By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY—The Public Service Commission of Alabama is empowered with some very important responsibilities. However, it has generally worked in quiet anonymity.
This all changed with the January PSC meeting when Commissioner Terry Dunn called for formal hearings on the rates of Alabama’s utilities.
The motion by Dunn was rejected by Commissioners Cavanaugh and Jeremy Oden who favored keeping to the original unanimous vote in December to hold public hearings.
Since January, a tumultuous cloud of suspicion, accusation and nastiness has been played out in the press, in emails and in the halls of the PSC.
This action by Dunn has generated some very robust press for the once unknown republican commissioner. It has brought him a certain celebrity on the political left, among environmentalist and those who believe Alabama utility companies are making too much money. Among others, Dunn is being scorned as playing politics with the utility companies to raises his reelection hopes.
As with PSC President Twinkle Cavanaugh, “The Alabama Political Reporter” sat down with Commissioner Dunn to give him a opportunity to tell his side of the story.
However, Commissioner Dunn is a man of very few words and almost without exception, questions asked of Dunn were answered by his chief of staff David Roundtree. Roundtree for years was a reporter for the “Montgomery Advertiser,” he is also a holdover from the days when democrats controlled the PSC Commission. He served as spokesperson for Dr. Susan Parker, democrat who was considered one of the best commissioner to have ever served at the PSC.
Recently, Cavanaugh has said that public hearings were preferred over formal hearings because it gave the public more input into the process.
When asking Dunn about the reason for formal hearing and not the public ones that the commission had agreed on in December, Roundtree said, “A formal hearing is a public hearing, it doesn’t get more public than that. Everybody comes to the table with an idea, and we don’t discriminate.”
Dunn nodded his head in agreement with Roundtree’s statement.
Roundtree said that “the parties in the proceedings are most likely going to want to be represented by council so you are going to have lawyers representing some of the main parties, but in a formal proceeding a single customer can be a party, if they intervene all they have to do is request to intervene.”
Critics of the formal hearing process say that it is the very presence of legal council and sworn testimony that makes formal hearing less desirable than an informal one. Roundtree, however, indicated that this is the best method for getting to the heart of how rate increases or decreases should be considered. He said, “A formal proceeding is tantamount to a court proceeding, it is very much like a court proceeding.”
He says that in the formal proceeding there would be sworn testimony and written testimony presented with attorneys representing the parties. “It will be part of the record and all the other parties will look at it and they will then respond to it,” said Roundtree. “There will be a part of the proceedings where the staff can ask questions of the various parties and there will be opportunities for the parties to cross examine one another about the testimony that has been submitted.”
He did not seemed worried that environmental advocates like the Southern Environmental Law Center would highjack the proceedings as some have suggested.
Roundtree dismisses Cavanaugh’s and Oden’s call for informal hearing even though Dunn agreed with it earlier.
Roundtree said that he is concerned about there not being a formal record of the hearings.
At this point, Commissioner Dunn did more than nod agreement or say he agreed, with Roundtree.
He said, “That’s what we are concerned about. To get at the ROE [Return on Equity] and get down to what makes the ROE work.”
Dunn said that the formal hearing with sworn testimony would allow all present to “get into it” determine what the ROE should be. “If you have no record then you have no way to break it down and see how the mechanism works, and see if it’s fair,” said Dunn.
Recently, newspapers, editorials and blogs have erroneously reported that companies like Alabama Power receive 13 to 14.5 percent return on investment. This is not the case, and its reported incorrectly because of ignorance or worse. What the utility companies are given is a Return On Equity, ROE, which is greatly different than Return On Investment, ROI.
According to online research group Zacks.com, “Knowing the percentage of income a company makes on its equity helps you understand whether the company is profitable. Equity includes the original investment plus any money borrowed to fund company activities. A healthy company will show a rate of 20 percent ROE or more. This positive return indicates the company uses its money wisely.” ROE is what investors like Warren Buffett use to evaluated companies worth and stability. According to the formula used by the PSC, Alabama Power is allowed, not guaranteed, to make 13 to 14.5 percent on ROE (45 percent equity to 55 percent debt). When the 13 to 14.5 percent is applied to the 44 percent equity it returns 8 percent on ROE.
Roundtree says that Commissioner Dunn wants to “looks at the high points and makes sure the main criteria that come into play are still valid and good.” He says, “Maybe we adjust that equity ceiling a little and a little of the capital structure. It’s just big picture sort of stuff.”
According to Roundtree, in 1983, Alabama Power was put under the formula for the first time, and the next year Alagasco and then Mobile Gas.
