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

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

Letter text

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for your consideration.

Signatories

Sincerely,

82 Alabama community-based organizations:

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

Alabama Arise, partners urge no disruption to summer food program in Alabama

The Summer Food Service Program has been a critical tool to fight child hunger during the COVID-19 pandemic. But many key program flexibilities will expire June 30 unless Alabama applies for a waiver. Alabama Arise and our partners in the Hunger-Free Alabama coalition wrote a letter Thursday to state school Superintendent Eric Mackey to urge him to request federal permission to continue uninterrupted program service throughout the summer:

Letter text

Dear Dr. Mackey,

Alabama Arise appreciates the Alabama State Department of Education’s (ALSDE) commitment to ensuring that Alabama’s children receive the meals they need to learn and thrive, especially during these last few difficult pandemic years. As you know, access to nutritious meals is key to our children’s ability to learn and succeed in school and in life. Nowhere is that access more important than in our schools, both during the school year and during the summer, when childhood hunger often increases.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently informed state Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) administrators, including the ALSDE, that some program flexibilities, scheduled to expire on June 30, could now be continued for the entire summer if the state requests to do so. These flexibilities include:

  • Permitting non-congregate meal service, which allows parents, guardians or children to take meals from the pickup site and allows meal provision for multiple days at once;
  • Allowing parents or guardians to pick up meals for their children; and
  • Allowing state flexibility in program monitoring.

Alabama Arise, our 150 member groups and more than 20 partners in the Hunger-Free Alabama coalition believe these flexibilities are critical for the 2022 Summer Food Service Program. We strongly encourage you to take advantage of, and apply for, these waivers.

The June 30 end of the original waivers would happen right in the middle of summer food service. This could not be more problematic for both families and providers. Changing food service operations, including the reimposition of on-site food consumption, would disrupt families’ work and child care arrangements and would require that providers completely alter how they feed children in midstream. Providers would have to try to communicate these changes, and the reason for them, adequately to children and their parents. We expect this would result in considerable confusion and frustration. For exactly these reasons, many SFSP providers already have decided to discontinue operations on July 1 if this waiver is not extended. Others, unfortunately, may not participate in the program at all this summer.

We know the hunger crisis caused by the pandemic and its economic disruption has not ended yet. The latest Census Household Pulse Survey (March 30-April 11) found that 15% of responding families with children said they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat. Of those families with children identified by the Census Bureau as food insecure, 25% said their children sometimes or often were not eating enough because food was unaffordable. School meals and the SFSP are critical for these families and their children.

The SFSP waivers have been important during the pandemic, addressing health concerns, supply chain disruptions and community program disruptions caused by the health crisis and economic challenges. Keeping these flexibilities in place for the remainder of the summer will help feed children and help summer meal sites operate safely and efficiently. We urge you to apply for these waivers as quickly as possible, knowing that time is of the essence as providers and families complete their summer planning process.

We appreciate your attention and your continued concern for the needs of our children. And we look forward to working with you to continue to feed Alabama’s schoolchildren this summer and into the future.

Sincerely,

Robyn Hyden
Executive Director, Alabama Arise

Alabama Arise testimony on ARPA funding priorities in Alabama

Alabama Arise’s Robyn Hyden testified Wednesday before a joint meeting of the House and Senate’s General Fund budget committees. She discussed Arise’s top priorities for lawmakers’ allocation of federal relief funds under the American Rescue Plan Act. Here’s the full text of Hyden’s prepared remarks:

Good afternoon. My name is Robyn Hyden. I am the executive director of Alabama Arise, and I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you today.

The passage of the American Rescue Plan Act gives us an opportunity to create vital long-term improvements for Alabama – if we spend these funds wisely and well. We recognize that there are many serious needs in the state and that not all of them can be addressed with the funds that will be appropriated during this special session. Therefore, my comments are about the funds currently under consideration and those that will be received later this year.

Last July, Alabama Arise and more than 40 other organizations wrote Governor Kay Ivey and other Alabama leaders outlining our principles for the use of ARPA funds. One of our first principles was that we should aim for equity in outcomes, providing assistance to those most deeply impacted by COVID-19.

We applaud the commitment in the draft bill to clean water and sewer infrastructure, particularly in Alabama’s Black Belt, where sewer infrastructure is a critical need. We urge you and the Department of Environmental Management to provide these funds with as few barriers and as little red tape as possible so that the communities most in need can benefit the most.

Prioritize health care, housing, public transportation

Just last week, Alabama Arise and Cygnal surveyed a random sample of likely 2022 voters and asked them how Alabama should spend ARPA dollars. Strong majorities supported spending these funds to expand access to medical care, including Medicaid and mental health services, and as an investment in rural hospitals and access to affordable care.

Strong majorities also supported using ARPA dollars to expand access to affordable housing and public transportation, particularly in rural areas.

Alabama Arise also has some additional recommendations for how ARPA funds can most benefit the state and its neediest citizens:

Thank you for your time and attention.

Alabama Arise testimony on distribution of federal rental assistance funds

Affordable housing advocates rally outside the Alabama State House in Montgomery in 2015.

Arise’s Dev Wakeley testified Wednesday before the Legislative Oversight Committee of the Alabama Housing Finance Authority (AHFA). He discussed Arise’s concerns about the slow distribution of federal rental assistance authorized under the American Rescue Plan Act. He also shared recommendations to speed up disbursement and increase participation. Here’s the full text of Wakeley’s prepared remarks:

Thank you. My name is Dev Wakeley. I’m here on behalf of the 158 member organizations and nearly 2,000 individual members of Alabama Arise. We are united in our goal of advancing public policies that improve the lives of Alabamians who are marginalized by poverty.

Few policies meet that standard better than emergency rental assistance during a public health crisis. But Alabama’s distribution of federal aid money to prevent eviction during the pandemic has fallen far short of the Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) program’s goals. This failure has caused long delays in getting aid to thousands of qualified people who need it.

Our first request is for the AHFA to increase transparency in the process of reviewing applications and assisting people in completing them. Specifically, we would like to see public posting of state and local contracts and agreements with companies and entities engaged in the application process, especially the contract and payment details regarding Horne LLP. Arise believes full transparency regarding these vital operations will help increase confidence in the process. That will increase participation and could allow the state to access additional funding upon timely use of existing funds. Horne’s slow pace of progress in ensuring application processing and payment is a matter of public concern.

Faster distribution needed

An increase in obligated money is a step toward using this money the right way. But obligating funds for program use doesn’t keep people housed. Thousands of people who qualify for assistance face eviction. To stop those evictions, relief money must actually reach all qualified renters. Only about $66 million of the $263 million ERA funds will go to renters who have already been paid or are pending payment, just a 25% rate. The only measure that ensures the right policy outcome is actual use of these funds to stave off eviction. This is especially important because an eviction is not just an inconvenience or temporary hardship. Evictions ruin families financially. And the data is clear: Evictions kill, especially during this pandemic.

According to the most recent monthly report, as of Aug. 31 ‒ five days after the CDC eviction moratorium expired ‒ Horne had distributed just 7% of the rental assistance available through this program. Yet that private company has already reaped $6.2 million, or 67% of its maximum permissible fees under the contract. At this rate, Horne will max out their contractually permissible payment five full years before distribution of the remaining assistance funds. The money paid to Horne is more than a third of the entire ERA amount distributed through Aug. 31. Real disbursement rates must increase dramatically and immediately to justify this level of expenditure on a contractor.

