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Doug Jones, Lisa Murkowski call for increased federal investment in education

Brandon Moseley

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Thursday, Senators Doug Jones (D-Alabama) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) led a group of their colleagues in urging Senate leadership to include robust funding for America’s schools, educators, and students in the next round of COVID-19 relief funding.

“It is not just teachers who will be impacted by these shrinking education budgets,” Jones and the other Senators wrote. “Countless cafeteria workers, school bus drivers, counselors, and other support staff are expected to take a dramatic hit during this pandemic. Our students cannot meet their full potential without the many professionals that make their schools work for them day in and day out.”

The CARES Act provided initial relief to students, schools, and educators through the Education Stabilization Fund, $13.2 billion of which is allocated to governors for distribution to K-12 schools. Education organizations are recommending a further investment of $175 billion for the Education Stabilization Fund to be divided between local education agencies and institutions of higher education.

“The U.S. economy is expected to contract by six percent in 2021, changing the lives of all Americans in dramatic ways that are not yet fully known,” Jones and the other Senators wrote. “One thing is certain however, students will still need to continue learning and progressing through school. Our nation’s teachers are crucial to ensuring that learning can continue, yet current projections expect the reductions in education spending due to the pandemic to be two and a half times worse than the lowest point of the last recession. [2] It is not just teachers who will be impacted by these shrinking education budgets. Countless cafeteria workers, school bus drivers, counselors, and other support staff are expected to take a dramatic hit during this pandemic. Our students cannot meet their full potential without the many professionals that make their schools work for them day in and day out.”

The letter was sent to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York).

The letter was cosigned by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Tom Carper (D-Del.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Bob Casey (D-Penn.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Angus King (I-Maine), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).

Murkowski was the only Republican to sign this.

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On Friday, House Democrats pushed through their own version of a fifth coronavirus aid bill, the Heroes Act.

Republicans objected to that bill because it added $3 trillion additional dollar to the national debt. The U.S. debt stands at $25,312 billion. In February, before the coronavirus crisis, unemployment was 3.0 percent. April unemployment was 14.7 percent. Actual joblessness is estimated at 24 percent. 40 percent of American workers making $40,000 a year or less are out of work.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 is still killing a lot of people. 1,552 Americans lost their battle with COVID-19 on Tuesday alone. The total American dead from the global pandemic has surged to 93,533. 1,570,583 have been diagnosed with the virus.

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No one knows at this point if schools will be able to open in August or not or how they will be able to operate with social distancing. Another factor is the possibility that COVID-19 related illnesses could potentially increase when flu season comes back around in late fall prompting a second shutdown.

Senator Doug Jones has represented Alabama in the U.S. Senate since 2018 after narrowly defeating former Chief Justice Roy Moore (R) in a special election. Jones faces a difficult reelection challenge in November.

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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Sens. Doug Jones, Cory Gardner introduce the American Dream Down Payment Act

Brandon Moseley

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U.S. Sen. Doug Jones (VIA CSPAN)

Democratic Alabama Sen. Doug Jones and Republican Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner have introduced the American Dream Down Payment Act of 2020, a bipartisan piece of legislation that would help prospective homeowners save for a traditional 20 percent down payment by creating special tax-advantaged savings accounts for eligible housing costs.

“As the coronavirus pandemic continues to devastate our nation’s economy, it is getting even harder for many folks in Alabama and across the country to put money away in savings and to work toward the American dream of owning a home,” Jones said. “Down payments are the biggest barrier to homeownership for first-time homebuyers, especially among low-income and minority Americans, and make it harder to build generational wealth that is often tied to home-ownership. Our legislation would provide a new path to help make the dream of buying a home a reality by making it easier to save money for down payments and other housing-related costs.”

“A down payment on a home can be a significant barrier to becoming a homeowner,” Gardner said. “Inspired by the popular 529 education savings accounts, this bipartisan bill will make it easier for people to save for a down payment, which will aid both our unique housing challenges in Colorado and our economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m proud to work with Senators Jones and Brown to help more families achieve the American Dream and own a home.”

These accounts would be similar to the popular 529 Plan accounts that encourage people to save pre-tax money to pay for future education expenses. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, is the ranking member of the Senate Banking and Housing Committee and an original co-sponsor of the legislation.

