ARPA 101: How the American Rescue Plan Act can build a more equitable Alabama

The COVID-19 pandemic has stretched families, hospitals, schools, businesses and food banks across Alabama to their limits. Like tens of millions of other Americans, local and state officials have had to adapt to new challenges and respond to existing health and economic challenges exacerbated by the pandemic over the last two years.

Congress reacted to these challenges by passing several major recovery packages to provide relief to individuals, states and local governments. The most recent package was the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), a $1.9 trillion measure enacted in March 2021. One key provision of ARPA is known as State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF). Congress allocated this money to help states and localities address the impact of the pandemic and promote equitable recovery.

How Alabama has used ARPA funding so far – and the opportunities that remain

Of the $195 billion of SLFRF money appropriated to states, Alabama will receive more than $2.1 billion. State and local governments can spend these dollars in four ways, according to the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Final Rule released in January 2022:

  1. Replace lost public sector revenue.
  2. Support the COVID-19 public health and economic response.
  3. Provide premium pay for eligible workers performing essential work.
  4. Invest in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

To date, Alabama has allocated more than $1.1 billion to various programs and projects through three special sessions. Lawmakers allocated $480 million for prison construction and health care during the first two sessions in September and November 2021. The Legislature appropriated another $772 million during the third special session in January 2022. Legislators devoted that money to a range of projects, including broadband, water and wastewater infrastructure and rural hospitals.

The Legislature has yet to appropriate the remaining $1 billion in state ARPA recovery funds. But legislators may return this summer or fall for a special session focused on the use of those funds. Alabama Arise is encouraging lawmakers to invest some of that money in affordable housing, public transportation and food security infrastructure. Each of those investments would provide long-term improvements in economic opportunity and quality of life for people across Alabama.

Top priorities: Affordable housing, public transportation and food security

Priorities for Alabama's remaining ARPA funds: Affordable housing, public transportation and food security.
The COVID-19 recession caused a wave of evictions and foreclosures across Alabama. The state could help address its housing shortage and resulting homelessness by providing $25 million for the state Housing Trust Fund. This investment would create and support jobs across the state. It also would reduce Alabama’s shortfall of more than 76,000 affordable homes for people with low incomes.

Essential work supports can help more Alabamians reenter and stay in the job market during and after the pandemic. One critical support is reliable transportation to and from work, school, child care or medical care. Legislators can help strengthen communities and expand economic opportunity by investing $20 million in the state Public Transportation Trust Fund. Arise partnered with 81 other organizations in June 2022 to urge lawmakers to take that important step forward.

Hunger was already a large and perpetual problem across Alabama even before the pandemic. Sudden income loss, rising prices and occasional shortages have made it much more difficult for many people to feed their children and families. Alabama’s food banks remain essential to feeding those in need, even as many have faced staff and volunteer shortages. Lawmakers can help ease this strain by distributing $5 million to the state’s food banks. This funding would empower food banks to maintain services by replacing and improving critical infrastructure like equipment, fleets and warehouses.

ARPA funding for affordable housing, public transportation and food security infrastructure will make life better for the Alabamians hit hardest by COVID-19 and the economic downturn it caused. And these investments will go a long way toward helping create a more equitable and prosperous future for every Alabamian.

For more on the American Rescue Plan Act, please visit our ARPA toolkit.

82 Alabama groups urge Ivey, legislators to fund public transportation using ARPA funds

Lawmakers should jump-start public transportation across Alabama with an allocation of $20 million from the state’s remaining federal COVID-19 relief money, according to a letter that 82 churches and organizations across the state sent Wednesday to Gov. Kay Ivey and legislators. Alabama Arise is among the groups that co-signed the letter.

The organizations asked Gov. Kay Ivey and the Legislature to invest $20 million of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds in the state Public Transportation Trust Fund. That amount is just 2% of the state’s roughly $1 billion of remaining unallocated ARPA funds.

