By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY— Today, the House Financial Services Committee will hold a public hearing on HB406, a bi-partisan bill that would end the 300 percent interest rate regularly charged for auto title loans. But, this will most likely be a “show” hearing as word came down Tuesday night that the fix was in for the title lenders.
It should come as no surprise because the Republican Supermajority has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from title lenders, payday lenders and check cashing businesses over the last three years. (But so have the Democrats.) These businesses, along with money from Big Tobacco and alcohol, are fueling the campaigns of Republicans across the State.
Last year, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) promised there would be a bill passed to limit the amount of interest that could be charged by such companies. But, at the eleventh hour, Marsh pulled his deal and the bill died in committee. More than likely, this same hypocrisy will be on display today, despite the fact that over half (54) members of the House serve as co-sponsors of the bill.
“The title lending industry preys upon financially vulnerable people and traps them in a cycle of debt that many simply cannot escape,” said Sara Zampierin, SPLC staff attorney. “Unfortunately, this committee has killed such legislation in the past rather than allow the full legislature to vote on it.”
Recent polling shows there is widespread public support (62 percent total favorable) for limiting the amount that these lenders can charge, yet the leadership of the Republicans in the House and Senate have repeatedly denied an up or down vote on bills like HB406.
Conservative Senator Scott Beason (R-Gardendale) said he is prepared to sponsor a like bill in the Senate, if the House will pass the legislation. Beason said, “It is time to put an end to usury in our State.” He said while conservatives are in favor of free markets, he believes that 300 percent interest crosses over the line into preying on the working poor.
The average title loan is $951 and is renewed eight times, costing Alabama borrowers almost $2,140 in interest alone, according to the Center for Responsible Lending. Most title loans, secured by the value of a car, must be repaid within 30 days. But many borrowers are only able to make interest payments due to this short repayment period. Under Alabama law, if a borrower doesn’t repay the loan, a lender can repossess the vehicle and sell it for a profit – sometimes earning thousands of dollars more than the amount borrowed.
The Alliance for Responsible Lending in Alabama (ARLA), a bi-partisan statewide coalition of faith, community and social justice organizations, has repeatedly asked lawmakers to support stronger laws regulating payday and title loan lenders in Alabama. Their pleas, it would seem, are being drowned out by the sound of the money lenders counting their profits.
So, while legislators are reelected using funds provided for by the title lenders, payday lenders and check cashers.
A recent study showed that Alabama has four times as many payday lenders as McDonald’s restaurants. And it has more title loan lenders, per capita, than any other state.
These businesses could easily be labeled poor farms, because they harvest much of what little income the working poor have. Meanwhile, so-called conservatives violate the principles of the Bibles they wave and the oath of office they have taken by denying a vote on this most pressing issue.
Committee Members Who Received Contributions from Lenders
Lesley Vance R-Phenix City
Select Management Resources $1,000 10/16/13
Cash America $500 1/2/14
Check into Cash of Alabama $400
Advance America $400 12/6/13
Checksmart $100 12/6/13
Jack Williams R-Vestavia Hills
Select Management Resources $1,000 12/16/13
Checksmart $500 1/13/14
Marcel Black D-Tuscumbia
Titlemax $1,000 11/26/13
Select Management Resources $1,000 11/23/13
Mack Butler R-Gadsden
Select Management Resources $1,000 10/5/13
TitleMax $1,000 1/8/14
Select Management Resources $1,000 10/5/13
Steve Hurst R-Munford
Select MGMT Resources $1,000 12/20/13
Thad McClammy D-Montgomery
Titlemax $1,000 1/10/14
Select Management Resources $1,000 1/10/14
Oliver Robinson D-Birmingham
Check into Cash of Alabama $240 9/5/13
Advance America $610 10/2/13
Checksmart $150 10/7/13
Title Max $1,000 10/22/13
Select Management Resources $1,000 11/15/13
Committee Members Who Took $0 contributions
DuWayne Bridges (R-Valley), Wes Long (R-Guntersville)
Totals by Company
Select Management Resources $42,000
Cash America $4,500
Check into Cash of Alabama $3,030
Advance America $6,010
Select Management Resources
Storming the Statehouse $10,000 9/30/13
Del Marsh $10,000 10/4/13
Tucker PAC $18,500 10/25/13
Del Marsh $5,000 12/24/13
COVID-19 hospitalizations, new cases continue to rise
The number of rising hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Alabama is a concerning sign of a possible coming surge of the disease, state health experts said Friday. Alabama hospitals were caring for 888 coronavirus patients Friday, the highest number since Sept 9.
