Arise legislative update: April 29, 2024

Arise’s Akiesha Anderson provides an update on where things stand in the final days of the Alabama Legislature’s 2024 regular session. Unfortunately, we received unfavorable news last week on public transportation funding and legislation that would discourage employers from voluntarily recognizing a union. But we also have good news: Alabama lawmakers heard Medicaid expansion success stories from Arkansas and North Carolina officials last week, and your determined advocacy for funding Summer EBT is making a difference! Check out more by visiting alarise.org and clicking on “Take Action.”

Full transcript below:

Hi there. Akiesha Anderson here, policy and advocacy director for Alabama Arise. Per usual, I am here to provide you with another legislative update. With only five legislative days left this session, there is a lot left to get done before the clock runs out. Before we get into what’s left to do, however, let’s briefly discuss what happened at the State House last week.

Last week began with Alabama Arise calling a public hearing in the Senate Finance and Taxation [Education] Committee on HB 145. HB 145 is the Education Trust Fund budget. During the public hearing that took place last week, we spoke about the importance of the Legislature including funding for Summer EBT for 2025 in the Education Trust Fund budget. Currently there is no funding for Summer EBT for either this summer nor next. Thus, we are trying to do everything in our power to ensure that next summer, the half a million kids that rely on school meals don’t go hungry during their summer break. We were grateful to be joined by several of our Hunger Free Alabama partners, including VOICES for Alabama’s Children, who testified about the importance of Summer EBT last week. And we look forward to seeing what unfolds this week regarding this issue.

Last week, we also saw HB 376 by Rep. Yarbrough pass out of the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee. If passed into law, this bill would allow local law enforcement to serve as a proxy for ICE and potentially target and racially profile many of our immigrant neighbors while trying to enforce federal immigrant laws.

Last week, we also saw SB 91 by Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, which would have added an additional license tax fee as a mechanism to fund the Alabama Public Transportation Fund. Unfortunately, this bill received a 6-7 vote and thus failed to pass out of committee, Thankfully, however, Sen. Coleman-Madison has expressed a commitment to come back next year in pursuit of funding for public transit.

Last week, we also saw SB 231 by Sen. Arthur Orr pass out of the House. This is the bill that would strip companies of tax incentives if they voluntarily recognize their workers’ decision to form a union. This bill is one like Rep. Yarbrough’s bill that we are opposed to, and it is now slated to be back in the Senate and to potentially have a conference committee to discuss some of the amendments that were placed on it in the House.

Lastly, last week the House and Senate held a Joint Health Committee meeting, which was designed to discuss solutions for closing the health coverage gap. During this hearing, lawmakers heard from both Arkansas and North Carolina legislators or lawmakers, who shared with our lawmakers details about their quasi-Medicaid expansion plans that have been rolled out in each of their respective states.

Last week was a lot. Again, we are racing against a clock, so let’s move forward to what’s going to be on the tap for this week.

This week is slated to be a budget-heavy week. In the Senate, the General Fund, a supplemental General Fund, a cost-of-living increase for state employees, the Education Trust Fund and a supplemental Education Trust Fund will all be deliberated in committee on Tuesday.

We are optimistic that Sen. Arthur Orr will prove to be a hero to the half a million kids that I referenced earlier by ensuring that there is funding for Summer EBT in the Education Trust Fund budget this week. Also in committee this week will be SB 312 by Sen. Barfoot. This is a bill that will be deliberated by the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, and if passed, it will give people in prison an opportunity to attend their parole hearings virtually.

Lastly, neither here nor there, the Legislative Council will be meeting this Wednesday afternoon to discuss the State House construction project which is currently underway.

My friends, there is quite a bit left this legislative session, quite a bit slated for this week. However, as the clock continues to tick down, I’ll be sure to be here to continue to provide you with weekly updates. In the meantime, take care.

Arise legislative update: April 22, 2024

Arise’s Akiesha Anderson brings you up to speed on all that happened last week at the State House plus gets you ready for the upcoming week. As the session is nearing an end, we still have action to take on securing public transportation funding and increasing penalties for child labor violations. We also are trying to curb anti-union and anti-immigration legislation. See more at alarise.org and clicking “Take Action.”

 

Full video transcript:

Hi there, Akiesha Anderson here, Policy and Advocacy Director for Alabama Arise here to give you yet another legislative update for the week of April 22.

