Chris Sanders: ARISE update on the 2019 session that was, and the one yet to come

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Alabama state capital

Alabama legislators ended their 2019 regular session. But they’re not done yet.

Amid the threat of federal intervention, the Legislature likely will hold a special session this fall to address horrendous conditions in our state’s overcrowded prisons. This summer, Arise will continue making the case that meaningful prison reform must include Medicaid expansion. This move would cut state health care costs and help former inmates stay healthy and productive after release. And it would help people stay out of prison by strengthening treatment for mental illness and substance use disorders.

Arise will renew our call to fund these needed investments by fixing Alabama’s upside-down tax system. With high sales taxes and big tax breaks for rich people, this broken system is the worst of both worlds. It pushes struggling families deeper into poverty, and it doesn’t bring in enough money to provide adequate funding for corrections and other vital services. Untaxing groceries and ending the state’s deduction for federal income taxes would be two huge steps to undo that damage.

Breakthroughs on civil asset forfeiture, voting rights

Arise members’ advocacy led to progress on civil asset forfeiture and voting rights this year. Lawmakers voted unanimously for SB 191, sponsored by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, which will increase transparency around forfeitures in Alabama. And they approved SB 301, sponsored by Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, which will expand access to absentee ballots.

Our supporters were key in stopping numerous proposals to erect harmful new barriers to Medicaid and food assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). We also saw major breakthroughs on several recent Arise issue priorities and endorsements:

  • HB 225, sponsored by Rep. Adline Clarke, D-Mobile, will forbid pay discrimination based on race or sex.
  • SB 30, sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, will ensure that inability to pay filing fees won’t block low-income Alabamians from pursuing their rights in court.
  • SB 228, sponsored by Orr, 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, expensive court challenge. They also hustled to pass a 10-cent gas tax increase for infrastructure improvements during a special session in March.

The work that remains undone

But lawmakers showed much less urgency when it came to investments in human services. While Alabama’s funding for K-12 and higher education is increasing, it’s still well below 2008 levels. Similarly, General Fund (GF) revenues are rising. But it’s not nearly enough to reverse decades of underinvestment in Medicaid, mental health care, child care and other services.

The Legislature also waited until the session’s final week before finally deciding the GF, rather than the education budget, would pay for the state’s share of the Children’s Health Insurance Program. CHIP supports coverage for more than 170,000 Alabama kids.

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.

This article first appeared on the ARISE blog. Visit it for more information on their legislative agenda and mission. 

Chris Sanders is Arise’s communications director. He is a lifelong Alabama resident, a member of the Alabama State Bar and a two-time graduate of the University of Alabama, where he earned a B.A. in journalism and political science and a J.D.