The sponsors cite a recent survey by the Urban Institute that found that more than two-thirds of renters view down payments as a barrier to owning a home. As rents and student loan debt rise, it can be harder for prospective homeowners to save for a down payment, especially if they are a first-time homebuyer or aren’t able to receive help from family members.

“Borrowers of color have been locked out of affordable homeownership for decades,” Brown said. “The gap in Black and white homeownership rates remain as large now as it was before the Fair Housing Act was signed into law. These troubling and persistent inequities in homeownership rates have prevented generations of Black and brown families from obtaining the American dream of owning a home. The American Dream Down Payment Act is a new tool to help make homeownership a reality.”

Even though the nationwide homeownership rate is relatively stable, there are significant disparities in homeownership by age, race and ethnicity. The Black homeownership rate, which peaked just prior to the Great Recession, has fallen to a 50-year low in 2016, at just 41.7 percent. That remains nearly 30 points below the white homeownership rate. This is before the recent COVID-19 economic panic. Millennials are less likely to own a home by age 34 than their parents or grandparents were. If these trends continue, a growing number of Americans will be locked out of homeownership.

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“The introduction of the American Dream Down Payment Act offers Black American families and individuals the opportunity to build legacy wealth through homeownership,” Brown added. “The ability to accumulate tax-free savings funds breaks down/eliminates one of the most prominent barriers to achieving homeownership, the down payment. This Act serves as a tangible springboard to increase Black homeownership and real wealth-building prospects which the National Association of Real Estate Brokers (NAREB) includes in the meaning of its time-honored slogan, Democracy in Housing,” said Donnell Williams, National President, National Association of Real Estate Brokers.”

The American Dream Down Payment Act would let states establish American Dream Down Payment Accounts, which they would manage in the same way they manage 529 Plan accounts today. It would also allow prospective homeowners to save up as much as 20 percent of today’s housing cost, indexed for inflation, to use for an eligible down payment and other housing costs. It would facilitate long-term savings for a down payment and allow contributions from family and friends and allow homebuyers using their American Dream Down Payment Account savings and earnings to use those funds tax-free at withdrawal for eligible expenses.

To protect American Dream Down Payment Account holders, the Securities and Exchange Commission would be required to set standards for the investments of eligible accounts and allowable fees.

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This legislation is supported by the National Association of Realtors, Habitat for Humanity and the National Association of Real Estate Brokers.

Jones is a member of the Senate Banking and Housing Committee. Both Jones and Gardner face tough re-election battles this year.

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Entrance fees to visit federal public lands are waived today

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The United States Department of Interior has designated Wednesday as a fee-free day for public lands to commemorate the signing of the Great American Outdoors Act, which is aimed at addressing the historically underfunded, multi-billion-dollar deferred maintenance backlog at national parks and public lands. In celebration of this achievement, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced that entrance fees paid by visitors coming to lands managed by the department will be waived on Aug. 5.

Bernhardt also announced that Aug. 4 will be designated “Great American Outdoors Day,” a fee-free day each year moving forward to commemorate the signing of the act.

“President Trump has just enacted the most consequential dedicated funding for national parks, wildlife refuges, public recreation facilities and American Indian school infrastructure in U.S. history,” Bernhardt said. “I’ve designated August 4th as Great American Outdoors Day and waived entrance fees to celebrate the passage of this historic conservation law.”

Entrance fees will be waived at all fee collecting public lands at the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The department holds fee-free days throughout the year to encourage visitation and appreciation for America’s public lands. On fee-free days, site-specific standard amenity and day-use fees at recreation sites and areas will be waived for the specified dates. Other fees, such as overnight camping, cabin rentals, group day use and use of special areas will remain in effect.

There are other remaining fee-free days in 2020.

For the National Park Service, Aug. 5 is Great American Outdoors Act Commemoration, Aug. 25 is National Park Service Birthday, Sept. 26 is National Public Lands Day and Nov. 11 is Veterans Day.

For the Bureau of Land Management, Aug. 5 is Great American Outdoors Act Commemoration, Sept. 26 is National Public Lands Day and Nov. 11 is Veterans Day.

