Arise legislative update: Feb. 12, 2024

Arise’s Akiesha Anderson catches everyone up on a busier-than-normal first week of the Alabama legislative session and previews an additional busy week ahead. Anderson discusses what’s been happening with a harmful bill that would create more barriers to absentee voting and provides an update on the future of the state sales tax on groceries.

Full video transcript:

Greetings! Akiesha Anderson here, policy and advocacy director for Alabama Arise, and I am thrilled to be here to provide you with your weekly legislative update.

We have ended the first week of the legislative session and are now entering into week two. During the first week of session, both chambers ate through three legislative meeting days rather than their normal two. That simply means that they are moving faster than usual.

Also during this first week, a very controversial bill — SB 1, sponsored by Sen. Garlan Gudger — was heard in a Senate committee and had a public hearing. This piece of legislation, if passed, could criminalize people who assist others with voting absentee. Thus, it was wonderful to see so many familiar faces, some Arise members and just fellow Alabamians, show up at the committee meeting in which this bill was being heard to testify against it.

There were way more people who testified in opposition to this bill than people who testified in support of it. Unfortunately, however, despite Sen. Gudger asking for this bill not to be voted on last week, leadership overruled that request, and senators unfortunately voted it out of committee directly along party lines. It is very likely now that this bill we will be heard and voted on by the full Senate chamber as early as Tuesday of this week.

Also on the slate for this week is a grocery tax commission meeting. I am grateful to have the honor of serving on this commission, and I look forward to gleaning more about where the state stands and its efforts to continue to reduce the grocery tax.

As you may know, budget hearings took place last Monday and Tuesday, and it was reported that fiscal projections for the upcoming fiscal year are not high enough in the ETF for the second cent to be reduced off the grocery tax this year. That is truly unfortunate and something that I really hope that the commission can attempt to address when we meet today. If you are able, I encourage you to tune in or to watch the replay of this commission meeting. It should be on the Alabama Channel, which is run by our friends from the League of Women Voters. And if you tune in, you might see a familiar face presenting at this meeting.

In addition to the grocery tax and voting rights being topics of discussion this week, so too will be gaming. Last week, HB 152, sponsored by by Rep. Blackshear, was introduced, and while Arise currently has no formal position on this legislation, seemingly, if passed, some of the money that comes in from gaming could possibly be used to fund a number of Arise priorities. Thus we will be closely monitoring and keeping you updated on this legislation throughout session.

Worth noting, this piece of legislation could be up in the House’s Economic Development and Tourism Committee as early as this Wednesday and on the floor of the House as early as the following day, which will be this Thursday.

Thank you for tuning in. I look forward to keeping you posted on what happens throughout the rest of the legislative session.

Alabama Arise joins state commission on elimination of state grocery tax

The state sales tax on groceries is a cruel tax on survival, and Alabama Arise is committed to eliminating it. That is why I am grateful that Sen. Bobby Singleton nominated me to serve on the Joint Study Commission on Grocery Taxation on behalf of Arise. I am extremely excited about and honored for this opportunity, and I know that together, we will move Alabama closer to the goal of untaxing groceries once and for all.

How the commission came to be

After years of persistent advocacy by Arise members, policymakers took an important step toward tax justice this year by passing HB 479, a law that will cut the state grocery tax in half. The first decrease – from 4% to 3% – took effect in September 2023. The next decrease – from 3% to 2% – will occur in September 2024, or in the first year when Education Trust Fund (ETF) revenues grow by at least 3.5% annually.

Arise supports eliminating the state grocery tax sustainably and responsibly. That means ending the tax while also protecting vital funding for public schools. Lawmakers created the Grocery Tax Commission this year to figure out a pathway to do that.

This commission formed as the result of HJR 243 by Rep. Penni McClammy, D-Montgomery. The commission’s purpose is “to study a proposed elimination of the sales and use tax on food items,” according to the enabling legislation.

Arise’s testimony on untaxing groceries

I testified during the Grocery Tax Commission’s first meeting on Nov. 14 about the importance of untaxing groceries to help Alabama families make ends meet. And I suggested ways that Alabama could make it happen, including capping or eliminating the state deduction for federal income taxes.

Watch my testimony here, and download my presentation here.

