How Arise is working to build a brighter future after the pandemic
By Chris Sanders, communications director
After a year of darkness, the light at the end of the tunnel is finally in sight. Promising vaccine news offers hope that public health officials can rein in COVID-19 in the coming months. And as our state and nation seek policy solutions to rebuild from the pandemic’s health and economic devastation, Alabama Arise will seek to advance equity and shared prosperity for Alabamians who are marginalized and excluded.
COVID-19 has created suffering on a staggering scale. It also has highlighted long-standing economic and racial disparities and underscored the urgency of ending them. A new legislative session and a new presidency will offer new opportunities to right those wrongs in 2021 and beyond.
The federal and state work ahead
The most immediate needs will require federal action. Congress must extend state aid and additional unemployment insurance (UI) benefits before they expire this month. But those extensions should be just a down payment on a more comprehensive response.
Arise will urge further UI benefit increases and more federal relief to help states avoid layoffs and damaging cuts. We also will advocate for emergency rental and mortgage assistance and a 15% boost to food assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). And we’ll support regulatory efforts to lift harmful Medicaid and SNAP barriers created in recent years.
We’ll also keep working for better state policies when the Legislature returns in February. Our top focus will be Medicaid expansion, which we’ll pursue along with partners in the Cover Alabama Coalition. Expansion would cover more than 340,000 Alabamians with low incomes and ease the financial strain on rural hospitals. It also would attack structural health care disparities that led COVID-19 to take a disproportionate toll on Black Alabamians.
“Arise believes in dignity, equity and justice for all Alabamians,” Arise executive director Robyn Hyden said. “And our 2021 issue priorities would break down many of the policy barriers that keep people in poverty. We can and will build a more inclusive future for our state.”
As I reflect on 2020, I’m enraged by the political and policy failures that have led to the devastating public health and economic crisis we’re facing.
Hundreds of thousands are dead, sick or suffering. Evictions, hunger and homelessness are increasing rapidly. But federal leaders have failed to make sure people have the resources and support needed to fight this virus effectively. The people suffering the most – Black, Indigenous and Latino communities, low-wage workers and women – desperately need the safety net that has been slowly dismantled over the past decades.
In Alabama, lawmakers seem more focused on protecting corporate interests, not “we the people,” as though the economy can be strong while large numbers of people are dying. This narrative is poisonous, and we must fight it.
Arise will continue working for universal health care access and adequate COVID-19 relief. Early next year, we’ll also release a report on the toll this crisis has taken on low-wage workers, including many on the pandemic front lines.
During this grim season, it’s on us to fight for the future we hope to see: a world where everyone is valued, included and safe from harm.
Join Alabama Arise today and make a difference!
By Amber Haywood, development director
Alabama Arise members are the force behind sustained advocacy for policies that improve the lives of Alabamians with low incomes.
When we come together across lines of difference to demand fair and just policies for all Alabamians, we are able to hold our lawmakers accountable. Identifying yourself to an elected official as an Arise member makes a tremendous difference. It means you have a community of support as you work toward a more equitable Alabama.
As an indication of your personal commitment to Arise’s mission, individual membership requires a financial contribution each year. We suggest a donation of $15 or more, but we strive to ensure money is not a barrier to membership.
You can keep your membership current with a gift in any amount with which you feel comfortable! Your contribution makes you eligible to vote during membership meetings, including our annual meetings, where members choose our issue priorities.
Amber Haywood is Arise’s new development director. She is an Alabama native who grew up just outside of Birmingham. She graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where she earned a B.A. in African American Studies and led the undergraduate chapter of the NAACP. Before joining Arise, Amber served as the director of development for Teach for America Alabama, and as a development consultant for YR Media, Brothers @ and the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation.
Whit Sides is Arise’s story collection coordinator. A writer and journalist based in Birmingham, Whit spent more than a decade working in media and advertising before returning to college as a new mom. She earned a B.A. in mass communication from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Before joining Arise in 2020, she investigated stories involving the opioid epidemic, social justice and white supremacy as a reporter in both radio and print. In partnership with the Cover Alabama Coalition, Whit spends her time as a storyteller highlighting the experiences of uninsured Alabamians and empowering people caught in the state’s health coverage gap.
Whitney Washington joined Arise in 2020 as a communications associate. She recently returned to Alabama after living in Nashville for the past eight years. She has a B.A. in history from the University of Montevallo. Whitney worked as a religious researcher for several years before becoming involved in social justice and politics. Prior to joining Arise, Whitney worked for the Black Lives Matter Global Network, Stand Up Nashville and a political campaign.
Kate Blankinship has joined Arise as an Emerson National Hunger Fellow from the Congressional Hunger Center. Originally from Memphis, Kate graduated from the University of Chicago with a major in linguistics. As an undergraduate, Kate was heavily involved in public service, working with local preschools and community-based organizations while pursuing independent and supervised research on anti-poverty, child welfare and other social welfare programs. As a research assistant, Kate analyzed poor civil litigants’ access to the federal legal system, the availability of public health resources in tribal communities and U.S. territories, and the resilience of SNAP and Medicaid in the current administration. Before joining Arise, Kate served with Americorps, working with the nonprofit College Possible in Chicago.
Curtis Hills has joined Arise as an Emerson National Hunger Fellow from the Congressional Hunger Center. A native of Lexington, Miss., Curtis graduated from the University of Mississippi with a degree in English. His passion for social justice began in the eighth grade, while working with the nonprofit Nollie Jenkins Center to help dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline and research ways to alleviate food insecurity in Holmes County. A former Associated Student Body Judicial Council member and congressional intern for Rep. Bennie Thompson, Curtis also served as a Catalyzing Entrepreneurship and Economic Development (CEED) Scholar with the McLean Institute. Curtis spent the summer of his junior year helping migrant families in Spain find housing and jobs and facilitating career development and resume-building workshops in Holmes County.
Join us at Alabama Arise’s 2021 action briefings!
Alabama’s 2021 legislative session begins Feb. 2. It will not proceed as usual given the extraordinary times in which we live. But we still need to be prepared to move our issues forward. This series of briefings will both inform and equip us to act strategically to continue the work for a better Alabama for all.
Listening is often an underdeveloped skill, yet it is critical for mutual understanding and working together for meaningful change. That’s why Arise is committed to listening to our members, to our allies and most importantly, to those directly affected by the work we do together. We depend on what we hear from you to guide our issue work and our strategies.
This year’s COVID-19 pandemic challenged us to be creative in finding ways to listen. Instead of our usual face-to-face meetings around the state, we hosted a series of six statewide online Town Hall Tuesdays. We held events every two weeks, starting in June and ending Sept. 1. We averaged 65 attendees at each session. Here’s some of what we heard from members and supporters:
Affirmation for Medicaid expansion, untaxing groceries and other current Arise issues as important for achieving shared prosperity.
Empathy for those who were already living in vulnerable circumstances further strained by the pandemic.
Concern about barriers to voting, especially during the pandemic.
Passion and concern about many other issues, including housing; living wages and pay equity; prison and sentencing reform; gun safety; juvenile justice reform; defunding the police; the Census; environmental justice; quality and funding of public education; and food insecurity and nutrition.
Willingness to take informed actions to make a difference in the policies that impact people’s lives.
Hope that Alabama can be a better place for all our neighbors to live despite systemic issues and ongoing challenges.
Get in touch and stay in touch with Arise
We didn’t stop listening just because the town halls ended. Please let us continue to hear from you! Reach out to your local organizer and share your thoughts and suggestions:
Arise counts on you to stay active and engaged in this work. And we count on you to encourage other folks to join our movement as we work together to build a better Alabama for all!
Online annual meeting to chart Arise’s 2021 course
By Chris Sanders, communications director
Grassroots democracy will be on display in a new way when Alabama Arise members choose our 2021 issue priorities at our annual meeting Saturday, Oct. 3. For the first time ever, we will hold the meeting online via Zoom.
As a member, you have the power to select the legislative priorities we will pursue in 2021. Two new proposals will compete with five current priorities for five slots on next year’s issue roster.
Below, you’ll find more information on the annual meeting, along with member groups’ summaries of new and modified issue proposals. You’ll also find our policy staff’s overviews of the current issue priorities and updates on our two permanent priorities: adequate state budgets and tax reform.
We hope to see you in October as we gather virtually to renew our shared commitment to building a better Alabama for all!
Things to know for our annual meeting
When: Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020, from 10 a.m. to noon.
Voting rules: Member groups may cast up to 42 votes for issue priorities. Before the annual meeting, groups may designate up to six representatives to get seven votes each. Individual members get five votes each. (A person can vote as an individual or as a member group’s representative, but not both.)
Groups must be current on dues to be eligible to participate. Individual members must have given between July 1, 2019, and Sept. 4, 2020, to be eligible.
Voting for issue priorities will be conducted online. Eligible voters will receive a link and instructions after the meeting. If Arise doesn’t have your email, you will receive a postcard with voting information.
For more information: If you have questions or need to update your contact info or group voters, call 334-832-9060 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
P-EBT, rapid school actions keep Alabama children fed
By Celida Soto Garcia, hunger advocacy coordinator
Six months ago, COVID-19 forced school officials to reinvent public education on the fly. For more than 400,000 Alabama students, the stakes were more than academic. School closures also threatened their daily nutrition.
Schools’ responses were encouraging and fast. Last spring, Alabama quickly adopted federal options to serve multiple meals at once and offer them outside of the usual group settings. Child nutrition professionals hustled to provide school meals at local “grab-and-go” sites or by home delivery. Community eligibility, which lets schools with high poverty rates opt to provide no-cost meals for everyone, eased distribution by removing cumbersome eligibility verification.
