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Farm Bill passes Senate

Brandon Moseley

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U.S. Senator Doug Jones, D-Alabama, announced that the Senate approved his bipartisan Rural Health Liaison Act, the first original legislation he introduced in the Senate, as a part of the Farm Bill package.

Jones’ office said that communities across Alabama stand to benefit from increased federal support as part of the Farm Bill that passed in the Senate this afternoon.

The Farm Bill is passed every five years and sets ag policy for half a decade (or more). The legislation is a comprehensive bill that encompasses a wide range of issues from commodity price supports and rural development to agricultural conservation and food assistance. The version that passed in the Senate today provides protections for Alabama’s farmers as well as critical support for key Alabama issues such as health care, sewage infrastructure, and broadband.

“Farming is a risky venture. Bad market conditions or natural disasters could devastate the livelihood of Alabama’s farmers in any moment,” Senator Jones said. “This Farm Bill offers important protections and safety nets to ensure our farmers are covered. Throughout this process, I have advocated to protect our cotton, peanut, and soybean producers among all the other important commodities our state produces. I will continue to do so as the bill moves to a conference report. I’m also proud to have worked with my colleagues to include my first original legislation in the Farm Bill text to improve rural health care delivery, in addition to addressing several critical needs for the state of Alabama like expanding access to high-speed internet and combatting our sewage system crisis.”

The Senate-approved Farm Bill also includes several specific provisions championed by Senator Jones for Alabama’s rural communities, including:

Health Care – The Rural Health Liaison Act (S. 2894): establishes a rural health liaison at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to better coordinate federal resources and expand health care access to Americans who have for too long struggled to receive quality, affordable care in their own communities. Senator Jones introduced this bipartisan legislation last month with Senator Mike Rounds, R-SD, and Tina Smith, D-Minnesota.

Sewage Infrastructure – The Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act (S.2772): expands the USDA’s Household Water Well System Grant Program to provide grants of up to $15,000 to low- and moderate-income households in rural areas for installing or maintaining individually-owned decentralized wastewater systems. Senator Jones was an original cosponsor of this bipartisan legislation introduced by Senator Cory Booker, D-NJ, to help address the rural sewage system crisis facing Alabama and other states. Senator Jones has visited impacted Alabama residents in Lowndes County and recently co-hosted a public health fair in Hayneville, Alabama with Congresswoman Terri Sewell (D-Selma) to provide information and other resources to the community.

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Broadband – The Broadband Connections for Rural Opportunities Program Act (S. 1676): increases the authorization from $25 million to $150 million annually for the USDA to provide loans and loan guarantees for broadband services in rural communities. Senator Jones cosponsored this legislation led by Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, and Shelley Moore Capito, R-WV.

The Community Connect Grant Program Act (S. 2654): authorizes $50 million annually for the USDA Community Connect Program, which provides broadband grants targeted to the most rural, unserved, and high-poverty communities in the country. The program expands high-speed internet by providing new grants that will connect unserved households and businesses with modern internet access and streamlines broadband application process. Senator Jones cosponsored this legislation led by Senator Tina Smith, D-Minnesota.

Farmers and Ranchers – The Fair Access for Farmers and Ranchers Act (S. 3117): requires the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) to provide farm numbers to farmers with certain documentation, including in concert with Uniform Partition of Heirs’ Property Laws in some states. The bill also authorizes FSA to make loans to qualified intermediaries to re-lend to families seeking to resolve heirs’ property issues. Senator Jones introduced this legislation with Senator Tim Scott (R-S.C.) to ensure that farmers of color don’t face unnecessary obstacles to use inherited land and to help them preserve this important source of wealth for future generations.

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The Assist Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Act (S.2839) and the Next Generation in Agriculture Act (S. 2762): these two bills were combined to create permanent, mandatory baseline funding to educate the next generation of farmers and reach more minority farmers. Senator Jones was an original cosponsor of both bills.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement on the Senate passage of the 2018 Farm Bill:

“The bipartisan Farm Bill passed today by the Senate, with my support, gives American farmers a number of victories,” Sen. Grassley said. “It will help fund programs that promote American agricultural products abroad to increase exports, makes sensible reforms to the Conservation Reserve Program and preserves crop insurance, which farmers in Iowa and throughout the country depend on. It also includes an amendment I introduced that will set sound, enforceable limits to farm safety net payments, closing loopholes that exploit the intent of farm programs by allowing some non-farmers to game the system and take resources away from real, working farmers. I believe that farm programs should provide temporary, limited assistance to farmers when there’s a natural disaster or an unforeseeable, sudden change in market prices, not unlimited subsidies. I’ve advocated for payment limit reforms for more than a decade and I’m pleased with the amendment’s adoption.”

“Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts and Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow have worked hard on this bipartisan bill,” Grassley added. “I applaud their efforts and look forward to passing a final bill that will give farmers and American agriculture the safety net it needs to feed the people of this country and the world.”

“Senators Shelby and Jones should be commended for their support of Alabama farmers. With the national farm economy struggling, getting a farm bill done on time is critical,” said Alabama Farmers Federation (ALFA) Director of National Legislative Programs Mitt Walker. “Today’s vote keeps the finish line in sight and provides an opportunity to conference the bill with the legislation approved by the House last week.”

An amendment was brought by Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Cory Booker, D-NJ. Walker said it would have imposed overly restrictive changes to the oversight of producer-funded checkoff programs. The amendment was strongly opposed by the Alabama Farmers Federation. It failed by a vote of 38-57. Both Alabama senators voted against the measure.

The House had already passed its version of the Farm Bill. The two bills are very different. The House bill includes work requirements for SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) and other conservative priorities. The Senate bill is bipartisan with support from both parties. Both Houses are expected to vote to send the farm bill to a conference committee. It is expected that there will be a vote on a final version of the farm bill before the end of the year.

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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Alabama Lt. Governor Will Ainsworth tests positive for COVID-19

Ainsworth is the only state constitutional officer in Alabama known to have contracted the coronavirus to this point in the public health crisis.

Brandon Moseley

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Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth speaks during a video message. (LT. GOV.'S OFFICE)

Lt. Governor Will Ainsworth on Wednesday said that he has tested positive for COVID-19.

“After being notified this afternoon that a member of my Sunday school church group had acquired the coronavirus, I was tested out of an abundance of caution and received notice that the results proved positive,” Ainsworth said in a statement. “Because I follow social distancing rules and wear a mask both in church and in my daily interactions, the positive result shows that even those of us who are the most cautious can be at risk.”

“State Public Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris has been informed about the results, and my office is taking the necessary steps,” Ainsworth said. “Though no symptoms have yet appeared, I will quarantine for the appropriate period and seek follow-up tests to ensure the virus has run its course before resuming public activities.”

“I appreciate the words of support that have already begun to be extended and am thankful for the prayers that are being offered for my recovery,” Ainsworth said.

To this point 174,528 Alabamians have tested positive for the novel strain of the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, including 1,043 on Tuesday. At least 859 Alabamians were hospitalized on Tuesday with COVID-19, and 1,265,575 tests have been given across the state since March. Some 74,238 Alabamians have recovered from their illness, and 2,805 Alabamians have died from the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Ainsworth is the only state constitutional officer in Alabama known to have contracted the coronavirus to this point in the public health crisis.

The state remains under a “safer-at-home” order, including a mask mandate, through Nov. 8. That is likely to be extended into December given the recent uptake in coronavirus cases. Citizens are urged to continue social distancing, wear their masks, wash hands and avoid shaking hands and hugging.

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Elections

Congressional candidate James Averhart endorsed by list of U.S. dignitaries, retired military leaders

The 1st Congressional District Democratic candidate has been endorsed by a list of retired U.S. dignitaries and retired military leaders, his campaign said Wednesday. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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Congressional candidate James Averhart

James Averhart, the Democratic candidate in Alabama’s 1st Congressional District and a retired U.S. Marine, has been endorsed by a list of retired U.S. dignitaries and retired military leaders, his campaign said Wednesday.

“James Averhart is an integral leader — a man of principles and a patriot. He is the best choice to represent District One on The Hill,” said Ambassador Theodore Britton, a World War II Veteran who was nominated by President Gerald Ford to serve as U.S. ambassador to the island nations of Barbados and Grenada.

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. General Walter E. Gaskin, who served as commanding general of the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, said Averhart is experienced in matters of government and policy and understands the lay of the land in Washington D.C.

“He will be ready to hit the ground running to get things done for the district, and moreover, be that bridge to unite the parties in Congress as well as the nation,” Gaskin said in a statement.

“James Averhart is a strong dynamic leader who will get the job done. He is meticulous and a consummate professional that will advocate and work for all citizens of our district and Alabama,” said Ambassador J. Gary Cooper, a retired Marine Corps major general who was nominated by President George H.W. Bush to serve as assistant secretary of the Air Force, Manpower and Reserve Affairs, and was nominated by President Bill Clinton to serve as U.S. ambassador to Jamaica.

“At a time when it seems that the Republican leadership is in lockstep with a president, who considers those in service to our great nation to be ‘suckers’ and ‘losers,’ is antithetical to what this country needs. We have over 30,000 citizens hospitalized and over 211,000 deaths due to coronavirus, which could have been prevented with sound, methodical leadership. We have been disappointed by this President and the Republican leadership standing with him. It is time for substantive change in our Nation’s Capital,” Averhart said.

