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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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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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Economy

Virtual tip jars helping service industry workers amid COVID-19 closures

Jessa Reid Bolling

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Communities are coming together to provide some relief to service industry workers who are unable to work due to restaurant and bar closures during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Last week, Gov. Kay Ivey issued statewide shutdowns of all dine-in restaurants and bars in an attempt to increase social distancing as the COVID-19 epidemic continues to grow in Alabama.

Some restaurants are still offering to-go or curbside pick-up orders but servers have seen their shifts cut down because of the limited options.

Virtual tip jars have been started in cities across the country, including Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, to put some money in servers’ pockets after having their shift hours cut due to the restrictions set during this social distancing period. 

“Many of our friends and neighbors depend on tips to make ends meet,” one donation page read. “This virtual tip jar is for local service industry staff — employees at bars, restaurants, salons, etc — to post their Venmo or Paypal information so that customers, neighbors, and Tuscaloosa community members can continue to support them.”

Using an online spreadsheet, the simple system allows servers to put their name and place of employment, along with their Venmo and Paypal information, online. Those seeking to donate can then send money to the servers directly.

The Tuscaloosa has over 180 servers listed and the Birmingham page has over 740 servers listed to receive tips.

“Many people are scared — and that’s okay. As long as we remember to care for our neighbors and show them love, we will pull through this challenge and look back on it as an example of the greatness of this city. 

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“Bear Bryant said, ‘You must learn how to hold a team together. You must lift some men up, calm others down, until finally they’ve got one heartbeat. Then you’ve got yourself a team.’ Communities and teams share a lot of similarities; this “one heartbeat” is one of those similarities. Now is the time to be there for each other to build a Tuscaloosa that has the same unity Bear Bryant built in his team.”

 

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Economy

Simpson tells Mobilians: “My top priority remains your health and safety”

Brandon Moseley

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Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said Monday that Mobile had its third confirmed case of COVID-19.

“Tonight we had our third confirmed case of COVID-19 in Mobile County,’” Stimpson said. “My top priority remains your health and safety, and my team is fully engaged in the effort to protect you from this threat to our community.”

Simpson said that he is continuing the effort to obtain test kits for the City of Mobile.

“There is still a shortage of test kits around the country, but the private sector is stepping up to meet demand,” Stimpson said. “You can count on this: You will see more testing done soon, and more test results being completed by the labs.”

Stimpson said that COVID-19 is a public health crisis. “But it is also an economic crisis.”

“We must protect lives and we must protect livelihoods as well,” Stimpson continued.

Stimpson announced that the City of Mobile and the Community Foundation of South Alabama have launched a Disaster Relief Fund to help those who are hurting as a result of this pandemic.

You can learn more at their website here.

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Stimpson said that he has met with his “Executive team to get an update on city operations, and to make sure that city government is continuing to serve our citizens. It is imperative that the wheels of government keep turning. I am grateful that we have such a dedicated team of public servants working for you at City Hall.”

The mayor also met with Owen Bailey and Dr. John Marymount at USA Health System to review plans for COVID testing.

Stimpson also met with Brad Pitts, the chief executive of Synergy Labs, to get an update on their progress producing test kits.

“I hosted a conference call with leaders from the Mobile Chamber, the Mobile Airport Authority, the Mobile Housing Authority, Downtown Alliance, Coastal Alabama Partnership, Alabama Power and the Mobile County Public School System, along with elected officials from city, county and state government,” Stimpson said. “We are doing our best to keep them apprised of all we do. I conducted a news conference to update the media, answering any and all questions.”

Stimpson said that on Tuesday he would be meeting with the Mobile City Council as well as with area pastors.

“I am grateful to those of you who have responded with prayers and words of support – they are appreciated,” Stimpson said. “The best thing that you can do to help is to follow the recommended CDC guidelines, including washing your hands regularly, practicing social distancing and staying home if you are sick. If we all follow these steps, we will save lives.”

Mobile is Alabama’s fourth-largest city.

As of press time, Mobile has just three diagnosed cases of COVID-19.

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Economy

The White House and Senate reach deal on a stimulus

Brandon Moseley

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Early Wednesday morning, the White House and Senate leaders finally reached a deal on a massive stimulus package they are hoping can keep the American economy from falling into a deep recession due to the government-imposed economic shutdown to deal with the growing coronavirus threat.

The final version of the Senate bill comes with a two trillion dollar price tag. The plan includes tax rebates, four months of expanded unemployment benefits, a $500 billion corporate liquidity program, $100 billion in aid for hospitals, $150 billion in aid for state and local governments, money for education, transit programs, and airlines, as well as checks to families, and a slue of tax rebates and benefits for businesses and corporations. It also authorized the Federal Reserve in conjunction with the Treasury to make up to $4 trillion in loans to corporations.