In April, Alabama was one of the first states to adopt a new USDA plan called Pandemic EBT. P-EBT sends the value of school breakfasts and lunches ($5.70 per day) directly to eligible families on an EBT card. Payments were retroactive for March and April and continued through May 29. Families still can spend P-EBT credits through Dec. 31.
This summer, schools provided ongoing nutrition support through the regular Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Option. The USDA has allowed both programs to continue through Dec. 31. But the best solution would be for Congress to extend P-EBT through the 2020-21 academic year. It’s less complicated and more effective than forcing schools to figure out how to get meals to children learning remotely.
New issue proposals
Legal malpractice protections
Submitted by Rev. Ramona Russell, Mission Possible Community Services, Inc.
Far too many lawyers provide clients with substandard advice or representation. Alabamians who live in poverty, work for low wages and have little legal knowledge are more often victims of malpractice. The victim may lack the funds to retain another lawyer to file a civil damages case against a lawyer who committed malpractice. The Alabama State Bar mandates yearly continuing legal education (CLE) for most attorneys. A Client Security Fund also exists to assist malpractice victims, but its benefits are limited and often inadequate to cover the amounts lost.
Alabama requires automobile insurance to help ensure victims of careless drivers receive compensation. And a legal malpractice insurance requirement would prevent asset-shielding schemes from precluding recovery for malpractice. This requirement could have the same exceptions for lawyers who don’t take private clients, such as governmental and in-house attorneys, that now exist for CLE.
Universal broadband access
Submitted by Anna Pritchett, AARP Alabama
Broadband can facilitate access to services and activities that improve quality of life and contribute to successful aging. These include health care services, social contacts, employment, recreation, civic engagement and entertainment. To have these options, high-speed networks must be available and affordable, and they must support bandwidth-intensive applications for a rapidly growing user base.
Broadband is especially difficult to deploy in rural areas. It is easier to lay down new communications lines in urban areas with higher population density. Even in urban areas, broadband is not always available in neighborhoods with high concentrations of people living in poverty. Slow, expensive or unavailable broadband creates frustration for consumers. This has prompted a growing number of communities to seek out other options. Dozens of American cities and towns have launched their own fiber-to-the-home networks.
Potential policy solutions
Major investments are a challenge for any community, and high-speed networks are no different. These projects require millions of dollars and years of planning to complete. The major commercial internet providers present another challenge. Many oppose local government involvement, and they have persuaded at least 20 states to prevent or discourage cities or towns from owning or operating high-speed networks.
Alabama policymakers should ensure that all communities maintain the right to own, operate or deploy their own broadband network and services. Those networks should be allowed to expand to new areas.
Policymakers and the private sector should ensure universal access to affordable and reliable high-speed broadband throughout the state, including for underserved populations.
Policymakers should support targeted and transparent state or local tax credits to promote broadband to underserved populations.
Approximately 10% each of Black and Latino households have no internet subscription, compared to 6% of white households. A disproportionate share of Black and Latino households rely on a smartphone for internet connectivity. The pandemic presents a significant opportunity to address racial equity and protect public health while enabling telemedicine, distance learning and online access to the workplace and marketplace from the home. Depending on the local library for access is not the answer.
Modified issue proposal
Criminal justice reform
Submitted by Dillon Nettles, ACLU of Alabama
Alabama’s criminal justice system operates as an oppressive trap for thousands every year. Courts and various other systems are funded on the backs of people convicted of crimes, even though a criminal conviction severely diminishes a person’s work prospects. Alternative court programs are expensive for participants and are too often unavailable. The court system criminalizes many people who need mental health care instead. And nonviolent crimes can result in life imprisonment under Alabama’s cruel, overly punitive Habitual Felony Offender Act (HFOA).
Arise has been working to reform the state’s criminal justice system by increasing access to alternative courts, diverting people who aren’t a threat to others from incarceration, and removing shortsighted policies that try to squeeze every dime from people who can’t afford to pay a penny. This year, the ACLU of Alabama urges Arise to add a specific sentencing reform to this issue: Repeal the HFOA.
The HFOA is Alabama’s three-strikes law. It lengthens sentences for a felony conviction after a prior felony conviction, even when the prior felony was nonviolent. Like other mandatory minimum sentencing laws, the HFOA results in horrific, manifest injustices. Hundreds of people in Alabama are serving life sentences for non-homicide crimes, and thousands of Alabamians have had sentences increased because of the HFOA. The HFOA is so broken that five convictions for marijuana possession for solely personal use could result in a life sentence. Repealing the HFOA would relieve Alabama’s prison population and end some of the state’s most abusive sentencing practices.
The crushing weight of criminal justice debt
Alabama’s criminal justice system needs reform in areas beyond incarceration as well. Court fees and fines impose heavy burdens on many struggling families. Driver’s license suspensions over unpaid fines can cause Alabamians with low incomes to lose their jobs. Cash bail for minor offenses imperils families’ economic security. And multiple fees can stack up, making it impossible to move past a conviction because consequences never end. In Alabama, people are subject to 63 separate criminal justice system fees – including even a $1 fee for paying fee installments. On top of that, a 30% surcharge goes to district attorneys’ offices when a person can’t pay their fines and fees quickly enough.
Arise also has worked to eliminate civil asset forfeiture under the umbrella of criminal justice debt. This practice allows police to seize cash or other assets if they find probable cause to link the property to a crime. But the process doesn’t require a criminal conviction, or even a charge.
A philosophically diverse coalition is seeking to end abusive forfeitures in Alabama. After a comprehensive reform bill slowed in 2019 amid law enforcement opposition, legislators passed a more incremental change, mandating public reporting of property seizures. The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency has delayed statewide implementation of the requirement, but public opinion still strongly favors eliminating forfeiture. That momentum continues to build.
Current Arise issue priorities
Death penalty reform
Alabama’s capital punishment system is unjust, unreliable and often racist. Our state hands down death sentences at nearly double the average national rate. Alabama is the only state that doesn’t fund legal aid to death row prisoners. And state laws offer insufficient safeguards against executing people who are mentally incapable of understanding their actions.
Alabama is the last state sentencing people to death via non-unanimous jury sentences. In April, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Louisiana’s practice of allowing guilty verdicts from a non-unanimous jury violates the Sixth Amendment. By that logic, Arise believes a death sentence issued without agreement from the entire jury is also unconstitutional.
A bill to prohibit non-unanimous sentencing was introduced last year, but the COVID-19 pandemic cut the session short soon after its introduction. Arise also recently has supported bills to impose an execution moratorium, increase transparency in lethal injection procedures, and make retroactive the 2017 ban on judges overriding a jury’s life sentence recommendation.
Alabama’s death penalty practices reflect deep racial inequities. Before the judicial override ban, judges imposed death against a jury’s determination more often when victims were white. The state argued as recently as 2016 that it should be able to kill a prisoner even when a judge explicitly cited race at the sentencing hearing. Much work remains to modernize Alabama’s justice system and prevent unjust executions.
Payday and title lending reform
Every year, high-interest loans trap thousands of struggling Alabamians in a cycle of deep debt. Payday loans are short-term (usually two-week) loans charging high annual percentage rates (APRs), most commonly 456%. Auto title loans charge up to 300% APR and also carry the risk of repossession of the vehicle.
These high-cost loans strip wealth from borrowers and hurt communities across Alabama. Payday lenders are on track to pull approximately $1 billion in fees out of Alabama communities over the next decade, with most of that money flowing to out-of-state companies. Predatory lending practices disproportionately target people of color and exacerbate the economic challenges in struggling rural and urban communities.
Arise is part of a statewide coalition promoting interest rate caps on payday and title loans. In 2020, we supported legislation to give payday borrowers a 30-day repayment period – the same as other monthly bills – up from as few as 10 days now. But early in the session, the Senate Banking Committee canceled a planned public hearing without notice and then voted 8-6 to kill the bill. Heavy citizen engagement will be needed to overcome the lending lobby’s deep pockets. Legislators voting to protect predatory lenders instead of Alabamians often receive large amounts of money from industry lobbyists, and the opposition to lending reform is well-financed.
Our state’s jumble of local transportation systems fails to meet the needs of many people in rural, suburban and urban areas. Alabama is one of just five states with no state public transportation funding. For seniors, workers with low incomes and people with disabilities, the transit gap is a barrier to daily living. Many folks can’t get to work, school, or the doctor’s office in a reasonable amount of time. And during the pandemic, activity restrictions and business closures have reduced fare revenues nationwide. Alabama should respond by funding public transportation at the state level.
Alabama took a good first step in 2018 by creating a state Public Transportation Trust Fund. But the law did not allocate state money, even though it would be a high-return investment. Each $1 million in public transportation funding creates dozens of high-wage, full-time jobs. Those jobs would fuel economic recovery and improve quality of life in our communities. By not funding public transit, Alabama leaves millions of federal matching dollars on the table.
The General Fund remains the key potential state funding source for public transit. An option that would bring in much less revenue but help raise awareness would be to allow Alabamians to donate all or part of their income tax refund to the trust fund. The state already allows such contributions for mental health care, foster care and other public services.
Alabama’s legacy of white supremacy has resulted in a voting rights structure hostile to democratic participation. The state still creates and preserves barriers that prevent otherwise qualified citizens from voting. One recent example was Alabama’s attempt (abandoned under pressure) to close driver’s license offices in the Black Belt soon after creating a photo ID requirement for voting. Another is the requirement for people convicted of certain crimes to pay all fines and fees before they can regain their right to vote.
Arise seeks to remove these systematic barriers to democracy by creating automatic voter registration (AVR) and ending the modern poll tax of ordering people to pay fees before voting. Both issues saw legislation introduced last year. AVR would save the state millions of dollars compared to registration by hand and likely would increase turnout rates significantly. Georgia’s turnout rate increased more than 10% in the 2018 midterms compared to 2014 after the state implemented AVR.
