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Opinion | Take control of your energy budget during COVID-19

Jeremy Oden

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Summer is peaking and so are utility bills. Historically the July-September months are always the most expensive electric bills of the year. You’re most likely using more power in a time when so many are crunching their budget, due to Covid-19. Your utility has likely implemented measures for delayed payments and waivers for late fees, but at the end of the day, the meter keeps accruing usage.

Instead of waiting until the end of the month and being shocked by the total of the bill, I would like to make you aware of some quick tips that will put you in greater control of how you use electricity. These tools will better equip you to use power more efficiently and effectively to remain in line with your budget.

Because Alabama Power is the largest provider of electricity in the state, I decided to use their online website’s tool as an example, but some of these tips translate to whoever your electric provider may be.

If you are an Alabama Power customer with an online profile and want to manage your bill better, start here. If you do not have an online account, the first thing you need to do is sign up for an online profile by clicking here. Have your account number handy (it can be found on the paper copy of your power bill) and you’ll be signed up in under five minutes.

Once you’re signed in to your online account you’ll be able to track your “Recent Power Usage” and be able to compare your most recent power bills. That alone will better inform you of your month-to-month usage. But that’s not the best part.

From the Menu” tab, click “Billing and Payments” and then “Usage Alerts”. This will take you to a screen where you can enter your desired monthly usage or daily usage in dollar amounts, and each day you go over that limit, Alabama Power will email you a notification. This tool puts you in greater charge of controlling your monthly bill. If you know the maximum amount in your budget for your power bill each month, take that amount, divide by the days of the month, and you’ll know the exact amount you need to set the alert for. Knowing this will allow you to make necessary changes as needed to how you use your appliances in your home.

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The second important tool to take advantage of under “Menu” is “Energy Checkup”. This is a real state-of-the-art tool that everyone should use. “Energy Checkup” offers tips on different kinds of appliances to upgrade to that would potentially save you money, but more than that, it offers an “Energy Use Breakdown” of how you’re using electricity and fuel in your home. As you’ll see from the chart below, everything you use in your home is accounted for.

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These tools are all about empowering you to know how you’re using electricity in your home and will give you opportunities to manage your electric bill.

If you are not an Alabama Power customer, it is possible your power provider has online tools and alerts that will be of a similar benefit. If you cannot locate these services via your online account, call your local provider and ask them what is available for you to take advantage of. And if by some chance your provider isn’t offering these resources, I encourage you to petition them to improve access to these tools.

Lastly, utilities have been working with us during the pandemic to waive disconnections and late fees, but many of those moratoriums are coming to an end. If you need further assistance, please reach out directly to your provider to find a solution that works best for you. Also, there are great opportunities via LIHEAP where you can petition for assistance. You can find info about their services here.

I hope that every one that is reading this has been safe and making the most of your summer during this unique and challenging time. One of my main goals right now, as Public Service Commission (PSC) Place One Commissioner, is to help provide you information to help better position your business and family to navigate this very difficult season. And for all of us dealing with the challenges of COVID-19, my prayers are with you.

Jeremy H. Oden is the Alabama Public Service Commissioner Place 1. Opinions expressed do not represent the position of the Public Service Commission or its other commissioners.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | In Alabama, the past is prologue

Even after 200 years, Alabama’s political approach hasn’t changed much; the fundamentals established by its founders are still evident in everyday politics.

Bill Britt

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Like people, governments have pasts, and today’s fortunes are either furthered or frustrated by the things that came before. It might be said that even history leaves DNA.

Understanding Alabama’s past is essential to navigating its future because its government’s origins determine that the past is prologue.

Even after 200 years, Alabama’s political approach hasn’t changed much; the fundamentals established by its founders are still evident in everyday politics.

Those who observe Alabama’s governing process closely see the same structural problems impede progress year after year. Resistance to home rule and a regressive tax system are just two of the many roadblocks to a more prosperous state.

Some unresolved issues are due to a lack of leadership, but others are inherent within the state’s original governing procedures. Even the state’s architects’ elitist attitude is still prevalent with near total power given to a Legislature dominated by one-party rule. The earlier settlers’ prejudices are enshrined in every process of governing.

Failure to understand, acknowledge, and change the state’s historical patterns hinders advancement, leaving the state nearly dead last in every metric of success. It doesn’t have to be this way, but the cure is always met with fierce rejection because beyond admitting ingrained inequities, any change would upend 200 years of consolidated power.

When Republicans promised a new day in Alabama politics in 2010, some sincerely believed that change was possible. Still, after nearly a decade of Republican one-party rule, there isn’t a substantial difference in governing practice.

