
Alabama Arise promotes its interest – the well-being of Alabamians with low and moderate incomes – not by “wining and dining” lawmakers but by presenting well-researched policy analysis and lifting up the strong voices of Arise members who live in their districts. We hope you can use the information in this fact sheet to sharpen your skills as a citizen lobbyist.
How the legislative process works
Alabamians elect their state officers (Governor, Lieutenant Governor, etc.) and members of the Legislature every four years. These elections occur during the even-numbered years that don’t feature a presidential election. The Legislature’s four-year cycle is called a quadrennium.
The Alabama Legislature has two chambers:
- The Senate has 35 members (senators) from the 35 Senate districts. The presiding officer is the Lieutenant Governor. In his or her absence, the role is filled by the President Pro Tempore (president “for a time”) – called President Pro Tem for short – who is elected from the Senate by its members at the start of the quadrennium.
- The House of Representatives has 105 members (representatives) from the 105 House districts. The presiding officer is the Speaker of the House, elected from the chamber by its members at the start of each quadrennium. The Speaker Pro Tem presides in the Speaker’s absence.
Regular sessions and special sessions
The annual period when the Legislature meets is called the regular session.
- The regular session begins on the first Tuesday in March in the first year of a quadrennium. In the second and third years, it begins on the first Tuesday in February. And in the fourth and final year, it begins on the first Tuesday in January.
- The Legislature meets, usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for a maximum of 30 meeting days within a period of 105 calendar days. Committees most often meet on Wednesdays.
- The Governor may call a special session, indicating in a written “call” the subjects to be considered. No legislation on other subjects may be enacted during a special session without a two-thirds vote in both houses. A special session may last for up to 12 meeting days within a 30-day calendar span.
The Legislature’s main work is passing laws. Around 3,000 bills and resolutions are introduced each year. Some 40% of these are purely local in nature. About 180 to 200 general bills pass each year. Of these, only a small share affect the entire state. It often takes four years or more to pass a bill on a new subject.
How a bill becomes a law in Alabama
The process of proposing and passing laws is similar in the House and the Senate. Every new law must pass in both chambers.
- A member of either chamber introduces a bill, which is a proposed new law. Sometimes members introduce identical bills in both chambers at the same time.
- The bill gets a first reading (usually by title only) and is referred to a committee by the presiding officer.
- The committee considers the bill – in a public hearing, if the committee chairman receives a written request for one. A bill that wins committee approval is “reported out” to the full chamber in a second reading (usually by number only) and placed on the General Calendar for the next meeting day.
- On the next meeting day, the bill becomes eligible for its third reading and debate. The volume of bills, however, prevents most from being considered The Rules Committee places high-priority bills on the Special Order Calendar.
- The bill gets its third reading (by number only unless a member requests a full reading, usually as a delaying tactic) when its number comes up in the assigned sequence on the Special Order Calendar or General Calendar. Debate in the full chamber begins at this time. When debate ends, the members vote on the bill.
- After the bill passes one chamber, it goes to the other chamber and repeats the process.
- Once a bill passes both chambers, it goes to the Governor to be signed (approved) or vetoed (rejected).
- If vetoed, it goes back to the Legislature, where a simple majority vote can override (reverse) the veto.
- If the Governor signs the bill or the Legislature overrides a veto, the bill becomes an act, or law.
How you can influence the process
Before a bill is introduced:
- Stay informed about issues that are important to your group or community.
- Work with organizations that research issues and recommend policy changes.
- Talk to your legislators about introducing bills on issues important to your group or community.
- Write a letter to your local newspaper concerning issues that are important to your group or community.
When a bill is in committee:
- Contact committee members and ask them to support, reject or amend the bill – especially if your legislator serves on the committee.
- Ask others to contact committee members.
- Find out about and attend public hearings.
- Testify for or against the bill. Arise lines up people to show a range of support or opposition.
When the bill is being debated on the floor:
- Ask your legislators to support, reject or amend it.