A bill to remove fine and fee repayment requirements was moving in the Senate Judiciary Committee before the session was cut short. An unfavorable federal circuit court ruling this month over efforts to undermine a 2018 Florida referendum restoring voting rights for people with convictions underscores the need for legislative action.
Compiled by Dev Wakeley, policy analyst
Permanent Arise issue priorities
Adequate state budgets
The cloud of the COVID-19 recession hangs heavy over Alabama’s budgets. The recession cost nearly 200,000 Alabamians their jobs and reduced income and sales tax collections beginning in March. The revenue losses endanger funding for education, public health and other services at a time when we need them most.
Revenues from most state taxes have declined significantly during the recession. But General Fund revenues this year are up 7% over 2019 for two main reasons: higher-than-expected revenues before the pandemic and rising internet sales tax collections.
The Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget relies heavily on income and sales taxes, which are more likely to drop during recessions. Income tax revenues have declined sharply since March, but sales taxes have held up relatively well so far. Overall, the ETF will squeak through 2020 with an anemic 4% increase over 2019.
These inadequate budgets fail to make key investments in Alabama’s future. Universal pre-K is one unmet need that the Fairhope Unitarian Fellowship has urged Arise to address. Another is Medicaid expansion, which would cover more than 340,000 Alabamians and create thousands of jobs, a UAB study found before the pandemic.
Alabama must tear down the legacies of slavery and segregation
By Chris Sanders, communications director
In Birmingham, Mobile and cities across the country, officials are taking down monuments that “honored” a violent rebellion that sought to protect the enslavement of human beings. Removing these symbols of slavery and segregation is an important step toward healing and recovery, but it’s not enough. We also must remove policy barriers that trace their roots to these oppressive and racist practices.
Black Alabamians have battled generation after generation of discriminatory barriers to education, jobs, housing and voting. Compounding those barriers is a criminal justice system that polices Black people more heavily, arrests them more often and condemns them to harsher sentences in dangerously overcrowded prisons and jails.
For centuries, Black people have suffered from police brutality and unequal treatment from law enforcement. This history has fueled protests nationwide and worldwide over the last month.
Arise stands in solidarity with calls to stop the brutality against Black people and start building a world that’s safe for everyone.
All of these systemic failures have added together to produce a series of terrible disparities. Black Alabamians face higher rates of poverty and hunger, lower life expectancies and lower rates of employment and health insurance coverage.
Policy changes to break down harmful barriers
These are institutional failures that require policy solutions. Here are a few ways lawmakers can break down barriers to opportunity and justice:
Expand Medicaid to cover adults with low incomes. Expansion would ensure health coverage for more than 340,000 Alabamians who are uninsured or barely paying for insurance they can’t really afford. It also would attack a fundamental injustice: People of color make up about 34% of our state’s population, but nearly half of all uninsured Alabamians with low incomes are people of color. Lack of affordable health coverage deprives Black people of timely care for cancer, diabetes, heart disease and other serious conditions. As the disproportionately high share of coronavirus deaths among Black Alabamians shows, health care access is literally a matter of life or death.
Invest more in public education. Alabama’s state funding for K-12 and higher education, adjusted for inflation, is lower today than it was in 2008. This chronic underfunding hits many schools that primarily serve Black students especially hard.
Equitably distribute funding for affordable housing and public transportation. Alabama has trust funds for both but hasn’t funded them yet. Lawmakers should fund public transportation to help everyone get to work, school and other places they need to go. Alabama should support the Housing Trust Fund to ensure people living in deep poverty have safe shelter. Our state also should commit to eliminating redlining, fighting housing discrimination and reducing residential segregation.
Overhaul the criminal justice system and the death penalty. Areas with large Black populations often see a larger police presence. The weight of harsh sentences and criminal justice debt falls more heavily on these Alabamians as a result. Lawmakers should reform sentencing laws and ease the crushing burden of exorbitant fines and fees. They also need to end abuses of civil asset forfeiture and eliminate racial injustice in the death penalty system.
Raise the minimum wage and restore home rule to localities. Alabama is one of only five states with no state minimum wage law. Most employers operate under the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Birmingham tried to raise its minimum wage in 2016, but state lawmakers blocked that effort. The Legislature has that power due to the 1901 state constitution, whose authors explicitly said they aimed to “establish white supremacy in this state.” Alabama should lift constitutional barriers to home rule and empower local governments to make decisions.
A better, more inclusive future for Alabama
Undoing the legacies of slavery and segregation in Alabama will require more than reassuring words and vague platitudes. It will require substantive policy changes to break down centuries-old barriers and ensure all Alabamians have a chance to reach their full potential.
Many of these changes – and others not mentioned – won’t be easy. Some may not happen quickly. But we must keep advocating and working toward the day when they will. The road to dignity, equity and justice for all Alabamians remains long. But walking together and working together, we can and will reach that destination.
We miss meeting with our members across Alabama, and we can’t wait to see you again in person. Until then, we can’t wait to “meet” you online!
Federal leaders must help ease suffering
By Robyn Hyden, executive director
Here at Arise, we are both challenged and called to action by the incredible movement and possibilities of these times. Protesters are demanding more community investments and defunding of unjust, punitive carceral systems. Lawmakers have been slow to respond adequately to the pandemic. Meanwhile, Alabama’s COVID-19 deaths are increasing, with alarming patterns of racial and economic inequity.
As always, Arise will work to build dignity, equity and justice for all Alabamians. With your support, we’ll advance these federal advocacy priorities this summer:
Push the U.S. Senate to pass a strong fifth COVID-19 relief bill that would boost SNAP, extend enhanced Medicaid matching rates and ideally provide more funding for Medicaid expansion.
Seek more federal relief to support state budgets and provide direct assistance to people with low incomes.
I don’t know what the future holds. But by holding true to our vision and building power for the people, I know we can make it brighter.
A word about Arise membership
By Brenda Boman, development director
A strong membership is essential for Alabama Arise’s successful advocacy for policies that will help Alabamians with low incomes.
When we can tell a lawmaker, “Some of your constituents are Arise members,” it makes a difference. When you identify yourself to an elected official as an Arise member, it makes a difference.
Individual membership requires a financial contribution each year that demonstrates your commitment to our work. We suggest a donation of $15 or more, but we accept any amount you with which you feel comfortable. Your contribution makes you eligible to vote during membership meetings, including our annual meeting, where members choose our legislative priorities for the year.
Our membership count begins each year on July 1 and ends before our annual meeting the following year. If you’ve never joined as an individual member, I hope you’ll consider doing so. And if you’re a past member who hasn’t given since July 1, 2019, I hope you’ll renew today.
The double blow of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic shutdown has put Medicaid expansion in a new, more urgent light.
The virus’s disproportionate toll on Black Alabamians is exposing longstanding racial barriers to detection and treatment of underlying health conditions. And the number of uninsured Alabamians – already shockingly high before COVID-19 – will continue to grow as unemployment mounts.
Extending health coverage to adults with low incomes is the single biggest step Alabama can take to mitigate the pandemic’s impact on our health, health care system and economy.
Medicaid is a tool to solve problems and save lives. And three new Arise initiatives are taking different approaches to convince state leaders to maximize Medicaid’s effectiveness by covering working-age adults.
Jane Adams joined Alabama Arise in June as our campaign director. She also will direct the Cover Alabama Coalition, which has united Arise and nearly 90 other organizations across Alabama to push for Medicaid expansion.
Jane is a ninth-generation Alabamian who lives in Huntsville. She earned a master’s degree in theological studies from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., where she studied the ethical implications of public policy.
Before joining Arise, Jane worked as a senior policy analyst for Bread for the World. While at Bread, she co-chaired the Save for All coalition, the largest anti-poverty coalition in the United States. Jane also spearheaded strategy for the Interfaith Health Care Coalition and the Faithful Farm Bill Coalition.
We’re excited to have Jane on our team! And we look forward to making Medicaid expansion a reality in our state. Visit coveralabama.org to learn more about Cover Alabama and how you or your organization can join the campaign.
Thank you, Sherrel
Story collection coordinator Sherrel Wheeler Stewart has accepted a job opportunity as executive director of strategy and communications for Birmingham City Schools and will depart the Arise staff in early July. We’re sorry to see Sherrel go, but we’re grateful for her great work in launching our Medicaid story collection project. Sherrel remains a huge Arise supporter, and we look forward to seeing her at future events!
Risk of education, General Fund cuts remains after shortened legislative session
By Chris Sanders, communications director
Funding for education, health care and other vital services is deeply uncertain as Alabama’s revenues plummet during the COVID-19 recession. In May, lawmakers enacted 2021 Education Trust Fund (ETF) and General Fund (GF) budgets that are larger than this year’s. But as consumer spending falls and massive unemployment persists, the Legislature will reevaluate those plans at hearings in early July.
Alabama’s bleak financial picture likely will force lawmakers to return for a special session later this summer or fall. And that’s far from the only subject they should address.
COVID-19 tore out the heart of the regular session, forcing lawmakers to stop meeting for more than a month. When they returned, they had just two weeks to finalize ETF and GF budgets. With most House Democrats staying home due to coronavirus concerns, legislative leaders limited the agenda to budgets and local bills.
That decision temporarily slowed momentum for Arise’s push to untax groceries. Before the session paused, about 200 people came to Montgomery for Arise Legislative Day on Feb. 25. Our members urged legislators to end the state sales tax on groceries while protecting education funding. The proposal would replace grocery tax revenue by limiting Alabama’s income tax deduction for federal income tax payments. Our supporters also advocated for Medicaid expansion and public transportation funding.
Whenever the Legislature returns, Arise will be there promoting policies to make life better for struggling Alabamians. Check our website and follow us on Facebook and Twitter for updates.