Alabama is one of only three states with no state funding for public transportation, the letter says. Lawmakers created the state Public Transportation Trust Fund in 2018, but it has yet to receive state funding. And the consequences of that state inaction have grown in recent years, the letter says.

“The COVID-19 pandemic only worsened the harm resulting from lack of state support for public transportation,” the letter says. “We know robust investments in public transit will provide strong benefits for people across Alabama. Greater access to work, school, child care and medical care are just a few examples of how public transit is critical not only for an individual’s quality of life but for the state’s economic development and prosperity.”

More public transit funding means fewer service barriers

Investments in public transportation would expand economic opportunity, advance racial equity and strengthen community connections, a recent Arise report found. Arise’s survey of public transit systems in 42 of Alabama’s 67 counties showed how additional funding would empower those systems to lift many service barriers.

“State public transportation funding is an investment in a stronger economy and healthier communities,” Arise executive director Robyn Hyden said. “This investment would allow Alabama to draw down more federal infrastructure dollars. It would allow systems to hire more drivers and add more routes. It would enable them to extend operating hours and modernize technology. And it would bring us closer to the day when all Alabamians can get where they need to go when they need to get there.”

Click here to read the full letter from 82 organizations to the governor and legislators.

Alabama Arise, 81 partner groups urge Alabama to fund public transportation

American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) relief funding provides an opportunity for Alabama to jump-start public transportation across the state. Alabama Arise joined 81 partner organizations Wednesday in a letter asking lawmakers to allocate ARPA money to public transportation. The full text of the letter is below.

Letter text

Dear Governor Ivey, Lieutenant Governor Ainsworth, members of the Cabinet and the Alabama Legislature:

Public transportation creates jobs, improves lives and keeps people connected to their communities. As you consider how to allocate the remaining estimated $1 billion of state funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), we strongly encourage you to support Alabama’s public transportation systems. Specifically, we ask you to invest $20 million of ARPA funds into Alabama’s Public Transportation Trust Fund (PTTF).

The PTTF was established in 2018 but remains unfunded to this day. Alabama is one of only three states that provide no state funding for public transportation. A 1952 constitutional amendment bars the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) from using revenue from the state gas tax or license fees for public transportation, which is how most states fund public transportation. Instead, nearly all money for public transportation in Alabama comes from federal dollars administered by ALDOT.

It is clear to the undersigned organizations that the COVID-19 pandemic only worsened the harm resulting from lack of state support for public transportation. Limited funding has forced some local transit systems to curtail specialized services for riders with disabilities or serious health conditions.

We know robust investments in public transit will provide strong benefits for people across Alabama. Greater access to work, school, child care and medical care are just a few examples of how public transit is critical not only for an individual’s quality of life but for the state’s economic development and prosperity.

We urge you to invest $20 million in the PTTF using ARPA’s designated revenue replacement funds. This move will allow those funds to go even further by matching incoming federal dollars for public transportation. And it will make Alabama a better place to live and work for years to come.

Thank you for your consideration.