Last week, quite a bit happened but I’m going to start with the Education Budget. So as you know, we are down to just a few legislative days left. Tomorrow when legislators go into the State House they will be on the 24th out of 30 legislative days. And it is essential that the legislature passes the Education Budget as well as the General Fund Budget. So last week we did see the Education Budget make it out of the House to be sent over to the Senate. One unfortunate reality about the Education Trust Fund budget is that unfortunately the $15 million needed for Summer EBT was not included in the House’s version of the budget. This is really unfortunate. We are still going to continue to push to see if we can get that money added to the budget in the Senate but I do want to make note that the House felt to allocate this money even despite the fact that there was a $15 million surplus or $15 million bucket of money that was set aside for Birmingham Southern back when the state intended on giving it a loan to bail it out of its financial trouble. There was $15 million that was previously allocated for Birmingham Southern that instead was allocated to a quasi slush fund for legislators basically to give out community grant money. And so Arise believes that this $15 million would be much better used ensuring that over half a million children have summer meals when school is out and so we are hopeful that we can make that argument in the Senate and we can ensure that children get fed over the summer.

Also related to budgets, last week HB 358, which is a bill sponsored by House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels. This piece of legislation was a childcare tax credit bill and it passed out of the House and so that is good news. It means that women and others that occasionally are forced out of the workplace to do caregiving for children might have some alternative ways to be in the workforce and ensure that they also have child care available. Some unfortunate yet also some good movement on several bills related to workers rights was seen last week. However, I will talk about that in more detail when I talk about what we’re watching this week at the State House.

But also last week we saw quite a bit of movement on some criminal justice related bills. So the judicial override bill sponsored by Rep. England as well as a bill requiring a unanimous jury before sentencing someone to the death penalty sponsored by Sen. Hatch, these both died in committee last week. So that was really unfortunate to see that the death penalty legislation that we were watching did not make it out of committee either in the senate or in the House Judiciary Committee last week. Despite that, however, there were some good parole bills that passed out of committee. This included HB 299 by Rep. England which essentially would create an appeal process for some people whose parole is denied. There also was movement on SB 312 by Sen. Barfoot. This piece of legislation also passed out committee and this would allow people to attend their parole hearings virtually. So that was really nice to see that there is some positive traction with regard to some parole bills. However, it remains to see be seen how much time is left in session whether or not these bills can make it over the finish line. Another piece of legislation that’s quasi criminal justice related a bit more education related, however, and that does have time to make it throughout the through the whole process for certain are some pieces of legislation introduced by Sen. Smitherman as well as Rep. Collins that would provide due process rights to students in K-12 Public Schools. So essentially if these pieces of legislation pass K-12 public school students will not be able to be suspended or expelled without certain due process criteria being met, essentially allowing them to tell their side of the story before they face those really harsh consequences that the school wants to impose.

Now, moving forward to this week. There are quite a few things that we are watching.

So first and foremost on Wednesday at 9 a.m. there is a Joint Health Committee meeting in which there will be a hearing on solutions for closing the health care coverage gap. And so we are super excited about that. This is only the second time in years that the legislature has spent time actually talking about the need for Medicaid expansion or addressing the health care coverage gap that we currently have in the state of Alabama so we’re looking forward to seeing what happens at that hearing. But we will definitely be in attendance and we hope that you are there as well if not able to make it in person definitely stream it online.

Also happening this week, SB 91 will be up in Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee in the Senate at 11:00 a.m. on Wednesday. This piece of legislation will be deliberated and for those of you who recall this is legislation that’s designed to create a source of funding for the Public Transportation Trust Fund. So we are super excited to see that this piece of legislation is getting a chance to be heard in committee this week.

A piece of legislation that we’re a bit concerned about this week is HB 376 which is introduced by Rep. Yarbough and this piece of legislation is an anti-immigration bill that essentially allows localities to enter into contracts with the federal government to become quasi agents of I.C.E. for a lack of better terms. And so proxies for I.C.E. and so this is a piece of legislation that we are fearful will cause a chilling effect on how included, how welcomed, how included yeah our neighbors feel here in the state of Alabama. And so we are hopeful that when that bill comes up in Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee at 9:00 a.m. on Wednesday that it will not make it out of committee.

The good thing about today’s update is that time is running out to pass harmful legislation and so even if that piece of legislation does make it out of committee we are hopeful that it will not make it throughout the process with there being only seven legislative days left in the process. Time is definitely running out. However, we are closely monitoring the final weeks of session and some bills that we do anticipate being deliberated on the full House floor this week include those workers rights bills that I referenced earlier.