The pace of approval and disbursement statewide has improved over the past month. But Arise has spoken with landlord representatives who report the initial and ongoing difficulties have left some companies reluctant to engage in the ERA process at all. To convince more landlords to participate, Arise has specific requests to help separate the current program from the difficulties associated with standing up an assistance program from scratch.

Recommended improvements

We ask the AHFA to reach out to local jurisdictions and encourage the broadest possible reading of eligibility standards and application criteria at all local agencies. Some localities have been slow in following updated federal guidance, resulting in a wide disparity of distribution rates across agencies. The federal government is aware these funds are being sought and used by people who genuinely need them, and there is no reasonable possibility of clawback of disbursed funds.

Next, we ask the AHFA to “rebrand” the program and reach out to landlord groups and the public to indicate a break with earlier inconsistent practices. A commitment to faster processing and disbursement alongside more flexible documentation requirements could build confidence in a program that requires active public engagement.

Emergency rental assistance is a clear example of a program that benefits all involved. Landlords and tenants both benefit. And the state will benefit greatly from smoothing out the existing process, both through that money making its way into the broader economy and through fewer expenses associated with evictions and housing insecurity.

Standing up these programs has involved a steep learning curve, but the AHFA has an opportunity to make improvements now. Alabama Arise asks the AHFA to seize this opportunity to make process efficiency improvements that could keep thousands of vulnerable Alabamians housed as winter approaches while a dangerous virus continues to spread in the community. Thank you for your time and willingness to hear our perspective.

To strengthen the common good: Six principles for allocating Alabama’s ARPA funding

To strengthen the common good: Six principles for allocating Alabama's American Rescue Plan Act funding

Introduction

Dear Governor Ivey,

One of the darkest years in recent memory has put Alabama’s families, communities, health system, businesses – and our leaders at all levels – to the test. Thank you for all your efforts to keep Alabamians safe and secure during this unprecedented emergency. Now that a post-COVID world is dawning, the leadership test doesn’t end. Rather, it enters a critical new phase: Your vision and your actions will help determine what a post-COVID Alabama looks like, and history will record the results. Will the comfort of the familiar pull us back into “the way we’ve always done things”? Or will we count this ordeal as an awakening to bold new possibilities for our state?

For the organizations listed below, all signs point to the second option: The opportunity to address chronic problems that the pandemic has only worsened; a chance to inspire Alabamians with a recovery plan that lifts all communities toward a healthier, more prosperous future; and – most pragmatically – the power of $4 billion in new federal funding to turn vision into reality. We enclose for your consideration six principles that we believe can guide state and local leaders in the most productive, equitable and lasting use of these tax dollars.

The signers of this letter are advocates who work closely with the communities hit hardest by the COVID-19 health and economic crises. For these Alabamians, recovery from the pandemic must mean more than restoring the pre-COVID status quo. With courageous and creative leadership, community engagement across the state, and wise use of historic levels of funding, we have what we need to move Alabama forward and strengthen the common good.

We stand ready to answer any questions you may have about our recommendations.

Respectfully submitted,

The Undersigned Alabama Organizations

Signatories

The following organizations support a principled approach to American Rescue Plan Act funding that will strengthen Alabama’s common good:

ADAP
AIDS Alabama
Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice
Alabama Arise
Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice
Alabama CURE
Alabama Possible
Alabama Solutions
Alabama State Conference of the NAACP
Bay Area Women Coalition, Inc.
Birmingham Society of Friends
BirthWell Partners Community Doula Project, Birmingham
Church & Society, Anniston First United Methodist Church
Community Enabler Developer, Inc.
Disabilities Leadership Coalition of Alabama
Disability Rights & Resources
The E.WE Foundation
Faith and Works Statewide Civic Engagement Collective
Grace Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), Tuscaloosa
Greater Birmingham Ministries
Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama
Hometown Action
Immanuel Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), Montgomery
Jobs to Move America
League of Women Voters of Alabama
Medical Advocacy & Outreach
The Nightingale Clinic, Birmingham
Nurse Practitioner Alliance of Alabama
Open Table United Church of Christ, Mobile
People First of Alabama
Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty
Restorative Strategies, LLC, Birmingham
Sisters of Mercy
Sisters of St. Joseph
The Sisters, Tuscaloosa
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Jacksonville
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mobile
University of Montevallo Social Work Program
Volunteers of America Southeast
West Alabama Women’s Center
YMCA of Birmingham
YWCA of Central Alabama

Letter text

To Strengthen the Common Good: Six Principles for Allocating Alabama’s American Rescue Plan Act Funding

The COVID-19 crisis has created enormous new challenges for Alabama, while shining a harsh light on long-neglected ones. To strengthen and expedite recovery, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), passed by Congress in March 2021, is pumping $4 billion into Alabama’s economy over the next three years. New funding at this scale can be transformative for our state, but only if we take a transformative approach to how we spend it.

The starting point is recognizing and breaking our old mindset of scarce resources, limited possibilities and patchwork policy solutions. For too long, Alabama’s leaders – and the voters who empower them – have settled for poor outcomes in health, education, community development and other measures of shared prosperity, because they thought we couldn’t tackle such deep problems. The pandemic is challenging us to reclaim – and redefine – the common good. ARPA funding gives us a rare opportunity to meet the challenge, if we’re willing. The undersigned organizations offer the following six principles as a framework for seizing this unprecedented opportunity to build a better Alabama for all.

  1. Engage local communities at every step.

    The COVID pandemic has hit people where they live, work, learn and play. The best use of ARPA funds will reflect the needs and goals identified by ordinary Alabamians through a process that solicits, accommodates and heeds public input.

Crucial question

How are local leaders, advocates and community members involved in identifying and prioritizing both needs and solutions?

Recommendations
  • Identify or create effective, inclusive, results-oriented, nonpartisan, community-based councils in each county or region to develop recommendations for local ARPA funding priorities. Potential lead organizations may include United Way, community foundation or Community Action Agency advisory bodies; children’s policy councils; university extension services; or community round tables convened by local governments. Make it a priority to engage segments of the community underserved by the status quo, such as Alabamians of color, people who work for low wages or have lost jobs, and those who lack adequate basic services.
  • Provide opportunities for broad public participation in developing and finalizing local, regional and state ARPA spending plans. State leaders should agree not to appropriate ARPA funds until the public engagement process is completed.
  • Review existing community and state needs assessments to identify common local concerns, as well as gaps in information and perspective.
  • Facilitate information-sharing and coordination among local, regional and state efforts to enhance efficiency, leverage capacity and avoid duplication.
  • Designate a statewide source of technical assistance, best practices and other aids to local and regional decision-making.
  1. Aim for equity in outcomes.

    Some regions, counties, municipalities and populations have suffered deeper blows than others from the pandemic because of chronic gaps in resources, infrastructure, services and opportunities. Rural Alabamians, people of color, people with disabilities, and women have faced disproportionate impacts from both the health and economic crises. Simply restoring the prior status quo is not transformation. ARPA funding decisions should take into account the un-level playing field of COVID recovery, targeting investment toward improving the basic standards of living for areas and people long left behind. Assistance to those most deeply impacted by COVID-19 should come with as little “red tape” and administrative delay as possible. Direct cash assistance to people with low incomes should be a priority.

