Town Hall Tuesdays: What we heard from Arise supporters

Listening is often an underdeveloped skill, yet it is critical for mutual understanding and working together for meaningful change. That’s why Arise is committed to listening to our members, to our allies and most importantly, to those directly affected by the work we do together. We depend on what we hear from you to guide our issue work and our strategies.

This year’s COVID-19 pandemic challenged us to be creative in finding ways to listen. Instead of our usual face-to-face meetings around the state, we hosted a series of six statewide online Town Hall Tuesdays. We held events every two weeks, starting in June and ending Sept. 1. We averaged 65 attendees at each session. Here’s some of what we heard from members and supporters:

  • Affirmation for Medicaid expansion, untaxing groceries and other current Arise issues as important for achieving shared prosperity.
  • Empathy for those who were already living in vulnerable circumstances further strained by the pandemic.
  • Concern about ongoing, intentional barriers to voting, especially during the pandemic.
  • Desire to see more resources to meet the needs of our immigrant neighbors.
  • Alarm about payday and title lending and its impact on people’s lives and our communities.
  • Passion and concern about many other issues, including housing; living wages and pay equity; prison and sentencing reform; gun safety; juvenile justice reform; defunding the police; the Census; environmental justice; quality and funding of public education; and food insecurity and nutrition.
  • Willingness to take informed actions to make a difference in the policies that impact people’s lives.
  • Hope that Alabama can be a better place for all our neighbors to live despite systemic issues and ongoing challenges.

Notes from each town hall

Overviews of the town halls are below. Click the title for a PDF of the notes from the breakout sessions at each town hall.

June 23 – Money talks
We examined how to strengthen education, health care, child care and other services that help Alabamians make ends meet. And we explored ways to fund those services more equitably.

July 7 – Justice for all
We discussed Alabama’s unjust criminal justice system and how to fix it.

July 21 – Getting civic
Discussion focused on protecting voting rights and boosting Census responses during a pandemic.

Aug. 4 – Shared prosperity
We looked at policy solutions to boost opportunity and protect families from economic exploitation.

Aug. 18 – Feeding our families
We explored ways to increase household food security during and after the recession.

Sept. 1 – Closing the coverage gap
Discussion focused on how everyone can help expand Medicaid to ensure coverage for hundreds of thousands of struggling Alabamians. We also heard about the expansion campaign strategies of the Cover Alabama Coalition, headed by Arise campaign director Jane Adams.

Get in touch and stay in touch with Arise

Remember, we didn’t stop listening because the town halls ended. We want to hear from you, and we encourage you to contact the Arise organizer in your area:

We hope to see you at Arise’s online annual meeting Oct. 3!

You’re invited to Arise’s Town Hall Tuesdays!

Arise’s statewide online summer listening sessions are a chance to hear what’s happening on key state policy issues and share your vision for our 2021 policy agenda. Register now to help identify emerging issues and inform our work to build a better Alabama.

We’d love to see you at any or all of these sessions! Registration is required, so please register at the link under each description.

June 23rd, 6 p.m. Money talks

How can we strengthen education, health care, child care and other services that help Alabamians make ends meet? And how can we fund those services more equitably? Click here to register for this session.

July 7th, 6 p.m. Justice for all

We’ll discuss Alabama’s unjust criminal justice system – and how to fix it. Click here to register for this session.

July 21st, 6 p.m. Getting civic

How can we protect voting rights and boost Census responses during a pandemic? Click here to register for this session.

August 4th, 6 p.m. Shared prosperity

Policy solutions can boost opportunity and protect families from economic exploitation. Click here to register for this session.

August 18th, 6 p.m. Feeding our families

How can we increase household food security during and after the recession? Click here to register for this session.

September 1st, 6 p.m. Closing the coverage gap

Join the Cover Alabama Coalition to discuss how you can help expand Medicaid. Click here to register for this session.

Alabama must tear down the legacies of slavery and segregation

The monument stood in Birmingham for decades as a twisted tribute to Alabama’s original sins: slavery and white supremacy. It “honored” a violent rebellion that sought to protect the enslavement of human beings. During segregation and Jim Crow and civil rights protests and into the 21st century, it served as a daily 52-foot-tall reminder of the systemic oppression and persecution of Black Alabamians.

