Alabama Senator Shelby to lead powerful Appropriations Committee
Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby is on the brink of becoming the new chairman of the Appropriations Committee, a post with great influence over more than $1 trillion in annual spending.
Shelby was confirmed by panel members to lead the committee and is sure to be ratified by the full Senate soon.
He will replace Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran, who recently retired from the Senate due to poor health.
Shelby said he doesn’t know whether he would support a likely White House effort to roll back recent spending increases that have drawn the ire of conservatives, but that “it might be that Congress is going to stay where they are.”
Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri would take over Shelby’s current role as chairman of the low-profile Rules Committee.
$62.3 million to be invested in bringing broadband to Alabama’s rural areas
HAMILTON — A group of public officials and business executives gathered in Hamilton on Thursday to announce four investments by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) totaling $62.3 million. The investments are all aimed at improving broadband access in Alabama’s rural areas.
The two most substantial investments, at $29.5 and $28.2 million respectively, are 50/50 loan grant combinations being given to Tombigbee Electric Cooperative and Millry Communications.
The Tombigbee investment will affect Marion, Lamar, Fayette, Franklin, Winston and Walker counties. The Millry portion will affect Choctaw and Washington counties.
Per the USDA, the investment will total $62.3 million. The funds are aimed at creating high-speed broadband infrastructure. The USDA estimates it will improve internet connectivity for more than 8,000 rural households, 57 farms, 44 businesses, 17 educational facilities, 14 critical community facilities and three health care facilities in rural Alabama.
Two smaller investments are being made in National Telephone of Alabama (TEC) and Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative.
The TEC investment is a $2.7 million 50/50 loan-grant combination serving Colbert County. The Farmers investment is a $2 million loan that will affect unserved areas in Jackson and Dekalb counties.
Present at the announcement were U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development Donald “DJ” LaVoy, Tombigbee Electric Cooperative CEO Steve Foshee, Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs Director Kenneth Boswell, along with representatives from Millry Communications, National Telephone of Alabama (TEC) and Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative.
“Beyond connecting us to our friends and family, high-speed broadband internet connectivity, or e-Connectivity, is a necessity, not an amenity, to do business, access opportunities in education and receive specialized health care in rural America today,” LaVoy said.
In March 2018, Congress appropriated $600 million to the USDA with the intent of expanding rural broadband access in rural America. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue unveiled in December of 2018 the “ReConnect” program by which rural areas could apply for the allocated resources. The USDA says they “received 146 applications between May 31, 2019, and July 12, 2019, requesting $1.4 billion in funding.”
The $62.3 million announced for Alabama on Thursday makes up over 10% of the total money spent by the program.
ReConnect dispenses grants, loans and grant/loan combinations to private sector providers in rural communities. The ReConnect money goes to building high-quality broadband infrastructure in areas with inadequate internet service. The USDA defines insufficient service as connection speeds of less than 10 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload.
The funds for the program originated in the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture. A subcommittee on which Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04) sits.
Citing Congress being in session, Aderholt appeared at the announcement via a pre-recorded video. He said he was glad the program would “help close the ‘digital divide’ that isolates so many parts of rural America.”
“This program is beginning to pay dividends in rural Alabama and America,” he said of ReConnect.
“USDA also recognizes the strong leadership of Senator Shelby in making these funds available for rural communities in Alabama and across the country,” USDA Alabama Rural Development Director Chris Beeker told Yellowhammer.
“Expanding freedom FIBER broadband to residents across northwest Alabama meets a critical e-Connectivity need,” said Steve Foshee, president and CEO of Tombigbee Communications. “From students having the ability to complete their schoolwork, to our neighbors in need of receiving adequate healthcare, freedom FIBER broadband will help improve the lives and communities of rural northwest Alabama.”
Foshee also emceed the event and was praised by name by each of the other speakers for his tenacity and commitment to providing internet for his area.
Several groups of school children were bused in for the announcement and sat in the audience.
ADECA Director Boswell said to the young people in attendance, “You’ll be able to travel the world at your fingertips, no more having to go to McDonald’s for the hotspot.”