So SB 231 for example, which is an anti-union bill that penalizes companies for voluntarily recognizing workers that decide to unionize, that piece of legislation is first on the special order calendar in the House tomorrow which means that when the House gets ready to deliberate legislation this will be the first piece of legislation that they deliberate. And this is a piece of legislation that we strongly oppose. Another piece of legislation related to workers rights that will be on the House floor tomorrow if the legislature makes it that far is SB 119 and this is a piece of legislation that would increase penalties for child labor violations. And so that is something that we are excited to see only has one more favorable vote needed before it will make its way to the governor’s desk. And so we are hopeful that that piece of legislation passes tomorrow and also hopeful that SB 231 fails.

And so that my friends is what is happening this week, that is what happened last week and we will be sure to keep you posted on things that continue to happen at the State House for as long as the legislature is in session. Take care.

Investing in the Public Transportation Trust Fund

Inadequate funding for public transportation keeps thousands of people across Alabama from meeting basic needs. Unreliable bus systems cause people to be late for work, risking the loss of their jobs. If parents have a car that breaks down in rural Alabama, their children may miss doctors’ appointments, school and other activities because public transit options are booked well ahead of time. Older Alabamians with no car may be unable even to buy groceries. Without reliable rides, people needing medical care miss check-ups and treatments, worsening Alabama’s rural health crisis.

Even when transit systems work, they fall far short of meeting public needs. No public transit system in Alabama operates past 11 p.m., even on weekends. And many rural lines operate by appointment only from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays. Alabama must do more to meet the challenge of connecting its people to jobs, education and services.

A 1952 amendment to Alabama’s constitution (Amendment 93) makes it illegal to use state gasoline tax revenues for anything other than building and maintaining roads and bridges. As a result, the most logical source of state funding for transit, a source all our neighboring states use, remains off limits in Alabama. Without dedicated state transit funding, Alabamians will continue to lack public transportation options that residents of other states enjoy. Building a modern public transit infrastructure certainly would provide a job-creating boost for economic development.

The Alabama Public Transportation Trust Fund (PTTF), created in 2018, could help fix our transit issues, but the Legislature has never funded it. The return on transit investment would make this a wise use of public funds. Every $1 million invested in transit creates 49 full-time jobs, which are long-term jobs with good pay. A state appropriation of $50 million would allow Alabama to harness up to $200 million in federal matching funds for capital improvements, and it could double the investment for operations expenses.

BOTTOM LINE: Alabama public transit needs state investment to provide the same services as our neighboring states. Now is the time to invest in public transportation and ensure all Alabamians can get where they need to go.

Support SB 91 to fund public transit, increase workforce participation and improve lives

Alabama is late to the table on state funding for public transit. All four of our neighboring states fund public transportation.

Our state leaves millions in federal matching funds on the table every year. The federal matching rate for capital improvements is up to 400% of state investment. For operations, federal grants can double state investment.

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 public funds. No Alabama public transit service operates past 11 p.m., even on weekends.

Companies and workers identify transportation needs as one of the biggest current barriers to workforce participation.

What would SB 91 do if passed?

Passing SB 91 would provide a dedicated funding source for public transit needs. SB 91 would provide about $25 million in state funding each year to the Public Transportation Trust Fund (PTTF), which the state created in 2018 but has not yet funded.

With the federal match, SB 91 would fuel up to $125 million worth of transit projects every year. These investments would create high-quality, stable jobs and help build infrastructure to support Alabamians’ workforce participation.

Flexibility in the PTTF would allow the state to help stabilize struggling rural counties while also supporting infrastructure needs in rapidly growing regions.

State, federal budgets need to do more for children

It’s budget season at the Alabama Legislature and in Congress. But many of our state and federal representatives are not doing enough to meet the very real needs of ordinary people.

Gov. Kay Ivey has now proposed an Education Trust Fund budget as well as a General Fund budget, which funds Medicaid, mental health care and other state services. Ivey recommended a needed 4% funding increase for local K-12 schools. But she failed to include funding for two Alabama Arise priorities: public transportation and universal school breakfast. Arise will advocate actively for these critical needs as the budgets move through the Legislature.

Help needed for public schools, public transportation

At the same time, Ivey and education budget committee chairs are pushing HB 129 and SB 61, which would divert at least $100 million annually from K-12 public schools to pay for private school and homeschooling. This proposal would undermine efforts to improve public education and would lay groundwork for even more efforts to defund public schools. 

