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Opinion | Solving Alabama’s unemployment crisis is a matter of patriotism

Craig Ford

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Patriotism is at the top of my mind these days as we prepare for this weekend’s Fourth of July celebrations. I feel a great sense of pride in our nation, even though I often disagree with political leaders at various levels of government.

You can love your country and love many things about your country but still see problems and areas where we can do better as a city, state or nation. And one of the areas where we seem to be struggling here in Alabama is with our unemployment situation.

No one in leadership could have predicted that the coronavirus would hit us the way that it has, and our leaders have struggled to balance the need to keep our people healthy with the need to keep our economy running.

It’s a difficult balance, and while the numbers of new infections of the coronavirus keep going up and keep getting media attention, we are also seeing our unemployment benefits being stretched to the max.

The Alabama Department of Labor is understaffed and overwhelmed by the flood of people filing for unemployment benefits. The Department’s employees are making a heroic effort to make sure that those with legitimate needs are getting the help they need to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. But even so, the unemployed have to wait for hours just to get a ticket that would allow them to speak with an employee and file a claim for their benefits.

But what’s even more concerning is the fact that the state’s unemployment fund is on track to become financially insolvent by the end of the summer. If that happens, then the state will have no choice but to borrow more money from the federal government.

Of course, everyone’s hope is that this coronavirus will begin to slow down, a vaccine will be invented, and business will be able to return to normal. Most people don’t want to rely on government checks to survive and would much rather get back to work as soon as possible.

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But for now, at least, the economy is recovering slowly and our unemployment rate, while improving, is still over 6 percent. And that means that, even with borrowed federal money and the recently announced federal extended benefits program, Alabama is still in trouble and our unemployment funds are still in a dangerous situation.

As bad as the situation is, there is a possible solution that our state leaders can and should be considering, if they can get past their current bickering.

The federal government has already sent funding through the CARES Act to help the state battle the coronavirus. Most of that money should be going to providing healthcare services, such as testing for COVID-19, and personal protection equipment like masks and gloves for healthcare workers and employees in essential industries.

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However, there’s no reason why some of that money can’t also go towards our unemployment program to help those who are out of work because of the coronavirus.

If some state leaders think they can use up to $200 million of that money to build a new State House, then why can’t they use that money to keep Alabama families fed and housed for a few more weeks?

As the legislative session came to an end a few weeks ago, lawmakers and the governor went to war with each other over how to spend that money. Instead of fighting over pet projects, they should be putting that money into Alabama’s families to help them survive this crisis.

The Fourth of July is all about patriotism, and there’s nothing more patriotic that solving our unemployment crisis and helping Alabama families get back on their feet.

Craig Ford is the owner of Ford Insurance Agency and the Gadsden Messenger. He represented Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives for 18 years.

Rep. Craig Ford is an Independent who represents Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives. He served as the House Minority Leader from 2010-2016.

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Opinion | Hearings give public opportunity to weigh in on coal ash plans

ADEM will make sure the closure and cleanup of the coal ash sites will be done in a way that will protect the state’s land and water resources now and in the future.

Lance LeFleur

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The mission of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management is to ensure for all Alabamians “a safe, healthful and productive environment.” It’s a mission that ADEM and its nearly 600 employees take very seriously.

Ensuring a safe, healthful and productive environment means more than simply being the environmental cop, though that certainly is part of ADEM’s job. When the Alabama Legislature passed legislation in 1982 that led to the creation of ADEM, lawmakers’ intent was for the agency to promote public health and well-being.

The term “healthful” in ADEM’s mission statement speaks directly to that. ADEM’s work is to contribute to the health of Alabama’s environment and the health of all Alabamians.

An example of that work is managing the process that will determine how coal combustion residuals (CCR) – or coal ash – are dealt with in a safe and effective manner. Managing CCR promotes a healthful environment by protecting our land and water.

On Oct. 20, ADEM will hold the first of a series of public hearings on permits drafted by ADEM to require electric utilities to safely close unlined coal ash ponds at their power plants and remediate any contaminated groundwater. The hearings, and the comment periods leading up to them, give the public the chance to provide ADEM input on the requirements in the draft permits.

