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Economy

Heated public hearing held on controversial bingo bill in committee

Brandon Moseley

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The Local Legislation Committee held a well-attended public hearing Tuesday on a local bill dealing with Greene County.

HB545 would clarify that electronic bingo is legal in Greene County and would establish a five-member gaming commission to regulate the electronic bingo business in Greene County.

House Bill 545 is sponsored by State Rep. Artis “A.J.” McCampbell, D-Livingston.

The chairman of the House Local Legislation Committee is Alan Baker, R-Brewton.

McCampbell said Greene County passed C.A. 743 in 2003, which allowed charity bingo including electronic marking machines.

“Currently it is regulated by the sheriff of the county,” McCampbell said. “This creates a five-member gaming commission.”

It will also clarify that electronic bingo is legal in Greene County.

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Baker said the committee would not be taking action Tuesday. The public hearing was Tuesday, and the vote will be at a later time.

The Executive Director of Eagle Forum Becky Gerritson said that this legally opened the door to gambling in Alabama.

Gerritson said Greene County is a poor county and that gambling will only work because it “provides false hope to the poor.” It convinces them of the fantasy that “gaming their way out” is a solution to their problems. She said gambling hurts the local economy because it takes money out of the local economy and does not produces a good or service and flushes money down the drain.

Gerritson said people spend much more money on electronic devices than when they play bingo on paper cards.

Gerritson said 13 Alabama Supreme Court decisions have ruled repeatedly that bingo is a game played on a paper card, but some Greene County officials turn a blind eye to electronic bingo.

“Do not pass a favorable report,” Gerritson said.

Former Greene County Probate Judge Julia Burke Spree spoke in favor of the bill.

“I have lived in Greene County for 45 years,” Spree said. “I am married to a family that has been there for over 200 years. We are a bicentennial farm. Greene County needs a gaming commission. Five persons instead of one — our sheriff.”

“There is no transparency without a gaming commission,” Spree said. “We have a lot of crime in Greene County that needs to be looked in to.”

“We are part of the one of the poorest counties in Alabama,” said Forkland Mayor Charlie McAlpine. “According to the census, the population of Forkland is 600. There are 2,200 people in an extended community for five miles out. We receive a stipend each month from the Sheriff. Without this stipend, Forkland would not exist. It allows us to repair roads. We will start our own police force and municipal court. Because of the bingo we are able to not only pave our roads and police force but add a nutrition program for the elderly and disabled. This is not a local bill because we have not participated in a town hall.

Commissioner Allen Turner Jr. represents Greene County District 4. He said they will start construction on eight miles of roads, they have issued 125 scholarships for local kids to go to college and they have back to school programs, disabled and senior housing programs with the aid of Sheriff Jonathon Benison.

Luther Winn Jr., who represents Greenetrack, spoke in favor of the bill.

“We are not here to ask anybody to stop bingo,” Winn said. “Bingo has been going on in Greene County since 2003, and we hope that it continues. In 2003, the residents of Greene County were 66th in per capita income. We rose to 31 in 2007. Today, we are back to 66. Two county commissioners and a city councilman here today are running bingo facilities. We ask that this be passed so that a commission can be put in charge of gaming instead of one person and so that we can put Greene County back to where we were in 2007.”

The Alabama Political Reporter asked Representative McCampbell about Winn’s allegations later.

McCampbell said that he could not confirm anything about the ownership of bingo facilities.

Kerri Jones is the finance chairperson of Forkland.

“Because of the bingo initiative of Jonathon Benison, our hospital was in jeopardy that has now been saved,” Jones said. “When this began we had a hard time finding $5,000; now we have $500,000. If we passed this, it would eradicate CA743.”

“I do not support this bill because it takes away what the citizens of Greene County have already voted for,” said Greene County Commissioner Corey Cochrell for District 3.

“Altering things already in place does not show good faith,” Cochrell told the Committee. “From 2003 to 2007, this community was very limited.”

Since 2009, with Benison regulating bingo, things have been improving. Now all of a sudden it doesn’t work for him (Winn) so he want it gone.”

Greene County Sheriff Joe Benison said, “I am a retired state trooper with a great pension thanks to this legislature. I was appointed in 2010 by Governor Bob Riley (R). I was reelected in a landslide. I got elected to a second term. I got a third term and defeated four people.”

“I have done my work I am going to continue doing to my work,” Benison said. The bill is, “Unfair to the citizens of Greene County. Self interest needs to get out of it.”

Another speaker said that Greentrack and Winn “Owes the state $73 million.”

Forkland City Council member L. A. Carpenter said, “I am a former Sheriff’s Deputy working for Sheriff Joe Benison.” Passing this would cost Forkland over $400,000. That h as allowed us to pave many roads.