That monument is finally gone now. After protests, the city pulled it down June 1, on a state holiday named for the political leader of the rebellion it commemorated. Removing physical symbols of slavery and segregation is an important step toward healing and recovery, but it’s not enough. We also must tear down prejudices, disparities and injustices that trace their roots to these oppressive and racist practices. To do that, Alabama must enact public policies that undermine white supremacy and promote dignity, equity and justice for everyone.

The need for racial justice

For more than 30 years, Alabama Arise has worked to make life better for struggling Alabamians through better public policy. It’s impossible to do that work effectively without acknowledging and challenging our state’s historical and ongoing racial inequities. There can be no economic or social justice without racial justice. And as scholar Ibram X. Kendi said, policy cannot be merely non-racist; it must be anti-racist. That’s why we’re committed to placing racial equity and inclusion at the core of our work.

Black Alabamians have battled generation after generation of discriminatory barriers to education, jobs, housing and voting. Compounding those barriers is a criminal justice system that polices Black people more heavily, arrests them more often and condemns them to harsher sentences in dangerously overcrowded prisons and jails.

For centuries, Black people have suffered from police brutality and unequal treatment from law enforcement. This history has fueled protests across the country and around the world over the last week. Arise stands in solidarity with calls to stop killing Black people and start building a world that’s safe for everyone.

All of these systemic failures have added together to produce a series of terrible, ongoing disparities. Black people in our state face higher rates of poverty and hunger, lower life expectancies and lower rates of employment and health insurance coverage.

Policy changes to break down harmful barriers

These are institutional failures that require policy solutions. Here a few ways lawmakers can help break down barriers to opportunity and justice:

  • Expand Medicaid to cover adults with low incomes. Expansion would ensure health coverage for more than 340,000 Alabamians who are uninsured or barely paying for insurance they can’t really afford. It also would attack a fundamental injustice: People of color make up about 34% of our state’s population, but nearly half of all uninsured Alabamians with low incomes are people of color. Lack of affordable health coverage deprives Black people of timely care for cancer, diabetes, heart disease and other serious conditions. As the disproportionately high share of coronavirus deaths among Black Alabamians shows, health care access is literally a matter of life or death.
  • Invest more in public education. Alabama’s state funding for K-12 and higher education, adjusted for inflation, is lower today than it was in 2008. This chronic underfunding hits many schools that primarily serve Black students especially hard.
  • Equitably distribute funding for affordable housing and public transportation. Alabama has trust funds for both but hasn’t funded them yet. Lawmakers should fund public transportation to help everyone get to work, school and other places they need to go. Alabama should support the Housing Trust Fund to ensure people living in deep poverty have safe shelter. Our state also should commit to eliminating redlining, fighting housing discrimination and proactively reducing residential segregation.
  • Overhaul the criminal justice system and the death penalty. Areas with large Black populations often see a larger police presence. The weight of harsh sentences and criminal justice debt falls more heavily on these Alabamians as a result. Lawmakers should reform sentencing laws and ease the crushing burden of exorbitant fines and fees. They also need to end abuses of civil asset forfeiture and eliminate racial injustice in the state’s death penalty system.
  • Strengthen and expand voting rights. Voting barriers should find no home in the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. Automatic voter registration, no-excuse absentee voting and same-day registration are a few changes that would make voting more accessible. Alabama also should ease barriers to voting rights restoration.
  • Raise the minimum wage and restore home rule to localities. Alabama is one of only five states with no minimum wage law. Birmingham tried to raise its minimum wage in 2016, but state lawmakers blocked that effort. The Legislature has that power due to the 1901 state constitution, whose authors explicitly said the document aimed to “establish white supremacy in this state.” Alabama should lift constitutional barriers to home rule and allow local governments to make decisions in their own communities.

A better, more inclusive future for Alabama

Undoing the legacies of slavery and segregation in Alabama will require more than reassuring words and vague platitudes. It will require substantive policy changes to break down centuries-old barriers and ensure all Alabamians have a chance to reach their full potential.

Many of these changes – and others not mentioned above – won’t be easy. Some of them may not happen quickly. But we must keep advocating and working toward the day when they will. The road to dignity, equity and justice for all Alabamians remains a long one. But walking together and working together, we can and will reach that destination.