An overview of Arise materials on COVID-19
By Matt Okarmus, communications associate
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the news feels like it’s moving faster than ever. Arise policy analysts have worked hard to provide updates on policy solutions to help Alabamians during and after the pandemic. Read summaries of our recent resources below, and visit alarise.org/blog to read our full posts on each subject and others.
COVID-19 resource guide
As unemployment soars, many Alabamians are deeply worried about basics like food, health care, housing and income. A lot of folks need help getting by but may not know quite where to look. Arise’s guide to public assistance programs and other support services is designed to help people meet their basic needs during this pandemic. Click here to read this continuously updated resource guide.
State and federal lawmakers need to enact strong protections for payday and title borrowers “before these harmful loans make the pandemic’s financial devastation even worse,” policy analyst Dev Wakeley writes. His post makes the case for rate caps and increased transparency as powerful, proven policy solutions to this problem.
Fighting COVID-19 in prisons and jails
State and local governments are responding in a variety of ways to Alabama’s coronavirus pandemic. But the response has fallen far short where incarcerated people are concerned, policy analyst Dev Wakeley writes. His post explains how quick, targeted releases would help save lives and avoid nightmarish outbreaks in prisons and jails.
Alabama Arise members have worked for more than three decades to build a brighter, more inclusive future. And we see real opportunities to advance that vision during the Legislature’s 2020 regular session, which began Feb. 4.
In this newsletter, you’ll read about how we’re building power and equipping advocates in communities across Alabama. And you’ll learn more about the grassroots work we’re doing to urge people to be counted in the 2020 Census.
Together, we can make Alabama a place where everyone’s voice is heard. We can promote dignity, equity and justice for everyone. And we can ensure that all Alabamians have the opportunity to reach their full potential.
Arise Legislative Day is Tuesday, Feb. 25!
Your voice matters! Make plans now to speak up for a better Alabama for all at Arise’s 2020 Legislative Day on Tuesday, Feb. 25, in State House Room 200 in Montgomery.
Registration will begin at 9:30 a.m., and the event will last from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Legislative Day is an annual opportunity for Arise supporters to meet their lawmakers and make the case for policy changes to improve life for everyday Alabamians. We expect this year’s advocacy to focus on important issues like untaxing groceries and funding for vital state services.
Attendance and registration are free. But we suggest a $10 donation to help offset the cost of lunch if you are able. You can make a donation online, or you can donate in person on the day of the event.
Visit our website at alarise.org for more information. We look forward to seeing everyone there!
2020 is going to be the year of even harder work
By Robyn Hyden, executive director
Too many people I spoke with last month were feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by the news of the world. Did you feel it, too? Continuous coverage of bad news can leave all of us feeling apathetic, tired and hopeless.
But one of the first things I learned as an organizer is a lesson that history has shown again and again: Things often feel the most impossible right up until the moment big change happens.
This is a year of turning points for our state and nation. And there are plenty of ways to channel frustration toward meaningful civic engagement. Here are three:
Vote in the 2020 elections. Check your registration status and polling place at alabamavotes.gov.
The only way we can put these opportunities to work is to show up, speak out and organize others to come along with us. It’s hard work – and good work. A better Alabama is within our reach!
Arise members are building power across Alabama
By Presdelane Harris, organizing director
If numbers are a measure of strength, then Alabama Arise members and our allies are a mighty force! Arise supporters had a strong turnout last month at three big events leading into the legislative session.
In south Alabama, more than 60 members of Arise, the League of Women Voters (LWV) of Mobile and the Mobile NAACP came to a legislative meet-and-greet Jan. 21 in Mobile. They spoke to five lawmakers about numerous issues, including Medicaid expansion, criminal justice debt and voting rights. And almost 50 members of Arise and the LWV of Baldwin County talked with two legislators Jan. 27 at a similar event in Fairhope.
Our members showed up in north Alabama, too. Arise was well represented among the 150 advocates at the Claim Your Community Power Conference on Jan. 25 in Birmingham. Arise is one of seven partners in the Alabama Equal Voice Network, which hosted the event to educate folks about issues and build their organizing capacity in our collective effort to transform Alabama. Learn more about the network at alabamaequalvoicenetwork.org.
We thank Arise’s committed members all over the state. Your voices raised in advocacy are essential to realizing our shared vision of a better Alabama!
Why we’re spreading the word about the Census
By Mike Nicholson, organizer
Filling out your Census form is quick and easy. It only takes about 10 minutes to answer 10 questions. You won’t have to do it again for 10 years. And your answers are completely confidential.
It may not seem like much, but the stakes are high. The accuracy of Alabama’s 2020 Census count will shape our state and local communities every day. Census results determine how many U.S. House members represent each state. They also guide the distribution of more than $700 billion in federal resources every year.
That money funds health coverage through Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), known as ALL Kids in Alabama. It also supports Head Start, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and many other services that help struggling families.
Alabama Arise is part of a statewide effort to protect these programs by getting as many Alabamians counted as possible. We’ve teamed with VOICES for Alabama’s Children to travel to as many counties as we can to meet with folks and come up with a plan to make sure everyone is counted. We’re providing information and assistance to grassroots partners so they can help their communities understand how the Census affects Alabama.
Please help us spread the word. In the coming weeks, we’ll share more information about the Census’ importance and tips on persuading your community to participate. No one is a better messenger for your community than you, and Alabama’s future depends on it!
How you can support Arise from an IRA or 401(k)
By Brenda Boman, development director
Alabama Arise members are generous, caring and resourceful people. That’s why I want to highlight a powerful giving opportunity for members who are at least 70½ years of age and drawing income from a tax-deferred savings account such as a traditional IRA, 401(k), 403(k), 403(b) or Thrift Savings Plan.
Whether you itemize or take the standard deduction, up to $100,000 of your 2020 required minimum distribution (RMD) can be tax-free when you give to a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization like Arise through a qualified charitable distribution (QCD).
The check should be payable to Alabama Arise. You can ask your account custodian to mail it directly to us. Or if you prefer, you can have the check sent to you and then mail it yourself. Our address is Alabama Arise, P.O. Box 1188, Montgomery, AL 36101.
If you ask the custodian to send the check directly, call 334-832-9060 or email me at email@example.com to notify us. That way we’ll know who to thank for the gift!
To ensure the tax benefit, apply for the QCD before you take your full RMD for 2020. You’ll need our Employer Identification Number (EIN), which is 63-1186365.
We’re grateful for your support of our advocacy for better public policies. Together, we’re making life better for families across Alabama.
Arise 2020: The issues
Compiled by policy director Jim Carnes, policy analyst Carol Gundlach and policy analyst Dev Wakeley
End Alabama’s state grocery tax and protect school funding
Alabama’s 4% sales tax on groceries is a regressive, punitive tax on survival. It drives struggling families deeper into poverty. It costs Alabamians the equivalent of two weeks’ worth of groceries each year. And it’s time to bring this cruel tax to an end.
The state grocery tax raises about $480 million a year for public schools. Given Alabama’s history of underfunding education, it’s important to replace that revenue responsibly. And we have a plan to untax groceries without cutting a dime of education funding.
Alabama Arise’s proposed solution is to end an unusual tax break for the richest Alabamians: the federal income tax (FIT) deduction. This loophole allows people to deduct their federal income tax payments on their state income taxes. About 80% of the FIT deduction’s benefit goes to the top 20% of taxpayers in Alabama, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP).
The FIT deduction is a skewed tax break for rich households. And it’s a big reason Alabama’s tax system is upside down. For those who earn $30,000 a year, the deduction saves them about $27 on average, ITEP estimates. But for the top 1% of taxpayers, the FIT break is worth an average of more than $11,000 a year.
Expand Medicaid to save lives and make Alabama healthier
After a decade of missed opportunity on health coverage, Alabama needs to invest in our people and our future. We’re one of just 14 states that have rejected federal funding for Medicaid expansion to cover adults with low incomes. This can and should be the year that changes.
People and communities across our state are suffering unnecessarily due to Alabama’s inaction. Uninsured working parents, caregivers, veterans, people awaiting disability determinations, adult students and other Alabamians with low wages are putting off needed health care. Nearly 90% of our rural hospitals are operating in the red.
Success would not require passing a bill. Gov. Kay Ivey could simply request a Medicaid rule change raising the eligibility limit for adults. A legislative panel that reviews rule changes then could allow Medicaid to seek that permission from Washington. If that gets the OK, Medicaid would simply factor expansion costs into its next annual budget.
Alabama has the money to expand Medicaid. The General Fund will have an additional $400 million available next year, state budget analysts estimate. That’s more than enough to cover the state cost for expansion: $168 million in the first year and a net of about $25 million a year thereafter.
Medicaid expansion is the single biggest step Alabama could take to make life better for people with low incomes. And Arise will continue to work hard to make it happen.
Stop the debt trap for Alabama payday borrowers
A small loan shouldn’t be a sentence to months or years of deep debt. Everyone who needs to borrow money should have a reasonable pathway to repaying a loan without excessive costs. But in Alabama, high-interest payday loans cost struggling people tens of millions of dollars every year.
The industry profits off financial desperation. Two-week payday loans with annual percentage rates of up to 456% trap many Alabamians in debt cycles they cannot escape. And Alabama’s lack of consumer protections gives those borrowers no reasonable path out of that debt trap.
About one in four Alabama payday borrowers take out more than 12 loans per year. Because the loans are so short in duration – as few as 10 days – these repeat borrowers pay nearly half of all payday loan fees assessed across the state. Giving these borrowers more breathing room would help them avoid spiraling into deep debt.
Why Alabama should fund public transportation
Public transit is vital infrastructure for a state looking toward the future. It allows people who lack other transportation options – including seniors, people with disabilities, and people who can’t afford a car – to get to work, go to the doctor and meet other basic needs. Reliable public transportation strengthens communities and makes a state more attractive to employers.
