The Wire

  • The surprising link between Alabama seafood, timber and U.S. national security, and how Shelby is leading the way

    Excerpt:

    There are plenty of areas of debate over exactly how and where the U.S. should spend its foreign aid dollars. But for Alabamians in particular — and the entire Gulf Coast region more broadly — the international assistance that flows into cracking down on illegal wildlife trafficking is paying massive dividends, both economically and, perhaps more surprisingly, in terms of national security.

    A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation indicates Americans grossly overestimate the amount the federal government spends on foreign aid.  The average answer was foreign aid accounts for a whopping 31 percent of spending. Fifteen percent of respondents actually thought it represented over half of the U.S. budget.

    In reality, according to the Congressional Research Service, it accounts for about 1 percent total when military, economic development and humanitarian efforts are combined.  And it is paying massive dividends for Alabama.

    Here’s how:

  • Rep. Byrne to Hold 12 Town Hall Meetings

    From a Congressman Bradley Byrne news release:

    Congressman Bradley Byrne (R-AL) announced today that he will hold twelve town hall meetings during the August District Work Period.

    Known as the “Better Off Now” Town Hall Tour, Congressman Byrne will hold public town halls in each of the counties that make up Alabama’s First Congressional District. Byrne will discuss how the American people are better off now thanks to a booming economy, stronger military, and safer communities.

    Byrne ranks among the top of all Members of Congress for the number of town hall meetings held. Since assuming office in late 2013, Byrne has held over 100 town hall meetings, including meetings over the phone and through Facebook.

    All the town hall meetings are open to the public and free to attend. All the information can be found online below.

  • HudsonAlpha technology director to present at Google Cloud conference

    Excerpt from a HudsonAlpha news release:

    HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology Technology Director Katreena Mullican has been invited to present at the Google Next ‘18 conference in San Francisco, Calif, July 24-26.

    Google Next is an international conference where more than 10,000 developers, technology leaders, and entrepreneurs come together to have a collaborative discussion about the Google Cloud Platform.

    Mullican has more than 20 years of experience in architecting Linux, virtualization and hybrid cloud solutions. As HudsonAlpha’s Cloud Whisperer, Mullican brings her expertise in automation of on-prem composable and public cloud infrastructure for scientific applications and workflows to the Institute.

    “HudsonAlpha is one of the top sequencing centers in the world, so it’s my job to think outside the box to design hybrid platforms appropriate for our sequencing and research workloads,” said Mullican.

    Mullican will participate in a Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) Cloud Talk Tuesday at 1:00 pm in the South Hall to discuss how HudsonAlpha uses the composable HPE Synergy platform for an on-premises Kubernetes cluster that can scale to Google Cloud Platform.

2 months ago

Candidates for governor, lieutenant governor discuss broadband needs

(W.Miller/YHN)

Alabama ranks 45th in broadband access for its residents, making internet growth a vital infrastructure issue and a topic of discussion in the upcoming elections.

In advance of the June 5 primary, Alabama Policy Institute and Yellowhammer News queried candidates for governor and lieutenant governor on what they felt were important infrastructure investment projects and their solutions to funding them without wasting too many taxpayer resources. Most candidates focused strictly on such issues as roads and bridges, but some discussed broadband needs.

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, who is running for governor, pointed out that under his leadership, the city embarked on a project to extend fiber to every city resident in Madison County. Huntsville is leasing its fiber to Google Fiber, which will provide gigabit-capable speeds across the Rocket City.

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“Roads and infrastructure investment is vital to our growth and prosperity, but we must also be working on and investing in the infrastructure of tomorrow, like fiber internet service,” Battle said.

“Alabama is far behind the curve in providing quality internet access to residents,” he continued. “I have a better vision and plan to make Alabama a more connected state.”

The incumbent, Gov. Kay Ivey, discussed the need for better access across Alabama in her State of the State address earlier this year, saying better connectivity would improve education and health care and better enable the state to attract jobs. She pointed out in her answer to API that she supported and signed the Broadband Accessibility Act during the 2018 legislative session.