Signatories

Sincerely,

82 Alabama community-based organizations:

  1. AIDS Alabama
  2. Alabama Arise
  3. Alabama Black Women’s Roundtable
  4. Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence
  5. Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice
  6. Alabama Forward
  7. Alabama Rivers Alliance
  8. Alabama Rural Ministry
  9. Alabama State Conference of the NAACP
  10. All Nations Church of God (Montgomery)
  11. All Saints Episcopal Church (Mobile)
  12. Amalgamated Transit Union Local 770
  13. American Association of University Women Alabama (AAUW)
  14. American Association of University Women (AAUW) – Huntsville Branch
  15. Anniston First United Methodist Church – Church & Society Committee
  16. Baldwin County Trailblazers
  17. Bay Area Women Coalition, Inc. (Mobile)
  18. Beloved Community Church, UCC (Birmingham)
  19. Birmingham Footmad
  20. Birmingham Friends Meeting (Quakers)
  21. Bold Goals Coalition (Central Alabama)
  22. Childcare Resources (Birmingham)
  23. Christian Methodist Episcopal Church – Birmingham District Lay Leadership
  24. Church Women United Montgomery
  25. Citizens’ Climate Lobby – Alabama
  26. Collaborative Solutions (Birmingham)
  27. Communities of Transformation
  28. Community Action Association of Alabama
  29. Community Enabler (Anniston)
  30. Eastwood Neighborhood Association (Birmingham)
  31. Edgewood Presbyterian Church (Homewood)
  32. Fairhope Unitarian Fellowship
  33. Faith in Action Alabama
  34. First Presbyterian Church of Birmingham
  35. GASP
  36. Grace Presbyterian Church, PCUSA (Tuscaloosa)
  37. Greater Birmingham Ministries
  38. Gulf Coast Creation Care
  39. ¡HICA! Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama
  40. H.I.V.E. Alabama
  41. Heritage Training and Career Center (Montgomery)
  42. Holy Comforter Episcopal Church Gadsden Missions Committee
  43. Hometown Action
  44. Immanuel Presbyterian Church PCUSA (Montgomery)
  45. Independent Living Center of Mobile
  46. Inspire United Appeal Fund Corporation (Mobile)
  47. Jackson District Women’s Home and Overseas Missionary Society A.M.E. Zion Church
  48. Jobs to Move America
  49. League of Women Voters of Alabama
  50. Lighthouse Community Development Corporation (Mobile)
  51. Low Income Housing Coalition of Alabama
  52. Mary’s House Catholic Worker (Birmingham)
  53. Mission Committee, First Presbyterian Church of Auburn
  54. Mobile Environmental Justice Action Coalition
  55. Monte Sano United Methodist Church – Missions Chair
  56. NAACP Tuscaloosa Branch
  57. National Federation of the Blind of Alabama
  58. Neighborhood Concepts, Inc. (Huntsville)
  59. North Alabama Peace Network
  60. One Roof (Birmingham)
  61. Open Table United Church of Christ (Mobile)
  62. Ozanam Charitable Pharmacy, Inc. (Mobile)
  63. Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty
  64. Sisters of Mercy Alabama
  65. SPLC Action Fund
  66. St. Luke’s Episcopal Church (Jacksonville)
  67. St. Peter AME Church (Montgomery)
  68. SWEET Alabama (Birmingham)
  69. Systems Change/Economic Justice Workgroup – Greater Birmingham Ministries
  70. The Downtown Jimmie Hale Mission (Birmingham)
  71. The Horizons School (Birmingham)
  72. The Institute for Community, Youth & Family Services (Birmingham)
  73. The Right Place, Inc. (Anniston)
  74. The Sisters (Tuscaloosa)
  75. Thrive Alabama (Huntsville)
  76. Transform Alabama
  77. Transit Citizens Advisory Board (Birmingham)
  78. Trinity United Methodist Church (Homewood)
  79. Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham
  80. Unitarian Universalist Church of Huntsville
  81. YMBC Civic Forum (Birmingham)
  82. Youth Towers Incorporated (Birmingham)

Alabama’s road to a better public transportation future

Public transportation is an investment in people, communities, the economy and the environment. Many older adults, individuals with disabilities and people with low incomes need public transit to get to work, seek medical care, buy groceries and more.

By providing state funding for public transportation, Alabama lawmakers can help ensure these freedoms for everyone in our state. They could start by allocating $20 million of the state’s remaining American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money to the state Public Transportation Trust Fund.

The Alabama Legislature created the Public Transportation Trust Fund in 2018, but no state funds have been provided for it yet. As a result, the trust fund’s capacity to provide badly needed state matching funds for federal transportation dollars has languished. This inaction has left Alabama with a truncated and inadequate public transportation system.