Two employees at the McDonalds nearest the site of the announcement confirmed to Yellowhammer that students from local schools frequented the establishment after school to use the internet.
Annis Jordan spoke at the event on behalf of Millry Communications. Millry provides service in Washington and Choctaw counties. Jordan said Millry had wanted to invest in high-speed broadband for the last 10 years, “but the financial analysis then and throughout the years since did not allow us to proceed until this year.”
State Rep. Tracy Estes (R-Winfield) said a substantial part of the coverage will be in his district, and complimented Steve Foshee for his work in bringing the project to fruition.
He told Yellowhammer, “This is a big day for rural Alabama. Too many times, we’re left watching on the sidelines.”
Fred Johnson, the CEO of Farmers Telecommunications Corp, praised Aderholt in his remarks, calling the dean of Alabama’s U.S. House delegation “the one person most largely responsible for the funding of this program.”
Joey Garner, a VP of TEC, one of the companies receiving an investment, said, “We are thrilled with the opportunity to increase our fiber internet network in Alabama with the assistance of this federally-funded grant. TEC is committed to our local service areas, our customers, and our employees, and we look forward to these great opportunities and additions in 2020.”
State Rep. Proncey Robertson (R- Mount Hope) also represents areas that will be covered after the announced investment. He said in a text to Yellowhammer, “High-speed internet is as important today as electric power was in the 1930s.”
U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne (AL-01) said in a statement to Yellowhammer, “Today’s announcement is fantastic news for Alabama. This significant investment from USDA of $62.3 million in high-speed broadband infrastructure across rural Alabama is critical for economic development, education, healthcare, and quality of life in our state.”
One of the students in the audience was Natalie Langley. She told Yellowhammer that her house benefitted from a previous Tombigbee expansion of high-speed internet.
“It was bad before,” she said of her old internet connection, “my mom spent a lot of money on cellular data before we could get fiber.”
In remarks to reporters after the event, Undersecretary LaVoy praised the cooperation between Alabama’s public officials and businesses that brought the announcement to fruition.
“This is the model, what we have in communities like this,” he said, gesturing to those around him. “I would say Alabama is at the forefront of being able to make what we want to see happen.”
Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.
He swings by the National Memorial for Peace and Justice outside of Montgomery, not to learn anything, but to attack a fictional problem of “white supremacy.”
No one in the press dared to ask what he has done about this in his current position, or even what he will do if he becomes president. They acted like the dutiful scribes and staff photographers that they are so he can say, “I went to the lynching memorial” the next time his lack of black support is questioned.
And what better way to gain street cred nationally among black voters than to attack Alabama lawmakers for passing an abortion ban that the citizens of this state solidly support?
Buttigieg said, “What we see in Alabama unfortunately among legislators is a refusal to follow the law of the land.”
But this is not true.
Alabama lawmakers passed a law that was specifically meant to challenge the interpretation of the “law of the land,” which is, obviously, not a law at all but a Supreme Court ruling.
Supreme Court precedent is challenged all the time. He should know this.
Again, expecting the American press or their less competent Alabama counterparts to question him on these things is a mistake; they don’t have the knowledge necessary to do so.
But Buttigieg’s pandering was so broad he needed to be in the state for more than one day to get it all in.
While appearing at an event in Birmingham, he made the point that raising the minimum wage would disproportionately benefit non-white Americans.
How he reconciles that argument with his suggestion that we bring in more immigrants to compete with low-income workers is beyond me, but again, no one in the media seems interested in drilling down on these poorly thought-out arguments.
This is all just a PR trip and nothing more. Buttigieg is bumping up in some polls but is still struggling with black voters.
The first state with a large number of black voters is South Carolina, where he is polling fourth overall with 6% of the vote and a whopping 0% among black voters.
Remember why Buttigieg came to Alabama: It wasn’t to court voters here. It was solely to pander to black voters in other states.