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It’s not because good people haven’t tried to make a difference; it’s that there are systematic flaws that thwart reformers while rewarding the status quo.

A region’s founders and its dominant settlers are the creators of what can be called a state’s DNA. Alabama’s government still reflects the make-up of its original colonizers.

Much of the Deep South was established by slave owners who intended to recreate a society based on the Caribbean colonies of Great Britain.

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In his 2011 non-fiction work American Nations: A history of the eleven rival regional cultures of North America, Colin Woodard shows how Deep South states were “Marked by single-party rule, the domination of a single religious denomination, and the enshrinement of a racial caste system for most of its history.” He also writes that these cultures supported regulation on personal behavior while opposing economic restraint.

Today, Alabama’s governance framework and, to a lesser degree, its society is much like the Deep South characteristics Woodard describes.

One Party rule.

A dominant religion.

A racial caste system.

And a willingness to impose regulations on personal behavior while opposing almost every economic restrictions.

Woodward’s findings mirror Alabama’s state government.

Alabama’s central governing power is based on a top-down fraternity where a privileged few hold the reins of authority with a whip hand ready to strike.

Even before statehood, Alabama was regulated by an upper class who built the territory’s economy slave labor. The same class gained even more control after statehood.

“By the antebellum period, Alabama had evolved into a slave society, which…shaped much of the state’s economy, politics, and culture,” according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama.

Slaves accounted for more than 30 percent of Alabama’s approximately 128,000 population when it was granted statehood in 1819. “When Alabama seceded from the Union in 1861, the state’s 435,080 slaves made up 45 percent of the total population,” writes Keith S. Hebert.

The state is currently home to approximately 4.9 million individuals. If 45 percent were slaves today, that would account for around 2.2 million people in bondage.

After the South lost the Civil War, Reconstruction ushered in an era where “a larger number of freed blacks entered the state’s electorate and began voting for the antislavery Republican Party,” according to Patrick R. Cotter, writing for the Encyclopedia of Alabama.

But the old establishment fought back and instituted the 1901 Constitution, which permanently ended any challenge to one-party rule and restored white supremacy in government.

A major feature of the new constitution was a poll tax and literacy tests and other measures to disenfranchise Black people and poor whites.

As Republicans reminded voters in the 2010 campaign cycle, Democrats controlled Alabama politics for 136 years. But these were not liberals; far from it. Alabama’s old Democratic Party for generations was home to racists, not radicals.

It was only over time that the Democratic Party became the diverse collation it is today.

With Republicans holding every state constitutional office and the Legislature, the one-party rule continues as it has throughout the state’s history; only the name has changed.

Looking back over the founding years of Alabama’s history, barbarity is searing, and the atrocities unimaginable. Yet, the fact remains that these early framers thought nothing of enslaving Blacks or treating poor whites as little more than chattel. It shocks our modern sensibilities as it should. Still today, the state continues in a system of government steeped in framers’ institutionalized prejudices.

Famously 19th-century British politician Lord Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Alabama’s fathers wanted a government that gave absolute power to the few at the expense of the many; that is as true now as it was then.

There is a path to a better government, but as Lord Acton also said, “Great men are almost always bad men.”

History may not repeat itself, but politics does, and that is why Alabama’s history is prologue for today.

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Environment

Opinion | Capping Alabama Power’s ash pond might be the best bad option

When you look at the actual, real-life options for this stuff — and I can’t believe I’m going to say this — but the plan from Alabama Power seems to be a fairly good one. 

Josh Moon

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It would be wonderful if coal ash didn’t exist. Had humans never figured out that you could blast the top off a mountain or send desperate men deep into the earth to find coal to be burned to produce power, I’m not sure we wouldn’t be substantially better off. Just think of the environmental damage and human deaths that we could prevent. 

But that’s not real life. 

In real life, we live by the kilowatt. And as a result, we’re left with tons and tons and tons of coal ash — the leftover, toxic remnants of all that coal we’ve burned to keep all those lights on. And something has to be done with all of it. 

Exactly what we want to do with it is the dilemma facing Alabama Power and state and federal regulators. And there seems to be no answer that doesn’t tick off somebody. 

You can’t just leave it in wet ash ponds anymore, because the EPA has essentially — and very appropriately — made that illegal. 

You can’t cap it in place — a process by which the water is sucked out and cleaned and the remaining coal ash is covered with a synthetic liner and then with synthetic turf — because environmental groups say that still leaves a risk that some contaminants will leach into the groundwater. 