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For U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lands, Aug. 5 is Great American Outdoors Act Commemoration, Sept. 26 is National Public Lands Day, Oct. 11 is First Sunday of National Wildlife Refuge Week and Nov. 11 is Veterans Day.

On March 3, President Trump called on Congress to send him a bill that fully and permanently funded the Land and Water Conservation Fund and restored our National Parks. The president noted that it would be historic for America’s beautiful public lands when he signed such a bill into law. The Trump Administration worked with Congress to secure the passage of this landmark conservation legislation, which will use revenues from energy development to provide up to $1.9 billion a year for five years in the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund to provide needed maintenance for critical facilities and infrastructure in our national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, recreation areas and American Indian schools. It will also use royalties from offshore oil and natural gas to permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund to the tune of $900 million a year to invest in conservation and recreation opportunities across the country.

“We’re here today to celebrate the passage of truly landmark legislation that will preserve America’s majestic natural wonders, priceless historic treasures — and that’s exactly what they are — grand national monuments, and glorious national parks,” Pres. Trump said. “This is a very big deal. And from an environmental standpoint and from just the beauty of our country standpoint, there hasn’t been anything like this since Teddy Roosevelt, I suspect.”

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Last year, the NPS welcomed 327 million visitors who generated an economic impact of more than $41 billion and supported more than 340,000 jobs. The increasing popularity of our public lands has resulted in our national parks needing upgrades and improvements for more than 5,500 miles of paved roads, 17,000 miles of trails and 24,000 buildings. This legislation provides a long-term solution to this significant issue for the benefit of the American people and the betterment of our public lands.

Approximately 67 million visitors annually come to BLM-managed lands, supporting approximately 48,000 jobs nationwide and contributing almost $7 billion to the U.S. economy. BLM-managed public lands offer a wide array of recreational opportunities including hiking, hunting, fishing, camping, mountain biking, horseback riding, boating, rafting, off-highway vehicle driving, rock climbing and more.

FWS welcomes approximately 54 million people to refuges each year. Their spending generates $3.2 billion in sales to local economies, employing more than 41,000 people and providing $1.1 billion in employment income.

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Congressman Gary Palmer praises Trump executive order expanding Medicare access

Brandon Moseley

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U.S. Rep. Gary Palmer

Congressman Gary Palmer, R-Hoover, on Tuesday praised a recent executive order expanding telehealth services for Medicare recipients. President Donald Trump recently signed the order designed to expand access to care for Medicare beneficiaries, particularly those in rural areas. In response, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued a proposed rule that would permanently add certain services to those eligible to be delivered via telemedicine.

“The Executive Order signed by the President will be a lifeline for rural communities that often lack meaningful access to care,” Palmer said. “The unprecedented expansion of telehealth services overseen by the Trump Administration during the pandemic will have lasting benefits for patients and I’m pleased to see some of these changes made permanent. These changes, combined with investments in the infrastructure necessary for their delivery, will ensure patients receive the care they need without having to travel long distances to be seen by a provider and I believe it will save lives.”

“Expanded access to medical care through telemedicine is essential to fighting the virus,” Trump said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said that just 0.1 percent of primary care visits covered by traditional Medicare were done via telehealth in February. COVID-19 brought about dramatic changes in how Americans receive their health care services. This spring, from March to April, the number of patients using telehealth services in traditional Medicare increased from roughly 13,000 a week to over 1.5 million a week. By April, 43.5 percent of primary care visits paid for by traditional Medicare were utilizing telehealth services.

“The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services dramatically expanded Medicare coverage for telehealth, doubling the number of services that can be provided through telehealth to include everything from emergency department visits to eye exams and therapy services,” Azar wrote. “HHS’s Office for Civil Rights provided flexibility to allow health care providers to do telehealth visits immediately using popular communication apps like FaceTime and Skype, without any additional paperwork and without risking penalties for HIPAA violations. HHS’s Office of Inspector General provided flexibility for healthcare providers to reduce or waive cost-sharing for telehealth in federal programs, so that providers can limit costs to patients using telehealth.”

“We’re now aggressively looking at how to make the telehealth revolution a permanent part of American medicine,” Azar explained. “The past several months will give us experience and data that can inform regulatory reforms. In many cases, Congress needs to make statutory changes, and we’re working with members of both parties on that already.”