Ivey’s General Fund budget would provide needed increases for mental health and the Department of Human Resources. But it misses the mark by not requesting money for the Housing Trust Fund and the Public Transportation Trust Fund. Arise will be working during the session to add these critical needs to the final budget. 

Action needed on federal level to help families make ends meet

Federal budgets also have failed to meet critical human needs. A temporary Child Tax Credit (CTC) increase in 2021 cut the national child poverty rate by nearly half, but Congress allowed it to expire. Fortunately, the U.S. House in January passed a bill to expand the CTC for three years. But the Senate has yet to consider the measure.

About 280,000 Alabama children would benefit from the House’s CTC expansion. Arise has urged U.S. Sens. Katie Britt and Tommy Tuberville to approve the CTC expansion quickly and help move thousands of Alabama kids out of poverty.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) provides nutritious foods for pregnant and postpartum women, babies and toddlers. But WIC faces a budget shortfall because of recent food cost increases and higher participation. Without action by Congress, 92,000 Alabama mothers and young children could lose some or all of their WIC food. Congress must pass budget legislation in March to avoid a federal shutdown, and it’s critical for lawmakers to support our moms and babies by including adequate funding for WIC.

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

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

Eliminate the state grocery tax

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

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

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

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

Protect voting rights and preserve child labor safeguards

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

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

Advance criminal justice reform 

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

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

Fund public transportation

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

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

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

Three strategies to boost Alabama’s workforce

State of Working Alabama logo

Alabama leaders and policymakers are stressing about one big issue going into the 2024 legislative session: labor force participation.

Alabama’s labor force participation rate is among the nation’s lowest. Only 57% of working-age adults reported they were actively working or looking for jobs as of September 2023. We also have a severe worker shortage, with nearly 100,000 more job openings than workers available to fill them.

This situation gives Alabama workers increased power to negotiate better wages, benefits and working conditions. It also leaves state leaders and employers scratching their heads. Aren’t we supposed to be among the most “business-friendly” states in the country? How can we attract and retain industry if businesses can’t hire workers? And why aren’t more people applying for openings as the cost of living continues to increase?

Consistent barriers to workforce participation

If you want to know why people are leaving the workforce, you need to ask them. Thankfully, we have data to understand what is happening.

Workers who are underemployed or dropped out of the workforce cited three major, consistent concerns, according to multiple recent surveys from the Governor’s Office of Education and Workforce Transformation:

  1. No transportation.
  2. Inadequate pay or work schedule. (Workers are looking for full-time work or higher pay.)
  3. Illness or disability prevented them from working. (Indeed, disability is one of the main driving forces in Alabama’s extremely low workforce participation rates.)

One would hope we would see more of this data informing the conversation about the workforce. But unfortunately, it appears many lawmakers still haven’t seen the data.

Alabama Arise worker policy advocate Dev Wakeley participated in a recent discussion with lawmakers about barriers to workforce entry. He shared Arise’s policy prescription to address this issue, based on clear and direct feedback we’ve heard from workers.

1. Fund the Public Transportation Trust Fund to help workers get to jobs.

Alabama is one of only three states that has no state funding set aside to support public transportation. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021 made massive federal boosts in public transit money available across the country. But with no local or state resources to match, cities and counties across Alabama cannot harness those federal matching funds.

Multiple survey groups cited transit access as their top barrier. It’s time for Alabama to join the rest of our Southeastern neighbors by boosting public transportation investments.

2. Stop incentivizing employers who fail to deliver on promises to provide good-paying jobs.

Alabama lawmakers passed “The Game Plan” earlier this year to renew several key economic incentive packages for large employers. Legislators also strengthened some reporting requirements via the Enhancing Transparency Act. These enhancements were critical, as Alabama still ranks among the least transparent states when it comes to economic incentives and tax expenditures.

We applaud efforts to hold businesses accountable for the promises they make when applying for these major tax breaks. But lawmakers must do more to enforce accountability and ensure the investment is paying off. While our state defers millions of dollars in tax revenue for vague incentives with unclear deliverables, many workers are still struggling to access the promised jobs because we have failed to invest in the necessary state infrastructure. And too often, the jobs simply don’t measure up to the promised wages and hiring goals.

3. Expand Medicaid to keep working-age adults healthy and in the workforce.

Investing in Alabama’s health care infrastructure is not just an avenue to create more health care jobs. It’s also a way to keep workers healthy and in the workforce.