You can’t haul it away to a landfill — where it would be dumped into a lined pit and later covered — because nearby residents hate it and environmental groups say the dumping can lead to airborne contamination that sickens nearby residents. 

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So, what do you do? 

No, really, I’m asking. What should we do with an ash pond like the one at Alabama Power’s Plant Barry? 

Plant Barry has been a major point of contention between the power giant and environmental groups, particularly the Mobile Baykeeper and the Southern Environmental Law Center, for years now. But the conflict, in this particular instance, isn’t quite as simple as the usual cost-v-environment arguments that usually dominate these situations. 

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Barry’s ash pond currently holds 21 million tons of coal ash. That’s a big ash pond. 

It is located just feet from the Mobile River, separated by a 21-foot dike. For years, environmentalists have predicted that the pond is one good hurricane away from a major environmental disaster. (That has proven to be mostly hyperbole. Hurricane Sally pushed the Mobile River level up 3 feet. That’s 18 feet below the top of the existing dike, and the water has never been within 15 feet of the top.)

Alabama Power has maintained that the coal ash is as safe as a big, arsenic-laden baby and that no weather event in 55 years has disturbed the material stored at the site. But the company, after recent EPA law changes, is moving to cap in place the pond — a process it says will virtually eliminate the potential for contamination. 

Not good enough, the environmental groups have said. They want the coal ash moved to some other location. 

What location? The moon, preferably. Or some other place where humans will never come in contact with it.

However, when you look at the actual, real-life options for this stuff — and I can’t believe I’m going to say this — but the plan from Alabama Power seems to be a fairly good one. 

Look, I know that several heads just exploded, but hold off on the emails and angry tweets for a minute or two and let me explain. 

First, coal ash is a problem no matter where it’s stored or how it’s stored. Is placing it in a lined landfill at another location safer than capping it in place at Plant Barry? Possibly, but several people — people who are experts in the field — disagree about the overall danger and about the types of dangers related to each option. 

For example, capping the ash in place poses a higher risk that toxins could, at some point in the future, leach into the groundwater. APCO officials, and their hired engineers and third-party experts, insist that the new engineering improvements made to the site will significantly reduce that likelihood, making it almost equally as safe as a lined site. 

The plan APCO has presented has been approved by the EPA and is being monitored by ADEM.

But let’s say that APCO decided to go with the approach that some environmental groups want — trucking all 21 million tons of coal ash, after it’s been dried out, to a lined landfill site somewhere else. (And no one has a good thought on where that somewhere else is, by the way.)

That would mean, according to APCO’s estimates, more than 30 years of moving this stuff, with semi-trucks leaving out of the site every six minutes and traveling to wherever. Along county and state roads. And then dumping this stuff in another community that I can guarantee you does not want it. 

Pardon me, but sending diesel trucks up and down the roads for three decades (or two decades, if we go by most optimistic projections) doesn’t sound very environmentally friendly either. Nor does it sound like a solution that will prevent complaints. It also sounds like a blown tire or missed turn away from being an environmental disaster somewhere else. 

Capping this ash in place at Barry will move it another 750 yards away from the Mobile River. It will result in the dike being raised another three feet, eliminating the risk of a flood-caused disaster by anything other than a 1,000-year storm. The site will feature new engineering to cut off groundwater leaching and it will be monitored continuously for leaking. 

That all sounds pretty reasonable. 

Look, I’m not recommending that APCO get an environmental award or anything here, but at the same time, I think it’s OK to say that they’ve chosen the best of several bad options.

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Opinion | Alabama’s budget year begins this week. COVID-19 has played havoc

The coronavirus pandemic has left a half billion dollar cut to Alabama’s state budgets for the upcoming year, but the debacle has decimated other states much worse than Alabama.

Steve Flowers

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The new fiscal year begins this week for Alabama government. We have two budgets, a General Fund and an Education Budget. Both budgets have seen devastating havoc to their revenues due to the coronavirus. The Education Budget was drastically destroyed from what was originally expected at the beginning of the calendar year in January.

The Education Budget receives the revenues generated from our sales and income taxes in the state. Therefore, the downturn in the economy is especially heartbreaking for educators, teachers, schools, and universities.

The Education Budget was poised in January to be by far the largest and robust in state history. There was money for a 6 percent increase over the $7.1 billion 2020 Education Budget. However, that was eliminated and the budget is level funded.

Altogether, the coronavirus pandemic has left a half billion dollar cut to Alabama’s state budgets for the upcoming year.