I was one of three presenters at the first meeting. The others were representatives from the Alabama Grocers Association and the Fiscal Division of the Legislative Services Agency. During my presentation, I spoke about:

  • Arise’s 30-year history of advocating to reduce and ultimately eliminate the state’s grocery tax.
  • The harmful impact that taxing groceries has on families with low incomes.
  • Ways in which Alabama compares to other states regarding taxing groceries.
  • Innovative solutions and ways to eliminate the remainder of the state’s grocery tax while protecting the ETF.

What will happen next

In serving on the commission, Arise is charged with helping to evaluate the effects of eliminating the state sales and use tax on groceries. The factors we will help assess include:

(1) Household expenses of Alabamians with low and moderate incomes.
(2) Education Trust Fund revenues.
(3) County and municipal revenue collection.
(4) Community food banks and other nonprofit organizations that provide food.
(5) Hunger and malnutrition experienced by children and older adults.

Here is the full list of commission members:

  • Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre – co-chair of the Grocery Tax Commission 
  • Rep. Penni McClammy, D-Montgomery – co-chair of the Grocery Tax Commission 
  • Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville – House Ways and Means Education Committee chair and sponsor of HB 479
  • Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur – Senate Finance and Taxation Education Committee chair
  • Rep. Troy Stubbs, R-Wetumpka – appointee of Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter
  • Akiesha Anderson (Alabama Arise) – appointee of Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro
  • Michael Coleman (Heart of Alabama Food Bank) – nonprofit representative appointed by Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed, R-Jasper
  • Rosemary Elebash – representative of the National Federation of Independent Business
  • Catherine Gayle Fuller – staffer for and appointee of Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth
  • Allison King (Alabama Education Association) – designee of House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville
  • Wade Payne (Mitchell Grocery Co.) – representative of the Alabama Grocers Association

The Grocery Tax Commission will meet periodically between now and 2026, when it will release findings and recommendations. The next meeting will be in 2024. Arise will work closely with the commission in the coming years to lay the groundwork for eliminating the state grocery tax forever.

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.

Explaining Alabama’s state grocery tax reduction: What it covers and what it doesn’t

The sales tax may seem less visible than other taxes because we pay it in small bits, unlike once-a-year property and income tax payments. But in reality, the sales tax is the most regressive of Alabama’s three major state taxes (income, property and sales). It consumes a much greater portion of the household budget for families with low and middle incomes than it does for wealthier families.

Sales taxes on food and other necessities add to the financial strain facing families who struggle to make ends meet. Fortunately, Alabama’s new grocery tax reduction will help ease that strain and make our state’s tax system more just.

How the new law changes sales tax rates

Alabama’s state sales tax rate (4%) is lower than that of most states. But in addition to the state sales tax, people also must pay local sales taxes when shopping. When you add in local sales taxes, the combined Alabama sales tax rate – averaging 9% – is among the nation’s highest. Combined municipal, county and state sales taxes range from 7% in the Kansas community (in Walker County) to 12% in Ohatchee (in Calhoun County).

 

HB 479 reduced the state portion of the sales tax on food from 4% to 3%, effective Sept. 1, 2023. Another reduction to 2% will come in September 2024, or the first year afterward when education revenues grow by at least 3.5%. This means that in a locality with a 9% combined sales tax rate, the overall food tax is now 8%. That reduction will save Alabamians the equivalent of about half a week’s groceries each year.

The new law allows – but does not require – cities and counties to reduce their sales taxes on groceries. Most have not, citing the difficulty of securing other revenue sources due to limits on their ability to levy other local taxes imposed by the state constitution.

What does and does not qualify as ‘food’ under the law

The new law reduces the sales tax on “food,” defined as anything eligible to be purchased with benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This federal definition of “food” does apply to a broad range of foods and drinks, including:

  • Fruits and vegetables (fresh, frozen or canned)
  • Meat, poultry and fish
  • Dairy products
  • Breads and cereal
  • Snack foods and non-alcoholic beverages 

However, not everything qualifies for the grocery tax reduction. It does not apply to prepared meals served at restaurants or to most other hot, precooked foods. And it does not apply to many other items commonly purchased in a grocery store or the grocery section of “big box” stores like Walmart, Costco or Target. Items taxed at the new, lower rate do not include:

  • Foods that are purchased hot
  • Household cleaning supplies or paper products
  • Pet food
  • Alcohol or tobacco
  • Vitamins, cosmetics and hygiene items

Items not defined as “food” are still subject to the 4% state sales tax and the full local tax. This is true even if the items are sold at a grocery store or a retailer with a grocery section. Your receipts may show separate subtotals to reflect the different sales tax rates that apply to food and other items. (Look up your local sales tax rates here.)