Fund public transit to improve lives

Alabama’s public transportation shortfall is hurting people, communities and the economy. Many seniors, people with disabilities, and people with low incomes rely on public transit to go to work, get to the doctor and run essential errands. But Alabama provides no state money to help meet those needs. Here’s why our state should make this investment in a stronger economy and better quality of life:

  • Alabama is one of only five states that provide no state funding for public transportation. All four of our neighboring states do.
  • Alabama leaves millions in federal matching funds on the table every year. The federal government can grant $4 for every $1 the state spends on buses. And federal funds can double state investment in operations.
  • Every $1 million spent on operations creates 50 jobs. These jobs provide good benefits and an average operator’s salary of more than $70,000.
  • Alabama’s public transit options are limited because of the lack of funds. No service in Alabama operates past 11 p.m., even on weekends. Rural van routes may be booked up weeks in advance. And Alabama has cities with more than 30,000 people where no general public transit option exists.
  • Seven rural hospitals have closed since 2011, and many others are at risk. These closures have increased the strain on rural public transportation by leaving many Alabamians farther away from health care facilities.

Bottom line

State funding for public transportation would expand opportunity and connectivity across Alabama. With a General Fund appropriation to the Public Transportation Trust Fund, our state could create jobs, fuel economic growth and help people get where they need to go.

Arise 2020: Our vision for a better Alabama

Alabama Arise members have worked for more than three decades to build a brighter, more inclusive future for our state. And as the Legislature’s 2020 regular session starts Tuesday, we’re proud to renew that commitment.

Below, Arise executive director Robyn Hyden highlights some key goals for the session, including Medicaid expansion and untaxing groceries.

How you can make a difference

Together, we can turn our shared vision for a better Alabama into a reality. Here are three ways you can help:

(1) Become an Arise individual member. Numbers matter. The more members we have, the louder our voice for change is at the State House. If you’re not yet an Arise member, click here to become one today. If you’re already a member, please ask your friends and neighbors to join us as well!

(2) Talk to your legislators. Make sure your lawmakers know where you stand on our issues. Click here to sign up for our action alerts. And if you can, come meet your lawmakers in person at Arise’s annual Legislative Day on Feb. 25 in Montgomery. Click here to pre-register before Feb. 14.

(3) Spread the word about our issue priorities. The more people learn about our movement, the more support we gain. Read more about our 2020 issue priorities and share this information with your friends:

Together, we can make Alabama a place where everyone’s voice is heard and everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential. Together, we can build a better Alabama!

Arise 2020: Why Alabama should fund public transportation

Public transportation is vital infrastructure for a state looking toward the future. It allows people who lack other transportation options – including seniors, people with disabilities, and people who can’t afford a car – to get to work, go to the doctor and meet other basic needs. Reliable public transportation strengthens communities and makes a state more attractive to employers.

Alabama can expand its public transit options with a General Fund appropriation for the Public Transportation Trust Fund. Even a modest state investment in public transit could have a big impact, as Alabama Arise’s fact sheet explains. With a state allocation of just $10 million, for example, Alabama could receive up to $40 million in federal matching grants in return.

Public transportation funding would be an investment in our state’s economy and quality of life. Alabama could create public transit options in rural and suburban areas where they don’t exist now. Existing services could run later and more often. And all of these investments would support hundreds of stable, good-paying jobs.

We need you with us as we make the case for public transportation funding during the 2020 legislative session. Please join Arise or renew your membership today to add your voice to our chorus for change. Together, we can build a better Alabama!

Alabama Arise members vow to renew ‘untax groceries’ push in 2020

Ending the state sales tax on groceries is one of the top goals on Alabama Arise’s 2020 legislative agenda. Nearly 200 Arise members picked the organization’s issue priorities at its annual meeting Saturday in Montgomery. The seven issues chosen were:

  • Tax reform, including untaxing groceries and ending the state’s upside-down deduction for federal income taxes, which overwhelmingly benefits rich households.
  • Adequate budgets for human services like education, health care and child care, including Medicaid expansion and investment in home visiting services for parents of young children.
  • Voting rights, including creation of automatic universal voter registration and removal of barriers to voting rights restoration for disenfranchised Alabamians.
  • Payday and title lending reform to protect consumers from getting trapped in deep debt.
  • Criminal justice debt reform, including changes related to cash bail and civil asset forfeiture.
  • Death penalty reform, including a moratorium on executions.
  • Public transportation, including state investment in the Public Transportation Trust Fund.

“We believe in dignity, equity and justice for all Alabamians,” Alabama Arise executive director Robyn Hyden said. “And we believe our 2020 issue priorities would break down policy barriers that keep people in poverty. We must build a more inclusive future where everyone can prosper.”

