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Senators Jones reintroduces bipartisan legislation to stop predatory unsolicited loans

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U.S. Senators Doug Jones (D-Ala.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) have reintroduced bipartisan legislation—the Unsolicited Loan Act —that would halt the predatory practice of mailing high-interest loans to consumers in the form of “live” checks.

Often times, when consumers receive these checks in the mail they believe them to be from their bank or another trusted financial institution and are unaware the check is a high-interest loan. Under the Unsolicited Loan Act, this practice would be prohibited and would ensure consumers can only access loans for which they proactively applied. This legislation echoes Congress’ ban on the mailing of live credit cards.

“We need to continue to take a stand for hard-working families and make sure we have protections in place to prevent these predatory tactics,” said Senator Jones, a member of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. “Many honest folks are not aware that by depositing these checks they are actually taking on a high-interest loan. Congress must act now and pass this common-sense legislation to protect consumers from this predatory scam.”

“People should understand exactly what they’re getting into when taking on debt. But many individuals don’t understand that ‘live’ checks mailed directly to consumers are just high-interest loans in disguise. Congress put an end to ‘live’ credit cards decades ago, it’s time to do the same with ‘live’ checks,” said Senator Cotton.

“Families across the country have fallen victim to scams where they think they’re getting a lucky windfall or refund from their bank, and instead are being lured into a high-interest loan they never asked for,” said Senator Merkley. “It should be illegal to trick unsuspecting customers into loans they don’t want, and that’s why I’m urging my colleagues to take a stand for consumer fairness and transparency by passing the Unsolicited Loan Act.”

Congress has long recognized consumer loans should require an application by a customer and nearly 50 years ago the practice of mailing live credit cards was banned. In modern lending, formal loan applications are often quick to fill out and this legislation would not prohibit the direct mailing or marketing of a loan application. This legislation would allow for common-sense consumer protections to be put in place—without limiting access to credit—for consumers who willingly apply and seek lending products. 

The Unsolicited Loan Act would also ensure that companies cannot shift from the mailing of live checks to other forms of transfer, such as a gift card or an “e-check.” Additionally, customers would not be held liable for debt incurred from illegal, unsolicited live check loans.

This legislation has been endorsed by The National Consumer Law Center on behalf of its low-income clients.

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Congress

Amid the pandemic, a campaign adapts

Chip Brownlee

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He stepped up to the podium, an American flag behind his right shoulder, an Alabama flag to his left. These briefings are much like any other press conference the senator has given since he took office in January 2018, except these are streamed on Facebook Live, and Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama wore a camouflage turkey hunting mask — the same one he’s worn on the floor of the U.S. Senate and in hearings.

He decided to wear it after a turkey hunt with his son and a friend a few weeks ago, with appropriate social-distancing, of course.

“Unfortunately, I think the turkeys were also maintaining social distancing from those who were trying to attract them,” Jones said in an interview. “I just thought, this is kind of nice. Why don’t I just go ahead and wear it? It’s an interesting mask for a southern Democrat.”

Since our interview, Jones has not backed off from his insistence that others wear a mask, too, when in public places. He regularly echoes messages from State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson, Gov. Kay Ivey and even Alabama head football coach Nick Saban, who all have stressed the importance of face coverings.

“There is so much misinformation that’s going on out there,” Jones said. “You know, I just feel like I have an obligation. I’m not a doctor. I’m not a scientist. I’m trying to learn and do the best I can. But for me to do the best I can, I’ve got to learn. I’ve got to listen. I think it’s important for the public to do that as well.”

Since he began the live-streamed press conferences seven weeks ago, they’ve gotten more than 300,000 views and have become a parade of the who’s who of Alabama’s COVID response. Public health experts, local officials, doctors and business leaders have been regular guests. Since the COVID-19 crisis began for Alabama in mid-March, Jones, the state’s junior senator, has been one of the most available and outspoken elected officials in Alabama, even when he’s in Washington. He lets public health experts answer questions. He urges caution.

“My responsibility is to get accurate information out from people who know the science and understand what we’re up against from a science and health standpoint,” Jones said in an interview. “Don’t listen to politicians on either side of the aisle unless they are just parroting what a health care professional says. Listen to science and listen to the data.”