Alabama Arise surveyed public transportation systems in 42 of our state’s 67 counties this spring to identify service barriers. The findings were clear: State funding and the resulting additional federal dollars would help lift many of these barriers. Alabama lawmakers should provide this crucial funding at the next available opportunity.

Image of an empty bus. Text: Alabama is not doing enough to provide transportation to those who need it the most.

Public transportation is a critical unmet need for Alabama

There is such a need [for public transportation], and people love it. Sometimes I ride and try to blend in so people don’t know who I am, and I hear people say how glad they are that the program came along. People are so grateful for the service.” – a south Alabama public transit director.

The Alabamians who use public transportation services the most are people with low incomes, older adults, people with disabilities, and people of color, according to the systems we surveyed. Alabama’s poverty rate is 16%. Of our state’s total population of slightly more than 5 million, 16.2% have a disability, 16.9% are over age 65 and 35.9% are people of color.

By contrast, only 0.3% of Alabama residents – or about one in 300 – use public transportation to get to work. And the average travel time to work in Alabama is about 25 minutes. A look at these numbers leads to a simple conclusion: Alabama is not doing enough to provide public transportation to those who need it the most.

Image of an empty bus. Text: Only 1 in 300 residents in Alabama use public transportation to get to work.

State funding barriers undermine public transportation

Maintaining vehicles with high mileage is hard, especially in rural counties. It might take 40 minutes to just go get someone.” – a south Alabama public transit director.

Public transportation systems require adequate and stable funding to operate. However, Alabama is one of only three states (along with Hawaii and Nevada) that provide no state money for public transportation. A 1952 constitutional amendment bars the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) from using revenue from the state gas tax or license fees for public transportation.

Nearly all money for public transportation in Alabama comes from federal dollars administered by ALDOT. Multiple federal COVID-19 recovery packages, including the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), temporarily provided additional money for many of Alabama’s public transportation systems. These funds will expire soon, but the need for public transportation services will remain.

Counties again will have to rely on the usual federal programs and grants along with local funds for public transportation. How these dollars are allocated and distributed to county transit authorities is a complicated process that makes it difficult to ensure they receive the funds their systems need.

Further, local transit systems must provide matching funds (state or local non-federal dollars) to receive federal transportation funds. Many counties receive matching funds from contracts with social services, other local organizations, county commissions, municipalities and other local sources.

Non-federal match requirements vary by program and can range from 10% to 50% of transit purchases or operations. Forty percent of surveyed systems said non-federal match is a problem for them or could be in the future.

Availability and access barriers are widespread

Decrease in funding has affected the ability for us to transport individuals who have been using services for years. With many, this has large consequences – like dialysis patients, because they have to get to appointments.” – a central Alabama public transit director

Image of bus driver. Text: Decrease in funding has affected the ability for us to transport individuals who have been using services for years. With many, this has large consequences – like dialysis patients, because they have to get to appointments.

Most Alabama counties only offer public transportation services Monday through Friday, our survey found. Counties with weekend services only provide transportation on Saturdays and on a limited basis, such as only in urban areas or with restricted hours. Most county systems are unable to provide weekend services due to lack of resources.

Many counties do not offer public transportation services after 4 p.m., and just as many do not begin providing transportation until 8 a.m. This scheduling creates a gap for people who need transportation to and from work for shifts ending after 4 p.m. or starting at or before 8 a.m. Almost no public transportation systems in Alabama provide services past 6 p.m., so night-shift workers are unable to get a ride to and from work.

Because of limited funding, some systems have had to curtail specialized services for riders with disabilities or serious health conditions. Some systems struggle to afford wheelchair-accessible equipment. One system reported it had to end several contracts with local organizations serving older adults or people with disabilities because it couldn’t afford to provide services. Other systems are often unable to offer more than basic wheelchair accessibility.

Systems said they struggle to find and keep bus drivers because they cannot pay competitive wages. For these systems, the lack of drivers means they cannot afford to run on any weekends or past 4 p.m., or they must limit the number of routes provided.