“The American citizenry deserves and expects more of its leadership. We should no longer settle for those who continue to promulgate untruths and spew divisive rhetoric. We deserve leadership who will extol the truth and hold in high regard a united nation,” Averhart said.

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Avergart’s Republican opponent in the Nov. 3 election is Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl.

The following are a list of Averhart’s endorsements, according to his campaign:

Ambassador Theodore Britton

  • Nominated by President Gerald Ford to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the island nations of Barbados and Grenada
  • Served as the U.S. Special Representative to West Indian island nations of Antigua, Dominica, St. Christopher, Nevis, Anguilla, St. Vincent, and St. Lucia
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Ambassador J. Gary Cooper 

  • Vietnam Veteran and Retired U.S. Marine Corps Major General
  • Nominated by President Bill Clinton to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica.
  • Nominated by President George H.W. Bush to serve as Asst Secretary of the Air Force, Manpower and Reserve Affairs.

Lieutenant General Ronald L. Bailey

  • First African American to command the 1st • U.S. Marine Division
  • Served as Deputy Commandant for Plans, Policies and Operations, U.S. Marine Corps.
  • Retired in 2017 following 41 years of service.

Lieutenant General Walter E. Gaskin

  • Served as Commanding General of the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, NC Served as Commanding General, Marine Corps Recruiting Command, Quantico, Virginia
  • Served as Chief of Staff, Naval Striking and Support Forces-Southern Europe
  • Served as Deputy Commanding General, Fleet Marine Forces-Europe in Naples, Italy

Major General Cornell A. Wilson, Jr.

  • Served as Director, Reserve Affairs Division, Manpower and Reserve Affairs – Headquarters, U.S. MArine Corps, Quantico, Virginia.
  • Appointed by Gov. Pat McCrory, NC, to the position of Secretary of Military and Veterans Affairs.

Lieutenant General Willie J. Williams

  • Served as Director of the Marine Corp Staff
  • Retired in 2013 after serving 39 years in the U.S. Marine Corp.

Brigadier General John R. Thomas

  • Served as Director for Command, Control, Communications and Computers, U.S. Marine Corps.
  • Served as Director and Chief Information Officer, U.S. Marine Corp.

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Infrastructure

Alabama’s Black Belt lacks quality internet access, report finds

Twenty-two of 24 Black Belt counties are below the statewide average of 86 percent of the population who have access to high-speed internet, and two Black Belt Counties — Perry and Chocktaw — have no access at all. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

During an online video briefing Monday on a report about a lack of internet access in Alabama’s Black Belt, University of Alabama student Brad Glover warned reporters that he could get kicked off the briefing at any moment. 

That’s because he was talking during the video briefing by way of audio only, using his cell phone, as he does not have access to high-speed internet access at his Linden, Alabama, home in the Black Belt’s Marengo County. 

The COVID-19 pandemic that sent students home to study online left many in the Black Belt and other rural parts of Alabama in the lurch, without access to the high-speed internet enjoyed by so many other Americans, according to the latest report in the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center’s Black Belt 2020 series. 

The latest report, titled “Internet Access Disparities in Alabama & the Black Belt,” found that 22 of 24 Black Belt counties, as defined by the Education Policy Center, are below the statewide average of 86 percent of the population who have access to high-speed internet, and two Black Belt Counties — Perry and Chocktaw — have no access at all. 

“It is still a terrible struggle for me to connect to get the things done that are required,” said Glover, who interned with the Education Policy Center. 

Stephen Katsinas, director of the Education Policy Center, said that in the 1930s, nine of ten rural homes lacked the electric service that urban American homes, by that point, had for 40 years. 

“The Rural Electrification Act was passed to address this abject market failure,” Katsinas said. “Today, as the COVID pandemic has shown, access to high-speed internet is as essential to rural Alabama as the REA was in the 1930s. Alabama must directly address the market failures that exist today to bring high-speech internet to every rural Alabamian, so that our rural workforce can access the lifelong learning skills they need, and our rural businesses can compete globally.” 

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The COVID-19 pandemic has also spotlighted the need to expand the growing area of telemedicine. 

Dr. Eric Wallace, medical director of Telehealth at UAB, told reporters during the briefing Monday that patients are largely doing telehealth from their homes, and explained that disparities in access to high-speed internet present a problem for them. 

“Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, UAB has done approximately 230,000 telehealth visits, and 60 percent of those were done by video,” Wallace said. 

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“Forty percent are audio only, and why is audio only? It’s because we do not have broadband,” Wallace said. “So it’s not just broadband. It’s broadband. It’s tech literacy. Socioeconomics, to have a device in your home. It’s all of that.”