Crucial question

How do proposed funding allocations contribute to the removal of historic barriers to individual, family and community well-being?

Recommendations
  • Within each jurisdiction (state, region, county, city), use socioeconomic indicators such as poverty, unemployment and workforce participation rates, and racial/ethnic health disparities to target strategic, expedited community investments.
  • Provide grants to minority- or women-owned small businesses, especially those that did not receive earlier federal business loan assistance.
  • Provide up to $13 per hour in bonus or “premium” pay – on top of their regular pay – to essential public and private workers, up to $25,000 per worker per year, as allowed under the Rescue Plan, for work performed during the public health emergency, awarding the largest bonuses to the lowest-paid workers.
  • Provide cash assistance to SNAP food assistance recipients with incomes below 50% of the Federal Poverty Level.
  • Provide a grocery tax rebate to households earning less than 200% of the federal poverty level.
  • Fund and train organizations that already help people access SNAP, Medicaid, tax credits and other supports as navigators for the full range of ARPA assistance, including the expanded federal Child Tax Credit.
  1. Maximize well-being by addressing health in all policies.

    What began as the COVID-19 health emergency quickly became an economic and social crisis. In turn, the toll the virus has taken on communities of color, people with disabilities and the uninsured revealed how deeply socioeconomic conditions are connected to health risks and outcomes. Nutrition, housing, transportation, education and other factors are widely recognized as social determinants of health, but Alabama has been slow to broaden our approach to health policy and funding. ARPA offers us the chance to apply the lessons of COVID-19 and design a recovery plan that puts eliminating health disparities and improving health at the center of investments in every sector.

Crucial question

How does this funding proposal advance the goal of a healthier Alabama?

Recommendations
  • Name it and claim it: There’s enough ARPA funding to achieve significant health improvement in Alabama if leaders set clear, ambitious goals and plan accordingly. 
  • Engage public health experts to incorporate health goals and strategies across the full span of ARPA allocation planning.
  • Increase professional staffing at county health departments.
  • Strengthen our workforce, families and communities by using the generous ARPA incentives (an estimated $720 million) to expand Medicaid and close the coverage gap for 340,000 Alabamians with low incomes.
  • Invest in mobile mental health crisis services and expand mental health crisis centers.
  • Expand school nurse programs and school-based mental health services.
  • Fund Healthy Food Financing grants for fresh food markets, including mobile markets, as well as local worker-owned food cooperatives to boost local economies, provide jobs and expand availability of fresh foods in food apartheid areas (where healthy food access is hindered by racially discriminatory economic or political factors) and food swamp neighborhoods (where food and beverage sources like fast food outlets, convenience stores and liquor stores crowd out healthier food options).
  1. Invest in existing assets and capacities to help funds work faster, go farther and avoid duplication.

    Over recent decades, budget cuts to education, public health and other essential services – and our failure to expand Medicaid – have left Alabama unprepared for a prolonged emergency like COVID-19. Similarly, charitable nonprofit organizations across the state have faced unprecedented demand for their services during the pandemic and risen to the challenge. By directing ARPA funds to restoring critical services and supporting experienced, trusted charitable nonprofits, state and local governments can strengthen community resources, meet needs efficiently, avoid reinventing the wheel, and multiply the economic benefit.

Crucial question

What programs and organizations are already working to meet the goals of this ARPA funding proposal, and how can a partnership approach improve outcomes?

Recommendations
  • Fund organizations that are well-positioned to reach people with significant barriers to accessing support, such as immigrants, people with disabilities and people of color with low incomes.
  • Expand community schools in neighborhoods where the pandemic has taken a particularly heavy toll.
  • Provide additional funding for existing in-home early childhood education services like HIPPY, Parents as Teachers and Nurse-Family Partnership programs.
  • Increase support for school-based social and health services, particularly in high-poverty neighborhoods and districts.
  • Help children catch up on unfinished learning by expanding the teacher workforce through pay increases and other supports for early childhood teachers, child care workers and special education teachers who work in at-risk communities and schools.
  • Expand existing in-home and community-based services for the elderly and people with disabilities.
  • Expand or develop local alternatives to incarceration such as specialized courts, community correction programs, re-entry programs and services for people at risk of offending.
  • Invest in workforce development by creating subsidized apprenticeships, two-year scholarship programs, and subsidized certificate programs for low-income workers.
  1. Think big and create a 21st-century infrastructure for the common good.

    Alabamians have long recognized the human cost of inferior and outdated public works and services like sanitation, health care, transportation and information technology systems. But the monetary cost has kept our leaders from modernizing them. COVID has revealed the deadly consequences of that neglect, and ARPA includes massive funding aimed at moving states forward on all of these fronts, including a large share for education (not addressed in these recommendations because of specific earmarking). The opportunity calls for bold leadership and vision. Our spending plan must seek to coordinate local, regional and statewide investments for fundamental and long-lasting impact.

Crucial question

How will today’s investments benefit future generations of Alabamians?

Recommendations
  • Modernize and align state agency computer systems to create a “no wrong door” approach to streamlined eligibility and enrollment across benefit programs.
  • Modernize and improve state unemployment insurance (UI) technological infrastructure, application and payment systems.
  • Upgrade water and sanitation systems, prioritizing communities with a history of unsafe water quality and waste-water disposal.
  • Provide critical infrastructure and equipment (such as trucks, refrigeration, trainers, lift gates, etc.,) to local food banks and food pantries to expand emergency food distribution.
  • Expand Alabama’s affordable housing capacity, stabilize families and communities and reduce homelessness by seeding the Affordable Housing Trust Fund with $25 million and providing grants for eligible new construction, renovation and maintenance.
  • Recognizing that lack of reliable transportation is a major hindrance to health care, economic activity and workforce development in many areas of the state, seed the Public Transportation Trust Fund with $20 million and provide state match for increased federal public transportation funding.
  • Promote equity in high-speed internet access by targeting earmarked broadband funding to help local service providers expand into underserved areas and by ensuring community oversight of access and quality standards.
  • Provide state technical assistance to localities in consolidating, evaluating and negotiating broadband contracts to minimize the danger of approving projects with little public benefit.
  1. Build public trust and engagement by following the highest standards of documentation, transparency and accessibility of information about funding awards and expenditures. 

    Spending taxpayer dollars is always a tremendous responsibility. When it comes to spending billions in a short time, the potential for slow uptake, poor decisions and misuse only increases. Alabama can ensure that the generous ARPA funds do their appointed job by establishing clear guidelines and full disclosure for the entire funding process, from eligibility of applicants to allocation decisions to project expenditures and results.

Crucial question

How will Alabamians be able to track the allocation, use and impact of their federal ARPA tax dollars in the state?

Recommendations
  • Create and maintain a public database of state and local ARPA funding allocations and expenditures, easily searchable and sortable by project or partner name, policy topic, service area, grant amount, award date, expenditure date and other key factors.
  • Adopt simple, accessible application and reporting requirements that allow grantees and recipients to establish their credibility and tell their story without jumping unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles.
  • Use local ARPA planning groups as conduits for ongoing reporting and feedback about plan implementation, obstacles, impact and sustainability. Build a robust outreach operation to help people access available federal, state and local aid.