The need for technology upgrades

We need to have more tech, take cards on the buses, get away from cash, GPS on the buses.” – a north Alabama public transit director

Ride scheduling processes for many public transportation systems are outdated and complicated. Most systems still use call-in systems where riders have to schedule a pickup at least 24 to 48 hours in advance.

More efficient options exist. In an effort to streamline services and increase accessibility, Baldwin County’s transit system uses a downloadable app to schedule rides. In February, the county reported 42% of users used the app rather than calling to make an appointment.

Alabama needs updated technology to operate its public transportation systems more effectively. But this technology costs money, and it will require state funding to pull down federal dollars for modern technology.

New technology also would help when it comes to rider fees. Many counties struggle with payment of bus fees, either because of exact cash payment requirements or residents’ inability to pay even minimal fees. Alternative payment methods (payment via website, app, card reader, etc.) would lessen the burden for riders and drivers. Again, this would require purchasing additional equipment.

A better, more connected future

My vision for public transportation is for everyone to have access to safe, reliable and timely transportation with no limitations as to when or to where.” – a north Alabama public transit director

Image of people getting onto a bus. Text: My vision for public transportation is for everyone to have access to safe, reliable and timely transportation with no limitations as to when or to where.

“What would be your vision for your system if you had the resources?” That was one of the final questions on our survey of county transit system directors. The responses painted a picture of an Alabama where everyone can get where they need to go. Many directors said they would expand services by hiring more drivers and buying more vehicles. Some said new funding would allow them to purchase new technology. And others highlighted their desire to extend riding days and times and expand their travel area.

Our state’s lack of state public transportation funding makes maintaining and using public transit incredibly difficult for people who use the systems. And it likely discourages many people from trying to use public transit at all.

Alabama deserves better. State lawmakers should invest $20 million from the remaining American Rescue Plan Act funds into Alabama’s Public Transportation Trust Fund. By doing so, our state can empower local transportation systems to provide the services that their riders need.

These investments in public transportation would expand economic opportunity and advance racial equity. And they would help build an Alabama where everyone can stay connected and reach their full potential.

About the authors

Elaine Burdeshaw was an intern at Alabama Arise in spring 2022. Turner Griffin was an intern at Arise in fall 2021 and spring 2022. They completed this report during their internships. Both received their Master of Social Work degrees from the University of Alabama in May 2022.

Last updated June 16, 2022.

Arise legislative recap: Jan. 25, 2022

The Alabama Legislature has stepped away briefly from its regular session for a special session on federal COVID-19 relief funds. Arise executive director Robyn Hyden provides an overview of how lawmakers plan to allocate the next portion of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money this week. And she explains why affordable housing and public transportation should be among the top priorities for the next round of ARPA funding.

New poll: Alabamians strongly support use of ARPA funds to protect rural hospitals, increase mental health services

Alabama’s likely voters overwhelmingly support using federal COVID-19 relief funds to increase funding for mental health and rural hospitals, according to a new Alabama Arise poll released Monday.

More than four in five respondents (81.1%) supported using a portion of Alabama’s funding under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to invest in rural hospitals and increase rural Alabamians’ access to health care. And nearly three in four likely voters (73.6%) said lawmakers should boost mental health funding to increase access to services across Alabama. Among Republican voters, 80.1% supported investments in rural hospitals and 67.7% supported more mental health care funding.

“Alabamians are loud and clear that they want our lawmakers to use federal relief money to strengthen our state’s health care system,” Alabama Arise executive director Robyn Hyden said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has strained health care workers like nothing before in our lifetimes. And it has exposed and worsened our state’s persistent racial and geographic health disparities.

“ARPA offers an unprecedented chance to protect rural hospitals and increase access to mental health care and other services. We must seize this opportunity to build a healthier future for Alabama.”

Photo of a smiling couple and their child. Headline: Alabama should use ARPA funds to build a better, more inclusive future.

