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Opinion | Recent bills to bring rural broadband, business growth to Alabama

Seth Hammett

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For more than 40 years, I have dedicated my life to advancing the economic interests of Alabama. I’ve spent time in the state Legislature as a representative of my hometown district and was honored to be selected speaker of the House for Alabama. I served the governor as the director of what is now the Alabama Department of Commerce, which exists to help boost the state’s economy. I currently act as chairman of the Energy Institute of Alabama as well as vice president of business development for PowerSouth Energy. In that time, we have seen Alabama businesses show impressive growth. This year alone, we are at record levels of unemployment.

A lack of high-speed broadband internet access in some of Alabama’s most rural areas persists in holding our state back. It’s a simple fact in today’s interconnected economy that, if one doesn’t have access to the internet, their business is more likely to fail. This lack of reliable internet access keeps businesses from investing in our state due to fears of being stranded on the information superhighway. For companies, particularly high-tech companies, to invest in rural Alabama, we simply must be able to provide consistent broadband access at sufficient minimum speeds and capacity.

It should also be noted that weak internet connections and speeds can hinder everyday life in general. Every email, text message and digital alert depends on consistent internet in order to keep you and your loved ones updated. Students rely on the internet to receive and send their assignments. All are impacted by poor or nonexistent internet access.

So, I am proud to voice my praise and gratitude for the Legislature’s passage of House Bills 400 and 540 and Senate Bill 90. These bills support the expansion of broadband internet systems to the parts of Alabama that need it most. According to the governor, 276,000 Alabamians lived in areas without any internet providers available last year. These new bills will improve situations like these that are simply inexcusable in today’s connected world.

Thanks to state Rep. Randall Shedd’s, R-Fairview, leadership, HB400’s passage allows electric providers to install, operate and maintain broadband systems within their easements, the areas of property used by utility companies. These rights enable electric providers, or their affiliated or third-party providers, to more quickly and cost-effectively expand and improve broadband infrastructure to make quality internet access in rural Alabama a reality.

One of the greatest champions in the Alabama legislature for rural broadband access and expansion, Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Arab, sponsored SB 90, which makes it easier to secure grants for these projects. It increases the minimum broadband speeds to 25 megabytes per second for downloads and 3 megabytes per second for uploads. It focuses on unserved and rural areas and improves the framework of broadband systems. While HB400 allows the physical renovation of Alabama’s internet, SB 90 will make sure that these renovations are increased and accelerated.

Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, sponsored HB540, also known as the Alabama Incentives Modernization Act. Among other things, it provides significant incentives for state’s broadband and connectivity efforts by allowing rural fiber projects to be eligible for 15 years of an investment tax credit. This allows recovery of 22.5 percent of capital investments in rural counties, use of the Growing Alabama economic development site preparation program for fiber projects at industrial parks, inland ports and intermodal facilities, as well as provisions for broadband projects in federal Opportunity Zones. HB540 will give businesses another reason to settle in areas that benefit from HB400 and SB90’s improvements.

The passing of these bills was greatly influenced by the dedicated members of the Alabama Rural Broadband Coalition. This group includes representatives of multiple industries, ranging from agriculture to business to healthcare to education — K-12 and post-secondary. Influential entities such as the Business Council of Alabama, ALFA, the Energy Institute of Alabama and many others all joined in the effort. Clearly, these bills were approved with a wide range of popular support, and I commend these individuals for their steadfastness in pushing for the betterment of our state. All of this will help bring Alabama into a modern economy while also providing internet access and its benefits for all Alabama citizens.

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I have spent a great deal of my life making sure businesses in our state have the best chance to succeed. However, for a long time, weak or non-existent internet access was simply accepted as a fact of life for Alabamians living in rural areas. The people of Alabama and the Legislature have finally said enough is enough. HB400, HB540 and SB 90 will usher in a new era for business in Alabama. Again, I want to thank Gov. Kay Ivey, Scofield, Rep. Randall Shedd and Poole for helping spearhead this great achievement. I also have to recognize the leadership of Sen. Steve Livingston, Sen. Del Marsh, Sen. Greg Reed and Rep. Nathaniel Ledbetter. Please take a moment to call your representative and thank them for their part in passing these bills. I know from personal experience that they appreciate hearing from you.

Seth Hammett is chairman of the Energy Institute of Alabama and vice president of business development for PowerSouth Energy. Hammett spent 32 years in the Alabama House of Representatives, including 12 years as speaker of the House. Visit https://energyinstituteal.org/ for more information.

 

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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.

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. 

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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.

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.”

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“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.

“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.”

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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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