Alabama can expand its public transit options with a General Fund appropriation for the Public Transportation Trust Fund. Even a modest state investment could have a big impact. With a state allocation of just $10 million, for example, Alabama could receive up to $40 million in federal matching grants in return.
Public transportation funding would be an investment in our state’s economy and quality of life. Alabama could create public transit options in rural and suburban areas where they don’t exist now. Existing services could run later and more often. And all of these investments would support hundreds of stable, good-paying jobs.
Break down barriers to voting rights in Alabama
Voting is an essential tool for people to speak out about the future they want. By breaking down barriers to voting, we promote greater civic engagement. And we make it easier for folks to make their voices heard about issues that matter in their communities.
Alabama’s shameful history of racist voting restrictions means our state has an ongoing moral obligation to strengthen voting rights. And officials have numerous policy options to remove harmful barriers to voting.
AVR would use information the state already has to register or update registrations electronically for hundreds of thousands of Alabamians. Arise also supports proposals to allow early voting and no-excuse absentee voting.
These policy changes would strengthen our state’s democracy by extending voting access to hundreds of thousands more Alabamians. That would promote higher civic participation and stronger community involvement. And it would make our society more just and inclusive.
Fight proposals to cut Medicaid, SNAP and TANF
The safety net is essential for people who struggle to make ends meet. Medicaid is a health care lifeline for one in four Alabamians. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helps one in six Alabamians keep food on the table. And the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program provides meager but essential cash assistance for thousands of parents living in deep poverty.
Some past bills sought to stigmatize SNAP participants by requiring them to take drug tests or meet complex work reporting requirements. Others would have required photo IDs for SNAP participants or complex, costly asset tests for Medicaid, SNAP or TANF applicants. All of these proposed new limits would increase the number of sick and hungry people in Alabama.
Alabamians deserve shared prosperity and inclusion, not increased human suffering and isolation. That is why we’ll oppose cuts to Medicaid, SNAP, TANF and other programs that help people reach their full opportunity. Arise members rose to this challenge during the Farm Bill debate and in response to harmful proposed federal rule changes. And we know you will continue to help protect the safety net that protects all Alabamians when times get tough.
Stop criminal justice debt from putting lives on hold
Require courts to consider a defendant’s ability to pay fees and fines and standardize a process for that determination.
Consider all financial obligations in ability-to-pay determinations.
Eliminate cash bail for most misdemeanors.
Forgive payment of fees upon acquittal or dropping of charges.
Require reasonable and fair payment plans based on a defendant’s ability to pay.
Prohibit incarceration for failure to pay a criminal justice debt.
Determine the degree of and eliminate racial disparities in criminal justice debt.
Reduce or eliminate fees for reinstatement of a suspended or revoked driver’s license.
People deserve a chance to participate in society without painful, unreasonable fines and fees dragging them down. Alabama’s criminal justice system needs system-wide reform to give thousands of people a fair chance at a fresh start.
Even though the state finally outlawed judicial override in 2017, the ban did not apply retroactively. That means dozens of people who were sentenced to death despite a jury’s sentencing recommendation of life without parole remain on death row.
Apply Alabama’s judicial override ban retroactively.
Require unanimous agreement from the jury to sentence people to death.
Amend state law to require prosecutors to prove a defendant was 18 or older at the time of the capital crime.
Impose a moratorium to study and end racially biased death penalty practices.
Alabama should implement these steps to reduce and eliminate the unequal, unfair practices present in the state’s death penalty scheme. Alabamians deserve a fair, unbiased justice system, and these reforms would be steps toward a more just state.
It’s no secret that Alabama’s prisons are overcrowded, violent and inhumane. Any meaningful solution to this crisis must address two major challenges. First, it must alleviate the abysmal conditions inside Alabama’s prisons. Second, it must help people who are at risk of incarceration or re-incarceration become productive members of their communities. (See the key policy recommendations from Alabamians for Fair Justice below.)
The missing voices who need to be heard
Alabama Arise has been following the study group’s learning curve on a broad array of criminal justice issues. In four public meetings since July, members have received a flood of statistics from prison administrators, sentencing specialists, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges, mental health officials and other experts. They also have toured multiple correctional facilities, becoming eyewitnesses to the shameful conditions they’re charged with improving.
Largely missing from this crash course: the voices of the people Alabama’s criminal justice system affects most. The panel should fill that gap by inviting testimony from inmates’ family members and formerly incarcerated individuals. Many of them have attended the public study group meetings, and the formal recommendations should reflect their lived experiences.
Policy solutions should ease reentry, reduce recidivism
Breaking the cycle of recidivism is a challenge that reaches beyond DOC, or even criminal justice policy. It also requires community partnerships to serve people with untreated mental health and addiction problems. These challenges can undermine successful reentry and often contribute to incarceration in the first place.
By targeting recidivism, the study group is highlighting our state’s overburdened community mental health and substance use services network. Medicaid expansion, at a 90% federal match, would allow Alabama to expand these services tenfold for the same state investment. The study group should urge our state to take this essential step forward.
The study group’s measured, highly visible approach to its complicated challenge is not one it can easily shrug off. The panel has set a high bar for meaningful recommendations, and Arise expects them to meet it. Arise and our partners in the Alabamians for Fair Justice alliance will keep up the pressure for comprehensive, lasting reform.
The path to a better corrections system
Alabama’s corrections system must become more humane and restorative. Alabama Arise and our allies in the Alabamians for Fair Justice coalition have proposed numerous changes to put our state on a path toward dignity, equity and justice for all. Here are a few of these recommendations:
Expand state investments in mental health care and treatment for substance use disorders.
Increase state support for mental health courts, pretrial diversion and reentry programs.
Reduce court costs and give people a reasonable amount of time to begin paying fines and restitution after returning from prison.
End automatic suspensions of driver’s licenses in cases unrelated to traffic safety.
Apply the state’s presumptive sentencing guidelines retroactively.
The ICN has completed a successful first year of operation with strong help from consumer voices at the policy table. The network seeks to increase the share of Medicaid long-term care patients who receive services in home and community settings rather than in nursing facilities.
In Year 1, the ICN reached its five-year benchmark for this quality measure four years early, thanks to a new approach to care coordination, data analysis and consumer education. Medicaid implemented an accelerated enrollment process Oct. 1, as consumer advisers recommended. That process should further increase the share of home- and community-based participants in Year 2.
More than 15,000 of Alabama’s Medicaid long-term care patients reside in nursing facilities. Another 8,000 receive care in other settings. Because federal Medicaid rules originally targeted long-term care services to nursing home patients only, states must request “waivers” suspending those rules to deliver home- and community-based services. The ICN includes two of Alabama’s waiver programs, both managed through the state’s 13 Area Agencies on Aging.
Alabama Arise has a seat on the ICN’s governing board, along with our partners at AARP Alabama, the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program and Disability Rights and Resources. We’re also represented on the network’s Consumer Advisory Committee (CAC).
The CAC has a productive relationship with Alabama Select Network, the Blue Cross Blue Shield subsidiary that administers the ICN. The committee is promoting consumer choice in care settings and working to lift practical barriers to home- and community-based care.
Alabama’s higher ed funding cuts since 2008 are nation’s worst
By Chris Sanders, communications director
Shortchanging education is shortchanging our future. But since 2008, Alabama has slashed its per-student state higher education funding by 36.2%, or $4,466 per student, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Our state’s cuts are the nation’s worst by dollar amount and third worst by percentage.
With state funding down, tuition at public four-year institutions has soared, jumping 72.9% since 2008. These increases have erected barriers to economic opportunity for people across Alabama. And the higher costs disproportionately harm black and Latino families.
At Arise, I’m often called upon to explain Alabama to people who aren’t from here. This is happening more frequently as people make pilgrimages to Montgomery from all over the world to visit the EJI memorial and museum. They’re curious about what people in Alabama are doing to address continuing inequities.
Sometimes, these visitors get bogged down in the weeds of our politics and policies, overwhelmed by the barriers Alabamians face every day. More frequently, they reflect amazement. The story we tell is one of sustained work, power building and organizing. The message we share: Only by joining and working together can we ever prevail in the long fight for justice. Our plea is for more people to invest in our work for change.
This is what I leave them with: I’m grateful that more people are speaking out and joining us. I’m encouraged by all we have accomplished together. We can’t do it alone – and that’s why I’m especially grateful for Arise supporters like you.
We’re lifting community voices in Alabama Medicaid
By Presdelane Harris, organizing director
Alabama Medicaid is at a moment of transformation, opening up opportunities for a new focus on improving health outcomes. And Alabama Arise is working hard to ensure community needs and voices stay at the forefront.
Medicaid primary care is moving from a statewide fee-for-service model to a system of seven Alabama Coordinated Health Networks (ACHNs). The regional, nonprofit ACHNs began offering services Nov. 1, focusing on prevention, care coordination and health improvements. The inclusion of consumer representatives on regional governing boards and advisory committees allows an unprecedented opportunity for Medicaid consumers to provide input directly to program officials.
In a pilot program designed to take advantage of these reforms, Arise has partnered with the Bay Area Women Coalition to enhance the local health system’s ability to promote greater food security in the Trinity Gardens neighborhood of Mobile. We’ve reached more than 100 people over six community meetings this year.
The community engagement effort is producing results. We’ve identified potential leaders and worked with residents to prioritize their ideas. We’re also discussing ways to strengthen community input as Medicaid implements and evaluates quality improvement projects.
Arise is grateful for our partnership with our Trinity Gardens neighbors. And we hope to build similar connections in communities across Alabama.
Spread the word about Arise this holiday season!
By Brenda Boman, development director
You may have a list of topics that you consider taboo at holiday gatherings. But I hope that finding ways to help Alabamians living in poverty isn’t on that list. When you’re among friends and family who believe life should be better for struggling Alabamians, I hope you’ll make sure they know about Alabama Arise.