What should happen next

Implementation of the grocery tax reduction ran into brief first-day hiccups at some stores, leading to some initial confusion. But one thing should be crystal clear and easy to understand: Reducing the sales tax on food will make life better for every Alabamian.

The new state grocery tax reduction will combat hunger and make it easier for Alabama families to afford food. And eventually eliminating the rest of the state grocery tax would help even more. Alabama Arise is committed to continue working to untax groceries responsibly and sustainably in future legislative sessions.

Alabama’s grocery tax reduction now in effect

Alabama has taken an important first step toward untaxing groceries. HB 479 took effect Sept. 1, reducing the state sales tax on groceries from 4% to 3%. The law will reduce the tax by another percentage point as soon as September 2024, as long as Education Trust Fund (ETF) revenues grow by at least 3.5% over the previous year. This policy change will help families keep food on the table and ease financial strain for Alabamians with low incomes.

Smiling Alabama Arise staff members and current and former legislators stand behind and to either side of Gov. Kay Ivey, who is seated at a desk in the Old House Chamber in the State Capitol in Montgomery.
Alabama Arise staff participated in the signing ceremony for HB 479 on July 20 at the State Capitol in Montgomery. The law will cut the state grocery tax in half as soon as September 2024. From left to right: Rep. TaShina Morris, D-Montgomery; Arise organizing director Presdelane Harris; Arise executive director Robyn Hyden; Rep. Penni McClammy, D-Montgomery; former Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery; Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville; Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham; Gov. Kay Ivey; Alabama Grocers Association representative Pat McWhorter; Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre; Arise policy and advocacy director Akiesha Anderson; Arise communications director Chris Sanders; and Rep. Rolanda Hollis, D-Birmingham.

The law’s enactment came after decades of persistent advocacy by Alabama Arise members. Several Arise staff members celebrated at a ceremonial bill signing July 20 at the State Capitol in Montgomery. Numerous legislative champions also attended the event, including Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre; Reps. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, and Penni McClammy, D-Montgomery; and former Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery.

Arise remains committed to eliminating the rest of the state grocery tax responsibly and sustainably. Those efforts will include working with policymakers to protect ETF funding by closing tax loopholes skewed in favor of wealthy households and highly profitable corporations.

June 2023 newsletter

Arise members and supporters gather in front of the Alabama State House during our Legislative Day.

At last: Alabama Arise members celebrate grocery tax reduction

By Chris Sanders, communications director | chris@alarise.org

The grocery tax bill passed. After more than three decades of persistent advocacy, Alabama Arise members turned that longstanding vision into reality this year. Every Alabamian will benefit as a result, and the benefits will be greatest for families struggling to make ends meet.

This breakthrough highlighted a 2023 regular session during which Arise members made a difference on numerous priorities at the Legislature. Our advocacy helped an important criminal justice reform become law and helped block efforts to undermine voting rights.

What the grocery tax bill will do

Alabamians will begin paying a lower state grocery tax this Labor Day weekend. HB 479, sponsored by Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, will cut the state sales tax on groceries from 4% to 2% in two steps. The reduction will apply to all items defined as food under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). When fully implemented, the law will save Alabamians the equivalent of about a week’s worth of groceries every year.

The first step will take effect Sept. 1, when the state grocery tax will drop from 4% to 3%. The next reduction, from 3% to 2%, will come in September 2024, as long as Education Trust Fund (ETF) revenues have grown by at least 3.5% over the previous year. If they haven’t, the reduction will occur in the first year when revenue growth does meet that threshold.

HB 479 also allows (but does not require) cities and counties to reduce their sales taxes on groceries. The law allows localities that reduce their grocery tax to reverse some or all of that reduction later. But localities cannot increase local grocery taxes above their current rate.

Garrett’s bill emerged late in the session but quickly gained overwhelming bipartisan support. The House passed the bill 103-0 on May 25, and the Senate followed with a 31-0 vote June 1. Gov. Kay Ivey signed the bill into law June 15.

Garrett joined with Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre, and Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth to guide HB 479 through the Legislature. But the bill’s passage also rests on the foundation laid by many other legislative champions through the years. They include former Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery; former Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma; Sen. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove; and Reps. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, Penni McClammy, D-Montgomery, and Mary Moore, D-Birmingham.

What comes next in our work to untax groceries

HB 479 is a watershed moment in Arise’s work for tax justice. That work will continue. The bill doesn’t eliminate the entire 4% state grocery tax, and it doesn’t replace the revenue. The state grocery tax is an important funding source for public education, bringing in about $600 million annually. That is about 7% of this year’s ETF budget.