Dale Jackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a talk show from 7-11 am weekdays on WVNN
Alabama’s innovative reform to Medicaid is paying dividends
One of the toughest, yet least-talked about, challenges facing the U.S. today is how to effectively deliver affordable health care to America’s growing population of senior citizens. The U.S. Census Bureau has predicted that by 2035, the number of adults over the age of 65 will exceed the number of children under the age of 18. The graying of America’s population especially creates a challenge for what, at times, can be a fractured and overly complicated health care delivery system.
In Alabama, over 90,000 senior citizens’ health care is funded in part via Medicaid, the federally-mandated insurance program that serves the elderly, the poor, and the disabled. Even though Medicaid is federally-mandated, that definitely does not mean that the federal government covers all of the costs — Alabama’s portion of the costs provided by the general fund was $755 million in Fiscal Year 2019, a figure which eats up 37% of all non-education spending by the State of Alabama.
Over the past several years, I have worked closely with the past two governors, other legislative leaders, Medicaid Commissioner Stephanie Azar and private sector partners to identify new delivery models that will bend the cost curve down for Medicaid, while ensuring Alabama’s senior citizens on Medicaid still receive good medical care.
In early 2017, I went to Washington, along with Speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives Mac McCutcheon, Medicaid Commissioner Azar and other state leaders, to meet with Dr. Tom Price, who then served as President Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services.
That trip and subsequent phone calls and data presentations paid off: in 2018, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in Washington granted Alabama the opportunity to pursue a new delivery model of health care services for the more than 20,000 senior citizens in Alabama who are receiving long-term care through Medicaid.
Let me tell you: it is not an easy thing to persuade a federal agency to grant a state a waiver from any program’s requirements. Federal government employees – even the hardest-working and best-intentioned – are not necessarily keen on innovation.
In October of 2018, Alabama launched the Integrated Care Network (ICN). In this new model, Medicaid contracts with an Alabama-based healthcare provider to serve the 22,500 patients who are receiving long-term care through Medicaid. These senior patients and their families have expanded choices through the ICN: most are in nursing homes, but about 30% have chosen to receive care in the comfort of their own homes.
Where are we nearly a year down the road from the ICN launch? A few weeks ago, I convened a meeting of Medicaid, the Department of Senior Services, nursing home owners and health care providers. Their reports were encouraging. According to Medicaid’s estimates, the ICN model has already saved the state $4 million — and Medicaid projects the savings to grow over the next few years.
In 2039, if trends hold, 42% of Alabamians will be 60 years or older. For the senior citizens who will need Medicaid’s assistance, it is imperative that we continue to modernize and innovate in the area of health care, especially for programs like Medicaid that are funded by the taxpayers.
Newton’s first law states that an object will remain at rest or in uniform motion along a straight line, unless it is acted upon by an external force — inertia, in a word. That is a concept that often applies to government programs and agencies. In this instance, the innovation of the Integrated Care Network represents the external force that is moving Medicaid to a sounder fiscal footing.
Greg Reed is the Alabama Senate Majority Leader, and represents Senate District 5, which is comprised of all or parts of Walker, Winston, Fayette, Tuscaloosa, and Jefferson counties.
Ivey invites Alabamians to join as she lights Alabama’s official Christmas tree
Governor Kay Ivey has invited Alabamians to join her for the official state Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony. The program is scheduled for Friday, December 6 at 5:30 p.m. on the front steps of the Alabama State Capitol.
“I invite all Alabamians, friends, and neighbors to join us here at the Capitol for that special occasion. This is always a wonderful event and serves as such a great reminder of the spirit of hope that Christmas brings,” said Ivey in a news release.
According to the release, Alabama’s 2019 Christmas Tree is a 40-foot-tall Eastern Red Cedar. It was grown on Mr. and Mrs. Ray Allen’s Farm in Bullock County. When lit, the tree will have around 37,000 lights strung on its branches. It will also be decorated with special bicentennial ornaments to celebrate Alabama’s 200th birthday.