To understand how we got to this point today, let’s go back to Dec. 22, 2008, in Kingston, Tenn. On that frigid night, the containment dike surrounding massive ponds holding decades worth of CCR produced by the coal-burning TVA power plant collapsed, spilling more than a billion gallons of coal ash sludge into the Emory River and onto 300 acres of land.

That spill drew the attention of regulators and the nation to the issue of coal ash storage, for which there was little regulation at the time. It also started the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the road to adopting a federal CCR rule, which took effect in 2015. The Alabama Environmental Management Commission approved a state CCR rule in 2018, patterned after the EPA rule.

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The rules address two primary issues: closing coal ash ponds to avoid threats of spills into waterways or onto land, and preventing and cleaning up groundwater contamination from arsenic, mercury, lead and other hazardous elements that may leach from the coal ash.

Both the EPA and state rules give the electric utility operators two options in closing the ash ponds. One allowable method is to excavate the millions of tons of coal ash and either move the coal ash to a lined landfill or find an approved beneficial use for the ash. The other is to cap in place, where an impervious cover, or cap, is placed over the ash impoundment. Both methods have been used successfully for decades to close some of the most contaminated sites in the nation.

It must be emphasized that the closure method selection is made by the utilities, as allowed by both federal and state rules. Alabama Power, TVA and PowerSouth all elected to utilize the cap-in-place option.

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The permits will also set out the steps to be taken to clean up contaminated groundwater caused by the coal ash ponds. ADEM’s job, in its environmental oversight role, is to ensure the closure and groundwater remediation plans proposed by the utilities and included in the permits meet federal and state standards and protect both waterways and groundwater. The permits provide for regular monitoring to confirm the closure and cleanup plans are being implemented as required. If necessary, the plans will be adjusted to ensure the intended results are being achieved.

Currently, ADEM has scheduled public hearings on the permits for three Alabama Power plants. The first is Oct. 20 for Plant Miller in Jefferson County, followed by Oct. 22 for Plant Greene County and Oct. 29 for Plant Gadsden in Etowah County. Permits for the other five sites in Alabama are in development, and hearings will be scheduled when they are complete.

The purpose of these hearings is to allow the public, including nearby residents, environmental groups and others, opportunities to weigh in on the proposed permits. This past summer, Alabama Power, TVA and PowerSouth held informational meetings in the communities where their affected plants are located to explain their proposed groundwater cleanup plans(including the CCR unit closure component) and answer residents’ questions.

The draft permits, the hearings’ dates, locations and times and other information are available on ADEM’s website, www.adem.alabama.gov. The public can also mail or email comments related to the permits, including the closure plans and groundwater remediation plans, directly to ADEM during the proposed permits’ 35-day minimum comment periods, which will run one week past the date of the public hearings. Those comments will be considered in the decisions to issue the permits, and ADEM will provide a response to each issue raised.

For maximum protection of the environment, ADEM encouraged the power companies to go beyond the minimum requirements of the state and federal CCR rules. ADEM’s scientists and engineers who analyzed the plans through an exhaustive review and revision process determined the final plans provide the environmental protections Alabamians expect and deserve. But we want to hear from the public.

Certainly, there are pros and cons of each option in closing the coal ash ponds. The daunting task of cleaning up contaminated groundwater will be undertaken regardless of which closure method is utilized. As one opinion writer recently said, there is no easy answer to the coal ash problem. But this is a matter we cannot duck. We must deal with our coal combustion residuals – by EPA requirement and for the sake of our environment.

Here’s what you can count on from your state agency charged with protecting your environment. ADEM will make sure the closure and cleanup of the coal ash sites will be done in a way that will protect the state’s land and water resources now and in the future.

Ensuring that is our mission.

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Opinion | Now is the perfect time for upskilling into a high-demand job

This time of uncertainty for the unemployed and underemployed is a desperate struggle, and our hearts and prayers go out to those affected. It can also be, however, a time of unexpected opportunity.