“Revenues are strong enough for now to reduce the grocery tax without causing severe harm to education funding,” Arise executive director Robyn Hyden said. “But history tells us that good economic times won’t last forever.”

Legislators this year created a study commission to recommend sustainable ways to eliminate the rest of the state grocery tax. HJR 243, sponsored by McClammy, requires the commission to report its findings and recommendations by November 2026.

Arise will seize that opportunity to push lawmakers to close tax loopholes skewed in favor of wealthy people and highly profitable corporations. One such loophole is the state income tax deduction for federal income taxes (FIT). Alabama is the only state that still allows a full FIT deduction.

The state grocery tax is a cruel tax on survival that drives many Alabamians deeper into poverty. Arise is committed to building on this year’s success and ending this tax forever. With our members’ continued advocacy and support, that is another vision we’ll turn into reality together.

2023 was a momentous session on Alabama Arise priorities

By Mike Nicholson, policy analyst | mike@alarise.org

June 6 ended one of the most significant legislative sessions ever for Alabama Arise and our supporters. Through timely and persistent advocacy, Arise members helped build a better, more equitable Alabama.

While our work continues, we want to highlight the many important strides this year in our movement for a better Alabama for all – and celebrate Arise members’ role in advancing that goal. This article summarizes some of the key bills on Arise priorities during the Legislature’s 2023 regular session. For information on all bills we tracked this year, visit the Bills of Interest page on our website.

Tax reform

Lawmakers proposed many significant tax reform bills this session. But none will have more lasting significance to Alabamians than reducing the state sales tax on groceries, a longstanding Arise priority. Thanks to phenomenal member advocacy, our state is finally removing part of this regressive tax.

HB 479, sponsored by Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, became law this year. This legislation will cut the state grocery tax by half in the coming years. This huge victory for tax justice resulted from decades of hard work by Arise members.

Adequate state budgets

Alabama’s 2024 General Fund (GF) and Education Trust Fund (ETF) budgets are both significantly larger than 2023. The GF budget is about $3 billion and includes a 2% pay raise for state employees. It also includes significant funding increases for Medicaid, mental health care and other state services. The 2024 ETF budget is nearly $8.8 billion, half a billion dollars more than the previous year’s ETF.

HB 295 and SB 202, known as the PRICE Act, were sponsored by Rep. Ernie Yarbrough, R-Trinity, and Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia. These bills would have allowed parents to take tax dollars that otherwise would support local public schools and use them to pay for private schools or home schooling. Arise and other advocates helped defeat this legislation, protecting nearly $600 million of public education funding.

Voting rights

HB 209, sponsored by Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, did not pass this session. This bill would have criminalized many efforts to assist voters with absentee ballot applications or completed ballots. Arise and other groups successfully stopped this bill, which passed the House but never reached the Senate floor.

Criminal justice reform

SB 154, sponsored by Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, became law this year. This legislation will make it harder for the state to suspend people’s driver’s licenses for failure to pay traffic tickets. Arise and our partners at Alabama Appleseed strongly supported this bill.

HB 24, sponsored by Rep. Reed Ingram, R-Pike Road, passed despite Arise’s opposition. This bill will criminalize asking for money on the side of roads, punishing many Alabamians facing housing insecurity. Federal courts have found similar laws unconstitutional in recent years.

HB 229, sponsored by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, would have allowed resentencing of certain incarcerated individuals sentenced to life imprisonment without parole under Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act. This bill passed the House and gained Senate committee approval, but it never reached the Senate floor. Arise supported this bill and expects a similar one to be filed next session.

Death penalty reform 

England’s HB 14 would have required a unanimous jury sentence to impose the death penalty. The bill also would have made the state’s judicial override ban retroactive. This bill received a public hearing but did not leave the committee. Arise supported this bill and expects a similar one to be filed next session.

Other issues 

SB 196, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, would have increased government transparency by improving Alabama’s open records process. This bill passed the Senate and gained House committee approval but did not pass in the House. Arise supported this bill and expects a similar one to be filed next session.

SB 242, sponsored by Sen. Keith Kelley, R-Anniston, would have undermined tenant protections by removing the cap on the amount of the security deposit that landlords can charge to renters. Arise opposed this bill, and it died without reaching the Senate floor.