In these briefings, Jones has avoided politics and campaign talk. He rarely casts blame, though he hasn’t been afraid to criticize the Trump administration’s handling of the virus or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for “playing politics.”

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A first-term Democrat elected in a surprise upset election in 2017, Jones has been walking a line between praising Alabama’s Republican governor for her leadership and criticizing President Donald Trump for what Jones says has been, and continues to be, a lack of leadership from the White House.

But what’s nearly as noticeable is what he has barely mentioned since Alabama confirmed its first case in March: his re-election campaign.

Jones is up for re-election in November as perhaps the most vulnerable incumbent Democrat in the country.

In a normal world, the campaign would be in full swing by now. But in COVID-era Alabama, despite the governor’s easing of restrictions, Jones does not even have an opponent, yet, and the campaign is in partial hibernation as the senator focuses on his work in his official capacity as a senator.

“Everything except fundraising has been on hold,” Jones said. “We’ve done some campaign Zoom, virtual events. But to be honest with you, I’ve been so engaged since March trying to do those things that I think I need to do as a senator, we still are trying to formulate what a campaign looks like going forward.”

Jones has sent a letter to nearly every agency in the federal government, it seems like, over the past month or two — whether it is the USDA, seeking more aid for cattlemen and dairy producers, or with questions about how the USDA is implementing food assistance programs. Or the Treasury, asking that taxpayers receive their relief stimulus payments on debit cards to make it easier and faster. He’s worked with Republicans like Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton to get those things done.

He’s also pushed for expanded economic relief for small businesses and their employees through his Paycheck Security Act, a refundable tax credit of up to $90,000 annually per employee, to rehire and pay laid off and furloughed workers and restore their health care benefits.

If passed, it would also provide small and mid-sized businesses with funds to pay for rent, mortgages, utilities and other operating costs until they can reopen safely and sales begin to recover.

In the past few weeks, Jones has been pressing hard for a plan to bring health care manufacturing back to America — and to Alabama in particular.

“We’re so dependent on foreign countries — China and other countries — for our personal protective equipment, including for our prescription drugs,” Jones said. “We need to do all that we can to bring that manufacturing home. We should never ever get caught again in regard to a shortage of PPE because we don’t have enough for this country. There’s no reason why we can’t do it.”

Jones proposes using tax incentives for companies that build medical equipment in the U.S., retrain workers for those jobs and encourages companies to restart idle factories to make health care equipment.

“I think we could be the next healthcare manufacturing hub just like we’ve done so well with automobile manufacturing. There’s no question it’s coming,” Jones said. “Now we want Alabama to be on the forefront of that. I want us to be on the cutting edge of that, to be out front and not lose it to some of the other southern states.”

Regardless of who is nominated as the Republican candidate, Jones faces another uphill battle. As much as he is a full-blooded southerner — someone raised in a family that once supported firebrand segregationist Gov. George Wallace, someone who would wear a camo hunting mask to a press conference, someone who frequents deer stands with a rifle in the winter and turkey hunts in the spring — Jones is also a full-blooded Democrat.

He was a prosecutor appointed by President Bill Clinton, and has been a friend and supporter of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden since the former vice president’s first run for the presidency in the 1980s. In the few years since he took office, Jones has made it a mission to build up the Alabama Democratic Party, which was out of money and without a winning statewide candidate for nearly a decade before his win in 2017.

As much as Jones’s 2017 election — defined by the sexual assault, misconduct and harassment allegations against his opponent former, Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore — was shrouded in uncertainty and surprise, the 2020 campaign is likely to be even more chaotic in that it will be shrouded by concerns over the novel coronavirus.

Not only is Jones, a moderate Democrat, running for re-election in a red state loyal to Trump, he’s doing so in the middle of a pandemic.

“At this point, we would have thought we would have had an opponent by April 1, and more things would be transitioned over to campaign events,” Jones said. “We’ve just not been able to do that, for obvious reasons. But also, it’s just been extremely busy. I’ve felt like it is part of my job to try to be out there as much as I can to let folks know that we’re working. They don’t want to hear a campaign speech.”

While Jones has been holding weekly briefings, with more time in front of the camera than the state’s governor, his potential opponents have taken to attacking each other in public fashion. Trump has repeatedly waded into the fight.