- Ask family and friends to contact their legislators and request that they support, reject or amend the bill.
When a bill awaits the Governor’s signature:
- Call or write, urging the Governor to sign or veto.
- Ask family and friends to contact the Governor.
Make your influence more effective
Plan your call. Before contacting your legislators by phone, prepare an informal “script”:
- Give your name and where you live.
- Identify the general reason for your call – for example, “I’d like to talk with you about Medicaid.”
- Mention that you’re a member of Alabama Arise and that our members are interested in the issue. (To the legislator, this means voters!)
- Refer to a specific piece of pending legislation, if there is one, including the bill number.
- Make it personal. Tell a brief story or say why the issue matters to you.
- Ask them to vote for the bill and where. (Mentioning a particular committee or floor vote suggests you may even be there to watch!)
- Thank them in advance.
Try for direct contact
Legislators like to talk to voters. You can look up your lawmakers here, or get their contact information by calling 334-242-7600 (House) or 334-242-7800 (Senate). If you get a legislator’s secretary or answering machine, that’s OK! Your message still will get through. In this case, though, you must be even briefer: Leave out the story. No matter what kind of response you get, remain courteous. Anger doesn’t persuade.
Enlist other people to call with a similar message. Legislators know every phone call is the “tip of an iceberg.” For every person who takes the time to call, there are many others who share the caller’s concerns. Think of the number of voters you will represent if 10 or 20 people – or 50 or 100 – call on the same issue.
Take time to write a letter or email. Legislators do read their mail! Most legislators use email, and many are active on Facebook or Twitter as well. Keep your email subject line is simple and informative so it won’t resemble junk mail. You can write any legislator here: Alabama State House, Montgomery, AL 36130. Remember these tips:
- Use your own words. Form letters are easy to recognize and less effective than personal statements.
- Both handwritten and typed letters are fine.
- Include the same information you would cover in a phone call, as noted above.
- Limit your letter to one page in most cases.
- Put letter-writing on your group’s agenda. Keep paper, envelopes, pens, stamps and addresses handy.
As long as you’re writing, remember your local newspaper. A letter to the editor will put your issue in the minds of many people. Some may be inspired to write their own letters, supporting your points. Legislators regularly read opinions sections to find out what their constituents are thinking.
Get to know your legislators personally
Make your voice more “real” with a face and a handshake:
- Arrange a time to introduce your group as active constituents. Don’t wait until you have an issue to press.
- Make a point to speak to them whenever you see them in public – at ballgames, the grocery store, etc.
- Attend events where they are speaking.
- Wear a name tag to every meeting.
- Always tell them your name clearly and add a quick memory tag – for example, “My daughter goes to your child’s school,” or “I enjoyed your speech at the Kiwanis Club last Thursday.”
- Invite them to your meeting – but remember how busy they are during the legislative session!
- Help your group arrange a legislative reception.
- Visit the State House during the legislative session.
- Praise them when they deserve it, and respectfully express disapproval when they don’t.
For more information
Click here for an extensive, easy-to-use guide prepared by the Secretary of State. And please contact Alabama Arise at 334-832-9060 or to learn more about speaking out and being heard on policies to make life better for Alabamians of all races, genders and incomes.
Alabama Arise members have chosen the following issues as policy priorities for 2020. The first two are permanent priorities. The remaining five reflect this year’s member voting. The Arise board also may approve action on other emerging issues during the year. To view our full 2020 issue priorities brochure, click here or click the Download button above.
Adequate state budgets
Everyone deserves a chance to get ahead in life, and public investments in education, health care and child care help people do just that. Adequate state funding for Medicaid and other services is vital to remove barriers to opportunity for struggling Alabamians. Arise will make the case for Medicaid expansion and other public investments and oppose harmful cuts to vital services.
It’s hard for Alabamians with low incomes to make ends meet when they’re taxed deeper into poverty. These families pay twice as big a share of their incomes in state and local taxes as top earners do. And Alabama is one of three states with no tax break on groceries. Arise will seek to untax groceries and rebalance our upside-down tax system.