That bill will offer grants for private internet providers and electric cooperatives to provide broadband access to underserved rural areas. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Clay Scofield (R-Guntersville), originally wanted to offer tax credits instead, but the funding mechanism was changed in the House.

“This law is an important step to moving Alabama forward by ensuring our citizens have the tools and resources needed to succeed in this modern economy,” Ivey said.

“I plan to continue to work with existing Internet providers, education leaders, healthcare providers and others to identify even more ways to expand our broadband capabilities so that every citizen who needs access will have it available,” she added.

Rep. Rusty Glover (R-Mobile), a candidate for lieutenant governor, said the “knowledge economy,” specifically the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, demands a digital infrastructure.

“We started with the broadband bill, which can insure (sic) a better quality of service, which will in-turn attract businesses to Alabama – and especially those areas of rural Alabama which needs jobs the most,” he said.

Glover said he supports President Trump’s infrastructure plan, which doesn’t mandate funds for broadband investment, but does consider high-speed internet a priority.

Twinkle Cavanaugh, a lieutenant governor candidate and current president of the Alabama Public Service Commission, called infrastructure “the backbone of commerce.”

“It is our duty to provide job creators with high speed connectivity, low-cost electricity, and a dependable network of roads, bridges, and waterways, so they can thrive and create new jobs,” she said.

2 months ago

AG, gubernatorial candidates discuss prison reform

(W.Miller/YHN)

A federal judge called “horrendously inadequate” the care of inmates in Alabama’s prison system, which has received national attention. Lawmakers have debated how to handle the overcrowded and understaffed prisons, including possibly privatizing the system.

In advance of the June 5 primary election, Alabama Policy Institute and Yellowhammer News recently asked candidates for governor and attorney general how they think the situation should be handled in a questionnaire sent to all candidates.

Incumbent Republican Gov. Kay Ivey called the prison system “our state’s biggest challenge,” arguing the state’s handling of the situation risks a takeover by federal courts.

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“Correctional professionals work diligently to provide security, medical, mental health and rehabilitative services in a challenging environment,” Ivey said. “They deserve our attention and support. We must also work diligently to provide appropriate care to those placed in the custody of the Department of Corrections.”

Ivey said that after she took office, she instructed DOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn to work with her staff to develop a plan to address correctional staffing and make capital investments in prison infrastructure.

“We will no longer guess about possible fixes,” Ivey said. “Instead, I will present to the people a workable solution to this generational problem.”

Huntsville Mayor and GOP gubernatorial candidate Tommy Battle said prison reform “is a priority in our 90-Day Battle Plan.”

He said to address the problem he would review the federal report with mandates for improvement and determine a course of action that would include a review of all contracts executed by the prior administration.

His plan also calls for working “with judiciary and law enforcement on evaluation of sentencing guidelines, [partnering] with local training programs to establish skills training for inmates that will equip them with the skills needed to obtain a job when they re-enter the workforce [and partnering] with sheriffs and counties across the state to collaborate for additional bed and workforce training.”

State Sen. Bill Hightower, another Republican gubernatorial candidate, said he would approach the issue “in the most cost-effective and positive way possible.”

“I will support mental health efforts and a further segmentation of the prison population in order to treat each situation more specifically,” he said.

The mega prison concept touted by former Gov. Robert Bentley was not politically feasible, Hightower said, so improvements must be made to existing prisons to aid the safety of staff, allow continued access by the community and family members and better enable prisoner reintegration into society. He said the last point would lower recidivism.

“We must enable the prisoners to reenter society and to be successful,” he said. “Our churches and communities are vital to [their] success.”

GOP candidate for governor and evangelist Scott Dawson notes, too, that he disdains the mega-prison concept.

“We can build the largest prisons on earth and talk about consolidating resources, but if we don’t work to eradicate the source of our problems, those facilities will be overcrowded and deteriorated soon enough,” he said.

Instead, Dawson proposes increased partnerships with the faith-based community, nonprofit groups and vocational schools and colleges to provide educational programs, diversion programs and drug treatment programs for prisoners.

“While there is a cost to sin and crime that we must bear, I hope that for every dollar that goes into construction, we will spend an equal amount to give prisoners hope beyond bars and reduce recidivism,” he said.