Jones’s challenger hasn’t been picked yet. The primary runoff that will decide between former Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville and former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was postponed until July because of concerns over the virus.

While the two are battling over their support for Trump, they’ve largely avoided the topic of the pandemic. Sessions releases statements every few weeks calling for plans to “hold the Communist Chinese Government accountable for its cover-up of the Wuhan Virus” and little else.

Sessions’ feud with Trump and Tuberville, which reached a fever-pitch over the weekend, has grabbed far more headlines than anything Sessions or Tuberville have proposed to address the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic crisis.

Jones said he’s paying little attention to that feud, even when he gets “@-ed” by the president on Twitter. Trump called Jones a “weak & pathetic puppet for Crazy Nancy Pelosi & Cryin’ Chuck Schumer” on Saturday in a tweet bashing Sessions and supporting Tuberville.

“I don’t really pay much attention to Jeff Sessions and Tommy Tuberville at this point,” Jones said. “We had a hell of a record going into February and March of this year. I was very, very proud of the things we’ve done for veterans, things for businesses, things for farmers. But we’ve been able to do things during this pandemic that have been extremely important for the folks in Alabama.”

No matter how the GOP primary turns out, Jones will be facing off against another unknown, as he has so many times before. Sessions, once a favored son, has drawn repeated criticism from Trump for recusing from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

Tuberville has no government experience, though being a football coach might as well be a public office in Alabama.

Despite the virus, Republican campaign groups are beginning to hammer Jones over his support for Biden, and Republicans are banking on picking up Jones’s Senate seat.

Jones said he is confident the voters in Alabama will be able to judge his work separately from the party he is in.

“There are so many things that we have done for so many different groups in Alabama,” Jones said. “I think people are recognizing that all of a sudden, this Democrat who got elected in 2017 is paying attention, and we’ve been there for people. They see what we have done for the last two years, but they also see what we’ve done during this crisis.”

Trump won Alabama by nearly 28 percentage points in 2016, and Jones won by only a razor-thin margin in 2017, despite his opponent being credibly accused of sexual misconduct with women decades his junior. Republicans believe Moore was a particularly terrible general election candidate, and that pretty much any other Republican could beat Jones.

The allegations united a strange and perhaps unprecedented, at least in Alabama’s history, coalition of moderate crossover Republicans and black people, women and young voters who showed up for Jones. Either way, Moore had a history of underperforming in statewide general elections, having come close to losing an election to the Supreme Court in 2012.

But a national crisis is playing into Jones’s strength: handling situations outside of his control. He played the role of the “sane one” in the 2017 special election defined by accusations against his opponent, and he’s likely to be in a similar position again in 2020, regularly putting public health experts front and center while his opponents either avoid the spotlight, try to shift blame overseas or tie Jones to liberal Democrats in Washington.

“I’m not there to have President Trump’s back,” Jones said. “I’m not there to have President Biden’s back. I’m there to have Alabama’s back. And that’s exactly what we’ve been doing and that’s what we’re going to continue to do — doesn’t matter to me how Jeff Sessions or Tommy Tuberville approach what they think needs to be done. I think the people of Alabama want somebody that’s got their back, and not somebody else’s.”

As Jones heads into the 2020 election, he may be largely on his own. The two leading Democratic campaign groups reserved nearly $100 million for the November election in half a dozen states with Republican incumbents, Politico reported. But Jones was left out, and the largest Democratic Senate campaign groups won’t commit to spending big money on his re-election.

But even as those groups won’t commit, Jones is sitting on a war chest that’s nearly 10 times the size of either of his potential opponents. He has nearly $8 million saved up in his campaign account for the upcoming battle.

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Congress

Sen. Doug Jones: COVID-19 relief should not be a partisan issue

Chip Brownlee

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Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, said Friday during a live-streamed press conference that the Senate should begin debating the next COVID-19 relief package, and Republicans in Congress should stop playing partisan politics with urgently needed COVID-19 relief.

“That bill is not perfect at all. There are a number of things in there that I don’t think will be in a final bill,” Jones said of the House’s $3 trillion HEROES Act. “It’s not perfect, but it is something to start talking about. It is a shame that Senate Republicans have made this into a partisan issue, trying to say that this was some kind of Democratic ‘wish list.’ It is not.”