The pandemic debacle has decimated other states much more than Alabama. Indeed, our legislative budget committees have done such a good job as stewards of our tax spending and of budgeting that, unlike other states that are deficit spending and headed towards bankruptcy, there is a slight increase in our two budgets.

In fact, all surveys nationally rank Alabama in the top five of the 50 states when it comes to how well states are handling and are able to absorb the staggering blow to state’s budgets.

Our state budget chairmen, Reps. Bill Poole of Tuscaloosa and Steve Clouse of Ozark and Senators Arthur Orr of Decatur and Greg Albritton of Escambia, have done a yeoman’s job of keeping Alabama afloat by passing conservative budgets and implementing rainy day funds.

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The Education Budget will be about $7.2 billion. The General Fund will be about $2.2 billion. The difference in what was expected in January is about $500 million.

However, Alabama’s share of the Federal Stimulus money is said to be $1.8 Billion. This is like manna from Heaven.

The General Fund budget still includes increases for the Alabama Medicaid Agency. The Department of Public Healthalso got an increase to cover a larger share of the costs for The Children’s Health Insurance program. The Department of Mental Health got an increase to setup three regional crisis centers for folks with mental illness caused by the epidemic.

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The Department of Corrections will get about a $20 million increase, but it may not be enough to satisfy the feds. Within the Education Budget, the Legislature was able to fund a bond issue for school and capital projects. All-in-all, it could be a lot worse. Again, Alabama is in better shape than other states.

One of the best things the crafters of our 1901 Constitution did was to make it unconstitutional to have a deficit budget. We have a constitutional mandate that we cannot spend more than we take in. We cannot print money in Alabama like the Federal Government does. The amount of red ink that the federal government is stacking up is staggering.

The federal government with the printing of new money sent over $1.8 billion to the state in the 2020 Cares Act bailout. This money was sent to the states to pay for expenses incurred from the coronavirus epidemic.

That is a lot of money and it did not take lawmakers and the governor’s office long to start salivating and feuding over the use of the pandemic relief manna from Heaven from the good old debtor Uncle Sam.

Indeed, the fight over the windfall money caused quite a brouhaha between Governor Kay Ivey and the Legislature. It is a natural spat because it is a gray constitutional interpretation of power between the Legislative Branch, which is given the power to appropriate money, and the Executive Branch which administers state government.

The Cares Act of 2020 passed by Congress, which appropriated a total of $105 billion of which Alabama received $1.8 billion, is different than the federal bailout funds during the Great Recession. This relief money for this year cannot be used to aid in current or long-term expenses. It can only be used for expenses directly related to or incurred for expenses directly caused by the coronavirus.

We are in the waning days of the census count. If you have not been counted, be sure you are.

See you next week.

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Josh Moon

Redemption not revenge drives Tuberville supporter

Josh Moon

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Edgar McGraw speaking at a Tommy Tuberville event.

It would make for a great political story if Edgar McGraw hated Jeff Sessions. In fact, it would be the kind of legendary story of revenge that TV movies are built around.

This man, Edgar McGraw, is arrested on drug distribution charges in 1986 and prosecuted by then-U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions. Sessions takes everything from McGraw and gives gleeful media interviews bragging about the arrest and seizures of McGraw’s property.

McGraw gets out of prison, rebuilds his life and becomes a respected, successful business owner. All the while, biding his time until the day he can exact revenge upon Sessions.

One day in 2020, he sees his chance: A former college football coach in a football-crazed state is running against Sessions for U.S. Senate. McGraw throws some money to the coach, hosts a fundraiser for him.

And the coach does the unthinkable. He upsets the 30-year politician. With McGraw’s help, Jeff Sessions’ career is over.

McGraw smiles.

But real life ain’t like the movies.

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And in real life, Edgar McGraw has none of these dreams of revenge. He holds no ill will. He wasn’t gleeful the night Sessions lost, instead he was glad his friend Tommy Tuberville won. And he didn’t back Tuberville because he was running against Sessions, but because McGraw and Tuberville were friends long before Tuberville dipped a toe into politics.

That’s life, I guess. You go looking for a revenge story and end up with a redemption story.

“(The conviction) is water under the bridge to me,” McGraw said. “I made my fair share of mistakes, I paid the price, and I have moved on with my life. I believe every single person makes mistakes in life, but how you respond to those mistakes and live life afterward is what really matters. As Dr. Tony Evans says ‘everyone is going to get knocked down in life in one way or another, what’s important is how you get back up.’

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“I never look back, that is just my personality. Just like you don’t drive a car looking in the rear-view mirror, I am always looking forward.”