Tim McCartney

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(STOCK PHOTO)

If you lost your job and are looking for work because of the COVID-19 pandemic, you are certainly not alone. Here in Alabama, while our economy is recovering, nearly 800,000 Alabamians have filed an initial unemployment claim since March. The pandemic hurt the economy across the board, though workers in public-facing industries were hit especially hard.

This time of uncertainty for the unemployed and underemployed is a desperate struggle, and our hearts and prayers go out to those affected. It can also be, however, a time of unexpected opportunity. Those who use this time to enroll in a free training program to learn the new skills needed to “upskill” or retrain for a more resilient position will immediately improve their employment prospects and put themselves on a long-term pathway toward success.

Many Alabamians agree. A recent survey of unemployed and underemployed Alabamians commissioned by the Alabama Workforce Council and the Governor’s Office of Education and Workforce Transformation found that nearly 60 percent are open to working in an industry different than the one that last employed them. The survey also noted that short, and free, education and training programs were preferred to receive a “certificate, certification or license”.  This demonstrates that a vast majority of the unemployed and underemployed in our state recognize the importance of training to work in durable industries that are less susceptible to sudden economic shocks.

Fortunately for them and for all Alabamians, under Governor Kay Ivey’s leadership, Alabama is well positioned to retrain and “upskill” Alabamians who lost their jobs due to the virus outbreak into new positions with more resilient industries through existing programs provided by Alabama’s workforce system, as well as new programs.

As part of this effort, Alabama is one of only eight states to receive a federal Reimagine Workforce Preparation grant to provide opportunities for Alabama workers to develop new skills in high demand industries.

The grant of more than $17.8 million, funded by the CARES Act, will allow our state to launch additional educational and training programs to help Alabamians who were displaced by COVID-19 transition into new fields.

This grant is just one of many ambitious and innovative steps being taken by Alabama to grow our workers’ skills and make sure they have the support they need to find a rewarding and self-sustaining career.

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The Alabama Workforce Council works to bring together business and industry leaders from across the state to help develop strategies that will ensure Alabama workers have the skills they need to thrive — and in industries that can better withstand economic traumas like that brought on by COVID-19.

AlabamaWorks, the official brand of the Alabama Workforce Council, serves as the network of interconnected providers of workforce services, including government agencies, educational institutions and private sector partners that train, prepare and match job seekers with employers.

It is through the AlabamaWorks website, located atwww.alabamaworks.com, that job seekers can find access to the tools they need — free training resources, hiring resources and career planning resources to help find in-demand jobs that are available right now.

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Likewise, employers can also go to www.alabamaworks.com and find free resources to recruit, train, and hire workers.

Connecting Alabama workers to good jobs and employers to a skilled workforce is our most pressing objective and will help us achieve Alabama’s postsecondary attainment goal of adding 500,000 credentialed workers to Alabama’s workforce by 2025. As we plan for the economy we’ll need after the pandemic subsides, it is essential to connect workers to the upskilling pathways that provide them with new opportunities in rebounding fields and careers.

Tim McCartney, formerly of McCartney Construction in Gadsden, is the Chairman of the Alabama Workforce Council.

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Opinion | The vice presidential debate that never was

Had Johnson and Lodge debated, who knows, but that election might have had a different outcome.

Will Sellers

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President John F. Kennedy meets with Director General of the Atlantic Institute, Henry Cabot Lodge, in the Oval Office, White House, Washington, D.C., 1961.

Over the last few election cycles, we’ve become accustomed to seeing the candidates for vice president square-off in a debate. Perhaps this is acknowledging the greater responsibilities performed by modern day vice presidents. I’ve always regretted that 60 years ago, vice presidential hopefuls Lyndon Johnson and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. didn’t debate.

It would have been a show of contrasts and with the election so razor thin, just might have made more of a difference. I’d like to imagine the refined and striking Cabot Lodge gracefully walking on the debate stage and standing adroitly behind the podium, poised and ready for repartee.

The scion of a blue blood Boston family, Lodge was a dedicated public servant having served his country in the House and then in the Senate as his family had done for generations. While he lost his senate seat in 1952 to Jack Kennedy, he continued to serve his country as Ambassador to the United Nations. In this role, he became the embodiment of Eisenhower foreign policy.