Why Alabama should untax groceries

The state grocery tax is particularly harmful for Alabamians who struggle to make ends meet. The tax adds hundreds of dollars a year to the cost of a basic necessity. And most states have abandoned it: Alabama is one of only three states with no sales tax break on groceries.

Alabama is also one of only three states with a full income tax deduction for federal income taxes (FIT). For those who earn $30,000 a year, the deduction saves them about $27 on average. But for the top 1% of taxpayers, the FIT break is worth an average of more than $11,000 a year. Ending the FIT deduction would allow Alabama to remove the sales tax on groceries and still have funding left over to address other critical needs.

The grocery tax and FIT deduction are two key factors behind Alabama’s upside-down tax system. On average, Alabamians with low and moderate incomes must pay twice as much of what they make in state and local taxes as the richest households do.

“By untaxing groceries and ending the FIT deduction, lawmakers can make Alabama’s tax system more equitable for everyone,” Hyden said. “They can strengthen state support for K-12 and higher education. And they can make it easier for struggling families to put food on the table. This is an opportunity to make life better for everyone in our state, and the Legislature should do it.”

Learn more about Arise’s 2020 issue proposals

Grassroots democracy will be on display when Alabama Arise members choose our 2020 issue priorities at our annual meeting Sept. 7 in Montgomery.

The following proposals will be up for a vote for our 2020 legislative agenda.

Below, you’ll find member groups’ summaries of their new and modified proposals. And you’ll find our policy staff’s overviews of the current issue priorities and our two permanent priorities: tax reform and adequate state budgets. We hope to see you in September as we gather to renew our shared commitment to building a better Alabama for all!

New issue proposal

Housing Trust Fund revenue

Submitted by Gordon Sullivan, Low Income Housing Coalition of Alabama (LIHCA)

LIHCA thanks Alabama Arise and its members for supporting the Housing Trust Fund in 2018 and previous years. Our combined efforts resulted in social and political momentum to secure dedicated revenue for the Alabama Housing Trust Fund (AHTF)! We are here to ask for your continued support of the AHTF and help in securing dedicated revenue for the fund in 2020.

We believe safe, decent and affordable housing is a basic human right. Hard-working Alabamians should be able to pay rent and still be able to put food on the table. Unfortunately for many Alabamians, finding a safe and affordable home is only a dream. Alabama is in a housing crisis, with a lack of nearly 70,000 rental homes for folks surviving on minimum wage and fixed incomes.

Folks making minimum wage have to work 82 hours a week to afford a market-rate two-bedroom apartment. By doing so, they miss out on family suppers and Little League, because there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. Every child deserves a safe place to call home and a chance to have those who love them help with homework and read bedtime stories.

The AHTF created a fund to construct, rehabilitate and maintain homes for low-income households. Though the AHTF was created in 2012, it was enabling legislation and did not come with funding. That means we can’t create any new or rehabilitate any existing homes or address housing problems related to natural disasters. That is why LIHCA will seek dedicated revenue for the AHTF in 2020.

Proposed legislation to fund the AHTF

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Neil Rafferty, D-Birmingham, would increase the mortgage record tax from 15 cents to 20 cents for every $100 of a mortgage. This would put approximately $15 million per year in the AHTF. This type of revenue is a common funding source for housing trust funds across the country. In Alabama, this tax has not been increased since it was enacted in 1935.

We know that two-thirds of Alabamians (67%) see the lack of affordability as a problem in our state and that a strong majority (63%) of Alabamians are ready for state action to increase housing opportunities for households priced out of the market. Building on the momentum of previous years, we believe attaining bipartisan co-sponsors and endorsements from influential groups throughout the state is possible in 2020.

With the creation of new affordable homes in Alabama, families will begin to achieve economic stability. Communities will reduce blight. And the state will see an economic impact of nearly $1 billion over 10 years.

The dedicated revenue bill supports Arise’s values and its membership’s vision for addressing poverty in Alabama by investing in communities and helping low-income households access safe and affordable homes. The dedicated revenue bill will provide $15 million per year to create and rehabilitate homes for those in need. We have been successful in building momentum with Arise’s support in past years. Let’s work together to finish what we started!