Child care, housing, public transportation also enjoy strong public support

Sizable majorities also approved of other potential uses of ARPA money to improve living conditions for Alabama’s children and families. Those proposals include:

  • Expanding access to subsidized child care for working families.
  • Establishing a state child tax credit to lower costs for working families.
  • Expanding access to affordable housing throughout the state.
  • Investing in public transportation, particularly in rural areas.

Alabama will receive a total of more than $2 billion in ARPA funds. Lawmakers last year appropriated $400 million of that amount toward prison construction and $80 million to hospitals and nursing homes. This week, the Legislature will vote on a plan to spend another $772 million of ARPA funds. Most of that money would go toward broadband internet expansion, water and sewer improvements, and additional funding for hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

The state expects to receive the remaining $1 billion in ARPA funds later this year. Arise’s poll shows the public wants legislators to use that money to ease economic stress on Alabama households, Hyden said.

“The pandemic has made it harder for people across our state to find child care, keep a roof overhead and get where they need to go,” Hyden said. “We should use ARPA funding to ease families’ suffering and provide the supports needed to help every Alabamian succeed. It’s time for our lawmakers to meet this moment and ensure Alabama’s post-pandemic future is a bright and inclusive one.”

About the survey

Alabama Arise commissioned the poll, which the Montgomery-based firm Cygnal conducted Jan. 13-14. The poll surveyed 631 likely voters across Alabama and has a margin of error of +/- 3.85%. Interviews of known registered voters occurred via live phone calls, online panel, texts and email invitation.

Click here for Arise’s poll results on ARPA funding priorities in Alabama.

Six ways Alabama should use ARPA funds to build a better, more inclusive future

The Alabama Legislature’s 2022 regular session, which began Tuesday, will be unusual in one important way. For the first time in many years, Alabama has more than enough revenue to maintain its bare-bones public services. That means instead of scrambling to avoid cuts, the legislative focus can be on strengthening investments in our state’s future.

Both the Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget and the General Fund (GF) budget, which funds non-education programs, have seen tax revenues rise more than 10% in the last year. ETF revenues actually increased 16% in 2021. In addition, Alabama has about $1.6 billion of federal relief funds remaining under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). President Joe Biden signed ARPA into law in March 2021.

Alabama lawmakers already allocated $480 million of the state’s ARPA money last year. Of that amount, $400 million went toward prison construction and $80 million went to hospitals and nursing homes.

Budget growth faces sustainability challenges

State budget officials have steadily cautioned lawmakers to consider the one-time nature of both relief money and the bump in tax revenues. Recent revenue growth almost certainly will not be sustained in future years, budget officials warn. And one-time ARPA funds are by definition only temporary.

Alabama’s budget officials have strongly recommended that both ARPA funds and increased state revenues be invested in programs and services that won’t require regular, recurring revenue but that still meet critical needs for the people of the state. Alabama Arise questions whether the new revenue is as unsustainable as budget officials predict. But Arise agrees that this money needs to fund big ideas that will benefit the state for years to come.

Areas for investment

If spent wisely, ARPA funds could create vital long-term improvements for Alabamians. Alabama Arise has numerous specific suggestions for what those big ideas, and investments, could be.

Serve underserved communities

ARPA investments should focus on the most underserved areas and most underserved Alabamians. Communities of color and communities with low incomes, particularly in the Black Belt, have long-festering unmet infrastructure needs. The lack of wastewater treatment, accessible broadband internet, affordable housing and public transportation has held these communities back for decades.

In deciding where to spend new one-time dollars, the most historically neglected parts of Alabama should come first. An urgent public health need in many rural Black Belt counties is for sewer and other water treatment systems. These should be a top priority.