Alabama Arise, partners urge COVID-19 vaccine priority for Alabamians served through Medicaid waivers

Alabamians served through home- and community-based Medicaid waivers qualify for nursing home care but receive their care at home from community providers through the state’s Medicaid waiver program. The Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) has acknowledged that these individuals belong in the Phase 1a priority level for the COVID-19 vaccine. But they have not yet received access to the vaccinations.

Alabama Arise and partner groups sent the following letter to Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday in response:

Letter text

Dear Governor Ivey,

We hope you are well and breathing a little easier as spring approaches with better COVID news each day. In response to our previous letter of a month ago, you invited us to get back with you in a few weeks if we had further concerns about the vaccination roll-out. Recent trends are encouraging, but we do want to highlight an ongoing issue that has not been resolved.

After we sent our Jan. 15 letter, we learned that program directors at Alabama Medicaid, Alabama Department of Senior Services, Alabama Department of Mental Health and Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services contacted Dr. [Scott] Harris to express their concern about the lack of vaccination planning for the Medicaid long-term care patients they serve through home- and community based service waivers. As individuals who qualify for nursing-home care but receive their care at home from community providers, waiver patients are equivalent to nursing home residents in their vulnerability to COVID-19, as well as their legal status. ADPH has acknowledged that these patients belong in the 1a vaccination priority level, but they have not been granted access to vaccinations.

We understand that the agencies offered to assist ADPH with outreach and other logistical planning to ensure timely vaccination of these vulnerable individuals. “Timely” is the critical word. The longer we wait to vaccinate the top priority populations, the more hospitalizations and deaths Alabama will experience on our way to generalized immunity. As of Wednesday afternoon, the other health agencies were still waiting to hear how they could engage with ADPH in this vital effort. We recognize the enormous task facing the department and applaud its perseverance under trying circumstances. Rather than calling that work into question, we offer this appeal in the belief that an inter-agency strategy will lighten ADPH’s load.

One example of such collaboration comes from Delaware, where paratransit resources are being deployed in a “reverse paratransit” network to deliver vaccines and vaccinators to the homes of paratransit users as vaccine supply becomes available. We have shared this model with ADPH and understand that Dr. Mary McIntyre has contacted the Delaware program to learn more. We hope to see similar ideas embraced here in Alabama. We would appreciate anything you can do to expedite an inter-agency partnership to make vaccinations available to our most vulnerable Alabamians as soon as supplies allow.

Thank you for your consideration.

Signatories

Respectfully submitted by:

Jim Carnes
Policy Director, Alabama Arise

James A. Tucker, Esq.
Director, Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program
The Protection and Advocacy System for the State of Alabama

Eric M. Peebles, Ph.D., CRC
Chair, Consumer Advisory Committee, Alabama Select Network
President, Disabilities Leadership Coalition of Alabama
Treasurer, State of Alabama Independent Living Council
President and Chief Executive Officer, Abilities Unlimited LLC dba Accessible Alabama

Alabama Arise testimony in opposition to corporate COVID-19 immunity bill

Arise’s Robyn Hyden testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday in opposition to SB 30. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, would provide corporations with a broad range of civil immunity against lawsuits related to exposure to coronavirus or contraction of COVID-19. Here’s the full text of Hyden’s prepared remarks:

Good morning. I’m here to represent Alabama Arise, our 158 member organizations and thousands of members and partners around the state of Alabama who believe that poor and working-class people deserve equal protection and opportunity for dignity, equity and justice.

We know you are a deliberative body, and we believe that more deliberation is needed on this bill. First, we are concerned that provisions are being made in this legislative session to protect business and corporate interests without a similar focus on protecting workers and everyday people who are the true economic engine of our state. This bill provides virtual blanket immunity, harming workers and rewarding bad actors.

Second, the standard of “clear and convincing evidence” required in this bill is simply too high and will prevent legitimate claims from being addressed. We would propose the “preponderance of evidence” standard used in other civil cases.

Inconsistent standards and lowered expectations

Third, there are major inconsistencies that need to be addressed. This bill creates two competing standards of care: one in section 4, and one in section 3. Section 4 appears to be retroactive and includes a clear link to compliance with public health standards. Section 3 does not mention anything about compliance with public health standards. Those standards should be consistent. And further, disallowing lawsuits for negligence, as this bill does, gives irresponsible entities a free pass for acts committed during the COVID-19 pandemic that would normally subject them to liability.

Finally, we believe the references to “applicable public health guidance” in the introduction should include guidance issued by federal agencies, not just state agencies. The federal SAFE TO WORK immunity legislation supported by Sen. Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans tied immunity to reasonable compliance with public health standards, as have immunity bills in most other states. There’s no logic in lowering our expectations of businesses moving forward when they already know so much about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

In conclusion, I urge you all to consider actions to protect and nurture workers’ well-being through worker supports that will allow people who are medically vulnerable to protect both their health and their financial well-being during this pandemic. Front-line workers deserve access to health care, hazard pay and social support programs if they are unable to work in a high-risk field. Too many workers are being driven into risky working conditions with no alternatives.

Thank you so much for your time.

Alabama should use federal COVID-19 relief funds to heal and protect communities, Arise and partners write

To members of the Alabama Legislature,

Alabama is struggling. Even after Governor Ivey issued an emergency stay-at-home order, the average number of new coronavirus cases continues to rise. And despite those climbing case numbers, Alabama is moving forward with reopening its economy. To accomplish a successful recovery, residents must have confidence that it is safe to be in public and workers must be able to work in safe environments without fear for their health or the health and safety of their families. We are asking that you support the following recommendations so that Alabama will use the $1.9 billion under the Coronavirus Relief Fund to heal and protect the communities who have and will continue to shoulder the high costs of this crisis.

The Alabama Legislature, in consultation with Governor Ivey, has divided these federal funds into large categories of spending. Governor Ivey now has provided a method by which you and your colleagues may request release of the funds for coronavirus-related expenditures.

We recognize that $1.9 billion is inadequate to address the long-term needs of Alabamians as the present economic crisis continues to unfold. Consequently, you and your colleagues will need to find additional revenue sources to ensure that Alabama’s economy does not weaken further and that its residents are sufficiently protected from future spikes in infections. We look forward to working with you on those longer discussions.

Our recommendations aim to provide support where it is most needed, reflecting the disparate impact of the crisis. Highly educated workers have largely been able to work from home. Low-wage and many essential workers have not. Unemployment rates are highest for workers who have less than a bachelor’s degree and are higher in our Latinx and Black communities. We have also seen the largest gender gap in unemployment, where women experience unemployment at a nearly 3% higher rate than men. Our response to the pandemic and our use of the Coronavirus Relief Funds need to heal this harm, not exacerbate the disparities that already exist.

However the taxpayer-funded payments are distributed, they must be openly accounted with reasonable but sufficient detail. In addition to public reporting of expenditures, the Department of Examiners of Public Accounts must be authorized to audit receipts and expenditures of all agencies within its purview and to request accounting from other CARES Act funding recipients.