Modified issue proposal

Voting rights

Submitted by Scott Douglas and Tari Williams, Greater Birmingham Ministries, and Ned Freeman, Birmingham Friends Meeting (Quakers)

Let’s build on Arise’s commitment to voting rights, continuing to prioritize automatic voter registration (AVR) and focusing on restoration of voting rights for Alabamians affected by felony disenfranchisement. Under AVR, Alabamians would be registered to vote by default, without having to register themselves, because the state already has the necessary information. And restoring voting rights for everyone would affirm basic ideals of democracy.

Historically, Alabama has been a leader among states with the most severely punitive disenfranchisement laws. These laws, with their blatantly racist history, have kept African Americans from the polls in enormous – and enormously disproportionate – numbers. Of the more than 280,000 disenfranchised felons in Alabama, nearly 150,000 are black, according to the Sentencing Project. That means that disenfranchised felons make up more than 15% of the state’s voting-age African American population.

Alabama’s felony disenfranchisement policies have disparate impact on individuals convicted of felonies who are poor, black or both. Therefore, we propose the introduction of legislation that will (a) remove the financial barrier of requiring payment of all fines, fees and/or restitution and (b) restore voting rights to individuals while on probation and parole. This legislation is not cost-prohibitive, may take one to three years to pass because of upcoming elections and is not potentially divisive for Arise members.

Alabama’s disenfranchisement laws have fostered an underclass of tens of thousands of people who are unable to vote because they do not have enough money. In 1964, the 24th Amendment abolished the poll tax, but to this day in Alabama, money keeps a disproportionate number of people away from the ballot box. People should not be barred from voting solely because they are unable to pay back their fines, fees and restitution.

Restoring voting rights to rebuild community ties

If we truly want people convicted of felonies to re-engage with society, become rehabilitated and feel a part of a broader community (thus creating incentives not to recidivate), then our state should do everything possible to reincorporate these individuals into mainstream society. In terms of being a just and even-handed society, it is not fair if thousands of people are unable to regain their voting rights because they are poor. People who are wealthy or have access to money are able to repay their financial debts. But poor people (the vast majority of people who have felony convictions) are not. This is an unjust system.

Individuals on probation and/or parole are actively working on retaining and/or rebuilding their ties to their families, employers and communities. Allowing them to reestablish ties as stakeholders in political life provides an analogous and important reintegrative purpose and promotes public safety.

Felony disenfranchisement provisions, especially in the South and particularly in Alabama, date back to the post-Reconstruction era. Their intent was always clear and explicit: to disenfranchise African Americans and preserve white domination.

Restoring voting rights and automatically registering voters is good policy. Arise prioritizing these policies also has the immediate benefit of putting a positive voting rights agenda in the public debate during an era when voting has been under attack.

Current Arise issue priorities

Criminal justice debt reform

Court fees and fines impose heavy burdens on many struggling families. Driver’s license suspensions over unpaid fines can cause Alabamians with low incomes to lose their jobs. Cash bail for minor offenses can imperil families’ economic security. And multiple fees can stack up, making it impossible to move on from a conviction because consequences never end. In Alabama, people are subject to 63 separate fees in the criminal justice system – including even a $1 fee for paying fee installments.

This year, Arise emphasized reforming civil asset forfeiture within the umbrella of criminal justice debt. This practice allows police to seize cash or other assets if they find probable cause to link the property to a crime. But the process doesn’t require a criminal conviction, or even a charge.

Originally intended to fight drug kingpins, civil asset forfeiture today sees heavy use against people accused of minor crimes. Underfunded law enforcement agencies have incentives to use forfeiture because they are often able to keep much of the seized property.

A philosophically diverse coalition is seeking to end forfeiture abuses in Alabama, and reform efforts already have borne fruit. In 2019, comprehensive reform efforts moved quickly at first but then slowed amid law enforcement opposition. Eventually, the Legislature passed incremental reform, mandating public reporting of property seizures. Public opinion strongly favors further change, and momentum continues to build.

Death penalty reform

Alabama’s capital punishment system is unreliable and racist. Our state hands down nearly double the national average of death sentences. We are the only state with no state-funded program providing legal aid to death row prisoners. And state laws give insufficient protection against executing people who were mentally incapable of understanding their actions.

Arise has worked for increased transparency on the lethal injection procedures and a three-year moratorium on executions. Bills were introduced but did not move in recent years. In 2017, the Legislature voted overwhelmingly to bar judges from imposing death sentences when a jury recommends life without parole. But the judicial override ban is not retroactive. About a fifth of the 175 people on Alabama’s death row received death sentences against the jury’s recommendation. We would like to enforce the override ban retroactively.

