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Jones introduces bipartisan bill to expand debt reorganization tools for farmers

Brandon Moseley

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Thursday, U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, and colleagues introduced the bipartisan Family Farmer Relief Act of 2019 to help family farms reorganize after falling on hard times as bankruptcy rates among American farmers near record highs.

“We need to do everything we can to help Alabama farmers succeed, especially at a time when the business of farming is becoming increasingly difficult,” Jones said. “Our farmers are struggling with a debt crisis the likes of which we haven’t seen in almost 40 years, and that’s why I support expanding access to Chapter 12 bankruptcy.”

Recognizing the specific challenges that family farmers and fishers face, Congress established Chapter 12 of the U.S. bankruptcy code, which removes certain costly reorganization requirements intended for large corporations. The Family Farmer Relief Act of 2019 raises the Chapter 12 operating debt cap to $10 million, allowing more family farmers to seek relief under the program.

The Family Farmer Relief Act of 2019 (S.897) is led by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and cosponsored by Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Tina Smith, D-Minnesota.

“For family farms whose assets are largely tied up in land and essential equipment, reorganizing debts can be particularly challenging when falling on hard times,” Grassley said. “As low commodity prices force farmers to take on more debt, this bill guarantees a safety net is in place for more farmers who need help getting back on their feet. By providing relief to these small-to-mid-size farms, we can ensure more successful reorganizations, which will be beneficial for everyone involved in the supply chain, while avoiding mass liquidations and further consolidation in the largest sectors of the industry.”

“Family farmers are essential to the fabric of local communities across the country,” Klobuchar said. “But changes in the farm economy have put small family farms under increasing financial pressure, and they need bankruptcy laws that are up to date. We must support our farmers when times are tough. This bipartisan, commonsense legislation would give struggling farming families the opportunity to keep their farms, reorganize their businesses and repay their debts. These reforms aren’t just good for farmers, they are good for small towns and rural areas throughout our country.”

“For a host of reasons, farm bankruptcies have increased,” Johnson said. “Current policies don’t accurately reflect the increased cost of running a farm in today’s day and age. This legislation is designed to help keep more of Wisconsin’s family farms operating by allowing them access to a streamlined path to reorganization to get through tough times.”

The farm economy has been hit with several years of low commodity prices, stringent farm lending regulations and recent retaliatory tariffs.

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Farm bankruptcy rates in many farming regions across the country are at their highest point in a decade. In some places in 2018, farm bankruptcies doubled from previous years. Debts held by farmers are nearing historic levels set in the 1980s, further financially extending farm operations. China and other countries have retaliated to Trump administration tariffs by buying their farm products from other countries, like Brazil. This has hurt already low farm commodity prices.

The Family Farmer Relief Act of 2019 is supported by the National Farm Bureau.

“Our farmer members have experienced several consecutive years of weak commodity prices and the low profitability and poor farm income that follow,” said American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall. “As a result, farmers and ranchers are watching their equity erode as their debt-to-asset ratios climb and debt financing reaches a 30-year high. The double-whammy of nominal record farm debt and poor economic conditions have led many farmers to seek Chapter 12 bankruptcy as a debt relief and restructuring option. Lifting the liability cap and giving more farmers an opportunity to qualify for Chapter 12 bankruptcy provides the restructuring and seasonal repayment flexibility that many farmers need in today’s lagging farm economy and will help to align bankruptcy law with the scale and credit needs of U.S. agriculture.”

The average age of American farmers is 58.3. Poor commodity prices, increasing debts and low profit margins make it increasingly difficult for young people to take over their family farms and extremely difficult for somebody new to break into farming. The average American farm is 444 acres.

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Economy

More than 70,000 people filed unemployment claims in Alabama last week

Chip Brownlee

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More than 70,000 people filed a jobless claim to receive unemployment compensation last week, the Alabama Department of Labor says. That number is about eight-times the number of claims filed the week before when layoffs began hitting the state.

Alabama Department of Labor spokesperson Tara Hutchison said Monday that some 74,056 people filed an initial jobless claim during the week that ended March 28, according to the department’s preliminary data.

More than 40,000 filed during the first four days of the week last week, with the number jumping past 70,000 by the end of the week.

About 9,500 people filed initial claims during the week ending March 21, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s data published last week. That was also a seven-fold increase compared to the week that ended March 14.

The number of people who filed a jobless claim last week is far more than at any point since at least 1987. The U.S. Department of Labor’s weekly unemployment claims data only goes back to 1987 for Alabama.

The Alabama Hospitality Association has estimated that some 225,000 hotel and restaurant workers will be laid off during the COVID-19 crisis.

The Economic Policy Institute’s conservative projections have estimated that nearly 200,000 people could lose their jobs in Alabama.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported on Friday that more than 3.28 million people across the country filed unemployment claims during the week ending March 21. That shattered the Great Recession’s peak of 665,000 in March of 2009, according to CNBC.