Ensuring safe workplaces and families

As Florida and Georgia have shown, merely reopening the economy does not bring back customers or jobs. Both states have seen ongoing unemployment claims at rates higher than other states in the nation. Alabama must ensure that workplaces are safe, that workers’ families are cared for, and that state and local services are ready for people to come back before the more than 500,000 newly unemployed can return to work. These recommendations focus mostly on needs that can be met with the $300 million earmarked for supporting businesses, nonprofits, and faith-based organizations.

Working

Working outside the home brings with it the very real risk that you will become infected. The primary concern of many workers is that they will become infected on the job and, in turn, infect their family.

To make work safe, we must fund testing and contact tracing, provide protective and sanitary equipment, and create new workspaces that minimize the possibility of transmission.

High-risk and essential workplaces, such as poultry plants, warehouses, grocery stores, child care centers, nursing homes and hospitals, require repeated and random testing for workers who do not appear ill, immediate testing of anyone who has symptoms of the novel coronavirus, and contact tracing for employees, their families, and the public who have come in contact with an employee who has tested positive.

Alabama should use a portion of the $300 million earmarked for the support of citizens, businesses, nonprofits, and faith-based organizations directly impacted by the pandemic or providing assistance to those affected to provide:

  • The tests necessary for business and government agencies that have reopened;
  • Contact tracing of positive test results;
  • Personal protective equipment for employees of those business and government agencies; and
  • Increased sanitary stations within essential workplaces.

Alabama also needs to develop or adopt technical assistance on workplace safety detailing how employers test for COVID-19, use PPE, and create safer workspaces.

In exchange for providing these supplies and equipment, Alabama must require businesses to adopt paid sick leave requirements for all employees to protect other employees and the public from transmission of the virus and allow employees to get tested without fear of losing their jobs.

When allocating these funds, Alabama should prioritize supporting minority-owned and woman-owned local businesses and provide small business loans or grants to these businesses to retain employees or make workplaces safer. Minority-owned businesses received fewer Small Business Administration loans under the CARES Act, and because the business owners have less access to credit, they rely on personal funds more than white-owned businesses to finance their work.[1]

In addition, Alabama should follow Congress’ example and provide a one-time tax rebate to low-income households to assist families who are unemployed and underemployed.

Families

One of the largest hurdles for families who are prepared to go to work is finding affordable and safe child care. Approximately one in four working adults has a child under age 18 and in two-thirds of two-parent families with children, both parents work. However, not every family can afford child care. Low-income families who pay for child care spend around 35% of their income on that care. To ensure parents are able to return to work, Alabama needs to provide child care for low-income families. This includes supporting low-income families by making child care affordable and supporting child care centers that are at risk of closing.

Stable families need stable homes. While Governor Ivey’s April 3 proclamation alleviated the immediate threat of eviction and foreclosure, it does not solve the long-term problem for Alabamians unable to pay rent or mortgages now that the emergency order has expired. Many families will not be able to pay the back rent that has accumulated. About a third of low-income and nearly two-thirds of extremely low-income households in Alabama pay more than half of their income on rent and utilities every month. The total cost of rent support needed in Alabama for the duration of this crisis is estimated at a little over $1 billion.[2]

These families and their landlords urgently need rent relief. To meet this significant need, Alabama must:

  • Allocate and leverage Coronavirus Relief Fund money in coordination with other sources of federal and private housing assistance funds; and
  • Provide emergency relief, through homeless and other nonprofit agencies, for families at risk of eviction, foreclosure or loss of utility service.

Other states have already taken this important step. Montana used $50 million of the Coronavirus Relief Funds it received to provide tenant and homeowner relief. The Pennsylvania Legislature reserved $150 million for emergency rental assistance from its federal funding. Likewise, Illinois allocated $396 million of its funds for housing assistance. It reserved $100 million specifically to meet the needs of people in disproportionately impacted areas based on COVID-19 cases and $79 million for counties that did not receive direct allotments from the federal Coronavirus Relief Funds. Alabama needs to take similar steps to protect its families who rent.

These solutions do not address the overwhelming need for more affordable housing in Alabama. To address this long-term goal, Alabama needs to increase its stock of affordable housing by funding the Housing Trust Fund administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs.

As more Alabama families lose jobs or work hours, hunger is growing in the state. In the last week of May, the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey found that over 10% of Alabama households are experiencing food insecurity–a significant increase from the first week of the crisis. Therefore, we must greatly increase our support to Alabama-based food banks that provide emergency food to hungry families.

Improving Alabama’s health

COVID-19 is exposing chronic and deadly inequities in Alabama’s health care system. The virus’s disproportionately high mortality rate for African Americans reflects deep structural barriers to health care, economic opportunity, transportation, and other assets of the common good. These same barriers have impeded the state’s response to the pandemic by limiting the delivery system for mitigation, testing, and treatment in historically underserved communities. In light of these challenges borne of both active exclusion and passive neglect, Alabama’s COVID-19 response should prioritize interventions that explicitly address health disparities.

Allocation of federal COVID-19 relief funds does not occur in a vacuum. These funds will have their biggest impact when they flow through or alongside state programs designed to provide basic protections for all Alabamians. The single biggest action Alabama can take to maximize the impact of current and future federal COVID-19 relief funding on historic health disparities in our state is to expand Medicaid. Lack of health coverage for low-income adults creates an “outsider class,” distancing many of our most vulnerable neighbors from emergency resources that could buffer the pandemic’s toll. We recognize that the state cannot use COVID-19 relief funding for the state share of expansion costs.

Thus far, Alabama has set aside $5 million to support the Department of Health and an additional $250 million to support delivery of health care and related services related to the pandemic. Alabama should use these funds to:

  • Ensure that there is adequate testing for new infections, including funding for testing supplies;
  • Provide contact tracing after new infections are discovered;
  • Supply PPE to areas that have been most impacted by COVID-19; and
  • Strengthen public health surveillance systems to facilitate rapid response to local infection upsurges as economic activity increases.

Adequate testing for the virus is the most urgent tactical need. A primary tool for targeting finite (and admittedly inadequate) resources is accurate information. The state must evaluate the extent and adequacy of testing in each Public Health District in order to prioritize additional resources for underserved districts and facilitate partnerships between local health departments, private testing providers and local community and faith groups to ensure assistance for all who need it.

Another barrier to both testing and treatment is lack of transportation, especially in rural areas. To address this concern, Alabama should appropriate a portion of COVID-19 relief funds to the Public Transportation Trust Fund to mitigate coronavirus-related drops in local agencies’ farebox recovery rates.

Safely reopening state and local services

Reopening our courts

The Alabama Supreme Court has authorized the presiding circuit judge in each circuit to continue court closures until August 15 for all courts within the circuit, including municipal courts, to preserve the safety and welfare of court personnel and the public. We would encourage delaying non-essential hearings for as long as possible, so long as the delays do not affect the rights of litigants.  However, when courts reopen, they will need to take special precautions to protect people with disabilities or with family members who are vulnerable to infection. Funding to courts should require that they develop, and make accessible, a comprehensive reasonable accommodation policy for civil and criminal cases that addresses the individual needs of lawyers, litigants, defendants, and witnesses who cannot physically come to court due to disability.

These accommodations could be as simple as continuances or remote video proceedings for people who have access to technology necessary to participate in the proceedings remotely. If remote proceedings are used, funding should be used to allow for technology that permits video to enhance credibility determinations by fact finders, that allows the introduction and viewing of documentary evidence by remote participants, and that provides access, or education about the requisite technology for participants prior to their hearing.