The president’s executive order requires HHS to announce a new payment model testing innovations that empower rural hospitals to transform health care in their communities on a broader scale.

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To improve connectivity, the president’s order also directs the federal government to launch a joint initiative in 30 days to improve the health care communication infrastructure and to expand rural health care services.

The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense have also taken steps to expand telehealth services for veterans, active military and their families.


Palmer represents Alabama’s 6th Congressional District.

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Jones calls for McConnell to bring the Senate back to work on bipartisan aid package

Brandon Moseley

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U.S. Sen. Doug Jones during a livestreamed press briefing. (OFFICE OF SEN. DOUG JONES/FACEBOOK)

Alabama Sen. Doug Jones and two of his Democratic Senate colleagues — Nevada Sen. Jacky Rosen and New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan — led 10 other senators in a letter asking Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to bring the Senate back into session and work through the weekend until Congress reaches a bipartisan deal to address the public health and economic crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. has been relentless, bringing about a public health crisis and an economy teetering on the edge of catastrophe,” Jones and the other senators wrote. “Across the country, Americans are fearful and anxious as loved ones get sick, families go hungry, small businesses go under, and workers continue to go without pay. State and local coffers have run dry, tenants can’t afford the rent, state unemployment systems are overwhelmed, and over 150,000 Americans have died. Despite this, it has been over four months since the Senate passed a comprehensive relief package, and the relief we provided is running out.”

“In the circumstances we find ourselves, it is imperative that the Senate be in session through the remainder of this weekend and all of next week — working not on partisan nominations, but on bipartisan coronavirus relief for the American people,” the letter continues.

“With this in mind and with federal unemployment benefits having expired last night, we implore you to bring the Senate back into session this weekend and pass bipartisan legislation to help working Americans and families,” concluded the letter.

The House passed their Heroes Act in early May with little Republican input. Senate Republicans have proposed a $1 trillion coronavirus aid bill on top of the CARES Act and the other relief packages. Senate Democrats have criticized the Republican plan for not going far enough. Their proposal was for a $3 trillion aid bill.

Jones has been a vocal critic of McConnell’s delays in bringing a strong, bipartisan relief bill up for a vote. The original CARES Act had a costly provision that increased the amount of money that the unemployed could collect during the coronavirus economic shutdown. That bump up in benefits expired on Friday.

Millions of Americans, however, are still unemployed and are having to make mortgage and rent payments with dramatically less to spend. Senator Jones has called for a renewal of emergency unemployment benefits, as well as more relief for health care providers, small businesses and workers, schools, state departments of labor, and incentives for states to expand Medicaid.

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He has also called for an extension of the federal eviction moratorium, and for the state of Alabama to renew its own eviction moratorium, which was lifted on June 1.

The federal government has enacted four pieces of legislation that provide relief to individuals, state and local governments and corporations that have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic meltdown. These cost more than $2 trillion. To pay for all of this, the Treasury Department has ramped up borrowing.

According to a report by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, since March 1, the United States Treasury has borrowed more than $3 trillion. Most of that increase has occurred since March 30, when the CARES Act was enacted.

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Most of the new debt has been issued in the form of Treasury bills. T-bills mature in one year or less and account for 80 percent of the increase in debt since March 1. Treasury notes, which mature in 2 to 10 years, are 15 percent of the increase. Treasury bonds, which mature after more than 10 years, Treasury inflation-protected securities, and floating-rate notes, combine for the remaining five percent of the increase.

Fortunately, the government is paying very little interest on those new Treasury bills because interest rates dropped when the extent of the pandemic became clear and money fled risky investments like stocks and real estate trusts for security. For the 4-week bills that were issued on July 21, the government paid investors an interest rate of 0.11 percent. That is a considerable drop from the 1.60 percent interest rate that the government paid on the 4-week bills that were issued on Feb. 25 before the pandemic hit the U.S.

Treasury projects that they will borrow $677 billion in the third quarter.

The U.S. national debt is nearly $26.6 trillion — an all-time high — and the budget deficit is $3.8 trillion. Interest on the debt is costing taxpayers $337 billion annually, the fourth costliest federal program trailing Medicare and Medicaid at $1.3 trillion, Social Security at $1.08 trillion and national defense at $695 billion.

Jones is in a difficult re-election race with former Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville.

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