Incumbent Attorney General Steve Marshall declined to offer an opinion on the issue, noting the state is currently litigating the issue so he didn’t feel it was appropriate.

One of his GOP opponents, former U.S. Attorney Alice Martin, said a prudent reform would be the expansion of drug courts, mental health courts and veterans’ treatment courts “to help relieve prison overcrowding while also improving access to much needed rehabilitation and treatment services.”

Martin said she would ensure that reform does not create a “catch and release environment,” having heard from local law enforcement that current sentencing guidelines and the creation of the Class D felony in Alabama has led to criminals knowing “they will not be held accountable under the current prison reform scheme.”

Martin said she doesn’t oppose private prisons, but said the state “should be cautious in light of the pros and cons experienced by other states who have experimented with private prisons.”

Attorney and former criminal court judge Chess Bedsole, the third GOP candidate for attorney general, said he would also push for better mental health care and expansion of services for veterans.

“As a former criminal court judge, I supported law enforcement efforts to fight drug sales and worked with local charities and churches to help victims of domestic violence,” he said. “I also cut costs to taxpayers by requiring work or school of young, able-bodied, nonviolent offenders.”

Bedsole said he would continue to support law enforcement in those efforts, but would fight against any prison reforms that would “create a revolving door and put criminals back on the streets.”

Former Alabama Attorney General Troy King, who is also a Republican candidate for attorney general, did not respond to the questionnaire.

2 months ago

Business Council of Alabama seen as ‘still effective,’ leadership speculation ‘totally false’

(BCA/Facebook)

Lawmakers and political observers say the Business Council of Alabama still has plenty of pull in the state despite some loses in the State House and speculation about the future of the group’s chief executive officer.

“I think it’s been effective,” said William Stewart, a political science professor at the University of Alabama who argues that supermajorities actually limit the impact of lobbying groups. “But on the other hand, I don’t think it needs to be as effective as it was in the past.”

The organization’s chairman, Perry Hand, also recently dismissed as “totally false” an article by the Alabama Political Reporter claiming BCA’s executive board had agreed to oust CEO Bill Canary. His contract runs until December 2020, a spokesperson said.

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“Trying to bend us to their will, the bloggers have even taken to personal attacks on me, as chairman,” Hand wrote in an email to Yellowhammer News. “We will never be intimidated into bad decision making. The BCA has seen similar tactics in the past, but we will not let our rivals distract or divide us.”

The article didn’t cite any named sources.

Hand said the BCA will continue to look to create a climate in Alabama that is conducive for the growth of existing businesses and recruitment of new ones. He said the organization represents one million working Alabamians through its member companies, which include a wide cross-section of every segment of the state’s business community.

“Our organization is a deliberative body guided by our by-laws and our legislative agenda that is developed by our active members of all sizes,” Hand wrote. “That agenda is adopted by our board of directors annually in advance of every legislative session and focuses on improving major areas that impact every single business in Alabama: Education/Workforce, Healthcare, Infrastructure and Regulations. And, from a national platform, the BCA is Alabama’s exclusive representative to the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.”

The BCA is known as one of the more powerful and wealthiest of the state’s major trade associations.

Nancy Wall Hewston, senior vice president of communications for BCA, told Yellowhammer News in an email that public finance reports from 2016 showed only a “snapshot” in time and shouldn’t be used to determine an organization’s overall financial health.

“The BCA finished 2016 with a balanced operating budget and a surplus of $7,447,” Hewston wrote, adding that the BCA currently has  “zero debt” and “more than one-year’s operating budget in reserves.”

Recent wins and losses

Political columnist Steve Flowers, who is an outspoken critic of Canary, wrote last year that the BCA lost three agenda items in 2017: raising the state gas tax to pay for infrastructure improvements, quashing a bill to require businesses to cover advanced autism therapies in insurance plans and revising the Alabama Accountability Act, which allows parents to move their children from schools placed on the state’s failing list to other schools.

Hewston argued that Flowers clearly handpicked certain items to paint an inaccurate picture.