Alabama also should increase funding to support ADA coordinators within courts that individuals with disabilities can contact in the event that an accommodation is needed.

In addition to delaying court reopenings and taking necessary steps to protect people with disabilities, a portion of the $10 million set aside for court services should fund personal protective equipment for all people required to attend court functions, including court personnel, attorneys, witnesses, victims, and litigants. Additionally, a portion of those same funds should be used to promptly notify individuals with court dates of delays, cancellations, and rescheduled hearings. Not only should these notices be sent to individuals, but as the hours and operating conditions of the courts evolve and change, the court should ensure that the public is aware of current court policies and how people seeking emergency relief may access the courts. These notices should be prominently posted at the courthouse, online, and in any other location likely to inform the public.

Improving state services

The pandemic caused a groundswell of need for services administered by Alabama, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Unemployment Insurance benefits, and subsidized housing programs (which are primarily run at a local level). As more residents need these supports to make it through the pandemic, Alabama should prioritize the $300 million it has set aside for state agencies to increase the numbers of case handlers they employ to respond to the increased demand, provide those workers with resources they need to work from home or with the same testing and PPE that we recommend for all essential workers when they engage with the public, and collectively improve access to their services using mobile technology.

When an individual is going through a crisis or the entire state is in a pandemic, these disparate services need to be accessible in one place with minimal barriers to applying for benefits, receiving important correspondence about deadlines or reporting obligations, and communicating with case workers about the services. Applying and maintaining these services comes at a high opportunity cost to families. Currently, to apply for and communicate about each service takes hours, often at different agencies and with different case workers. That is time that people need to take care of their children, their elderly parents or neighbors, or to look for employment. Improving capacity and access now both responds to the current crisis and inoculates these agencies for future crises.

Voting

In addition to improving access to state services, Alabama must protect our citizens’ health and fundamental  right to vote. A portion of the $300 million set aside for state services should be used to provide absentee ballot applications to every registered voter or, at a minimum, allow every registered voter to request and vote by absentee ballot during the pandemic. In addition, because many voters require or prefer in-person voting, the state must work to improve the safety and accessibility of in-person voting and permit curbside voting. To ensure voters know how to vote safely during the COVID-19 pandemic, Alabama will need to increase its spending to educate voters in coordination with local election officials.

Taking responsibility for people in our custody

Alabama has both a legal and a moral responsibility for the safety and well-being of the people it incarcerates. There are tens of thousands of individuals housed in state prisons, local jails, and ICE detention facilities — all places where it is impossible to practice social distancing. To date, less than 1% of those incarcerated in Alabama’s prisons have been tested for COVID-19.

Governor Ivey with approval from the Legislature has set aside $200 million for the Department of Corrections to help meet Alabama’s moral and legal obligations during this pandemic. We recommend that Alabama prioritize its use of the funds to:

  • Release all incarcerated people who do not pose a threat to public safety, who are pregnant, and people who are at a higher risk if infected with COVID-19;
  • Assist with reentry services to enable successful reintegration for returning persons;
  • Test people in Alabama jails and prisons prior to release and while incarcerated; and
  • Provide PPE, soap, sanitizer, and other supplies necessary to maintain a safe and hygienic environment for the remaining incarcerated people and correctional staff.

The fastest way to reduce the threat of infection in jails and prisons is to test and release as many people as possible to reduce the number of people within the facilities. However, decarceration requires more than releasing someone from jail or prison. We also must prioritize a successful reentry into communities to prevent recidivism. A portion of the funds allocated for the Department of Corrections must go to increasing reentry services to ensure successful and safe transitions into the community. Particularly important to this transition are ensuring that people are tested for the coronavirus before reentering and that they are provided with the housing, employment, and medical services necessary once they are in the community. Some states have reduced their populations by nearly 20%. Alabama must do more.

In addition to expediting reentry and funding reentry services, Alabama needs to ensure that people are not set up to fail with onerous fines and fees used to fund the criminal justice system and reentry monitoring. Unemployment is already at record highs, and we know that the effects of racial bias in the hiring process increase the already negative effects of criminal records for people of color. Studies have shown that Black applicants with a criminal record had only a 5% chance of receiving a call back, less than one-third of white applicants with a criminal record. Reentering into this economy will be tough. Having paid for reentry with federal funds, Alabama should waive the fines and fees for people who are struggling to reintegrate into our communities, giving them a clean start and a better chance for success.

Even with fewer people in facilities, we will still need to dramatically increase testing of employees who work in prisons and jails and for the people who are incarcerated therein. Only four in every 100 residents in Alabama have been tested for COVID-19. Alabama has tested fewer than 1% of people incarcerated in its prisons. This is wholly inadequate to slow, let alone stop, the spread of COVID-19 within Alabama’s facilities.

Securing our children’s futures

The pandemic radically impacted education and threatens to worsen future education outcomes in Alabama for the many students who already did not have the benefit of an equitable opportunity to learn before it began. Alabama must focus its attention on addressing the inequities exacerbated by access to technology, space to learn, and caretakers to support their learning and those for whom specialized services are not available, including for students with disabilities. If it does not, the opportunity gap will widen with significant economic impacts for students and their families far into the future.

The opportunity gap experienced by low-income children and children of color begins early in life. We must intervene and use a portion of the dedicated $300 million for expenditures related to technology and infrastructure for remote instruction and learning to provide support to organizations offering early intervention programs for at-risk children so that these services can be provided safely and, as necessary, remotely.

Alabama also should prioritize the use of the $300 million to fund public schools with the highest proportion of students who are low-income children, children of color, children with disabilities, English-language learner children, children in immigrant families, children in foster care, migrant children, children experiencing homelessness, LGBTQ children, and children in the juvenile justice system. Public schools likely will need to hire additional staff, including counselors, to provide necessary education, social and emotional, and health and safety services and increase salaries to remain competitive for educators who now take greater risks to their own health and are required to master more technological skills to teach their kids.

We recognize that the $300 million allocated by the Legislature will not be enough. Additional funding could also be taken from the $250 million fund for local government expenditures directly related to the pandemic to provide these disproportionately affected school systems and their local communities with funding for after-school, summer school, and community programs for youth.

Finally, where there are competing priorities for funding, the Legislature has set aside an additional $118 million that can be used to supplement the funds required for these recommendations. If you have any questions or concerns about any of these recommendations, please contact Robyn Hyden ( or 334-832-9060) or Katie Glenn ( or 334-531-7638).