Arise’s membership has grown exponentially in recent years, and we hope to continue that trend. As an inclusive organization, we welcome everyone who wants to advocate for a brighter future for Alabama.
We need to bring together people who support Medicaid expansion, payday lending reform and voting rights. We need to bring together people who want to fund public transportation and untax groceries. And we need to bring together people who are determined to break down policy barriers to shared prosperity across our state.
Gift memberships are another way to introduce friends to Arise. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with the names and complete contact info for those you’re sponsoring.
Welcome to Arise, Celida!
Please help us welcome Arise’s new hunger advocacy coordinator, Celida Soto Garcia! She will work to strengthen child nutrition, identify and train advocates, and expand our coalition to reduce hunger across Alabama.
Celida is a Birmingham resident and graduated from Rutgers University with a dual degree in administration of justice and sociology. She grew up as a Jersey girl speaking Spanish first, and she has participated in movements related to economic injustice, women’s rights, food sovereignty, public safety and criminal justice reform. Most recently, she served as an educational liaison with the UAB Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Center. When you see Celida, be sure to say hello!
Alabama can lead the nation in addressing the inequities of our past
By Robyn Hyden, executive director
The Alabama Arise annual meeting is my favorite day of the year. It’s the day we invite members to present new issue proposals and select legislative priorities. This year, more than 200 people gathered in Montgomery on Sept. 7 to discuss the tough issues facing our state, hear from community leaders and vote on our policy agenda.
Our keynote speaker, Gabrielle Daniels of the Equal Justice Initiative, set the tone in discussing racial equity and inclusion. “Alabama can set the temperature for the rest of the country,” she said. “But we need to acknowledge the importance of racial equity and its intersection with economic justice.” The vision Daniels laid out was one of “mutual flourishing” if we commit to start with truth-telling. It’s a key value that Arise affirms.
A plan to move Alabama forward
Our policy team presented plans to address core tax and budget needs, including Medicaid expansion, untaxing groceries and protecting nutrition supports. During issue presentations, member groups from across Alabama identified numerous barriers that face people living in poverty in their communities. And they proposed real solutions to those structural challenges.
After the members’ vote, we left with our marching orders and the conviction that we must continue to move forward.
We’re grateful to our hosts at Aldersgate United Methodist Church, our members and the volunteers who made the day possible. And we’re looking ahead to the work to come to make this blueprint for change a reality in Alabama.
Alabama Arise’s 2020 issue priorities
By Chris Sanders, communications director
Adequate state budgets: Alabama should expand Medicaid and boost investments in child care, education and mental health care.
Tax reform: Alabama should untax groceries and end the state’s deduction for federal income taxes.
Criminal justice debt reform: Alabama should strengthen protections against civil asset forfeiture abuses and reform its cash bail practices.
Death penalty reform: Alabama should require a unanimous jury vote before handing down a death sentence.
Payday and title lending reform: Alabama should approve 30 Days to Pay protections for payday loan borrowers.
Public transportation: Alabama should provide state support for the Public Transportation Trust Fund.
Voting rights: Alabama should lift barriers to voting rights restoration and adopt automatic voter registration.
It’s an uncomfortable reality that our state’s leaders must face: More than 100,000 Alabamians are working without health insurance. They work in child care, construction, food service and other vital jobs. They’re the folks who keep things going in our society.
Yet they’re trapped in the health coverage gap. They can’t afford employer-based coverage or private insurance. And they earn too much to qualify for Medicaid under Alabama’s harsh income eligibility limits. (For a parent of two children, that limit is just $312 a month.)
As a result, many struggle with health problems that sap productivity, add household stress and get worse without timely care. And thousands more Alabama workers are stretching to buy coverage they can’t afford.
Across the country, 36 states have closed their coverage gaps, but Alabama is lagging behind. What’s holding us back?
Lack of awareness plays a part. As folks go about their daily activities, they rarely stop to wonder who has health insurance and who doesn’t. It’s not something most people talk about – but it should be.
Imagine what it would mean to the state’s business community to have a workforce with access to regular health care. And more importantly, imagine the peace of mind that coverage would bring for workers and their families.
The economic benefits of Medicaid expansion
Overall, more than 180,000 Alabama workers would gain health security from Medicaid expansion. Our businesses would gain a more reliable workforce. And our economy would gain billions of federal dollars, stronger tax revenues and thousands of new health care jobs.
The graphic below shows the nine industries employing the largest number of these workers. More than 70,000 work in food service, sales or construction. (Read our blog post for more information.)
Most uninsured Alabamians aged 19 to 64 who would qualify for expanded Medicaid coverage (those earning below 138% of the federal poverty level) are workers.
The graphics below show the jobs employing the most working women and men in Alabama’s coverage gap. Think about the importance of these lines of work. Then think about what access to regular health care would mean in the lives of these workers and their families. (Read our blog post for more information.)
Alabama Medicaid has succeeded in providing health care for children, people with disabilities, and seniors living in nursing homes. Our state can build on these gains and make coverage affordable for the workers we all depend on every day.
All these gains would spell a brighter future for Alabama. It’s time to expand Medicaid and make health coverage affordable for the workers we all depend on every day.
How Alabama can untax groceries and boost education
By Carol Gundlach, policy analyst
Alabama has two intertwined structural problems that, together, keep us from meeting our people’s most basic needs. One problem is that our state’s tax system is upside down. Rich people get huge tax breaks, forcing people with low and moderate incomes to make up the difference. The other problem is that this upside-down system doesn’t raise enough money to support schools and other vital services adequately.
Two major drivers of Alabama’s regressive tax system are a sales tax on groceries that hurts working families and a skewed income tax break that overwhelmingly benefits wealthy people. Alabama Arise has a longstanding plan to address both problems: Eliminate the state grocery tax and end the state deduction for federal income taxes (FIT).
Untaxing groceries without replacing the revenue would take $480 million annually away from education, hurting our children and our future. But by ending the FIT deduction, Alabama could bring in more than $800 million a year in new revenue.
That’s more than enough to replace lost revenue from the grocery tax. It also would allow our state to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in K-12 and higher education.
Ending the grocery tax and the FIT deduction would make our state’s tax system stronger and fairer. About four in five Alabama households would get a tax cut overall. And the net tax increase for those who would pay more generally would be modest. Even for the top 1%, the average increase would be less than 1 percentage point of income.
Arise’s tax reform plan would boost education funding and help millions of Alabamians make ends meet. This would increase opportunity and shared prosperity across our state.
We continue to fight efforts to chip away at human rights protections. Below, you’ll find a call to action to protect food assistance against yet another attack. Arise members have fought off dozens of such attacks over the years – and with your support, we will continue to do so. Our annual meeting in September is another opportunity to gather together to determine our goals and priorities for the year ahead.
Every action you take matters. I hope you find encouragement as we work together to build a state where all people have the resources they need to live – and to thrive – free from fear.
Annual meeting to draw 2020 roadmap to change
By Chris Sanders, communications director
Grassroots democracy will be on display when Alabama Arise members choose our 2020 issue priorities at our annual meeting Sept. 7 in Montgomery.
As a member, you have the power to select the five legislative priorities we will pursue in 2020. One new proposal will compete with five current priorities for five available slots on next year’s issue roster. Two member groups will seek to broaden our current work on automatic voter registration to include other voting rights legislation. The day also will feature staff and guest speakers shining a light on racial equity and inclusion.
Below, you’ll find member groups’ summaries of their new and modified proposals. And you’ll find our policy staff’s overviews of the current issue priorities and our two permanent priorities: tax reform and adequate state budgets. We hope to see you in September as we gather to renew our shared commitment to building a better Alabama for all!
Things to know for our annual meeting
When: Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019
10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Registration starts at 9:30 a.m.
Where: Aldersgate United Methodist Church, 6610 Vaughn Road, Montgomery, AL 36116
Voting rules: Member groups may cast up to 42 votes: up to 6 representatives with 7 votes each. Individual members get 5 votes each. (A person can vote as an individual or as a member group’s representative, but not both.)
Groups must be current on dues to be eligible to participate. Individual members must have given between July 1, 2018, and Aug. 8, 2019, to be eligible to participate.
Members must be present for all six issue presentations to vote. No voting dots will be distributed after issue presentations begin. No votes may be cast until after the final presentation.
How a proposed new SNAP rule would increase hunger for millions of Americans
By Carol Gundlach, policy analyst
The White House has proposed a new rule that would increase hunger for millions of Americans. The plan would require some states to reduce gross income limits for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) applicants. It also would force 42 states, including Alabama, to impose resource limits on applicants. More than 3 million people would become ineligible for food assistance under the change, federal officials estimate.
The plan would require Alabama to impose an asset test, adding new red-tape barriers for nearly all SNAP participants. The state would have to verify numerous assets – including cash, property on which the family does not live, and the resale value above $4,650 for many vehicles – before a family could get assistance. Families with more than $2,250 in assets (or $3,250 for seniors or people with disabilities) would be denied food assistance.
Public policy shouldn’t discourage families from saving small amounts to cover auto repairs, unexpected medical bills or other emergencies. And many seniors have small savings accounts for long-term care or funeral expenses. But reinstating the asset test would punish these struggling families and seniors by denying them essential food assistance.
Submitted by Gordon Sullivan, Low Income Housing Coalition of Alabama (LIHCA)
LIHCA thanks Alabama Arise and its members for supporting the Housing Trust Fund in 2018 and previous years. Our combined efforts resulted in social and political momentum to secure dedicated revenue for the Alabama Housing Trust Fund (AHTF)! We are here to ask for your continued support of the AHTF and help in securing dedicated revenue for the fund in 2020.