Criminal justice debt reform
High cash bail, court fees and fines take a heavy toll on many families in poverty. And civil asset forfeiture allows police to seize property from people who have not been convicted of a crime – or even charged. Arise will support policies to prevent abuses of civil asset forfeiture and reduce the burden that court fees and fines place on Alabamians with low incomes.
Death penalty reform
Capital punishment is literally a life-or-death issue. Arise will support several reforms of Alabama’s death penalty process, including more indigent defense funding, a moratorium on executions, and laws to bring the state in line with federal rulings regarding juveniles and people with intellectual disabilities. Arise will urge greater transparency and reforms to Alabama’s death penalty laws.
Payday/title lending reform
When low wages fail to cover the cost of living, many desperate borrowers turn to payday or auto title loans. But with Alabama law allowing annual percentage rates of up to 456% for payday loans and 300% for title loans, these loans leave far too many families and communities trapped in deep debt. Arise will pursue tighter state and federal regulations on payday and title lending and other high-cost loans in Alabama.
Alabama provides no state funding for public transportation, and its shortage of transit options keeps many people from meeting basic needs. State investment in public transit would create jobs and increase mobility and opportunity for many seniors, people with disabilities, and people who can’t afford cars. Arise will seek dedicated state revenue for the Public Transportation Trust Fund, as well as legislation to allow Alabamians to make voluntary contributions to the fund through their tax refunds.
Voting is the most fundamental way people can make their voices heard in the democratic process. Alabama could expand participation by streamlining voting rights restoration for people disenfranchised after a conviction. The state also could follow Georgia’s lead by automatically registering eligible people to vote when they apply for a driver’s license or interact in other ways with public agencies. Arise will back efforts to remove barriers to voting rights restoration and to adopt automatic universal voter registration.
Lawmakers may have been on spring break this week, but we still have plenty to discuss in our second video update of the 2019 legislative session.
Watch Arise organizing director Pres Harris discuss upcoming community forums on Medicaid expansion, as well as reminders on action you can take in anticipation of the Legislature reconvening on April 2.
We had a problem Tuesday – and we were glad to have it. So many people came to Arise Legislative Day that we couldn’t fit everyone in the State House’s largest committee room! Nearly 300 Arise supporters came to Montgomery to tell their lawmakers that it’s time to expand Medicaid. We appreciate everyone who showed their support for this investment in a healthier Alabama.
Click above to watch Arise executive director Robyn Hyden talk about our successful Legislative Day, as well as the Senate’s vote for a bill to make Alabama’s justice system more equitable. We’re excited to build on this momentum when the Legislature returns from spring break on April 2.
The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday unanimously approved a bill that would remove a barrier to justice for low-income Alabamians. SB 30, sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, heads to the Senate, which could vote as soon as Thursday. (March 21 update: That’s exactly what happened. The Senate voted 28-0 for the bill, which now goes to the House.)
SB 30 would expand access to circuit and district courts for Alabamians who cannot afford to pay civil filing fees. The bill would let indigent plaintiffs file an affidavit swearing that financial hardship makes them unable to afford filing fees. Then the court would determine whether the claim is valid. If it is, the court would wait until the end of the proceeding to assess that fee.
All too often, Alabamians who cannot afford the required hundreds of dollars in fees to put their case before a judge are stuck on the outside of the justice system. As a result, those fees could force a person with a winning case to watch as the statute of limitations for their claim expires, just because court fees are unaffordable. Arise supports SB 30 because it would prevent those miscarriages of justice and make Alabama’s justice system more equitable.
Arise members have chosen the following issues as policy priorities for 2019. The first two are permanent priorities. The remaining five reflect this year’s member voting. The Arise board also may approve action on other emerging issues during the year.