Wallace said that the coronavirus crisis has made clear that telemedicine is a “100 percent necessity” and that patient satisfaction studies make clear it’s not going anywhere. 

The reasons for disparities in access to high-speed internet are myriad, explained Noel Keeney, one of the authors of the report and a graduate research assistant at the Education Policy Center. 

Keeney noted a study by BroadbandNow that estimates there are 154 internet providers in Alabama, but there are 226,000 Alabamians living in counties without a single provider, and 632,000 in counties with just a single provider. 

Even for those with access to internet providers, Keeney said that just approximately 44.4 percent of Alabamians have internet access at a cost of $60 monthly or below. 

“If we really care about our rural areas, we need to make an investment, and it needs to cut off that cost at a very low rate,” Wallace said. 

Katsnias said there’s a growing consensus on the part of Alabama’s political leaders that access to high-speed internet is an important issue, noting that Gov. Kay Ivey in March 2018, signed into law the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act, which has given internet access to nearly 100,000 Alabama students. 

“In March, Gov. Ivey awarded $9.5 million in broadband expansion grants, with a significant amount going to Black Belt communities,” the report reads. “This was followed by $5.1 million in additional grants in May.” 

“The State of Alabama also allocated $100 million in federal CARES Act-related dollars for “equipment and service for broadband, wireless hot spots, satellite, fixed wireless, DSL, and cellular-on-wheels to increase access for K-12 students undergoing distance learning,” the report continues. 

An additional $100 million in CARES Act funds were made available to facilitate virtual learning across Alabama’s K-12 schools, researchers wrote in the report, and another $72 million in federal aid went to the state’s colleges and universities. 

Katsinas said however those federal funds are spent, the state still needs a long term plan for how to address the disparities in access to high-speed internet. 

“We need a long term plan and we need to do what we can do immediately,” Katsinas said

Read more of the Education Policy Center’s reports in the “Black Belt 2020” series here.

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Economy

Governor announces auto supplier IAC plans Alabama expansion

IAC is committing $34.3 million in new capital investment to expand its new manufacturing facility located in Tuscaloosa County.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Gov. Kay Ivey announced Monday that International Automotive Components Group North America Inc. plans to invest over $55.9 million in expansion projects that will create 182 jobs at two Alabama facilities.

“International Automotive Components is a leading global auto supplier, and I am pleased that this world-class company is growing significantly in Alabama and creating good jobs in Cottondale and Anniston,” Ivey said. “IAC’s growth plans show that Alabama’s dynamic auto industry continues to expand despite today’s challenging environment.”

Nick Skwiat is the executive vice president and president of IAC North America.

“Alabama was the logical choice due to its skilled workforce and proximity to the customer,” Skwiat said. “We are excited to see the continued growth of the automotive industry in Alabama and we plan to grow right along with it. We thank the Governor and Secretary Canfield for their leadership in this sector.”

IAC is committing $34.3 million in new capital investment to expand its new manufacturing facility located in Tuscaloosa County. This facility will produce door panels and overhead systems for original equipment manufacturers. That project will create 119 jobs at the production site in Cottondale.

IAC also plans to invest $21.6 million at its manufacturing facility located in the former Fort McClellan in Anniston. That East Alabama project will create another 63 jobs.

This project builds on a milestone 2014 expansion that doubled the size of the Calhoun County facility. There IAC manufactures automotive interior components and systems. Key components produced at the Anniston plant include door panels, trim systems and instrument panels for original equipment manufacturers.

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IAC Group is a leading global supplier of innovative and sustainable instrument panels, consoles, door panels, overhead systems, bumper fascias and exterior ornamentation for original equipment manufacturers.

IAC is headquartered in Luxembourg and has more than 18,000 employees at 67 locations in 17 countries. The company operates manufacturing facilities in eight U.S. states.

“With operations around the globe, IAC is the kind of high-performance company that we want in Alabama’s auto supply chain to help fuel sustainable growth,” said Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield. “We look forward to working with IAC and facilitating its future growth in this strategic industrial sector.”

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Danielle Winningham is the executive director of the Tuscaloosa County Industrial Development Authority.

“International Automotive Components is a valued part of Tuscaloosa County’s automotive sector,” Winningham said. “We are grateful for IAC’s investment in our community and the career opportunities available to our area workforce as a result of their investment.”

“The City of Anniston is excited that IAC has made the decision to expand here. I have enjoyed working with the leadership at IAC, the Calhoun County EDC, and the state of Alabama to get this project finalized,” said Anniston Mayor Jack Draper. “This is even further evidence that Anniston is indeed open for business.”

Only Michigan has more automobile manufacturing jobs than the state of Alabama. Honda, Mercedes, Hyundai, Polaris, Toyota and soon Mazda all have major automobile assembly plants in the state of Alabama.

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