UAB Hospital was caring for around 80 COVID-19 inpatients Friday afternoon, said Dr. Rachael Lee, an infectious disease specialist at UAB, speaking to reporters Friday. UAB Hospital hasn’t had that many coronavirus inpatients since Aug. 18, when the disease was surging statewide.
“We have been dealing with this since March, and I think it’s easy for us to drop our guard,” Lee said.
Alabama added 3,852 new coronavirus cases on Friday, but 1,287 of them were older positive antigen tests, conducted in June through October and submitted to ADPH by a facility in Mobile, according to the department. Still, Alabama’s daily case count has been increasing, concerning health officials already worried that as the weather turns colder and the flu season ramps up, Alabama could see a surge like the state had in July.
Alabama’s 14-day average of new daily cases was 1,247 on Friday, the highest it’s been since Sept 4. Over the last 14 days, Alabama has added 17,451 new COVID-19 cases.
Friday’s inclusion of those older positive test results throws off the day’s percent positivity, by Thursday the state’s percent of tests that were positive was nearly 16 percent. Public health officials say it should be at or below five percent or cases are going undetected.
The state added 16 COVID-19 deaths on Friday, bringing to total confirmed deaths statewide to 2,859. Over the last two weeks, 206 deaths were reported in the state. Alabama’s 14-day average of new daily deaths on Friday was 15.
Alabama state health officer Dr. Scott Harris told APR by phone Friday called the rising new cases and hospitalizations “worrisome.”
Harris noted the data dump of older confirmed cases in Friday’s data, but said “but nevertheless, I think it’s clear our numbers are going up.”
Harris said it’s not yet clear what’s causing the continued spread, but said it may be due at least in part to larger private gatherings. ADPH staff has mentioned a few outbreaks association with such gatherings, but Harris said it’s hard to know for certain if that’s the major driver in the state’s rising numbers.
“It’s football season and the holidays are coming up and school is back in session,” Harris said. “I think people are just not being as safe as they were.”
Harris noted that on ADPH’s color-coded, risk indicator dashboard, red counties, which denotes counties with rising cases and percent positivity, the 17 red counties on Friday were distributed across the state.
“So there’s not one event, or even a handful of events. It seems like there’s just a lot of things happening in a lot of places,” Harris said.
Alabama’s rising numbers are mirrored in many states. The U.S. reported more than 71,600 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, nearing the country’s record highs, set in July.
Birmingham approves $1.3 million contract for real-time crime center technology
Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.
The Birmingham City Council approved a five-year, $1.3 million contract with Motorola this week to provide new technology for the police department’s real-time crime center amid unease and public concern over the potential use of facial recognition software within the new systems.
Mayor Randall Woodfin insisted in his remarks made before the council that the new technology is meant to integrate existing hardware and technology inside the real-time crime center. “You’re not buying any additional new equipment,” he said, “You’re buying something to integrate all those systems.”
The software suite includes Motorola Solutions’s CommandCentral Aware, a system that aggregates video, image and other data information into one interface, and BriefCam, a “video synopsis” system that will further integrate and analyze information from Birmingham’s ShotSpotter systems, public cameras and police body cameras.
Briefcam offers facial recognition capabilities, which was the main concern of community members speaking before the council, and the risk that use of the technology could disproportionately affect Black people. Facial recognition technology has a record of racial bias and misidentifies Black people at rates five to 10 times higher than white people.
“Despite assurances that there will not be facial recognition implemented at this phase that does not prevent it from being implemented in the future,” said Joseph Baker, Founder of I Believe in Birmingham and one of the Birmingham residents voicing concern on the proposal. “I believe that this software, if fully implemented, can easily lead to violations of unreasonable searches.”
Another resident who spoke against the resolution was Byron Lagrone, director of engineering at medical software solutions company Abel Healthcare Enterprises. Lagrone pointed to IBM and Amazon as examples of companies that have halted or abandoned facial recognition and object tracking software altogether over racial bias concerns.