- Adequate state budgets
- Tax reform
- Public transportation
- Payday/title lending reform
- Automatic universal voter registration
- Criminal justice debt reform
- Death penalty reform
The results of the 2020 Census will help guide the allocation of more than $7.5 billion in federal funding for Alabama each year. But an undercount of the state’s population could put a huge amount of that support at risk over the next decade, according to “Counting for Dollars 2020,” a new study led by Professor Andrew Reamer of George Washington University (GWU).
Arise Citizens’ Policy Project (ACPP) has teamed with the Census Project to call on Alabamians to demand that Congress provide full Census funding in the 2018 federal budget to help ensure the state’s population is properly counted in 2020.
“Alabama can’t afford to be undercounted in the upcoming Census,” ACPP executive director Kimble Forrister said. “Investments in Medicaid, housing and transportation make Alabama a better place to live and work, and we need to ensure our state doesn’t get shortchanged on the federal funding that helps make those services possible.”
The GWU report contains a 50-state listing of funds that are directed to state and local governments based on Census data. The list includes money for vital services such as health care, Head Start, roads and highways, school lunch programs and housing assistance. A summary of the national findings calculated $589.7 billion in Census-directed funding from 16 federal programs in 2015.
Phil Sparks of the Census Project said Alabama had much to lose from a poorly planned Census count. “The state has a lot at stake in this debate,” Sparks said. “All Alabamiansbenefit from a high-quality, complete and fair Census.”
While the study focused on 16 federal programs, five account for most federal funding to Alabama: Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, Medicare Part B, HUD Section 8 Housing Vouchers, and Department of Transportation Highway Planning and Construction Funds.
“The fair and equitable distribution of federal financial assistance to state and local governments and households will depend on the accuracy of the 2020 Census,” Reamer said.
Detailed findings on each of the 16 programs the group has researched can be found below:
- Medical Assistance Program (Medicaid)
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
- Medicare Part B (Supplemental Medical Insurance) – Physicians Fee Schedule Services
- Highway Planning and Construction
- Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers
- Title I Grants to Local Education Agencies
- National School Lunch Program
- Special Education Grants (IDEA)
- State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP)
- Section 8 Housing Assistance Payments Program (Project-based)
- Head Start/Early Head Start
- Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC)
- Foster Care (Title IV-E)
- Health Center Programs (Community, Migrant, Homeless, Public Housing)
- Low Income Home Energy Assistance (LIHEAP)
- Child Care and Development Fund
People don’t have a choice about whether to buy electricity. Quite simply, it’s one of the things we’ve got to have to survive in the modern world. Your only real choice is how much you use – and even that amount can’t reasonably go below a certain threshold.
Alabamians could shield more of their home’s value from creditors under a bill that the Senate’s General Fund budget committee approved 7-0 Wednesday. SB 427, sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, awaits consideration by the full Senate.
Ward’s bill would allow individuals to protect up to $30,000 of their home’s value from creditors. The exemption for married couples would be up to $60,000. Current Alabama law sets that homestead exemption at just $5,000 for individuals and $10,000 for couples. Those amounts are among the weakest debtor protections in the nation and are so low as to prove virtually useless in shielding most homes from foreclosure in a debt collection case.
Most states have far higher exemptions. Some, including Florida and Texas, do not limit how much of a home’s value can be protected from creditors. Ward’s bill would update Alabama’s exemptions for the first time in more than 30 years and give debtors a better chance to rebuild after a financial judgment is entered against them.
SB 427 also would allow debtors in bankruptcy cases to choose to exempt homesteads and personal property in accordance with federal bankruptcy law. The bill originally would have increased debtors’ state exemptions for personal property as well, but the committee removed those provisions.
The new version also does not include a cost-of-living adjustment. That means the Legislature would have to raise the limit again in the future to prevent inflation from eroding the homestead protection’s value. “I think it’s something that this body should vote on, instead of some sort of artificial index number,” Ward said.
Time is getting shorter for the bill to win Senate approval. Lawmakers will return Thursday for the 24th of 30 allowable meeting days during the 2014 regular session, which is expected to last until early April.
By Stephen Stetson, policy analyst. Posted March 12, 2014.