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In Alabama, you can apply for unemployment by phone or online. There have been issues with people having trouble getting through on the telephone system.

So many unemployment claims have been filed since businesses began laying off people because of the COVID-19 pandemic that the Department of Labor has been having trouble accepting and processing the filings.

WSFA reported this week that some people have not been able to file.

To help alleviate the strain, the state has waived fees that are typically charged when an employer files for their employees.

To be eligible to file for unemployment insurance related to a COVID-19 layoff or firing, you must meet one of the following requirements:

  • Those who are quarantined by a medical professional or a government agency,
  • Those who are laid off or sent home without pay for an extended period by their employer due to COVID-19 concerns,
  • Those who are diagnosed with COVID-19,
  • Or, those who are caring for an immediate family member who is diagnosed with COVID-19.

Workers can file for benefits online at www.labor.alabama.gov or by calling 1-866-234-5382. Online filing is encouraged.

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Economy

UAH researchers and the world’s fastest supercomputer join the fight against the COVID-19 virus

Brandon Moseley

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More and more of Alabama’s brainpower is being redirected into fighting the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Dr. Jerome Baudry is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. Dr. Baudry and his lab are involved in a project that is using the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Summit supercomputer to examine compounds to fight the virus that has already killed 34,807 people as of early Monday morning.

The compounds under review include drugs already available with safe profiles, as well as natural products. Compounds identified as possible future drugs will also be studied.

“We are at this point focusing on repurposing existing drugs,” Dr. Baudry said. “That is, to take existing drugs from the shelf and find which ones are active against either the virus itself or can help in treating or mitigating the effects of infection in the severe cases.”

Dr. Baudry said that about 30 researchers are involved in the project, and are working around the clock. The group is studying how the virus ticks, including how it expresses proteins, for clues on how to defeat it.

“We can use high performance computers and supercomputers to look at the entire genome of the virus, see everything the virus’ genome is making and build computational models of all these proteins, and repeat the repurposing process for each of these proteins,” Dr. Baudry said.

Scientists in the group are starting with some proteins on the surface of the virus in an attempt to prevent it from infecting human cells.

“We are also looking at some of the proteins that allow the virus to replicate itself when it is inside the human cell in order to block this process, a bit like for many anti-AIDS drugs,” Dr. Baudry explained. “But we will expand to pretty much everything in the virus’ genome that can be targeted by a drug.”

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Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s 200 petaflop supercomputer allows researchers unprecedented access to solving this and some of the world’s other most pressing challenges.

Researchers have a databases about virtually all existing drugs, natural products or molecules that may not have been tested yet as drugs. There are thousands of them. Then they build virtual models of these compounds using the laws of physics and chemistry to calculate their composition and arrive at a very detailed computational description.

“Then we look at the virus’ genome,” Dr. Baudry said. “We have to build models for all the virus’ proteins, again describing all the atoms, their properties, how they move together, etc.”

The supercomputers then compute how the atoms of a possible drug will interact with the atoms of the virus’ proteins.

“It’s like doing a test tube experiment to see if a possible drug will bind to the protein, except that we perform this in a virtual test tube using our computers,” Baudry explained.

Economic developer Dr. Nicole Jones explained to the Alabama Political Reporter, “Researchers across Alabama are working around the clock to assess potential treatment for the novel COVID-19. The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) and Dr. Baudry are using technology, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Summit supercomputer, to examine compounds from safe, existing drugs as well as natural products. Repurposing existing drugs is a strategy that can expedite the process if a potential cure or treatment is found. The drugs are already on the shelf, why not test them to see if they can be useful? The high performance computers and supercomputers allow researchers to examine the entire genome of the virus and how it reacts. UAH’s latest announcement is another example of the brainpower we have in Alabama and our state’s commitment to combating this pandemic.”

UAB, Southern Research Institute, Hudson Alpha, and Alabama biotech firms are also working on finding drugs that will treat COVID-19 as well as hoping to develop a vaccine to prevent it.

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Economy

Alabama Credit Unions announce policy on coronavirus

Brandon Moseley

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The Alabama Credit Association says that Alabama’s credit unions have been working diligently to meet the financial needs of the states’ families and businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.

“On behalf of our credit union members, we want to share the following important information with you,” the Alabama Credit Union Association said in a statement.

The association said financial institutions are prepared and able to be a source of strength for the communities they serve, and money is safe in National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insured financial institutions.

“Not a penny of deposits insured by NCUA has ever been lost,” the ACUA assured depositors. “The safest place for our money is in an insured depository institution. Up to $250,000 is the basic amount covered by federal insurance for single amounts at any insured institution. Additional coverage may be available depending on the account type and structure.”