Chairman Baker said that since this is a gaming bill, should the bill advance; it would still have to pass another committee, possibly Economic Development and Tourisml but that is at the discretion of the Speaker.

McCampbell said under his bill two percent of the revenue would go to the state and ten percemt would be allocated to local sources. Some of it goes to the county commission, some to the hospital, some to E911. The bill maintains the intent of C.A. 743.

“We need that money allocated and accounted for,” McCampbell said. “My purpose is not to deal with the different facilities but to make sure that Greene County has a steady source of revenue.”

“The hospital has contacted me and others about getting just basic funding,” McCampbell said. “The hospital should not have a need given the amount of money flowing through the county.”

State Representative David Wheeler, R-Vestavia Hills, asked if the sheriff’s department would receive funding.

“We could negotiate on that,” McCampbell said. “I have no problem with the sheriff being a part of that committee. My belief is that one person should not have that much power. You can get to one person; but can’t get to a group of people. I have no problem with the sheriff being part of that.

The committee did not vote on whether to give the bill a favorable report or not.

In 2014, some of Greene County’s bingo parlors were raided by state authorities. They reportedly reopened after Benison said the businesses can resume operations. Then Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange and state police seized more than 1,300 gaming machines and nearly $117,000 from three bingo parlors in Greene County. The state claimed that the machines are illegal gambling devices and that electronic bingo is not bingo. The county and the bingo operators claim the machines are legal.

In 2017, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall filed a lawsuit. He said then that the Alabama Supreme Court “has made it abundantly clear that electronic bingo and the use of slot machines are illegal in all Alabama counties. It is the responsibility of the attorney general to ensure that Alabama’s laws are enforced, including those laws that prohibit illegal gambling.”

Whether or not electronic bingo is legal in Greene County, the practice has continued. HB545, if passed and ratified by the voters, would legally establish that electronic bingo is legal in the county, which has a population of just 8,330.

(Original reporting by the Tuscaloosa News contributed to this report.)

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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New unemployment claims held steady in June, state says

Micah Danney

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The number of Alabamians filing for unemployment insurance held more or less steady over the course of June, with 18,340 new claims added during the last week of the month, according to the Alabama Department of Labor.

There were 19,950 new claims in the first week of June and 18,367 in the second week, then a slight jump to 18,671 in the third week. 

The month’s total of 75,328 new claims comes after Gov. Kay Ivey relaxed some restrictions meant to slow the spread of COVID-19 and allowed more businesses to open. The numbers vary by industry and county, but generally represent some stabilization, according to department spokesperson Tara Hutchison.

“They remain significantly down from a high in excess of 100,000 in April, which is good news. I don’t know if we can really expect anything one way or another in this unprecedented situation, but the decline from early in the pandemic is of course welcome news,” Hutchison said.

About 60 percent of last week’s new claims were attributed to COVID-19. 

The state’s unemployment rate dropped from 13.8 percent in April to 9.9 percent in May. That compares to a rate of 3 percent in May 2019.

Jefferson County had the highest share of new claims last week at 2,626, followed by Mobile and Montgomery counties at 1,900 and 1,400, respectively.

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The worst-hit industries that are categorized were administrative and support services, food service and bars, transportation equipment manufacturing, general merchandise stores, nursing and residential care facilities and educational services. 

As of May, counties with the lowest unemployment rates are Clay County at 5.6 percent, Geneva County at 6.3 percent and Shelby County at 6.5 percent. 

Counties with the highest unemployment rates are Wilcox County at 19.3 percent, Lowndes County at 18.3 percent and Greene County at 16.4 percent.

Major cities with the lowest unemployment rates are Vestavia Hills at 5.2 percent, Homewood at 5.4 percent and Madison at 6.2 percent.  

Major cities with the highest unemployment rates are Prichard at 18.6 percent, Selma at 17.1 percent and Gadsden at 15.7 percent.

Wage and salary employment increased in May by 42,500, according to the department.

Average weekly earnings increased to a record high in May, rising to $905.25 per week, representing an increase of $66.43 over the year.

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Economy

Secretaries of State share joint statement on importance of USMCA launch

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Following the completion of the necessary measures to comply with commitments under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the Agreement officially enters into force today, July 1, 2020.

As Secretaries of State who oversee the business filings process in the respective states of Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Texas, and Wyoming, Secretaries John H. Merrill (Alabama), Paul D. Pate (Iowa), Michael G. Adams (Kentucky), Kyle Ardoin (Louisiana), Michael Watson (Mississippi), John R. Ashcroft (Missouri), Bob Evnen (Nebraska), Frank LaRose (Ohio), Ruth Hughs (Texas), and Edward A. Buchanan (Wyoming) recognize and appreciate firsthand the positive impact the USMCA will have on entrepreneurs across the country.