We believe safe, decent and affordable housing is a basic human right. Hard-working Alabamians should be able to pay rent and still be able to put food on the table. Unfortunately for many Alabamians, finding a safe and affordable home is only a dream. Alabama is in a housing crisis, with a lack of nearly 70,000 rental homes for folks surviving on minimum wage and fixed incomes.
Folks making minimum wage have to work 82 hours a week to afford a market-rate two-bedroom apartment. By doing so, they miss out on family suppers and Little League, because there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. Every child deserves a safe place to call home and a chance to have those who love them help with homework and read bedtime stories.
The AHTF created a fund to construct, rehabilitate and maintain homes for low-income households. Though the AHTF was created in 2012, it was enabling legislation and did not come with funding. That means we can’t create any new or rehabilitate any existing homes or address housing problems related to natural disasters. That is why LIHCA will seek dedicated revenue for the AHTF in 2020.
Proposed legislation to fund the AHTF
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Neil Rafferty, D-Birmingham, would increase the mortgage record tax from 15 cents to 20 cents for every $100 of a mortgage. This would put approximately $15 million per year in the AHTF. This type of revenue is a common funding source for housing trust funds across the country. In Alabama, this tax has not been increased since it was enacted in 1935.
We know that two-thirds of Alabamians (67%) see the lack of affordability as a problem in our state and that a strong majority (63%) of Alabamians are ready for state action to increase housing opportunities for households priced out of the market. Building on the momentum of previous years, we believe attaining bipartisan co-sponsors and endorsements from influential groups throughout the state is possible in 2020.
With the creation of new affordable homes in Alabama, families will begin to achieve economic stability. Communities will reduce blight. And the state will see an economic impact of nearly $1 billion over 10 years.
The dedicated revenue bill supports Arise’s values and its membership’s vision for addressing poverty in Alabama by investing in communities and helping low-income households access safe and affordable homes. The dedicated revenue bill will provide $15 million per year to create and rehabilitate homes for those in need. We have been successful in building momentum with Arise’s support in past years. Let’s work together to finish what we started!
Modified issue proposal
Submitted by Scott Douglas and Tari Williams, Greater Birmingham Ministries, and Ned Freeman, Birmingham Friends Meeting (Quakers)
Let’s build on Arise’s commitment to voting rights, continuing to prioritize automatic voter registration (AVR) and focusing on restoration of voting rights for Alabamians affected by felony disenfranchisement. Under AVR, Alabamians would be registered to vote by default, without having to register themselves, because the state already has the necessary information. And restoring voting rights for everyone would affirm basic ideals of democracy.
Historically, Alabama has been a leader among states with the most severely punitive disenfranchisement laws. These laws, with their blatantly racist history, have kept African Americans from the polls in enormous – and enormously disproportionate – numbers. Of the more than 280,000 disenfranchised felons in Alabama, nearly 150,000 are black, according to the Sentencing Project. That means that disenfranchised felons make up more than 15% of the state’s voting-age African American population.
Alabama’s felony disenfranchisement policies have disparate impact on individuals convicted of felonies who are poor, black or both. Therefore, we propose the introduction of legislation that will (a) remove the financial barrier of requiring payment of all fines, fees and/or restitution and (b) restore voting rights to individuals while on probation and parole. This legislation is not cost-prohibitive, may take one to three years to pass because of upcoming elections and is not potentially divisive for Arise members.
Alabama’s disenfranchisement laws have fostered an underclass of tens of thousands of people who are unable to vote because they do not have enough money. In 1964, the 24th Amendment abolished the poll tax, but to this day in Alabama, money keeps a disproportionate number of people away from the ballot box. People should not be barred from voting solely because they are unable to pay back their fines, fees and restitution.
Restoring voting rights to rebuild community ties
If we truly want people convicted of felonies to re-engage with society, become rehabilitated and feel a part of a broader community (thus creating incentives not to recidivate), then our state should do everything possible to reincorporate these individuals into mainstream society. In terms of being a just and even-handed society, it is not fair if thousands of people are unable to regain their voting rights because they are poor. People who are wealthy or have access to money are able to repay their financial debts. But poor people (the vast majority of people who have felony convictions) are not. This is an unjust system.
Individuals on probation and/or parole are actively working on retaining and/or rebuilding their ties to their families, employers and communities. Allowing them to reestablish ties as stakeholders in political life provides an analogous and important reintegrative purpose and promotes public safety.
Felony disenfranchisement provisions, especially in the South and particularly in Alabama, date back to the post-Reconstruction era. Their intent was always clear and explicit: to disenfranchise African Americans and preserve white domination.
Restoring voting rights and automatically registering voters is good policy. Arise prioritizing these policies also has the immediate benefit of putting a positive voting rights agenda in the public debate during an era when voting has been under attack.
Current Arise issue priorities
Criminal justice debt reform
Court fees and fines impose heavy burdens on many struggling families. Driver’s license suspensions over unpaid fines can cause Alabamians with low incomes to lose their jobs. Cash bail for minor offenses can imperil families’ economic security. And multiple fees can stack up, making it impossible to move on from a conviction because consequences never end. In Alabama, people are subject to 63 separate fees in the criminal justice system – including even a $1 fee for paying fee installments.
This year, Arise emphasized reforming civil asset forfeiture within the umbrella of criminal justice debt. This practice allows police to seize cash or other assets if they find probable cause to link the property to a crime. But the process doesn’t require a criminal conviction, or even a charge.
Originally intended to fight drug kingpins, civil asset forfeiture today sees heavy use against people accused of minor crimes. Underfunded law enforcement agencies have incentives to use forfeiture because they are often able to keep much of the seized property.
A philosophically diverse coalition is seeking to end forfeiture abuses in Alabama, and reform efforts already have borne fruit. In 2019, comprehensive reform efforts moved quickly at first but then slowed amid law enforcement opposition. Eventually, the Legislature passed incremental reform, mandating public reporting of property seizures. Public opinion strongly favors further change, and momentum continues to build.
Death penalty reform
Alabama’s capital punishment system is unreliable and racist. Our state hands down nearly double the national average of death sentences. We are the only state with no state-funded program providing legal aid to death row prisoners. And state laws give insufficient protection against executing people who were mentally incapable of understanding their actions.
Arise has worked for increased transparency on the lethal injection procedures and a three-year moratorium on executions. Bills were introduced but did not move in recent years. In 2017, the Legislature voted overwhelmingly to bar judges from imposing death sentences when a jury recommends life without parole. But the judicial override ban is not retroactive. About a fifth of the 175 people on Alabama’s death row received death sentences against the jury’s recommendation. We would like to enforce the override ban retroactively.
Alabama’s death penalty practices reflect deep racial inequities. Before the 2017 ban, judges imposed death against a jury’s determination more often when victims were white. The state argued as recently as 2016 that it should be allowed to kill a prisoner even when a judge explicitly cited race at the sentencing hearing. Much work remains to modernize Alabama’s justice system and prevent erroneous executions.
Payday and title lending reform
Every year, high-interest loans trap thousands of struggling Alabamians in a cycle of deep debt. Payday loans are short-term (usually two-week) loans charging high annual percentage rates (APRs), up to 456%. Auto title loans charge up to 300% APR and also carry the risk of repossession of the family vehicle.
These high-cost loans strip wealth from borrowers and hurt communities across Alabama. Payday lenders are on track to pull more than $1 billion in fees out of Alabama communities over the next decade, with most of that money flowing to out-of-state companies. Predatory lending practices disproportionately target people of color and exacerbate the economic challenges in struggling rural and urban communities.
Arise is part of a statewide coalition promoting interest rate caps on payday and title loans. In 2019, we supported legislation to give payday borrowers a 30-day repayment period – the same as other monthly bills – up from as few as 10 days now. But the bill didn’t move, despite the Senate Banking Committee chairman’s assurances that he would allow a vote.
The 30 Days to Pay bill’s sponsor – Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur – is working to ensure it will receive consideration early in the 2020 regular session. Heavy citizen engagement will be needed to overcome the lending lobby.
Our state’s jumble of local transportation systems fails to meet the needs of many people in rural, suburban and urban areas. Alabama is one of just five states with no state public transportation funding. For many low-income workers, seniors and people with disabilities, the transit gap is a barrier to daily living. Many folks can’t get to work, school, the doctor’s office or other places they need to go in a reasonable amount of time.
Alabama took a good first step in 2018 by creating a state Public Transportation Trust Fund. But the law did not allocate any state money, even though it would be a high-return investment in our future. Each $1 million invested in public transportation creates 41 full-time jobs, research shows. Those jobs would fuel economic growth and improve quality of life in our communities.
Appropriations for the state trust fund would be eligible for a 4-to-1 federal match. So by not funding public transit, Alabama leaves millions of federal dollars on the table each year.
The General Fund remains a key potential source for state public transit funding. Greater Birmingham Ministries’ Economic Justice/Systems Change group also has urged Arise to support legislation in 2020 to allow Alabamians to dedicate part of their state income tax refund to public transit. The state already allows voluntary contributions for mental health care, foster care and other public services.
Compiled by Dev Wakeley, policy analyst
Permanent Arise issue priorities
Adequate state budgets
Our state’s upside-down tax system starves state budgets of money needed to invest in our shared future. Alabama provides almost no state money for child care. In-home services for parents of at-risk children receive a paltry $3 million a year, far less than other states. And young adults struggle to afford rising tuition and fees at universities and two-year colleges.
Alabama must address comprehensive sentencing and prison reform in 2020. The General Fund budget will need more revenue to pay for stronger investments in mental health care, substance use treatment, drug courts, community corrections and more corrections officers.
Arise’s health care advocacy has three main goals: defend, reform and expand Medicaid. Our defense work this year focused on Alabama’s pending plan to impose a catch-22 work penalty, which would strip Medicaid from thousands of parents with extremely low incomes. Looking ahead, we expect a new push to cut Medicaid by block-granting federal Medicaid funds to states.