Modernize state technology

A major lesson from the COVID-19 recession was that Alabama’s technology infrastructure is totally inadequate for remote access to services. Suddenly unemployed people desperately tried to apply for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits, food assistance, COVID-19 tests and other services on overwhelmed state computer and telephone systems. People who had never before applied for public assistance couldn’t find one-stop sources of information about services for which they might be eligible. And when new federal programs were created, they were hard to implement. That’s because Alabama’s computer systems didn’t talk to each other and couldn’t share information needed to help people get assistance.

Modernizing the state’s computer systems would be a great investment to increase efficiency and prepare us for the next crisis. This would allow for integrated eligibility and data sharing systems across state agencies. And it would be an opportunity to modernize and upgrade the state’s UI application and payment process.

Expand Medicaid and strengthen public health

Alabama has failed for decades to invest adequately in our health care infrastructure, including Medicaid. The devastating toll of the COVID-19 pandemic has made the consequences of that failure apparent to everyone in the state. We need to invest now in a health care infrastructure that will improve the delivery of health services to underserved individuals and communities.

Medicaid expansion to cover adults with low incomes is an essential step to strengthen Alabama’s health care system. Other investments should include more funding for mobile health services and telehealth services. Alabama also should provide additional resources for our local and state public health departments.

Reduce hunger and promote healthier communities

Hunger was already a large and perpetual problem across Alabama even before the pandemic. But the COVID-19 recession and its aftermath exacerbated this problem by fueling a rapid, major increase in food insecurity. Sudden income loss, rising prices and occasional shortages have made it much more difficult for many people to feed their children and families.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and various child nutrition programs are essential standing resources to fight hunger in Alabama. But the state can and should do more to support our food infrastructure. Alabama should provide healthy food financing grants to expand community groceries, farmers markets and mobile markets. This would improve access to healthy foods in communities without ready access to fresh foods, especially fruits and vegetables.

Invest in affordable housing

The COVID-19 recession has caused a wave of evictions and foreclosures across Alabama. This has occurred as the cost of housing has been driven up amid supply chain issues and fewer available workers.

Alabama could help address its housing shortage and resulting homelessness by providing $25 million for the state Housing Trust Fund. This investment would create and support jobs across the state. And it would reduce Alabama’s shortfall of more than 73,000 affordable homes for people with incomes below the federal poverty level.

Fund public transportation

Alabama’s elected leaders, including Gov. Kay Ivey in her State of the State address, have celebrated the state’s low unemployment rate. But they also are bemoaning our state’s associated low rate of labor force participation. For more Alabamians to return to work during and after the pandemic, the state must ensure they have essential work supports. Not the least of these is transportation to and from a job or school.

Lawmakers can help people reenter the job market by investing $20 million in ARPA funds and $10 million in GF dollars in the state Public Transportation Trust Fund. These dollars would go a long way toward ensuring that people, especially those in rural areas, can get to a job and to job training. They also would help Alabama match other federal transportation dollars that can benefit the entire state.

Jump-start public transit in Alabama

Alabama’s failure to invest in public transportation is hurting people, communities, the economy and the environment. Many seniors, people with disabilities and people with low incomes need public transit to get to work, medical care, the grocery store and more. Others prefer an energy-saving alternative to cars. The Legislature created the Public Transportation Trust Fund (PTTF) in 2018 but hasn’t provided state funds for it.

The November 2021 federal infrastructure law has changed the game. It targets hundreds of millions of federal dollars to Alabama for public transportation. It’s time to activate the PTTF to ensure transparent, equitable distribution of these historic resources. Here’s why:

  • Alabama is one of only three states (along with Hawaii and Nevada) that provide no state funding for public transportation. All other Southern 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.
  • Lack of funds has limited public transit options. No service in Alabama operates past 11 p.m., even on weekends. Rural van routes may be booked up weeks in advance. And some cities with more than 30,000 people have no general public transit option.
  • Eight 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.
  • The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) administers the fund. ADECA makes and audits project awards and does a needs assessment.

