On the eve of the 2023 legislative session, Alabama House Democrats held a press conference on Monday outlining their legislative agenda, dubbed a “Plan for Prosperity.”
Key components of their agenda include eliminating taxes on food and overtime pay, criminal justice reform, expanding voting access, and increasing health and public school funding, Alabama House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, told reporters. Democrats hold 28 of the House’s 105 seats.
A Plan for Prosperity
Rep. Prince Chestnut outlined what he called a “pro-growth economic plan” that would reduce taxes on family-owned businesses, while also providing expanded resources to help “close the income gap” such as incentives for more affordable childcare and housing.
Regarding the aforementioned tax cuts for food and overtime pay, Chestnut said the time was now to repeal what he called a “regressive tax.”
Currently, Alabama is just one of three states to apply its full sales tax rate on food and groceries. Proponents of this tax model have argued that the increased tax on food is offset by low property tax rates, with Alabama ranking 50th in the country in terms of property tax revenue collection. Opponents of the tax on food argue that poorer Alabamians don’t often see the benefits of lower property taxes, and are thus placed with a higher proportional tax burden than their property-owning counterparts.
Skeptics of eliminating the grocery tax have also pointed to the fact that Alabama’s sales taxes is a major revenue source for the state’s public schools, generating approximately $500 million annually.
When asked how Democrats may alleviate concerns of creating a larger deficit in the Education Trust Fund by eliminating the grocery tax, Chestnut said he and his colleagues were still exploring options.
“We have to look at the entire budget and find out where we can make those additions to replace that (deficit),” Chestnut said.
“It’s a very regressive tax, and as a result of it, you’re punishing the poorest among us, and so we definitely need to look at how we can make that happen. I will say this: we do have extremely low property taxes in the state of Alabama. Not necessarily saying let’s do it that way, but that’s something we can look at as well as other taxes that are out there.”
Daniels said that with increased inflation and food prices, the state is receiving more tax revenue on items than it previously had. He said Democrats may propose introducing a tax holiday this year in which state sales tax would be eliminated entirely on food for an entire month. The data from that experiment, Daniels said, could be evaluated to determine whether or not eliminating the grocery tax would create a deficit at all.
Regarding criminal justice reform, Rep. Phillip Ensler, D-Montgomery, said that Democrats were going to push for the passage of a series of criminal justice reform bills introduced by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa.
“Too often, people who are incarcerated are treated inhumanely, and no human being – regardless of what they’ve done – should be subjected to cruel or unusual punishment,” Ensler said.
“Yet the state of Alabama continues to face two major lawsuits from the (U.S.) Department of Justice due to the inhumane and violent conditions of our prisons, which are woefully understaffed and under-resourced.”
England’s bills would require a unanimous jury decision to impose a death sentence and reform the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles decision-making process, among other things.
Ensler also voiced support for repealing Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act, which among other things, mandates life imprisonment without parole for those convicted of a Class A felony after having been previously convicted of three felonies, including nonviolent crimes.
Improving voting rights was another key priority outlined during the press conference, with Rep. Kenyatté Hassell, D-Montgomery, pointing to the state’s shrinking voter turnout rates as a symptom of voter suppression.
“Like many of you, I couldn’t help but notice that during our last election cycle, voter turnout was at a 30-year low,” Hassell said.
Hassell said Democrats want to enact legislation that would allow for automatic voter registration upon becoming 18 years old, allow curbside voting and expand early voting, and remove “redundant and burdensome court fees or fines as a condition to regain the freedom to vote” for those coming out of incarceration.
Rep. Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, said Democrats want to increase teacher pay as a means to help alleviate teacher shortages across the state, oppose any school voucher programs that would divert funds earmarked for public schools toward private schools, and direct financial support toward underperforming schools.
“If a school is struggling or underperforming, it makes no sense to deprive them of resources they need and then expect them to improve,” she said.
Having worked in public education for more than 30 years, Hall said the ongoing teacher shortage could be devastating for long-term professional development, among other things.
“As you know, presently we are facing a teacher shortage in Alabama, so in order for us to attract and retain teachers and education professionals, we must make sure that the salaries and benefits – such as daycare for teachers – are competitive and geared toward long-term professional development,” Hall said.
Expanding health resources was another key agenda item for Democrats, with Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, who has spent more than 30 years working in the health care field, arguing for Medicaid to be expanded in the state.
“We should expand Medicaid eligibility for postpartum care, as well as preventative services such as cancer screening and dietary assessment,” Moore said. “We must also provide greater access to behavior health and substance abuse treatment and recovery.”