In stark contrast, think of Lyndon Johnson, lanky and awkward not especially polished with suits that weren’t precisely tailored. If there was another side of the tracks, that is where Lyndon grew up. The hard scrabble life he embodied, his limited education and his inarticulation was something even the Kennedys described as  “hick” and “cornpone.”

Johnson’s entry into politics was less of a calling to public service and more of a way out of insignificance. In fact, he won his Senate seat by a mere 89 votes. Rumors of fraud haunted him, earning him the nickname “Landslide Lyndon.” Lodge’s entry to the Senate saw him win a decisive vote and any thought of impropriety was unfounded.

But in 1960, Johnson was majority leader of the Senate and not only possessed power but exercised it as absolutely as his mentor Sam Rayburn did in the House. Johnson wielded enormous influence.

Lodge had been in the minority most his entire tenure in the Senate. But he too wielded power, but his power was a mastery of nuances in rules and personal persuasion that allowed him to effectively pass legislation that by its nature was bipartisan. Using rules to impose majority rule is easy since you have the votes.

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Johnson’s role as majority leader was to corral his fellow democrats into line and balance the more progressive factions of the party from Northern states with the conservatives from the South. That he did this well is evident in how the senate operated. Lodge’s task was harder; he wasn’t in the majority or in a leadership position and had to gracefully weave and bob through the senate rules and personal relationships to be effective.

If the debate featured questions about military service, Johnson would have been embarrassed. While he wore his silver star lapel pin, the story behind his valor had less to do with action in combat and more to do with political influence.

If competent journalists had probed the record and incident further, they would have discovered that contrary to Johnson’s recitation of his heroism, he had in fact been on the ground in a malfunctioning B-26, when other planes in the same squadron were attacked by the Japanese.

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While Johnson was supposed to be an observer on a bombing run over Lae, his plane developed engine trouble and had to return to base.  Somehow Johnson created a myth that he engaged the enemy and took actions of such magnitude that he was awarded the Silver Star. It would have been uncomfortable for sure if the Swift Board Veterans for Truth had their sights on Johnson. Lodge on the other hand had the distinction of being the first sitting senator since the Civil War to resign from the Senate and serve on active duty.

And Lodge’s service was not in the rear echelon, but he was engaged in combat and even captured a German patrol. He went on the assist General Deavers in France and was a liaison officer to the Free French commanding general. Any questions about military service and comparison of war records would have favored Lodge on every level.

For him, active duty meant just that, and his medals and citations were real and deserved. And even after the war, he continued to serve with distinction in the reserves.

While Johnson was classified as a Southerner, he was much more of a populist and new dealer. For a Republican, Lodge was very progressive and did not find many aspects of the new deal to be objectionable.

Probably ahead of his time, he was more of a globalist and understood the need for the United States to be and stay involved in world affairs; foreign affairs was his bailiwick and he had aptly advocated U.S. policy in the United Nations and spared frequently with Russian disinformation.

Johnson was more of a domestic policy man and his view of domestic policy was finding policies that had large price tags that could be implemented to benefit his family, friends, and supporters. Not coming from money, Johnson used his power to create an empire of radio and TV stations that some how escaped effective regulations by the FCC. If Lodge had a self-interest, it was advocating for the United States. And his advocacy wasn’t always appreciated by American allies as when he took the British and French to task over the Suez Canal. Communist countries especially resented Lodge’s unashamed dedication to peace and freedom and his advocacy for stability and against hostilities.

But the one policy that created the starkest and most significant divide was race relations and civil rights. Had there been a debate, the money question garnering the most viewers was when the moderator asked each of the candidates for their position on civil rights.

The question would have been trap for Johnson. He had voted against every civil rights bill during his entire time in federal office. While the Kennedy team pointed to his help in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1957 to assuage liberal constituents, most people knew that Johnson had watered down the bill so much that it was only window dressing and had limited impact.

Lodge was a progressive on race and had supported any number of bills to end discrimination and enforce desegregation. On the campaign trail he even suggested that he was in favor of having a Black man in the cabinet. In fact, it was Lodge who suggested that Ralph Bunche would be a wonderful ambassador to Moscow. This progressive thinking in 1960 was hardly well-received in all quarters.