At around 5:00 p.m. on Friday, the 151st Army National Guard Band will begin playing. At 5:30, the ceremony will begin. The program will also have a performance by the Forest Avenue Elementary School Choir.
Ivey will be joined in making remarks by commander and president of Air University at Maxwell Airforce Base Lieutenant General James Hecker and others.
The citizens assembled are invited to join the governor in counting down before she flips the switch to light the tree.
Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: email@example.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.
Merry and bright: How Regions’ headquarters building lights became a holiday tradition
It’s a tradition that’s now over 40 years strong.
Every year, the Regions Center tower in Birmingham, Alabama, is transformed into a brilliant holiday display – with Christmas trees, a massive wreath and a giant stocking celebrating the season every evening.
The lights are visible for miles – from vistas along Red Mountain, to travelers crossing through town on nearby interstates, and to airline passengers about to land at the airport a few miles to the east.
“Every year, we’re asked how we do it, and while we’ve made a couple updates over time, the process is still very similar to the way it was in the late 1970s,” explained Emilio Cerice, Senior Vice President of Corporate Real Estate for Regions Bank. “The lighting display didn’t begin until the late 70s, but it turned out, the stage was set for the display about 10 years earlier.”
While the building was under construction between 1968 and 1971, Cerice said a light tube was placed in a small area above each window starting on the fifth floor. Initially, the idea was to light the building in bright white every night. But the energy crisis of the 1970s brought that to an end.
“The history of using the lights as a Christmas display started after the energy crisis was over,” Cerice said. “Back then, the building was owned by First National Bank of Birmingham and a company called Sonat – or Southern Natural Gas. The details have been hard to pinpoint, but it’s been said that a Sonat executive was in Houston and saw a building that used its ‘curtain wall’ design – similar to what we have – for a Christmas display. That executive came back to Birmingham and led the effort to get a display here.”
Over time, the building has gone on to carry the AmSouth name; then, following the 2006 merger of AmSouth and Regions, the Regions name and its updated logo were placed atop the tower. But through it all, the holiday lights have remained.
“It’s something we look forward to every year – and it’s something the city looks forward to,” Cerice said. “In recent years, it’s been fun to watch social media and see people sharing creative photos of the building or sharing their memories of coming downtown to see the lights.”
Preparations for the display get underway around late summer or early fall each year.
“The images are created by placing red and green ‘gel sleeves’ over the white light tubes above each window,” Cerice said. “Crews operate with a grid showing the pattern of the display on each side of the building, and that lets them know which windows need which colors. Then, they change the display in February or March every year to the golfer image that we display during the Regions Tradition golf tournament. That one uses some different shades of green, as well as blue, so there’s a lot of changing and re-changing of the gel sleeves that takes place.”
Testing of the Christmas display takes place during the early morning hours in the days before Thanksgiving. If needed, any corrections are made. Then, at 5pm on the day after Thanksgiving, the display comes to life. It remains illuminated until midnight each evening through Dec. 31.
“If you’re near a window from the fifth floor and up when the display comes on each night, it’s very noticeable,” Cerice said. “A lot of people like to try to figure out where their office is in the tree, or the wreath, or whichever side of the building they’re on. We had a team that moved offices two years ago, and not long after they moved in, they looked at the lights above the windows and tried to figure out, ‘So where are we within the tree here?’ They compared the colors of the lights to a video of the building on YouTube and determined they were almost halfway up the tree in their new offices.”
Besides the holiday display and the golfer, the tower has hosted two other displays.
“In 1991, there was an American flag and the letters ‘USA’ in support of those serving during the Gulf War. Then, in 1996, there was an Olympic torch and the Olympic Rings when Summer Olympic soccer was being played at Legion Field,” Cerice said.
The Regions Center tower rises nearly 400 feet over 5th Avenue North at 20th Street North in downtown Birmingham. Some of the best views are from Birmingham’s Railroad Park, as well as from Vulcan Park on Red Mountain.
“Birmingham is our headquarters city. We’re proud to occupy a prominent spot in the city’s skyline,” Cerice said. “And we’re proud to carry on this tradition.”