“Alabama’s international engagement fuels job growth and increases exports. The success of Alabama businesses depends on the participation and competitiveness of our global counterparts. Alabama totaled $6.6 billion in exports to Canada and Mexico in 2018, supporting families and businesses across the state” noted Alabama Secretary of State John H. Merrill. “I was delighted to join President Donald J. Trump in January of this year as he signed this mutually beneficial agreement, and I look forward to its future success.”

“The USMCA is a great opportunity for Iowa’s farmers, businesses and families. The launch of this agreement comes at a vital time for our country and will provide a much needed boost to our economy. Canada and Mexico bought $6.5 billion worth of goods from Iowa in 2018 and this deal ensures our partnerships with these neighbors will continue,” stated Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate.

“The USMCA entering into force is a great deal and a win for American and Louisiana workers. The USMCA will help support and grow our economy, boost small businesses, help our farmers, manufacturers, and workers, and ensure more Louisiana-made products can be sent internationally. Trade is important to Louisiana’s economy and this deal will help boost both,” stated Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin.

“During a time when the future of our economy seems nebulous, the USCMA creates a portal for modern opportunities and prosperous partnerships,” said Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson. “The enhanced agreement will undoubtedly revive businesses and help boost innovation in our state. I applaud President Trump’s leadership and dedication to ensuring a fair playing field for Mississippi farmers, ranchers, and entrepreneurs.”

“Missouri is grateful for this historic agreement, which will help Missouri agriculture and businesses grow with more jobs and increasing exports.  As our economy recovers, getting businesses and people back to work, this will help ensure success for large and small businesses who compete and form partnerships with our neighbors.  We stand ready to assist our entrepreneurs and businesses,” replied Missouri Secretary of State John R. Ashcroft.

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Nebraska Secretary of State Bob Evnen noted, “The USMCA provides expanded opportunities for Nebraska’s livestock industry, and our ag commodity and specialty crop producers. The USMCA builds on the successes and corrects the problems of NAFTA, and gives us expanded opportunities for Nebraska’s ag trade with our friends in Mexico and Canada. This excellent agreement now serves as a template for other international free trade agreements, so we have cause for optimism on many fronts.”

“Today is a day Ohio’s farmers and entrepreneurs have been waiting for,” said Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose. “As our nation’s economy continues to recover, the USMCA is a much needed boost as they compete on the global stage. Thanks to the leadership of President Trump, Senator Portman and bipartisan leaders from across our nation, Ohio is poised for our next giant leap, and my office looks forward to helping make it happen.”

“Last year alone, trade between Texas and its two largest trade partners—Mexico and Canada—totaled more than $200 billion. This exchange supports the more than 950,000 Texas jobs that are tied directly to trade with Mexico and Canada,” said Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs. “The implementation of the USMCA provides tremendous benefit to all parties involved in the trade deal and will help to ensure years of mutual economic benefit and prosperity for all. We look forward to further strengthening our relationship with our trade partners as we enter a new era of innovation and success.”

“The USMCA trade deal has high standards and rebalances North American trade to provide a stronger market for Wyoming’s and our Nation’s goods. This is a great day for our country, as businesses will better be able to participate in cross-border trade. USMCA ensures fair business practices by our neighbors and now the advantage will be back in the hands of the American worker,” stated Wyoming Secretary of State Edward Buchanan.

This historic trade agreement will result in freer markets, fairer trade, and strong economic growth across North America, creating new opportunities for American workers, farmers, ranchers, and business owners.

 

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Economy

Ivey announces SiO2’s $163 million expansion in Auburn

Brandon Moseley

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Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced Wednesday that SiO2 Materials Science plans to invest $163 million in an expansion at its Auburn facility.

The announcement came just after securing a major contract to supply the federal government with vials to support the COVID-19 vaccine effort if and when an effective vaccine is developed. The project will create 220 jobs.

“It is exciting to know that SiO2 will be directly involved in providing a product essential to addressing the COVID-19 crisis, which will impact not only Alabamians but the entire country,” Ivey said. “This is a testament to the ingenuity of this great company and its growing Alabama workforce.”

Economic developer Nicole Jones told the Alabama Political Reporter, “Vials produced by SiO2 Materials Science may be the critical component needed to ensure safety in the vaccine distribution process. The breakthrough technology developed by the Auburn-based company provides a glimmer of hope amidst challenging times and showcases how Alabamians are working diligently to craft solutions that will assist our nation and the world in the fight against COVID-19. In addition, the 220 new, high-skilled jobs housed in Auburn Technology Park West will bring economic benefits to Lee County as well as the entire state of Alabama.”

The expansion will allow SiO2 to increase its production capacity so that it can meet the expected demand for vials and syringes when a coronavirus vaccine is finally approved for mass use.