He contends that Alabama Power has not been reviewed since that time. Yet, it is the job of the commission to constantly evaluate the companies, which has just recently fallen under GOP jurisdiction.
Roundtree agrees that he and Dunn do not want to go back to the days before 1983 when every rate evaluation was handled by the courts. However, he says he and Dunn want court-style hearings going forward.
While we found Commissioner Dunn, polite and attentive during our meeting, he had very little to say but agree with his chief of staff.
CDC confirmed expanded “close contact” definition to Alabama officials in August
It is unclear why the CDC waited until late October to update or clarify its public-facing guidance on its website.
New federal guidance on how a person is determined to have been in close contact with someone infected by COVID-19 won’t impact how Alabama works to mitigate the disease, said the state’s top health official. That’s because the state was already aware of the expanded definition in August before the change was made public last week.
It is unclear why the CDC waited until late October to update or clarify its public-facing guidance on its website when it was giving more precise definitions to at least one state health department and receiving questions from public health officials about the definition.
The delay in announcing the change is raising questions about how state health officials nationwide have been determining the public’s possible exposure to the deadly disease and if contact tracing and mitigation efforts will be made more time- and resource-intensive with the more inclusive definition in place.
The CDC on Wednesday expanded the definition of “close contact” to mean a person can be at risk of contracting COVID-19 if that person is within six feet of an infected person for a period of at least 15 minutes over a 24-hour period.
The previous definition stated a person should quarantine if they were within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes. Alternately, in other areas of the CDC’s website, the language stated “a total of 15 minutes” in the definition of close contact.
“What they changed their definition to is something they had verbally confirmed to us months ago, and we have always been using that definition,” said Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, speaking to APR on Friday.
Harris said a support team from the CDC was in Alabama in July as the Alabama Department of Public Health was preparing plans to reopen schools. Harris said the question was asked of CDC staff because his department was getting questions on the definition of close contact from school officials.
APDH staff took the definition then of “a total of 15 minutes” to mean that there could be several exposures over a period of time equaling that 15 minute threshold, so they asked CDC to clarify that assertion.
“When those folks were here we asked the CDC people directly. Can you confirm for us what that means, and they said, it adds up to a total of 15 minutes in a 24-hour period,” Harris said. “And we even got somebody to commit to that in an email somewhere.”
Melissa Morrison, CDC’s career epidemiology field officer working at the ADPH in Montgomery, in an Aug. 13 email to ADPH’s director of the office of governmental affairs, quotes a statement Morrison attributes to her CDC colleague, CDC public health advisor Kelly Bishop. Harris shared the email with APR.
“Yes, I did get a response from the contact tracing team. The 15 minutes for a close contact is cumulative, and they said ‘The time period for the cumulative exposure should start from 2 days before the cases’ illness onset (or, for asymptomatic patients, 2 days prior to positive specimen collection date) until the time the patient is isolated,” Morrison quotes Bishop in the email.
In the August email, Bishop goes on to say, as attributed by Morrison, that “as of now there is no established upper limit on the time period (i.e. 48, 72 hours etc).”
The CDC’s expanded definition was reflected in an Aug. 20 statement from the Alabama Department of Public Health.
“The 15-minute time is a cumulative period of time. For example, a close contact might be within 6 feet of a COVID-19 positive person for 5 minutes each at 8 a.m., noon and 5 p.m. This is a standard based on guidance from the CDC,” the statement reads.
In an email to APR on Friday, Harris said he’d discussed the matter with Morrison on Friday who “emphasized that the guidance this week from CDC was NOT a change but rather a clarification. They simply used the MMWR corrections story as a convenient time to make the point.”
Harris was referring to a CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report released Wednesday that detailed findings by Vermont health officials showing that a prison worker contracted COVID-19 during an eight-hour shift in which the worker had 22 close contacts with an infected inmate totaling 17 minutes.
The CDC in statements to numerous news outlets, and to APR, cite that Vermont study in connection to Wednesday’s definition change.
“That’s kind of why they said it out loud,” Harris said of the study and the Wednesday announcement. “But I have to say, when I saw that updated guidance I thought, ‘I can’t believe anybody ever thought otherwise.’”
Different pages on the CDC’s website on Saturday defined close contact as both being “a total of 15 minutes or more” and “a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period,” confusing the matter further, and numerous other state health departments had not yet updated their websites Saturday to reflect the CDC’s expanded definition.
A CDC spokesman in an email to APR on Wednesday noted the Vermont study on the prison worker and said “CDC clarified the amount of time it would take for someone to be considered a close contact exposed to a person with COVID-19.”