Americans who make up to $75,000 a year will get a one time check of $1,200. Americans with no or little tax liability would receive the same amount. The original Republican proposal had given them a minimum of $600. The deal was reached following five intense days of negotiations that began on Friday.

“At last we have a deal. … the Senate has reached a bipartisan agreement,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) said during a speech on the Senate floor after 1:30 a.m. on Wednesday. McConnell pledging that the Senate will pass the stimulus bill later today.

Senate Minority Leader Charles “Chuck” Schumer (D-New York) praised the bill as “the largest rescue package in American history.”

“This bill is far from perfect, but we believe the legislation has been improved significantly to warrant its quick consideration and passage,” Schumer said.

The Hill is reporting that McConnell, Schumer, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, White House legislative affairs director Eric Ueland and incoming White House chief of staff Mark Meadows were all in the final negotiations. Schumer kept Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) closely abreast of what was happening during the discussions.

Pelosi has introduced her own $2.5 trillion stimulus bill that includes Democratic priorities such as ending photo ID for voting, parts of the Green New Deal, higher fuel economy and emissions standards for airplanes, and increased union collective bargaining powers. Republicans point to items like $35 million for the JFK Center for the Performing Arts as pork in the Pelosi bill.

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“With this coronavirus relief package, we’re trying to keep people employed—helping companies, large and small, maintain payroll to prevent massive layoffs,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). “This isn’t a corporate bailout. Spoke with KSL News radio this morning about why this is not the time for my Democratic colleagues to stall this package to add unrelated pet projects.”

“With hundreds of thousands being laid off every single day and employers shutting down—some permanently—this is no time for Democrats to dither, hoping to win corporate social engineering points,” Romney added. “Shameful, destructive, and dangerous.”

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) was an early supporter of a COVID-19 stimulus bill.

“It is my hope that in the coming days, we can pass an additional package that will contain comprehensive funding and protections to mitigate this virus and safeguard small businesses and others that make up the economic foundation of our nation,” Shelby said before deliberations began.

Sen. Doug Jones (D-Alabama) voted against ending debate (and negotiations) on Monday over dissatisfaction with the bill that McConnell introduced.

“You know the old saying: half a loaf is better than none,” Jones said. “But the vote today was not even 1/2 a loaf for hospitals, city & county gov’ts, small businesses & working folks, who would have got just a couple of slices while most of the bread goes to bailouts. That is why I voted NO!”

Jones said in a video statement that his two main sticking points were a lack of support for state and local government and a lack of transparency in the $500 billion corporate stabilization fund.

Republicans conceded both points to Jones.

Republicans hold a 53 to 47 majority in the Senate, but were seriously weakened when Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) announced that he was infected with the novel coronavirus. This meant that Paul, as well as Utah Republican Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee who are regularly in close contact with Paul, have to self-quarantine for 14 days so are unavailable for votes on the Senate floor.

According to a source in the administration speaking to the Hill, “The legislation creates an inspector general and oversight committee for the corporate assistance program, similar to what was done for the Troubled Asset Relief Program of a decade ago, according to the senior administration official.

Jones had objected to giving Mnuchin sole power to decide what corporations he gave loans and guarantees to corporations. Jones also demanded and got the $150 billion for state and local governments. Those points were both addressed in this version of the bill. On Monday, Jones co-sponsored legislation giving COVID-19 relief to hospitals. This version of the bill includes $100 billion in COVID-19 relief for hospitals. Congresswoman Terri Sewell (D-Selma) cosponsored similar legislation to Jones’s bill in the House.

Jones voted to end debate on an earlier version of the bill after Republicans conceded to his points.

A final key sticking point was bailouts for the troubled airlines, who have seen most of their international business grounded by the federal government. Republicans wanted to aid the airlines while some Democrats objected. This bill contains $25 billion in direct aid for airlines and $4 billion for air cargo carriers. The bill includes hundreds of billions of dollars in buffer capital for the Treasury Department to allow the Federal Reserve to hand out an additional $4 trillion in loans to distressed companies such as U.S. airlines and Boeing.

In a nod to Democrats, the bill bans stock buybacks for any corporation that accepts government loans during the term of their assistance plus one year. Schumer asked for and got a provision to ban businesses owned by the president, vice president, members of Congress and the heads of federal executive departments from receiving loans or investments through the corporate liquidity program. The prohibition also applies to their children, spouses and in-laws.

The bill includes $30 billion in emergency education funding, $25 billion in emergency transit funding, and creates an employee retention tax credit to incentivize businesses to keep workers on payroll during the crisis.

Aides are working on drafting the language for the final bill and a vote is expected later today.

(Orignal reporting by the Hill’s Alexander Bolton and Jordain Carney contributed to this report.)

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