The $3 trillion relief package includes nearly $1 trillion in aid to struggling state and local governments and another round of $1,200 payments to individual taxpayers and up to $6,000 per family.

The bill, which passed the House last week along partisan lines, appropriates billions for COVID-19 testing and contact-tracing and provides money for hazard pay for essential workers, among many other provisions its 1,800 pages.

“It is a wish list for cities and counties, which we’ve been talking about,” Jones said. “The first line essential workers that have been there that we don’t need to lose — so much of our workforces in city and county governments. It’s a wish list for the CDC and the NIH to continue funding for research, not just for a vaccine, but for therapeutics for how to treat this virus until we get that vaccine. It’s a wish list for businesses.”

The Paycheck Protection Program, which provides loans and grants to small businesses and nonprofit organizations, would also get additional funding in the new relief bill.

Jones has called for a plan to give small businesses another round of help in paying employees by using payroll processors instead of banks, which have, at times, been slow in delivering aid to businesses and have prioritized clients with whom the banks had a pre-existing relationship.

Jones urged lawmakers to consider using payroll companies rather than banks when the first installment of the Payroll Protection Program was taking shape.

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The House’s HEROES Act also includes provisions that clarify PPP provisions for small businesses and would ensure that PPP funding can reach underserved communities and nonprofits. It adds $10 billion for emergency grants through the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program.

“It has a form of the program that we have — not as scaled up as much as I would lie, but it’s got a program that will help keep businesses operating and their payroll operating as a supplement, an add on to the Payroll Protection Program,” Jones said. “So it’s a wish list, really, for the American people. It’s just a shame that it has been politicized as partisan, because it should not. None of this should be partisan.”

President Donald Trump has threatened to veto the House-passed legislation were the Senate to pass it, and House and Senate Republicans have decried the legislation as too expansive.

Republican members of Alabama’s congressional delegation have called it Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “wish list” and U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks called it “socialist.”

The 1,800-page bill also includes $175 billion in housing support, student loan forgiveness and a new employee retention tax credit.

Republicans have particularly opposed provisions in the bill that would require all voters to be able to vote by mail beginning in November and another that would temporarily repeal a provision of the 2017 Republican tax law that limited federal deductions for state and local taxes.

Trump has also opposed a provision in the bill that would provide $25 billion for the U.S. Postal Service, which has struggled amid the COVID-19 crisis and could become insolvent without support.

The HEROES Act was declared by some as “dead on arrival” in the Republican-controlled Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has so far refused to take up the bill. Senators returned back to their home states this week until early June.

“The goal when we get back is maybe … enough talks will be going on, that we can pass some legislation in a bipartisan way,” Jones said. “Because there is an urgency.”

Jones said he didn’t believe the bill would pass as it is currently written, and that he doesn’t know what the final version would look like, but “we need to be talking about it. It’s a starting point,” he said.

The legislation also provides $75 billion for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, which public health experts say are essential for reopening the economy safely and avoiding a second wave of the virus in the fall.

On Thursday, Gov. Kay Ivey loosened more of the state’s “safer-at-home” restrictions, allowing entertainment venues to reopen Friday and sports to resume by mid-June.

Jones urged Alabamians to continue adhering to social-distancing guidelines, to listen to public health officials and to wear masks. He said reopening the economy and preserving public health don’t have to be at odds.

“I think the governor has done as great a job as she could to try to be very strategic, to be thoughtful on how to do this,” Jones said. “Unfortunately, I also believe that a lot of people in Alabama are only hearing part of her message. They’re only hearing the message that you can go to church, you can go to the theater, you can go out to eat, and they’re not listening as much to the messages about personal responsibility.”

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Governor

Alabama AG warns against nursing homes taking stimulus checks

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama’s top law enforcement officer on Friday warned against nursing homes intercepting federal stimulus payments to long-term care residents who are Medicaid recipients, but the state’s Nursing Home Association says it’s not aware that is happening, and it hasn’t been contacted by the Alabama Attorney General’s Office over the matter. 

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall in a press release Friday said that federal stimulus checks from the CARES Act cannot be seized by nursing homes to pay for care. 