Bottom line

We have the vehicle. Let’s drive it. Alabama’s Public Transportation Trust Fund can match and distribute federal funds wisely and fairly. Expanding public transportation would create thousands of jobs, fuel economic growth and get people where they need to go. It would create a healthier environment and a healthier Alabama for all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How federal aid should help Alabamians

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

Provide health care to hundreds of thousands of uninsured Alabamians

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

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

Update infrastructure and invest in equity

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

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

Finish implementing solutions on housing and public transportation

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

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

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

Increase transparency and modernize technology

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

A new path forward

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

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

Alabama Arise unveils members’ 2022 roadmap for change

Sentencing reform and voting rights expansion are two key goals on Alabama Arise’s 2022 legislative agenda. Members voted for Arise’s issue priorities this week after nearly 300 people attended the organization’s online annual meeting Saturday. 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 to make health coverage affordable for all Alabamians.
  • Voting rights, including automatic universal voter registration and removal of barriers to voting rights restoration for disenfranchised Alabamians.
  • Criminal justice reform, including retroactive application of state sentencing guidelines and repeal of the Habitual Felony Offender Act.
  • Death penalty reform, including a law to require juries to be unanimous in any decision to impose a death sentence.
  • Payday and title lending reform to protect consumers from getting trapped in debt.
  • Public transportation to help Alabamians with low incomes stay connected to work, school, health care and their communities.

“Arise believes in dignity, equity and justice for all Alabamians,” Alabama Arise executive director Robyn Hyden said. “Our 2022 issue priorities would break down many of the policy barriers that keep people in poverty. We must build a more inclusive future for our state. And together, we will.”

Graphic listing Alabama Arise's 2022 issue priorities

The urgent need for criminal justice reform

Alabama’s criminal justice system is broken, and its prisons are violent and dangerously overcrowded. Exorbitant court fines and fees impose heavy burdens on thousands of families every year, taking a disproportionate toll on communities of color and families who already struggle to make ends meet. And Alabama needs investments in mental health care, substance use disorder treatment, community corrections and diversion programs to help stem the tide of mass incarceration.

Lawmakers’ plan to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on new prisons is not an adequate solution to these problems. Alabama must enact meaningful sentencing and reentry reforms to make its corrections system more humane and effective. Legislators took a good first step during this week’s special session by passing a bill by Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody, to provide supervised release for everyone leaving prison in Alabama.

Many other needed changes still remain on the Legislature’s plate, however. One important priority is Hill’s proposal to allow judges to apply Alabama’s new sentencing guidelines retroactively. The House declined to vote on that bill this week, but Hill has promised to file it again in 2022. Hundreds of people would be eligible to apply for a reduced sentence if the measure passes.

Arise also will continue to work toward repeal of the Habitual Felony Offender Act (HFOA), the state’s “three-strikes” law. The HFOA is a driver of sentencing disparities and prison overcrowding in Alabama. The law lengthens sentences for a felony conviction after a prior felony conviction, even when the prior offense was nonviolent. Hundreds of people in Alabama are serving life sentences for non-homicide crimes because of the HFOA. Thousands more have had their sentences increased as a result. Repealing the law would reduce prison overcrowding and end some of Alabama’s most abusive sentencing practices.

Protect and expand voting rights so every voice is heard

Arise members provided a resounding endorsement of efforts to protect and expand voting rights in Alabama. This includes support of federal legislation to prevent voter suppression and strengthen the Voting Rights Act. And it includes calls for numerous state-level improvements to promote greater civic engagement and increase access to voting.

One such improvement would be automatic voter registration (AVR) across Alabama. AVR would use information the state already has to register or update registrations electronically for hundreds of thousands of Alabamians. Another important step would be to ensure people who struggle to make ends meet are not denied the right to vote simply because they cannot afford court fines and fees.

“Our ability to progress as a state will be limited as long as any person or group is unable to exercise their constitutional right to vote,” Hyden said. “We urge Alabama lawmakers to protect and expand voting rights by instituting automatic voter registration and lifting barriers to voting rights restoration.”