Alabama’s death penalty practices reflect deep racial inequities. Before the 2017 ban, judges imposed death against a jury’s determination more often when victims were white. The state argued as recently as 2016 that it should be allowed to kill a prisoner even when a judge explicitly cited race at the sentencing hearing. Much work remains to modernize Alabama’s justice system and prevent erroneous executions.

Payday and title lending reform

Every year, high-interest loans trap thousands of struggling Alabamians in a cycle of deep debt. Payday loans are short-term (usually two-week) loans charging high annual percentage rates (APRs), up to 456%. Auto title loans charge up to 300% APR and also carry the risk of repossession of the family vehicle.

These high-cost loans strip wealth from borrowers and hurt communities across Alabama. Payday lenders are on track to pull more than $1 billion in fees out of Alabama communities over the next decade, with most of that money flowing to out-of-state companies. Predatory lending practices disproportionately target people of color and exacerbate the economic challenges in struggling rural and urban communities.

Arise is part of a statewide coalition promoting interest rate caps on payday and title loans. In 2019, we supported legislation to give payday borrowers a 30-day repayment period – the same as other monthly bills – up from as few as 10 days now. But the bill didn’t move, despite the Senate Banking Committee chairman’s assurances that he would allow a vote.

The 30 Days to Pay bill’s sponsor – Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur – is working to ensure it will receive consideration early in the 2020 regular session. Heavy citizen engagement will be needed to overcome the lending lobby.

Public transportation

Our state’s jumble of local transportation systems fails to meet the needs of many people in rural, suburban and urban areas. Alabama is one of just five states with no state public transportation funding. For many low-income workers, seniors and people with disabilities, the transit gap is a barrier to daily living. Many folks can’t get to work, school, the doctor’s office or other places they need to go in a reasonable amount of time.

Alabama took a good first step in 2018 by creating a state Public Transportation Trust Fund. But the law did not allocate any state money, even though it would be a high-return investment in our future. Each $1 million invested in public transportation creates 41 full-time jobs, research shows. Those jobs would fuel economic growth and improve quality of life in our communities.

Appropriations for the state trust fund would be eligible for a 4-to-1 federal match. So by not funding public transit, Alabama leaves millions of federal dollars on the table each year.

The General Fund remains a key potential source for state public transit funding. Greater Birmingham Ministries’ Economic Justice/Systems Change group also has urged Arise to support legislation in 2020 to allow Alabamians to dedicate part of their state income tax refund to public transit. The state already allows voluntary contributions for mental health care, foster care and other public services.

Compiled by Dev Wakeley, policy analyst

Permanent Arise issue priorities

Adequate state budgets

Our state’s upside-down tax system starves state budgets of money needed to invest in our shared future. Alabama provides almost no state money for child care. In-home services for parents of at-risk children receive a paltry $3 million a year, far less than other states. And young adults struggle to afford rising tuition and fees at universities and two-year colleges.

Alabama must address comprehensive sentencing and prison reform in 2020. The General Fund budget will need more revenue to pay for stronger investments in mental health care, substance use treatment, drug courts, community corrections and more corrections officers.

Arise’s health care advocacy has three main goals: defend, reform and expand Medicaid. Our defense work this year focused on Alabama’s pending plan to impose a catch-22 work penalty, which would strip Medicaid from thousands of parents with extremely low incomes. Looking ahead, we expect a new push to cut Medicaid by block-granting federal Medicaid funds to states.

We’ve seen progress on Medicaid reform. The statewide Integrated Care Network (ICN) for long-term care launched last October. And the long-delayed regional primary care reform takes effect this October. Arise has recruited consumer representatives for the ICN governing board and all seven Alabama Coordinated Health Network (ACHN) boards. Next year, we’ll push for the next step: Medicaid expansion, which would benefit more than 340,000 Alabama adults.

Tax reform

Alabama’s tax system is upside down. The rich get huge tax breaks, while the heaviest tax burden falls on people with low and moderate incomes. High, regressive sales taxes on groceries and other necessities drive this imbalance. So does the state’s deduction for federal income taxes (FIT), a skewed break that overwhelmingly benefits wealthy people.

Arise has fought to end the grocery tax for more than a decade. The central challenge is how to replace the $480 million it raises for education. In 2020, we’ll intensify our efforts to show legislators the powerful link between untaxing groceries and ending the FIT deduction.