“We are now beginning to receive a few reports of concern that some Alabama nursing homes may be attempting to take stimulus checks from residents who are Medicaid recipients. If this is happening, it needs to stop now,” Marshall said in a statement. “These stimulus checks are rightfully and legally the property of the residents and must be returned. Confiscation of these checks is unlawful and should be reported to my office.”

Mike Lewis, spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office, in a message to APR on Friday said that all concerns reported to the office will be reviewed and investigated.

“There have been four such reports thus far,” Lewis said in the message.

Alabama Nursing Home Association President Brandon Farmer in a separate press release Friday said that since the federal government’s announcement of the stimulus payment, the association advised members that any stimulus payment deposited to the accounts of nursing home residents was not to be used to reimburse the facility “and is the sole property of the residents.”

“We urge Attorney General Steve Marshall to let us know if he has any reports of diversion of residents’ stimulus payments so that we may clarify any misunderstanding that may exist,” Farmer said. “At this time, we are unaware of any facility where such diversion is occurring.

Farmer said the association has encouraged Marshall to contact them any time he has a concern about nursing homes, or has information he wants to pass along to our members.

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“As we have done throughout this pandemic, we stand ready to work with local, state and federal leaders to support Alabama’s nursing home residents and employees,” Farmer said.

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Economy

Alabama’s unemployment rate jumps to 12.9 percent

Chip Brownlee

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Alabama’s unemployment rate has surged almost 10 percentage points over the past two months to nearly 13 percent, the Alabama Department of Labor said Friday, another sign of the economic toll caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington said Alabama’s preliminary, seasonally adjusted April unemployment rate is 12.9 percent, which is up from March’s revised level of 3.0 percent. It’s also higher than April 2019’s rate of 3.2 percent.

Last month’s rate represents 283,787 unemployed persons, an increase of 216,783 over the month.

“While we are certainly disappointed to see our unemployment rate rise so sharply this month, it’s not surprising,” said Gov. Kay Ivey. “This global pandemic and national disaster has certainly impacted Alabamians’ ability to work. We know that hundreds of thousands of people have filed for unemployment benefits over the past two months, and we’ve been able to process and pay a great majority of those.  We realize there are some still waiting on relief, and we hear and understand their frustration.  Please rest assured that my administration is working tirelessly to provide relief to those Alabamians and their families, and I have the utmost confidence in the Alabama Department of Labor and the dedicated state employees there who are working tirelessly to serve their fellow citizens.”

Those counted as employed decreased to 1,911,512 in April, down from March’s count of 2,151,586.

“I think everyone will agree that these numbers aren’t numbers we ever wanted to report,” said Washington. “This pandemic has negatively impacted Alabama’s economy and in two months’ time has managed to undo years of positive progress.  But the impact to our employers and workers who carry the economy is even greater.  So many had life-altering changes that impacted their families almost overnight.  I want all Alabamians to know that we are working nonstop to help move this recovery along.  We are developing new technologies, adding staff, and making modifications wherever possible to help our workers through this enormously difficult time.”

Wage and salary employment decreased in April by 201,700.

Monthly losses were seen in the leisure and hospitality sector (-79,500), the professional and business services sector (-29,500), the education and health services sector (-26,400) and the manufacturing sector (-24,200) — among others.

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Over the year, wage and salary employment decreased by 199,200, with losses in the leisure and hospitality sector (-87,900), the professional and business services sector (-30,800), the education and health services sector (-25,300), and the manufacturing sector (-19,100), among others.

Average weekly wages increased to $908.52 in April, up from $883.17 in March.

Counties with the lowest unemployment rates are Geneva County at 8.1 percent, Bullock and Pike Counties at 9.1 percent, and Shelby and Henry Counties at 9.2 percent.

Counties with the highest unemployment rates are Lowndes County at 26.0 percent, Wilcox County at 22.8 percent and Greene County at 22.2 percent.

Major cities with the lowest unemployment rates are Homewood at 7.1 percent, Vestavia Hills at 7.2 percent and Madison at 8.3 percent.

Major cities with the highest unemployment rates are Selma at 23.4 percent, Anniston at 22.1 percent and Gadsden at 22.0 percent.

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