Building momentum for closing the coverage gap

By Debbie Smith, Cover Alabama campaign director | debbie@alarise.org

Cover Alabama has built powerful momentum to expand Medicaid and close the state’s health coverage gap in recent months. In March, Alabama Arise’s Cover Alabama campaign held its first in-person Medicaid expansion lobby day. With the participation of 80 passionate individuals, this event created a powerful platform for advocating Medicaid expansion.

Alabamians living in the coverage gap – who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to qualify for financial help to buy private insurance – shared their personal stories during the rally before engaging in meaningful conversations with their lawmakers. The event garnered great press attention, shining a spotlight on our state’s urgent need to expand health care access.

A man stands at a podium to give a speech on Medicaid expansion.
Arise board member Kenneth Tyrone King speaks to the importance of expanding Medicaid to ensure affordable health coverage for nearly 300,000 Alabama adults with low incomes.

Other recent wins

In an encouraging development, the House Health Committee held a hearing this year specifically focused on the benefits of closing the coverage gap. This hearing came on the heels of Cover Alabama’s rally. And it marked a significant milestone, as the first time legislators formally discussed Medicaid expansion in a committee hearing. The hearing provided an important platform to educate lawmakers and the public about the positive impact Medicaid expansion can have on our communities.

Meanwhile, we also celebrated the recent success of North Carolina, which passed Medicaid expansion in March. That move means Alabama is now one of only 10 states that has not yet expanded its Medicaid program.

We are determined to change that. We will continue advocating for our state to join others in providing vital health care access to those in need.

Looking forward

In April, Arise and Cover Alabama partnered with Doctors for America to conduct a highly engaging half-day advocate training session. Fifty people attended the event in Birmingham or online on a Saturday morning. This event equipped our advocates with the knowledge and tools needed to advocate effectively for Medicaid expansion, empowering them to make a difference.

Thank you to each and every one of you for your unwavering support, dedication and passion for health justice. Together, we are making significant strides toward Medicaid expansion in Alabama.

Let’s continue to raise our voices, engage with lawmakers and advocate for equitable health care access for every Alabamian.

Allen v. Milligan ruling is a shot in the arm for democracy

By Robyn Hyden, executive director | robyn@alarise.org

Alabamians received good news this month with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Allen v. Milligan. This decision upholds key parts of the Voting Rights Act and requires Alabama to draw new congressional districts by July 21. The Legislature likely will hold a special session in July to approve two majority-Black (or close to majority-Black) districts. Alabama has had only one majority-Black district for decades, diluting the voting power of Black residents.

The ruling came a decade after Shelby County v. Holder, a decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance protections. As we commemorate this anniversary, we are reminded of why protecting Black voting power in Alabama is so critical to achieving our vision of a strong, participatory democracy.

Alabama Arise salutes our partners at Alabama Forward, Alabama NAACP, Greater Birmingham Ministries and ACLU of Alabama for their hard work and vision in the Milligan case. Arise will continue working to advance legislation to protect and strengthen voting rights. And we will keep fighting to ensure that every vote counts and elected officials are accountable to their constituents.

Leave a lasting legacy

By Jacob Smith, development director | jacob@alarise.org

Alabama Arise has set long-term goals like a fairer state tax system and state budgets that provide opportunities for all. Together, we have made meaningful steps toward these goals. And our members – with monthly or one-time gifts – help us keep up the momentum every day. We are so grateful.

However, this vision won’t happen overnight. There’s a type of gift that you probably haven’t considered – one that will ensure you continue to join us in Alabama Arise’s work even past your lifetime. That’s leaving us in your will.

Regardless of your income, making a will is an important step to ensure your end-of-life wishes are known. There are online tools that can help. And consulting a financial planner would be a great idea, too. You don’t even have to tell us that you included us. (Though we would be glad if you did!)

We would love to share sample language or chat about the legacy you want to leave Alabama. Reach out to me at jacob@alarise.org.

Thank you for your ongoing work and contributions to building a better Alabama.

Arise Legislative Day: Making the state grocery tax cut a reality!

 

We were excited to see more than 120 people participating in Arise’s 2023 Legislative Day on April 11 in Montgomery. Arise’s longtime push to decrease the state sales tax on groceries took center stage, and our members’ energy was palpable. Our supporters’ passionate advocacy, this year and in so many previous years, got the bill across the finish line! Top: Arise’s McKenzie Burton (left) and Whitney Washington (right) pose for a photo with longtime Arise member Helen Rivas. Next: Arise’s Robyn Hyden (right) and Carol Gundlach (left) and Anna Pritchett of AARP Alabama meet with Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre, to thank him for championing the fight to untax groceries. Next: Policy analyst Mike Nicholson speaks about criminal justice reform.