Greg McClellan is the administrator of the Alabama Credit Union Administration.

“The Alabama Credit Union Administration is continually communicating with credit unions to offer assistance during this pandemic,” said McClellan. “Credit unions are insured by the NCUA up to $250,000. Credit unions we have been in contact with have been striving to provide excellent service to their members, and we continue to provide assistance to them.”

State Rep. Chris Blackshear, R-Phenix City, is the chairman of the Alabama State Committee on Financial Institutions.

“In these uncertain times, it is great to see the Alabama Credit Union Association and their member credit unions stepping up to ensure Alabamans that their money is safe and secure,” Blackshear said. “I also want to thank all of Alabama’s credit unions for stepping up to help their members and communities as we adjust to the new normal in our great state.”

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Patrick La Pine is the CEO of the League of Southeastern Credit Unions.

“Alabama’s credit unions remain open and ready to serve their members during this difficult time,” said CEO La Pine. “Credit unions are integral parts of their communities – and they understand the challenges their members face. During this trying time, Alabama credit unions will continue to do what they’ve always done: help consumers, families, businesses and communities through their challenges. Credit unions are also doing everything possible to make sure their teams are safe while still offering personalized service.”

“As always, in Alabama, we pull together, we do the right things for the right reasons and we come out stronger at the end,” said State Senator Tom Whatley, R-Auburn. “Our credit unions are no exception. They understand what difficulties may lie ahead for their members, our constituents and they’re helping now, not later before it’s too late.”

“Many people across the state of Alabama rely on credit unions to handle their financial needs, and they should continue to feel confident in investing their money in NCAU-insured and backed credit unions during the COVID-19 pandemic,” explained Rep. Jeremy Gray, D-Opelika. “Credit unions across the state are taking every proactive measure they can, in conjunction with the League of Southeastern Credit Unions and the Alabama Credit Union Association, to ensure they can meet the needs of all of their current and new members.”

More information on NCUA insurance coverage is available here.

The ACUA said that consumers and businesses should know “credit unions are working proactively with borrowers experiencing challenges in the current environment.”

“Each credit union is eager to work with you for a solution customized to your situation,” the association said. “Financial institutions have responded positively to all Gov. Kay Ivey’s and President Donald Trump’s directives. Furthermore, business continuity plans were already in place and are being exercised.”

The ACUA added, “Lobby access may be restricted at certain credit unions, but we’re open for business.” For more information about your institution, check your financial institution’s webpage or LSCU’s list of CU changes. “Drive-through service, when available at a branch, is open for transactions.”

Individual appointments for in-person meetings are being scheduled; while technology platforms give ready access to online services like bill pay, remote depositing of checks and ATMs for cash. You can also take advantage of the United States’ world-class payments system and use mobile payment channels and debit cards or credit cards to make purchases.

Many criminals are using the coronavirus to scam consumers. Be on guard for potential scams.

The Alabama Credit Union Association is an affiliate of the League of Southeastern Credit Unions and represents credit unions in Alabama. The LSCU & Affiliates represents 333 credit unions in Alabama, Florida and Georgia, with a combined total assets of more than $120 billion and more than 10.3 million members. The LSCU provides advocacy and regulatory information; education and training; cooperative initiatives (including financial education outreach).

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Economy

Alabama jobless claims soar past 40,000 this week, breaking records

Chip Brownlee

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More than 40,000 people filed a jobless claim to receive unemployment compensation in the first four days of this week, the Alabama Department of Labor says, more than quadrupling the number of claims filed last week when layoffs began hitting the state.

Alabama Department of Labor spokesperson, Tara Hutchison, said Thursday that 40,628 people filed an initial jobless claim from Sunday to Wednesday, according to the department’s preliminary data.

About 9,500 people filed initial claims last week, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s data published this morning. That was a seven-fold increase compared to the week before when only 1,800 people filed an unemployment claim.

The number of people who filed a jobless claim in the first four days of this week is more than at any point since at least 1987. The U.S. Department of Labor’s weekly unemployment claims data only goes back to 1987 for Alabama.

So many unemployment claims have been filed since businesses began laying off people because of the COVID-19 pandemic that the Department of Labor has been having increasing trouble accepting and processing the filings. WSFA reported this week that some people have not been able to file.

The Alabama Hospitality Association has estimated that some 225,000 hotel and restaurant workers will be laid off during COVID-19 crisis.

The Economic Policy Institute’s conservative projections have estimated that nearly 200,000 people could lose their jobs in Alabama.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported Thursday that more than 3.28 million people across the country filed unemployment claims last week. That shattered the Great Recession’s peak of 665,000 in March of 2009, according to CNBC.

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Alabama’s total from the first three days of this week, which were not included in the U.S. Department of Labor’s numbers released today, are more than the entire month of March of 2009.

This story will be updated.

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