I first heard about McGraw’s history a week ago, when someone sent me photos of Tuberville speaking at an event, McGraw standing by his side. McGraw was labeled a “felon” in a description with the picture, and that piqued my interest.

I read through a few newspaper articles about his arrest in the 1980s on drug distribution charges, and I thought it was possibly one of the craziest things I’ve come across in quite some time.

Basically, the story is this: McGraw, who was a successful businessman in Camden even in the 1980s, conspired with a handful of people to fly about $2 million worth of marijuana from Jamaica to a private air strip in Camden. The weed was going to McGraw’s farm, according to court records, where it would have been distributed and sold.

It never made it.

Drug dealers apparently aren’t great at physics, and $2 million in 1980 bought a lot of marijuana — approximately 1,400 pounds — that needed to be equally distributed around the small plane. Instead, according to media reports, the guys in Jamaica — McGraw wasn’t one of them — failed to secure the load and it all shifted to the tail of the plane. The plane crashed into a marsh on takeoff.

Still, Sessions and the U.S. Attorney’s Office were able to build a case with several informants and by flipping witnesses. And they went hard after McGraw, who maintained that he had a limited role. The federal jury that convicted McGraw of conspiracy to distribute also acquitted him of conspiring to import the weed, so there was obviously some gray area.

Regardless, Sessions went after McGraw’s property, utilizing recent and broad changes to asset seizure laws in the late-1980s that allowed prosecutors to tie virtually any property to drug money and then seize it. The federal government, with little evidence, took McGraw’s motel, the Southern Inn in Camden. It was one of the biggest asset seizures in the country at the time.

McGraw ended up being sentenced to 15 years in prison. He served less than half of that and prison records show he was released in 1992.

When I learned of McGraw’s history, I tweeted a couple of the newspaper clippings and speculated that McGraw had thoroughly enjoyed Tuberville ending Sessions’ political career. Because, I mean, Sessions took the guy’s motel — for marijuana that didn’t even get here.

He has to hate him, right?

Then I emailed McGraw to ask if he’d be willing to talk to me about it. I expected one of two things to occur: Either he would ignore me altogether or he’d accept the interview and express his great personal satisfaction.

He did neither.

Instead, McGraw told me the same story that he’s been telling at the Christmas party for Camden work release inmates. He volunteers with a Christian ministry that works with the prisoners. And each year, McGraw, who now is best known as part owner of the McGraw-Webb Chevrolet dealership in Camden, stands up in front of those inmates and lets them know that there is a pathway to redemption. To a better life. To a happy life.

“What happened coming up on almost 35 years ago, seems like a lifetime ago,” McGraw said. “My faith grew immeasurably during those years and the Lord has blessed me immensely since. I have been happily married for 27 years and I have three wonderful children; 26, 25 and 21 years old. I would want people to know to not let the past mistakes in life mold you. Brokenness can be a breakthrough.

“I feel like I am one of the most blessed people in the world and I give God all the credit. I would hope that I would be thought of as someone who came back home, worked very hard and served his community, church, and family to the absolute best of my God given ability.”

As far as his dealings with Sessions, McGraw said he’s had very little. While he clearly disagrees with Sessions’ decisions in his case — all McGraw would say is that he’d leave that up to Sessions to answer for — he said he’s spoken to the former U.S. AG just once in the past three decades. That meeting came at an Auburn basketball game, where McGraw introduced himself and reminded Sessions of their past. McGraw said the conversation was cordial and lasted only a few minutes.

He swears he holds no ill will towards Session at this point. His support of Tuberville had nothing to do with his history, or even politics really. Records show McGraw has donated to only one campaign in his life — Tuberville’s. And that came about because the two are old friends.

“My relationship with Tommy Tuberville began sometime while he was coaching at Auburn,” McGraw said. “We became friends with the Tubervilles as our sons became close friends while attending Auburn University and our friendship has grown since. Our family made our first contribution to Tuberville in April of 2019. I want to be very clear that my support of Tommy Tuberville was only influenced by our friendship and his political views and had nothing to do with Jeff Sessions.”

And maybe that’s for the best.

2020 has more than its fair share of nasty political stories, revenge stories and just plain ol’ dirtiness. Maybe a good story of redemption is something we could all use at this point. Maybe what we need to hear is the message that McGraw gives to those 100 or so inmates each year at Christmas.

“I strive to give (them) the hope that whatever they have done in the past does not have to limit their future,” McGraw said. “I learned to take nothing for granted and that every single day is a gift from above.”

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