Signatories

Sincerely,

90 Alabama organizations

ACLU of Alabama
Adelante Alabama Worker Center
AIDS Alabama
AL CURE
Alabama Appleseed
Alabama Arise
Alabama Black Women’s Roundtable
Alabama Civic Engagement Coalition
Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice
Alabama Coalition on Black Civic Participation
Alabama Faith Council
Alabama Institute for Social Justice
Alabama Justice Initiative
Alabama NAACP
Alabama Poor People’s Campaign
Alabama Rivers Alliance
Alabama Solutions, A Grassroots Movement
Alabama Youth and College NAACP
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 770
Auburn Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
Baptist Church of the Covenant
Bay Area Women Coalition, Inc.
Beloved Community Church
Birmingham AIDS Outreach (BAO)
Children First Foundation, Inc.
Christian Church in Alabama-Northwest Florida
Christian Methodist Episcopal Church
Church of the Reconciler, UMC (Birmingham)
Church Women United Montgomery
Citizens’ Climate Lobby – Baldwin County, Alabama Chapter
Collaborative Solutions, Inc.
Etowah Visitation Project
Fairhope Unitarian Fellowship
Faith and Works Statewide Civic Engagement Collective
Faith in Action Alabama
Fall Injury Prevention And Rehabilitation Center
First Christian Church – Disciples of Christ (Montgomery)
First Congregational Church, UCC (Birmingham)
Five Horizons Health Services
GASP
Greater Birmingham Ministries
Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama
Holiday Transitional Center
Holy Rosary Catholic Church
Human Rights Campaign Alabama
Humanists of North Alabama
Immanuel Presbyterian Church, PCUSA (Montgomery)
Interfaith Montgomery
Jesuit Social Research Institute
Jobs to Move America
Just Faith, Prince of Peace Catholic Church (Birmingham)
Just Faith, Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church (Birmingham)
League of Women Voters of Alabama
Low Income Housing Coalition of Alabama
Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church (Daphne)
March of Dimes
Mary’s House Catholic Worker
Medical Advocacy & Outreach
Mission Possible Community Services, Inc.
Monte Sano United Methodist Church
Montevallo Progressive Alliance
Montgomery Pride United
National Action Network – Birmingham Chapter
National Lawyers Guild
National MS Society
Nightingale Clinic
North Alabama Conference United Methodist Women
North Alabama Peace Network
Open Table United Church of Christ
People First of Alabama
Planned Parenthood Southeast
Progressive Women of Northeast Alabama
Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty
Restorative Strategies, LLC
Saint Junia United Methodist Church
Shelby Roden, Attorneys at Law
Sierra Club, Alabama Chapter
Sisters of Mercy Alabama
Sisters of Mercy of the Americas
Southern AIDS Coalition
SPLC Action Fund
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church (Birmingham)
The Empowerment Alliance
The Green Kitchen
The Right Place, Inc.
The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mobile
URGE: Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity
Yellowhammer Fund
Youth Towers
YWCA Central Alabama

cc: Governor Kay Ivey and policy staff

[1] The SBA Inspector General found that the SBA failed to instruct lenders to prioritize underserved and rural markets [found at https://www.sba.gov/sites/default/files/2020-05/SBA_OIG_Report_20-14_508.pdf on May 27, 2020]. Disparities in lending between minority-owned and white businesses already existed as documented by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s December 2019 Small Business Credit Survey [found at https://www.fedsmallbusiness.org/medialibrary/fedsmallbusiness/files/2019/20191211-ced-minority-owned-firms-report.pdf on May 27, 2020].

[2] Estimate from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Alabama Arise and partners urge Ivey to use every Medicaid tool available to save lives during COVID-19 pandemic

To: Gov. Kay Ivey and Commissioner Stephanie Azar
From: The Undersigned Alabama Organizations
Re: Alabama’s Policy Response to COVID-19
Date: March 19, 2020

Thank you both for your leadership, especially at this critical time. Alabama’s health care system, like most others around the world, is facing severe stresses with the COVID-19 pandemic. Seniors and people with underlying health conditions, including people with disabilities, appear to be at most serious and immediate risk from the virus. Alabamians with low income and those who lack health insurance are also high-risk groups, because their options for responding to the health threat and related challenges are limited. In the best of times, public services that provide health care for the most vulnerable Alabamians form the backbone of the health system that protects us all. A health emergency only heightens the need for Alabama’s state health agencies to be as strong as we can make them.

Federal law gives states wide flexibility in using their Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Programs (ALL Kids in Alabama) to respond to health emergencies and other disasters. They can expand eligibility and benefits and take steps to make it easier for people to enroll and stay enrolled. The options below include some that Alabama Medicaid has adopted already, many that could be implemented in short order and some that could be requested now for future use. They are in keeping with the important recognition by Governor Ivey and President Trump that COVID-19 requires a bold, timely and comprehensive response.

A few things to consider:

  • People who are eligible for Medicaid can enroll at any time – the “open enrollment” period is year-round.
  • Alabama Medicaid is a “bare-bones” program that has some of the nation’s most stringent eligibility limits.
  • More than 220,000 Alabamians with low incomes are uninsured. Another 120,000 are struggling to pay for work-based or private plans they can’t afford.
  • President Trump has signed a bill that would give states a temporary 6.2 percentage point increase in its federal share of Medicaid funding. For Alabama, that would mean a boost of $380 million for the one-year period starting retroactively on Jan. 1.
  • The pandemic poses critical challenges for certain groups, including people who depend on long-term services and supports at home and in community-based, intermediate and long-term facilities; people experiencing homelessness; and people with special health care needs related and unrelated to COVID-19.
  • Even if a state took up most or all of the emergency options, there would still be gaps in coverage for people who don’t meet Medicaid’s citizenship and immigration status rules.

Current Alabama Medicaid policies that facilitate emergency response:

  • Alabama Medicaid already uses “presumptive eligibility” (PE) to provide temporary coverage for children, pregnant women and parent/caretaker relatives who are determined by a qualified hospital, on the basis of preliminary information, as likely to be eligible for Medicaid.
  • Alabama Medicaid already uses “express lane eligibility” (ELE) to renew children’s Medicaid eligibility automatically on the basis of income data available from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
  • Alabama already uses the “continuous eligibility” option to provide children with 12 full months of coverage through Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (ALL Kids), even if the family’s income increases beyond the eligibility limit during the year.

Eligibility: Expanding coverage for the uninsured

Alabama can immediately expand eligibility by submitting state plan amendments (SPAs), applying for 1115 waivers (expedited on an emergency basis if CMS allows), and amending its section 1915 home- and community-based waivers for long-term care:

  • Governor Ivey can submit a SPA to expand coverage for adults with incomes up to 138 percent of the poverty line with enhanced match (90 percent FMAP).
  • Governor Ivey can submit a SPA to increase eligibility for pregnant women, people with disabilities and seniors at the state’s regular FMAP.
  • Alabama can seek an emergency 1115 waiver for federal authority and matching funds to implement continuous coverage for women enrolled in pregnancy-related Medicaid through 12 months postpartum.
  • Alabama can adopt the “ICHIA” option to provide Medicaid and CHIP coverage to lawfully residing children and pregnant women. States can also provide prenatal care to women regardless of immigration status by extending CHIP coverage to the unborn child.
  • Alabama can eliminate or decrease asset tests for seniors and people with disabilities.
  • Alabama can modify its section 1915 home- and community-based services (HCBS) waivers to increase the number of “slots,” or openings for participants. CMS has a template to facilitate changes in section 1915 waivers. The template can also be used to provide additional services that are needed to address COVID-19.