So, if a debate had taken place, anyone viewing or listening would have seen two different visions of American progress. But the debate didn’t occur, and we can only imagine what might have happened. Funny enough, Johnson’s record on Civil rights was embarrassing to the Kennedy clan; and, while Nixon was a strong supporter of civil rights, he had to distance himself from some of Lodge’s more progressive ideas.

Knowing how close the election in 1960 was and the allegations of voter fraud in Chicago and Texas, had Johnson and Lodge debated, who knows but that election might have had a different outcome.

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Opinion | Open letter to AG Steve Marshall and all district attorneys of Alabama

It is important to all sports fans and families that during this time of emergency that price gouging should not be tolerated.

Rep. Tim Wadsworth and Rep. Ed Oliver

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(VIA AUBURN UNIVERSITY ATHLETICS)

State of Alabama and/or federal agencies tasked with the enforcement of price gouging violations should review actions by those who seek to profit from sports ticket sales during a declared state of emergency.

On March 13, 2020, Gov. Kay Ivey declared a State of Alabama Public Health Emergency due to the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19. The state of emergency is still in effect and extended through Nov. 8, 2020. The law specifically prohibits the “unconscionable pricing” of items for sale or rent during state of emergency.

The University of Alabama, Auburn University, UAB and other colleges have placed emergency restrictions on sports tickets so that only 20 percent of the capacity of the stadium or venue can only be used. The select few patrons who are awarded tickets to Alabama, Auburn and UAB games will have a commodity that, if sold, could result in a higher price and excessive profits for the select few who receive and sell those tickets.

The Office of the Attorney General and the local district attorney’s offices should be on guard for excessive prices charged for sports tickets. The price gouging laws of the State of Alabama are active and should be enforced. The law does not create a private cause of action. The attorney general and district attorneys are the only officials who can enforce the laws.

The attorney general’s office sent a memo in March 2020 that stated:

“Alabamians should be on guard against those who would seek to prey upon them through price gouging of commodities and services for consumption or use as a direct result of the public health emergency,” said Attorney General Steve Marshall. “Furthermore, those who seek to profit during this time of emergency through price gouging will be subject to the law.”

Football season has just begun, and already the prices for the limited available tickets are escalating. A family not lucky enough to be awarded sports tickets must purchase the tickets in the open market and be subject to possible price gouging. Already we have seen prices as high as $1,000 and 3 to 4 times the face value during this public health crisis.

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Alabama’s price gouging laws should be enforced for sporting events with restricted ticket availability during the crisis.

The price gouging statute does not define what constitutes an unconscionable price. The law states that a price that is 25 percent or more above the average price charged in the same area within the last 30 days — unless the increase can be attributed to a reasonable cost in connection with the rental or sale of the commodity — is a prima facie case of unconscionable pricing.  Penalties are a fine up to $1,000 per violation.  Further, those that are determined to have willfully and continuously violated this law may be prohibited from doing business in Alabama. Each university assigns a ticket price for specific games each season, which should be in compliance with the current price gouging statue.  Recipients of those tickets should be cognizant of the Alabama price gouging laws.

Families and individuals should not be forced to pay high prices for tickets due to the limited supply of tickets.  During this difficult time, everyone has been affected by COVID-19. Sports tickets should be sold at normal prices instead of sky-high, price gouging prices. We, as legislators, are calling on the appropriate agencies to enforce our laws.

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Alabamians who want to file an illegal price gouging report are encouraged to do so via the Alabama Attorney General’s Consumer Interest Division web link at alabamaag.gov/consumercomplaint, or by calling 1-800-392-5658 to receive a form by mail to complete and return. You may also write the Alabama Attorney General’s Office, 501 Washington Avenue, Montgomery, Alabama, 36130.

It is important to all sports fans and families that during this time of emergency that price gouging should not be tolerated.

Demand for tickets is high.  Supply of tickets is low.  Protection of the public should be a high priority. We ask you, our constituents, to report any suspected violations of price gouging.

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