In June, SiO2 announced an $143 million contract with federal government agencies for a production scale-up of the company’s state-of-the-art packaging platform for storing novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) vaccines and therapeutics.

Bobby Abrams is the CEO of SiO2.

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“The pandemic presents an enormous challenge for all people,” Abrams said. “We are extremely grateful for Senator Shelby’s steadfast support and assistance, and we’re honored to collaborate with our government so a COVID-19 vaccine can be safely and quickly distributed. The State of Alabama and the City of Auburn for many years have been very supportive of SiO2 Materials Science during its research, development, commercialization, and now scale-up phases of the company.”

Over the last 10 years, SiO2 has developed its patented vial platform, which combines a plastic container with a microscopic, pure glass coating on the inside that is ideal for biological drugs and vaccines. The product, developed in Auburn with help from experts from four major U.S. research institutions, combines the benefits of both glass and plastic without drawbacks.

“There are problems with plastic, and there are problems with glass, and we resolve all of them,” Abrams said.

SiO2 will expand its existing facility at 2250 Riley Street and will invest in a new molding facility at 2425 Innovation Drive, both located in the Auburn Technology Park West.

Construction is already under way to expand the facility on Innovation Drive. The completed approximately 70,000-square-foot facility will increase the production capacity of SiO2’s injection molding operation.

“We’re proud to have some of the world’s leading scientists and product developers working in our community,” Auburn Mayor Ron Anders said. “With the presence of these companies and Auburn University’s outstanding medical and engineering programs, we believe we’ll see significant growth in the biotech industry right here in Auburn. On top of that, the well-paying jobs created through this project will result in significant economic opportunities for our local businesses.”

Greg Canfield, the secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce, said that SiO2’s expansion project in Auburn will help ensure that the nation’s health authorities have an ample supply of vials and syringes to administer a vaccine for COVID-19 as soon as it is developed.

“Having a steady supply of SiO2’s innovative vials will represent a key strategic advantage for federal agencies wanting to act rapidly once a vaccine is available to counter the coronavirus,” Canfield said.

Robert S. Langer is a professor at the David H. Koch Institute at MIT and a company adviser.

A key element of SiO2’s product is enhanced safety for healthcare providers and for patients, who are at a lower risk of adverse side effects. A combination of plastic and a microscopic layer of glass also means vials and syringes won’t break, shatter or crack. SiO2 ships its products worldwide.

“Many drug development and drug formulation innovations can be limited due to variables associated with traditional glass vials and syringes,” Langer said. “The SiO2 vials and syringes eliminate these variables and allow drug development partners to bring their innovations to life.”

SiO2 is a privately-owned company based in Auburn, where it has around 200 employees. The Retirement Systems of Alabama provided early financial support for the company.

517,464 people have already died from the COVID-19 global pandemic, including 130,602 Americans.

 

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Economy

ADOL announces extended benefits program to begin

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The Alabama Department of Labor announced today that the state will begin offering Extended Benefits (EB) for those who qualify and have exhausted previous benefits.

This is a separate program from the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program that was enacted under the CARES Act.

The EB program is a federal program that is triggered when a state’s insured unemployment rate exceeds 5.9 percent. Alabama’s weekly insured unemployment rate* of 6.11 percent triggered the state onto a 13-week EB period beginning the week of May 31. It is usually available during times of adverse economic conditions. The last time Alabama offered the EB program was during the Great Recession of 2008.

While EB is available for UP TO 13 weeks, not all claimants will be eligible to receive all weeks.  Alabamians can begin claiming these benefits on July 5, 2020.

Claimants must first exhaust all regular UC and PEUC benefits before they will be eligible for EB benefits.  Claimants must not be eligible for unemployment compensation benefits in another state or Canada, must have no disqualifications, have qualifying wages, and must have at least one week in the benefit year that begins in an EB eligibility period. Specific eligibility criteria can be found at: https://wdr.doleta.gov/directives/attach/UIPL/UIPL_24-20.pdf.

Individuals are only entitled to benefits if they are no longer working through no fault of their own and they MUST be able and available for work.  The EB program has more stringent work search requirements and requires claimants to engage in a “systematic and sustained” effort to obtain work during each week and to provide evidence of efforts.  Due to the pandemic, the submission of required work search contacts has been TEMPORARILY waived due to Covid-19 restrictions. However, claimants should continue to look for work where possible, and maintain a record of their efforts on a weekly basis.  This waiver may end at any time.  Once this waiver ends, claimants will be required to provide a minimum of three (3) work search contacts each week during the weekly certification process. 

ADOL will notify those eligible for EB benefits via the UI Claims Tracker and by mail. Claimants will not have to apply for these benefits, but should continue to file weekly certifications.

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