“The CDC website now defines a close contact as someone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period. Previous language defined a close contact as someone who spent at least 15 minutes within 6 feet of a confirmed case,” CDC spokesman Scott Pauley told APR by email Wednesday.
Pauley didn’t respond to APR’s question on Friday asking why the CDC waited until Wednesday to update its guidance online, given that ADPH had confirmed the definition of close contact in August. He also didn’t respond to a request to verify the statement Morrison attributed to her CDC colleague in the August email.
“To us, we thought if it says a total, that means you must be adding up smaller amounts to get to 15 minutes, or you wouldn’t use the word total,” Harris said. “When they changed it this week, I don’t know the details of why that happened, but I think, obviously, everybody didn’t have the same message everywhere.”
Dr. Bertha Hidalgo, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at UAB’s Department of Epidemiology, told APR on Friday that her understanding prior to Wednesday’s expanded definition was that a contact was defined as someone who was exposed to the COVID-19 positive individual for at least 15 min or more at a time and explained that the updated guidance complicates how public health officials will engage in contact tracing.
“This means significant efforts for contact tracing moving forward, in effect needing to identify every person that person came into contact with during the possible exposure timeframe,” she said.
It was unclear Monday how the definition change impacts Alabama’s Guidesafe COVID-19 exposure notification app, which notifies a user if they come into close contact with an infected person. The app was developed by ADPH and University of Alabama at Birmingham, thanks to a partnership between Apple and Google’s combined development of the technology, and alerts users to possible exposure while keeping all users’ identities anonymous.
Sue Feldman, professor of health informatics, UAB School of Health Professions, in a message to APR on Friday said that due to the anonymity of the app, it would be difficult, but not impossible, to update the app to take into consideration the CDC’s expanded guidance.
“We are taking this into consideration for our next update,” Feldman said in the message.
Also unclear is how many other states that have similar exposure notification apps, also using Google and Apple’s technology, aren’t yet using the expanded definition of a “close contact.” Colorado is to roll out that state’s app on Sunday, and according to Colorado Public Radio News the app will notify a user that they’ve been exposed if they come “within six feet of the phone of someone who tested positive for at least ten minutes.”
New York’s exposure notification app also appears to use the old CDC guidance, and will alert users if they come “within 6 feet of your phone for longer than 10 minutes,” according to the state’s website.
The updated definition, which health departments refer to when conducting contact tracing, is likely to have a serious impact on schools, workplaces and other group settings where personal contact may stretch over longer periods of time including multiple interactions.
It greatly expands the pool of people considered at risk of transmission. “It’s easy to accumulate 15 minutes in small increments when you spend all day together — a few minutes at the water cooler, a few minutes in the elevator, and so on,” Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security epidemiologist Caitlin Rivers told The Washington Post. “I expect this will result in many more people being identified as close contacts.”
The clarification comes as cases and hospitalizations are rising both in Alabama and nationwide. Alabama’s 14-day average of cases has increased 41.2 percent over the past two weeks. The percentage of tests that are positive has increased from roughly 13 percent to more than 20 percent over the past 14 days. The U.S. average of new daily infections is now at its highest point of the pandemic, with 481,372 cases reported in a week, according to CNN and Johns Hopkins University.
Alabama women to Ivey: Support fair processes
Last week, Ivey co-authored a letter of support for Barrett and released it to media outlets.
A letter signed by a bipartisan group of about a thousand Alabama women takes issue with Gov. Kay Ivey’s recent support of Republican Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, and it encourages Ivey and other state officials to instead support fair processes.
Last week, Ivey co-authored a letter of support for Barrett and released it to media outlets. In response, the letter from Alabama women calls the process to nominate Barrett, which is occurring after more than 50 million votes have been cast and in a Senate that is predicted to change from Republican to Democratic control, unfair and “anti-democratic.”
The letter, which doesn’t criticize Ivey or request that she rescind her endorsement of Barrett, asks instead that Ivey and other state leaders honor women by implementing and following fair processes that provide women with equal opportunities.
The full letter is below:
Dear Governor Ivey,
We are a group of women. We are current and future mothers, grandmothers, caregivers, leaders and champions of all citizens of our great state. We are moderates, progressives and conservatives. When we agree with our leaders, we say so, as we have in your support for education, workforce development, and sensible mask policies.
We also speak up when we do not agree. Thus, we want to respond to your letter in support of Amy Coney Barrett because it does not represent our views.