Nearly 300,000 working Alabamians fall into the health coverage gap. Many are employed in high-demand but low-paying industries including service, retail, personal care or construction jobs. Consistent health care for low-wage workers can help prevent or control chronic disabling conditions. It also can give workers a lifeline when they are struggling with addiction, substance use disorders or mental illness.

Workers ideally would find good-paying jobs that provide flexible and inclusive family benefits. But they also should retain access to health coverage if they have to take a break from work to handle caregiving duties, manage a health or family crisis, go back to school or start their own business.

Temporarily losing a job with health coverage should not spiral further into permanent, preventable disability or untreated illness. Medicaid expansion would ensure many Alabamians still can get the health care they need during difficult times.

A prescription for a stronger workforce

We applaud House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter and the House Commission on Labor Shortage for expressing an interest in looking more deeply into the data around labor force participation. We were also glad to hear multiple lawmakers cite issues including affordable housing, wages and child care. All of these are critical supports to empower people to obtain and maintain employment.

To us, the message is clear: Investing more in work supports like public transportation and health care while ensuring more transparency and accountability for workforce incentives is a key, data-supported strategy to keep more Alabamians working and thriving.

Alabama Arise unveils 2024 roadmap for change in Alabama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Medicaid expansion would improve maternal and infant health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Town Hall Tuesdays & Public Transportation Listening Session

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

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

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

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

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

Group One: 

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

Group Two: 

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

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

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

Group One: 

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

Group Two: 

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

Group Three: 

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

Additional listening sessions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arise legislative update: March 13, 2023

Arise’s Carol Gundlach discusses our thoughts on how Alabama legislators plan to allocate the rest of the state’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money. Gov. Kay Ivey called a special session on ARPA funding shortly after lawmakers returned Tuesday to begin the 2023 regular session.

Fresh opportunities to push for a better Alabama

The Alabama Legislature will welcome 37 new lawmakers to its halls when its 2023 regular session begins March 7. Alabama Arise sees this as an opportunity to educate new legislators and identify new allies on issues of importance to our members. We urge folks to join us in calling for change, including at Arise Legislative Day on April 11.

Eliminate the state grocery tax

In early February, 11% of Alabama households said they sometimes or often didn’t have enough food to eat. And those hunger challenges are even more severe in communities of color. More than 23% of Black Alabamians and 13.6% of Hispanic Alabamians said they sometimes or often didn’t have enough food.

Untaxing groceries would help families across Alabama keep food on the table. As we have for more than two decades, Arise once again will support bills this year to remove the state’s 4% sales tax on groceries. We also will support replacing the grocery tax revenue by limiting or ending a tax loophole for the wealthiest households. This legislation by Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre, and Rep. Penni McClammy, D-Montgomery, would empower Alabama to untax groceries while protecting funding for public schools.

Expand Medicaid to close the health coverage gap

For nearly a decade, Alabama has been outside looking in on a good deal. While hundreds of thousands of Alabamians continue to struggle without health insurance, state leaders have failed to expand Medicaid. Alabama is one of just 11 states that has yet to expand Medicaid. And that inaction has left more than 220,000 Alabamians in a health coverage gap.

Fifteen rural hospitals in Alabama are at imminent risk of closing this year if state leaders don’t act soon to protect health care access. Gov. Kay Ivey should act swiftly to expand Medicaid herself, but the Legislature’s support also will be vital. Arise will keep working to educate lawmakers and the public on the economic, budgetary and humanitarian benefits of Medicaid expansion.

Take bold steps to reform our criminal justice system

Legislators have an opportunity and an obligation to make strides in solving the many problems within Alabama’s criminal justice system. This issue has added urgency as Alabama faces a U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit alleging unconstitutional prison conditions.

Many avenues for progress exist. Arise will urge lawmakers to end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for debt-based reasons. We will advocate for reform of the state “three-strikes” law, known as the Habitual Felony Offender Act. And we will support a bill to require the jury to be unanimous before imposing the death penalty.

Address housing and transportation needs

State House insiders expect the Legislature to go into a special session this spring to decide how to use remaining federal funds under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). From the start, Arise has taken the position that Alabama should use some of its ARPA funds to jump-start public transportation and help thousands find an affordable place to call home.

During the probable special session, we will continue to uplift the need for these investments in the people of Alabama. Learn more at alarise.org/arpatoolkit.