Enrollment: Ensuring that all eligible people can easily enroll and get coverage

  • Alabama should maximize its use of presumptive eligibility (PE) by expanding the definition of qualified entities to include the state agency, community health centers and other community sites and by adding eligibility for seniors and individuals with disabilities. Alabama should develop a plan for follow-up to ensure eligibility of individuals beyond the PE period.
  • Alabama should outstation eligibility staff to the maximum extent possible.
  • Alabama should enroll people based on their self-attestation and follow up with verification requests only when the attestation is not compatible with electronic data sources.
  • States are required to provide a reasonable opportunity period of at least 90 days to individuals who attest they are citizens or have an immigration status that would make them eligible for benefits, as well as to those who don’t have a Social Security number. This means Alabama should enroll people and assist them in providing any documents they need after exhausting attempts to verify citizenship or status through electronic verification.
  • Alabama should add the school lunch program to the express lane eligibility data-sharing process for Medicaid eligibility.

Renewal: Keeping people covered

  • Alabama should temporarily delay renewals under authority to exceed time limits in emergency situations.
  • Under existing Medicaid rules, Alabama should maintain coverage for people temporarily residing out of state because of the coronavirus.

Benefits: Getting people the care they need

  • Alabama should submit a SPA to take up the option in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to ensure all necessary treatment and preventive services, including vaccines, are covered for all adults Medicaid beneficiaries without cost-sharing. States that take up this option receive a 1 percentage point bump in the FMAP for those services under section 4106 of the ACA.
  • Alabama should cover 90-day supplies of maintenance medications, allow advance refills and cover home delivery of prescription drugs.
  • Alabama should provide expanded benefits for affected populations through 1915(i) state option for home- and community-based services.
  • Alabama should educate providers on Medicaid coverage, especially the EPSDT benefit for children, guaranteeing that children receive regular screening exams and preventive care and all necessary follow-up diagnostic and treatment services.
  • Alabama should maximize the use of telehealth — including reimbursement for the full range of early intervention, treatment and rehabilitative services — to extend provider access and reduce direct personal contact during the pandemic.
  • Alabama should maximize coverage and awareness of emergency services available to people not eligible for Medicaid due to immigration status.

Continuity of care: Preventing disruption of services for people with special health care needs and disabilities

Thousands of Alabama Medicaid members depend on health services and daily living supports provided in home- and community-based settings and long-term care facilities. For these individuals, disruptions in care and assistance can be life-threatening.

  • Alabama must respect the rights of people with special health care needs and disabilities to make their own choices in all aspects of their COVID-19 contingency plan.
  • Alabama should waive all administrative requirements except federal and state background checks to allow on-the-spot hiring of personal care attendants by people receiving long-term services and supports.
  • Alabama should suspend or waive overtime-limiting regulations for personal assistance services to facilitate continuity of care when illness, quarantine and other factors reduce staff and support network capacity.
  • Alabama should guarantee personal assistance service providers paid sick time to encourage providers to stay home and decrease spreading infection.
  • Alabama should provide funding to community organizations such as Independent Living Centers and developmental disability service providers to establish or expand expedited recruitment processes for emergency backup assistance for all formal and informal, government and non-government supports and services to close COVID-19 gaps and keep people independent.

Bottom line

Use every tool available to protect Alabamians in the short, medium and long term.

These recommendations are adapted from analysis provided by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Medicaid and CHIP Coverage Learning Collaborative, the Kaiser Family Foundation, Disability Rights & Resources, and Accessible Alabama.

Signatories

The following organizations respectfully endorse these recommendations:

Accessible Alabama
AIDS Alabama
Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice
Alabama Arise
Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice
Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program
Alabama Faith Council
Alabama-Florida Episcopal District of the AME Zion Church
Alabama Institute for Social Justice
Alabama Justice Initiative
Alabama Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival
Alabama Rivers Alliance
Alabama Select ICN Consumer Advisory Committee
Alabama State Association of Cooperatives
Alabama State Conference of the NAACP
AME Church of Alabama
Disabilities Leadership Coalition of Alabama
Disability Rights & Resources
Faith and Works
Faith in Action Alabama
Fifth Episcopal District, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church
Greater Birmingham Ministries
Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama
Hometown Action
The Knights & Orchids Society
Medical Advocacy & Outreach
NAMI Alabama
National MS Society, Alabama
People First of Alabama
Planned Parenthood Southeast
Save Ourselves Coalition for Justice and Democracy
Sickle Cell Disease Association of America
Southern Poverty Law Center
United Cerebral Palsy of Alabama
VOICES for Alabama’s Children
The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham
YWCA Central Alabama

Ending an ‘unjust burden’: Alabama Arise testimony in favor of SB 144 to untax groceries

Arise’s Robyn Hyden testified to the Senate’s education budget committee Wednesday in support of SB 144. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre, would eliminate Alabama’s state sales tax on groceries and replace the lost revenue by capping the state deduction for federal income taxes. Here’s the full text of Hyden’s prepared remarks:

Good morning! I’m Robyn Hyden, executive director of Alabama Arise. We’re a nonprofit coalition of 155 congregations, organizations and individuals promoting public policies to improve the lives of Alabamians with low incomes.

For our 31-year history, Alabama Arise members have advocated to remove barriers to opportunity for people who struggle to make ends meet – and ending the grocery tax is at the top of our list of policy goals. Last month, we brought 200 advocates to the State House to ask you all to consider several ways to remove the grocery tax. And we are very pleased to see this bill receive your attention today.

We believe that while the grocery tax is an unjust burden on people who simply need to eat, the flip side is that the federal income tax (FIT) deduction is a giant and unfair tax loophole, allowing people with higher incomes to pay a lower percentage of their overall earnings. Only two other states still allow the full FIT deduction, and only two other states fully tax groceries.

The grocery tax brings in about $480 million a year, while the entire FIT deduction for individuals costs our budget more than $719 million a year. Essentially, we are subsidizing our reliance on this giant tax loophole with a ridiculous tax on food.

How to end the state grocery tax responsibly

We shouldn’t continue to subsidize an unfair tax loophole with an unjust grocery tax. We support Sen. Jones’ proposal because it would end this unfair tax shift by capping the total FIT deduction allowed. This would allow working families who pay federal income taxes to still benefit from the deduction, but also would prevent the Education Trust Fund from losing revenue.

Our modeling of the impact of SB 144, completed by the Institute on Taxation and Education Policy, shows that this bill would generate a conservative estimate of an additional $474 million a year to the ETF. That’s almost an even swap for grocery tax revenue that would be returned to taxpayers.

Most Alabamians would get a tax cut from untaxing groceries and capping the FIT deduction. Here is the estimated net tax change as a share of income if Alabama capped its federal income tax deduction at $6,000 for a single tax filer and $12,000 for a couple filing jointly. Bottom 20%: -2.81%. Next 20%: -1.31%. Next 20%: -1%. Next 20%: -0.62%. Next 4%: 0.31%. Top 1%: 0.93%.

If you look at the chart I’ve shared with you, the blue and green bar graph shows the impact of both removing the grocery tax and capping the FIT deduction on the average household at each income level. Notice that for the bottom 95% of taxpayers, the combination of removing the grocery tax and ending the FIT deduction produces a net tax cut.

For lower- and middle-income families, it’s quite a significant cut. It’s only for households making well above $135,000 a year that any type of significant net increase is going to happen. When you consider that the median household income in our state is just $48,123, what we’re looking at here is effectively the biggest tax cut affecting the most people that you’re ever going to get a chance to vote on.

I thank you for your time today. And I urge you to consider this proposal to bring tax relief to hard-working families and bring more fairness to our tax code.