At last: Alabama Arise members celebrate grocery tax reduction

The grocery tax bill passed. After more than three decades of persistent advocacy, Alabama Arise members turned that longstanding vision into reality this year. Every Alabamian will benefit as a result, and the benefits will be greatest for families struggling to make ends meet.

This breakthrough highlighted a 2023 regular session during which Arise members made a difference on numerous priorities at the Legislature. Our advocacy helped an important criminal justice reform become law and helped block efforts to undermine voting rights.

What the grocery tax bill will do

Alabamians will begin paying a lower state grocery tax this Labor Day weekend. HB 479, sponsored by Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, will cut the state sales tax on groceries from 4% to 2% in two steps. The reduction will apply to all items defined as food under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). When fully implemented, the law will save Alabamians the equivalent of about a week’s worth of groceries every year.

The first step will take effect Sept. 1, when the state grocery tax will drop from 4% to 3%. The next reduction, from 3% to 2%, will come in September 2024, as long as Education Trust Fund (ETF) revenues have grown by at least 3.5% over the previous year. If they haven’t, the reduction will occur in the first year when revenue growth does meet that threshold.

We were excited to see more than 120 people participating in Arise’s 2023 Legislative Day on April 11 in Montgomery. Arise’s longtime push to decrease the state sales tax on groceries took center stage, and our members’ energy was palpable. Our supporters’ passionate advocacy, this year and in so many previous years, got the bill across the finish line! Top photo: Arise members and supporters gather in front of the Alabama State House during our Legislative Day. Next: Arise’s McKenzie Burton (left) and Whitney Washington (right) pose for a photo with longtime Arise member Helen Rivas. Next: Policy analyst Mike Nicholson speaks about criminal justice reform. Next: Arise’s Robyn Hyden (right) and Carol Gundlach (left) and Anna Pritchett of AARP Alabama meet with Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre, to thank him for championing the fight to untax groceries.

HB 479 also allows (but does not require) cities and counties to reduce their sales taxes on groceries. The law allows localities that reduce their grocery tax to reverse some or all of that reduction later. But localities cannot increase local grocery taxes above their current rate.

Garrett’s bill emerged late in the session but quickly gained overwhelming bipartisan support. The House passed the bill 103-0 on May 25, and the Senate followed with a 31-0 vote June 1. Gov. Kay Ivey signed the bill into law June 15.

Garrett joined with Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre, and Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth to guide HB 479 through the Legislature. But the bill’s passage also rests on the foundation laid by many other legislative champions through the years. They include former Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery; former Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma; Sen. Merika Coleman, D-Pleasant Grove; and Reps. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, Penni McClammy, D-Montgomery, and Mary Moore, D-Birmingham.

What comes next in our work to untax groceries

HB 479 is a watershed moment in Arise’s work for tax justice. That work will continue. The bill doesn’t eliminate the entire 4% state grocery tax, and it doesn’t replace the revenue. The state grocery tax is an important funding source for public education, bringing in about $600 million annually. That is about 7% of this year’s ETF budget.

“Revenues are strong enough for now to reduce the grocery tax without causing severe harm to education funding,” Arise executive director Robyn Hyden said. “But history tells us that good economic times won’t last forever.”

Legislators this year created a study commission to recommend sustainable ways to eliminate the rest of the state grocery tax. HJR 243, sponsored by McClammy, requires the commission to report its findings and recommendations by November 2026.

Arise will seize that opportunity to push lawmakers to close tax loopholes skewed in favor of wealthy people and highly profitable corporations. One such loophole is the state income tax deduction for federal income taxes (FIT). Alabama is the only state that still allows a full FIT deduction.

The state grocery tax is a cruel tax on survival that drives many Alabamians deeper into poverty. Arise is committed to building on this year’s success and ending this tax forever. With our members’ continued advocacy and support, that is another vision we’ll turn into reality together.

Arise legislative update: June 7, 2023

The Alabama Legislature’s 2023 regular session has come to a close. Arise’s Akiesha Anderson takes us through some big wins – including reducing the state’s grocery tax! – and other highlights from the session. We want to thank you for speaking out to support good bills and oppose harmful bills. Please visit alarise.org and follow us on social media as we continue to bring you updates throughout the year on our work for a better Alabama.