We’ve seen progress on Medicaid reform. The statewide Integrated Care Network (ICN) for long-term care launched last October. And the long-delayed regional primary care reform takes effect this October. Arise has recruited consumer representatives for the ICN governing board and all seven Alabama Coordinated Health Network (ACHN) boards. Next year, we’ll push for the next step: Medicaid expansion, which would benefit more than 340,000 Alabama adults.
Alabama’s tax system is upside down. The rich get huge tax breaks, while the heaviest tax burden falls on people with low and moderate incomes. High, regressive sales taxes on groceries and other necessities drive this imbalance. So does the state’s deduction for federal income taxes (FIT), a skewed break that overwhelmingly benefits wealthy people.
Arise has fought to end the grocery tax for more than a decade. The central challenge is how to replace the $480 million it raises for education. In 2020, we’ll intensify our efforts to show legislators the powerful link between untaxing groceries and ending the FIT deduction.
Alabama is one of only three states where filers can deduct all federal income tax payments from state income taxes. This tax break disproportionately benefits wealthy people, who pay more in federal income taxes and are more likely to itemize. Ending the FIT deduction would bring in enough revenue to untax groceries, fund Medicaid expansion and meet other critical needs.
Compiled by Jim Carnes, policy director, and Carol Gundlach, policy analyst
The 2019 session that was, and the one yet to come
By Chris Sanders, communications director
Alabama legislators ended their 2019 regular session May 31, but they’re not done yet. With federal intervention looming, the Legislature likely will hold a special session this fall to address horrendous conditions in our state’s overcrowded prisons.
Arise members’ advocacy led to progress on civil asset forfeiture and voting rights this year. Lawmakers voted unanimously for SB 191, which will increase transparency around forfeitures. And they passed SB 301 to expand access to absentee ballots.
Our supporters helped stop numerous proposals to erect harmful barriers to Medicaid and SNAP food assistance. We also saw breakthroughs on several recent issue priorities and endorsements:
HB 225 will forbid pay discrimination based on race or sex.
SB 30 will ensure that inability to pay filing fees won’t block low-income Alabamians from pursuing their rights in court.
SB 228 will increase jail food funding and prevent sheriffs from pocketing any leftover money.
Two other topics dominated the headlines at the State House this year. Legislators moved quickly to pass an abortion ban that is certain to face a lengthy court challenge. They also hustled to pass a 10-cent gas tax increase for infrastructure improvements in March.
What the Legislature left undone
But lawmakers showed much less urgency on investments in human services. State funding for K-12 and higher education is up, but it’s still well below 2008 levels. General Fund revenues also are rising, but not nearly enough to reverse decades of underinvestment in Medicaid, mental health care, child care and other services.
Some climbs remain steeper than others. Reforms of payday lending and the death penalty struggled to gain traction this year. So did proposals for automatic voter registration and early voting. But Arise members – unafraid and undeterred – will keep working for those changes and others to promote opportunity, prosperity and justice for all Alabamians.
We’ve almost met our fundraising goal!
By Brenda Boman, development director
It’s mid-June, and I’m filled with gratitude. I’m grateful to the Arise staff for all their hard work promoting policies to help low-income Alabamians. I’m grateful to our board of directors for their dedication to our mission.
I’m grateful to the state legislators who, with nearly 1,100 bills introduced this session, found the time to pass an equal pay law and require a civil asset forfeiture database.
And I’m especially grateful to Arise members, who provide financial support and who take the time to communicate with their elected officials. Y’all are awesome!
Arise is less than $9,000 away from our funding goal as we near the end of our budget year on June 30. I thank you in advance for any gift you can make to help us reach that goal and get our next year of advocacy off to a strong start. Together, we’re making a difference in people’s lives!
Why Arise is focusing on racial equity in our work
By Robyn Hyden, executive director
It seems to me that we’re living through a time of historic political upheaval and transformation. While we continue to push forward policies to increase dignity, equity and justice, too often we end up playing defense.
Against this backdrop, our board and staff have adopted a commitment to racial equity and inclusion. We know we can’t address poverty without acknowledging how Alabama’s history of racial exploitation and discrimination created policies that built wealth for a few, while disenfranchising the many. And if we don’t have a direct narrative to address ongoing racial inequality, extremists will tell a story about race that serves their own agenda.
Using this framework, we hope to create more advocacy tools, data and messaging to acknowledge race’s role in public policy. We also hope to give grassroots advocates and communities the tools they need to fight, and win, in policy discussions w here racial prejudice is too often the subtext.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts and comments as we frame our work more directly to address racial injustice.
It’s an essential part of our agenda to increase dignity, equity, justice and opportunity for all Alabamians.
An overflow Legislative Day!
With the 2019 regular session in the books, we wanted to acknowledge the enthusiasm that everyone displayed from the start. Our 2019 Legislative Day on March 19 had a record turnout of nearly 300 people! Folks were fired up to talk to their legislators about Medicaid expansion and other issues. And that energy lasted throughout the session, with members flooding lawmakers with calls and emails in response to numerous action alerts. Thank you for all that you do!
Your voice, your actions make a better Alabama for all!
By Presdelane Harris, organizing director
At each Arise annual meeting, you shape an agenda grounded in our vision of a better Alabama. And well before arriving there in September, you take action to make sure we are addressing priority issues of Alabamians living in poverty.
Many of you either attend or host a summer listening session each year. Our organizers already have begun holding these sessions across Alabama to inform issue selection for 2020. We want to know what you think, and we need to hear different perspectives. Communities often are not encouraged to voice their concerns, but Arise is ready to hear you!
We invite you to host a listening session. Our organizers will go wherever we are asked. A session takes about an hour to 90 minutes, depending on your needs.
How to advance our vision for Alabama’s next century
By Chris Sanders, communications director
What kind of future do we want for Alabama? It’s a question worth reflecting on as our state enters its third century this year. Are we all right with limiting power and prosperity to a select few? Or would we rather build a state where everyone has a voice and where people of all races, genders and incomes have a real chance to get ahead?
Alabama Arise believes in justice and opportunity for all, and our policy priorities flow from that vision. It’s why we support expanding Medicaid for Alabamians who can’t afford coverage. It’s why we want to rebalance an upside-down tax system that taxes struggling families deeper into poverty. And it’s why we urge stronger investments in education, housing, public transportation and other services that improve quality of life and promote economic opportunity.
We expect lots of infrastructure talk at the Legislature this year. The regular session starts Tuesday, but lawmakers may move quickly into a special session on the gas tax. Gov. Kay Ivey has asked legislators to increase the state’s 18-cent gas tax by 10 cents over three years. That money would fund road and bridge maintenance and other infrastructure improvements.
Many of Alabama’s deteriorating roads are overdue for repair. But the definition of “public infrastructure” goes far beyond tar and gravel. Education, health care and public transportation also help lay the foundation for shared prosperity. This session could bring chances to strengthen those investments – and to make the tax system that funds them more progressive.
Hope on grocery tax, Medicaid expansion
One key breakthrough could be on a longtime Arise priority: ending the state grocery tax. We came heartbreakingly close in 2008, when a bill to untax groceries passed the House and fell one vote short in the Senate. But Arise members never gave up the advocacy fight. Now legislators face renewed pressure to end or cut the state’s 4 percent sales tax on groceries. (Some conservative lawmakers are urging a grocery tax reduction to accompany a gas tax increase.) Alabama is one of only three states with no tax break on groceries. It’s a highly regressive tax on a basic necessity, hitting hardest on people who struggle to make ends meet.
It was a vote to urge Alabama to break down barriers to voting. Arise members approved automatic universal voter registration as a new issue priority for 2019 during the organization’s annual meeting Sept. 8 at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Montgomery. Nearly 200 members from across Alabama also reaffirmed their commitment to six other issue priorities, including the permanent issues of tax reform and adequate budgets.
Automatic voter registration (AVR) would allow Alabama to save money while registering more people to vote. AVR registers eligible citizens or updates their records electronically when they apply for a driver’s license or share information with public agencies in other routine ways. People can opt out if they do not wish to be registered.
Fifteen states, including Georgia, and the District of Columbia have approved a form of AVR, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. All but one offer AVR through the department of motor vehicles, and several provide AVR through other agencies as well. The policy increases voter registration, promotes greater voter roll accuracy, and reduces printing, mailing and personnel costs connected to processing registration forms by hand.
Members also urged Arise to seek to rein in civil asset forfeiture as part of its criminal justice reform work. This practice allows law enforcement to seize a home, car or other property from people who have not been convicted of a crime. Alabamians who cannot afford to hire a lawyer to try to recover the property are especially vulnerable.
Arise will support policies to reduce the burden that civil asset forfeiture and high court fees and fines place on many families living in poverty. Other priorities include state public transportation funding, stronger consumer protections on payday and auto title loans, and reforms to the state’s death penalty process.
Medicaid expansion will be a focus of intense Arise advocacy this year. Alabama’s failure to expand Medicaid to cover adults with low wages has trapped about 300,000 people in a coverage gap. They make too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to get subsidies for Marketplace coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
Expanding Medicaid would save hundreds of lives, create thousands of jobs and pump hundreds of millions of dollars a year into the state economy. It also would help keep rural hospitals and clinics open across Alabama.
Arise will continue its long-standing campaign to untax groceries this year. Alabama is one of only three states with no sales tax break on groceries. (The others are Mississippi and South Dakota.) The grocery tax adds hundreds of dollars a year to the cost of a basic necessity of life for families. The tax also is a key driver of Alabama’s upside-down tax system, which on average forces families with low and moderate incomes to pay twice as much of what they make in state and local taxes as the richest Alabamians do.