Like you and Judge Barrett’s father, we want to tell all young girls that they can do anything their male counterparts can do and they can be anything and everything they want to be. We want it to be a truth, not just a signal “that the most qualified individual will get the job”. In addition to those things, we want them to know and believe that the process will be fair, because no matter the job, the process should be fair. And our children and young people (boys or girls) should be able to trust that democracy works and can be counted on. How can we assure them when this process has been so rushed and undemocratic?
We are women who oppose Judge Barrett’s confirmation, because confirming her at this time, when 50 million Americans have already cast their votes, is anti-democratic. Regardless of what ways she does or does not think or talk like us, what matters is that a confirmation should not take place after the election is underway.
We do not expect you to rescind your support of Judge Barrett. However, we urge you and the other women leaders who have advanced to top positions in our government to stand with us in asking for a fair process that takes place after the election. A process that helps us to believe that our voices and our votes matter because the American people should have the right to choose who nominates the next Supreme Court Justice.
|Emily Hess Levine|
|Ronne M. Hess|
|Cindi Cassis Branham|
|Anna Brantley Fry|
|Joellyn M. Beckham|
|Alexandra Ruthann Bullock McElroy|
The letter is signed by more than 800 women. The full list of signatures was sent to APR with the letter. We have chosen to list only the first 10 for the sake of brevity.
Study: COVID-19 infection rates more than double without lockdowns
Infection and fatality rates would have been higher without stay-at-home orders, a new UAB study found.
New research from the University of Alabama at Birmingham says that if there had been no stay-at-home orders issued in the U.S. in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the country would have experienced a 220 percent higher rate of infection and a 22 percent higher fatality rate than if such orders were implemented nationwide.
Seven states never imposed stay-at-home orders, or SAHOs. The study analyzed daily positive case rates by state against the presence or absence of statewide SAHOs between March 1 and May 4, the period when such orders began to be implemented. Twelve states lifted their SAHOs before May 4.
The researchers defined SAHOs as being in effect when a state’s governor issued an order for residents of the entire state to leave home only for essential activities and when schools and nonessential businesses were closed.
“During March and April, most states in the United States imposed shutdowns and enacted SAHOs in an effort to control the disease,” said Bisakha Sen, the study’s senior author. “However, mixed messages from political authorities on the usefulness of SAHOs, popular pressure and concerns about the economic fallout led some states to lift the restrictions before public health experts considered it advisable.”
The research also sought to determine if the proportion of a state’s Black residents was associated with its number of positive cases. It found that there was.
“This finding adds to evidence from existing studies using county-level data on racial disparities in COVID-19 infection rates and underlines the urgency of better understanding and addressing these disparities,” said study co-author Vidya Sagar Hanumanthu.
The research can help advance a greater understanding of racial disparities in the health care system as a whole, and help leaders make future decisions about shutdowns as the virus continues to spread, Sen said.
“While the high economic cost makes SAHOs unsustainable as a long-term policy, our findings could help inform federal, state and local policymakers in weighing the costs and benefits of different short-term options to combat the pandemic,” she said.
The study was published Friday in JAMA Network Open.
Jones to attend Auburn student forum, Tuberville hasn’t yet responded to invitation
Jones has agreed to attend the forum, but it was unclear whether Tuberville planned to attend.
The College Democrats at Auburn University and the College Republicans at Auburn University have asked U.S. Senator Doug Jones, D-Alabama, and his Republican opponent, Tommy Tuberville, to attend a student forum on Wednesday.
“We are excited to invite the candidates running for our U.S. Senate seat and provide this opportunity for any Auburn student to hear directly from them, and we hope it will inform our student bodies’ decisions with the November 3rd election only days away,” said Carsten Grove, president of the College Democrats at Auburn University, in a statement.
Jones has agreed to attend the forum, Auburn University College Democrats confirmed for APR on Sunday, but it was unclear whether Tuberville planned to attend. The student organization was still awaiting a response from Tuberville’s campaign.
Jones has for months requested Tuberville join him in a debate, but Tuberville has declined.
“AUCR takes great pleasure in coming together with AUCD to co-host the Alabama Senate candidates in this forum. We are looking forward to a very informative and constructive event,” said Lydia Maxwell, president of the College Republicans at Auburn University.
Dr. Ryan Williamson, assistant professor of political science, is to emcee the forum, which will be open to all Auburn University students in the Mell Classroom Building at 6 p.m., according to a press release from the College Democrats at Auburn University.
Students will be permitted 30 seconds to ask a question of either candidate, and each candidate will have two minutes to answer, according to the release.
Capacity at the forum will be limited and precautions taken due to COVID-19. Any student with an Auburn ID is welcome and attendance will be first come, first served.