Alabama is one of only three states where filers can deduct all federal income tax payments from state income taxes. This tax break disproportionately benefits wealthy people, who pay more in federal income taxes and are more likely to itemize. Ending the FIT deduction would bring in enough revenue to untax groceries, fund Medicaid expansion and meet other critical needs.

Compiled by Jim Carnes, policy director, and Carol Gundlach, policy analyst

Better policy choices on taxes, transit can improve Alabamians’ health

Deeper and smarter investments in education, housing, infrastructure and other vital services can eliminate barriers to good health for low-income residents and communities of color, according to a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a nonpartisan policy research organization based in Washington, D.C.

Alabama can take many important policy steps to remove barriers to better health. These include:

  • Expand Medicaid to cover more than 340,000 adults with low incomes.
  • Provide state funding for public transportation to help seniors, people with disabilities, and people who can’t afford a car get to work or the doctor’s office and meet other basic needs.
  • End the state grocery tax to make it easier for families to make ends meet.
  • Modernize the state’s upside-down tax system to ensure Alabama raises enough money to invest in vital services and doesn’t tax struggling people deeper into poverty.

“Good health and good quality of life go hand in hand,” Alabama Arise executive director Robyn Hyden said. “By investing in Medicaid and public transportation and making our tax system more progressive, Alabama can build a stronger, healthier, more prosperous future for everyone.”

Income and wealth inequality, on top of centuries of structural racism, have taken their toll on health for black Alabamians. Black residents of our state die three years earlier than white residents, on average. Black babies in Alabama are twice as likely as white babies to be born with low birth weight, and they are twice as likely to die before their first birthdays.

Social, economic and environmental factors account for half of an individual’s health, the CBPP report says. That finding underscores the importance of investments in the common good.

“If Alabama really wants to improve the health of its residents, policymakers must prioritize education, housing, the environment, infrastructure, health programs and other public investments in their budgets,” CBPP senior policy analyst Jennifer Sullivan said.

Public transit is an investment in Alabama’s future

It’s time to jump-start public transportation in Alabama. Our lack of state support for this vital service is hurting people, communities and the broader economy. Many Alabama seniors, people with disabilities, and people with low incomes rely on public transit to go to work, get to the doctor and run essential errands. Yet unlike almost all other states, Alabama provides no state money to help meet those needs. Alabama can fix this problem with a General Fund appropriation to the Public Transportation Trust Fund.

Lack of investment leaves Alabama behind

Alabama’s gasoline tax brought in more than $430 million in 2018. But not one penny of that money is available to public transit agencies. A 1952 constitutional amendment prohibits the use of gas tax revenues for anything other than road and bridge construction and maintenance, law enforcement, and highway-related debt payment. Alabama spends about $7 of every $100 of its state budgets on transportation, but none of that money goes to public transit.

Public transportation is vital to the well-being of families throughout Alabama. In the Birmingham metropolitan area alone, 3 million bus rides per year help take people where they need to go. But a lack of funding severely limits the bus schedules and routes there and elsewhere. No public transit system in Alabama operates past 11 p.m., even on weekends. Many rural lines operate only from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, and they often are booked weeks in advance. Maintenance problems can cause hours of wait time between buses on the lines that do exist.

Alabama is one of only five states to provide no state funding for public transit, unlike all four of our neighbors. By failing to invest in these services, Alabama leaves millions of dollars in federal matching funds on the table yearly. If public transit agencies in the state invest in new buses or vans, the federal government can contribute $4 for every $1 that Alabama invests. For other necessary public transportation expenses, the federal government can double any state investment.

Transit funding expands economic opportunity

Stronger investment in public transportation could create hundreds of good-paying jobs in every part of our state. Every $1 million spent on public transit capital improvements creates 24 full-time jobs, and every $1 million spent on operation creates 41 full-time jobs, according to the American Public Transportation Association. These are stable, long-term jobs with benefits and a 2017 median salary of $58,000.

The economic benefits of state public transit funding would stretch across Alabama. Reliable public transportation systems greatly improve the economic opportunities available in an area. Companies often determine whether to expand to a location based partly on the health and availability of public transportation there. State support for the Public Transportation Trust Fund would mean much more than just money for buses, vans and trains. It would be an investment in Alabama’s economy and quality of life. It would be an investment in our people. And it would be an investment in our state’s future.