“The prevailing attitude, among technical people is this technology is not effective, and it causes high amounts of harm for next to no gain,” Lagrone said.
Woodfin repeated that facial recognition capabilities will not be used in accordance with the contract.
“It’s explicit in this contract that facial recognition will not be used,” Woodfin said, “[If] facial recognition wants to be used in the future of this city. It would have to be approved by this body. … The mayor’s office or the police department doesn’t have unilateral power to use facial recognition. That is not part of what our contractual relationship is with Motorola.”
Woodfin also clarified that the total $1.3 million price of the contract will not be paid as a lump sum but spread out over the five-year commitment.
The city council voted 8 to 1 to approve the contract, with District 8 Councilman Steven Hoyt speaking in favor of the use of facial recognition capabilities.
“You can’t say, ‘I’m going to build a house but I’m not going to use the restroom,’” Hoyt said. “If it’s in the house, you’re going to use the restroom. … If it has the capability of facial recognition, guess what’s going to happen? You’re going to use it. I’m going to vote for it because I know we’ve got to have every tool we can garner to fight crime, because it’s out of hand.”
Hoyt also suggested a review of the information collected by the new system apparatus.
“I do think, for the public’s sake, we need to have some way we review that and see how it’s being used,” Hoyt said. “We need that to go along with this.”
District 3 Councilwoman Valerie A. Abbott — who said she was the victim of a burglary the day before the vote — echoed the mayor’s insistence that the facial recognition capabilities would not be deployed unless authorized by the city council, reading a letter from Motorola stating “in order to enable facial recognition, Motorola will require an addendum or change order to the contract,” which would have to come before a public meeting of the city council.
“I too would not want facial recognition,” Abbot said, “I’m voting in favor of this because the majority of my constituents are telling me they want more and better policing, capture of criminals, prevention of crime.”
District 5 Councilman Darrell O’Quinn was the lone no vote among the near-unanimous city council, stating that he had “some reservations about how we’re doing this and will vote my conscience.” Later, O’Quinn was quoted in BirminghamWatch, saying his vote reflected his concerns about “taking on a new debt obligation in the midst of a projected $63 million shortfall in revenue.”
Opinion | Doug Jones’s pathway to victory: Substance over lies
Jones said his work in the Senate should prove to the people of the state that party matters less than productivity.
Alabama Sen. Doug Jones believes voters will ultimately see through Tommy Tuberville’s lazy campaign and lies, and that enough of them will be moved by his work over the last two years to send him back to D.C.
Jones’ comments came during a lengthy interview on the Alabama Politics This Week podcast. He also discussed his plans to address some of Alabama’s most pressing issues and also praised Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican.
But it was Jones’ comments about Alabama voters — and whether too many of them are incapable of moving away from the Republican Party — that were most interesting. Jones still believes there are open-minded voters in the state, and that there isn’t enough attention being paid to polls showing a growing dissatisfaction in Alabama with President Donald Trump.
“There are a number of things that Donald Trump has done that people (in Alabama) don’t agree with,” Jones said. “There are a number of things that he’s done that’s hurt Alabama and that they’re not OK with. That’s where I come in.”
Jones said his work in the Senate, where he’s sponsored the most bipartisan legislation over the last two years, should prove to the people of the state that party matters less than productivity.
“I tell everyone, you owe it to yourself to look at every candidate and every issue,” Jones said. “I do that. I’ve been a Democrat all my life but I don’t think that I have ever pulled a straight lever. Because I look at every issue. I will tell you that there have been times that I didn’t vote for people who are Democrats for whatever reason — I just couldn’t do it. I think we owe it to ourselves to do that.”
Jones had the perfect example to drive the point home.
“Y’all all know our state auditor, Jim Zeigler? Jim wasn’t always a Republican. Jim’s first runs for office were as a Democrat.
“I rest my case.”
You can listen to the full interview at the Alabama Politics This Week website, or you can subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.
New unemployment claims decreased last week
Fewer people joined the unemployment rolls last week compared to the week before.
There were 7,964 new unemployment claims filed in Alabama last week, down from 8,581 filed the previous week, according to the Alabama Department of Labor.
Of the claims filed between Oct. 11 and Oct. 17, there were 4,032 related to the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s 51 percent, compared to 36 percent the previous week.