She said that 2017 marked the first time in 25 years that serious conversations of investing in the state’s failing infrastructure occurred in earnest, and that Gov. Key Ivey, House Speaker Mac McCutcheon and Senate President Pro Tem Del March were among the state leaders who supported renewed infrastructure investment.

She said a wide coalition of business groups support the measure.

“They know that to continue creating jobs in this state, we cannot ignore this issue for another 20 years,” she said. “Now, everyone is talking about solutions to this problem instead of ignoring the problem.”

Among other successful pieces of legislation that BCA was actively engaged in included an update of the Alabama Jobs Act to better help Alabama’s economic development team retain and recruit jobs, more funding for education programs to increase student proficiency and improve the workforce and the defeat of Mandatory Unitary Combined Reporting, a business tax increase pushed by the Alabama Education Association.

“These were all major issues for Alabama’s job creators,” Hewston said.

Because the BCA is such a large coalition of state businesses its hands are on so many pieces of legislation, said State Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster). Therefore, he said it’s hard to give the group a letter grade on effectiveness.

Ward noted that while BCA failed on the gas tax and the autism therapy legislation, it was successful on the 2017 Alabama Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit, which provides a tax credit to owners of homes or commercial properties who substantially rehabilitate properties listed on or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

“I think there was the perception that when Republicans took over in 2010 that they’d get whatever they wanted,” Ward told Yellowhammer News. “They’ve won some and they’ve lost some, but that’s politics for you.”

The autism therapy bill gained nearly unanimous approval in the Alabama Legislature and will require employers of at least 50 workers to provide advanced autism therapies as part of their insurance coverage.

But even then, the BCA enjoyed some success by working to ensure that smaller businesses wouldn’t be affected by the legislation.

The heated debate created plenty of tension: Sen. Dick Brewbaker (R-Pike Road) threatened to filibuster the remainder of the 2017 session if the autism therapy bill didn’t make it to the floor for a vote.

He made it apparent he still holds a grudge against BCA when he recently tweeted, “If either of the candidates running for my old Senate seat, district 25, accepts an endorsement or money from BCA I’m (for whatever it’s worth) endorsing the other one.”

Hewston said that 158 candidates in 140 state legislature races this year have sought the endorsement of ProgressPAC, the BCA’s lobbying arm. It has made endorsements in 116 of those races and spent more than $557,000 in those contests.

Interest groups with less influence?

Canary has led the BCA since 2002, a period of dramatic economic development that coincided with the historic Republican takeover of the State Legislature in 2010.

Stewart, who has studied the effect of supermajorities across the country, told Yellowhammer News that the ensuing GOP supermajority now requires fewer results from lobbying groups like the BCA. Although some have speculated that Canary may be to blame, the professor said he believes that’s a minor issue in the discussion.

“I don’t see it as a Canary issue,” he said. “The interest groups like BCA just don’t have the power they once had.”

BCA never stood a chance on the autism therapy bill, Stewart said.

“Legislation like that, that affects children, legislators don’t want to go back to their districts in an election year and tell constituents they voted against their children,” he said.

(Editor’s note: This article is the second of a two-part series examining the current controversy surrounding the BCA. The first can be read here, along with an editorial written by the Yellowhammer Multimedia Executive Board.)

(Sign-up for our daily newsletter here and never miss another article from Yellowhammer News.)

3 months ago

Legislators share dissatisfaction with embattled BCA head Bill Canary

(BCA/Facebook)

As embattled Business Council of Alabama CEO Bill Canary’s time as head of the organization is debated among insiders, some of the state’s heavy-hitters are expressing dissatisfaction with the leadership of the group.

State Sen. Slade Blackwell (R-Mountain Brook) told Yellowhammer News the BCA “is fantastic,” but its representation in Montgomery is not.

“The current leadership of BCA is a detriment to their agenda,” Blackwell said, adding that Canary’s “presence is just not there.”

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“I can’t remember Billy coming to see me in my office,” said Blackwell, who has served for eight years and chairs the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee. “I would say in eight years he talked to me one time on one issue.”

Blackwell said he believes that because Canary had good relationships with the former leadership structure of the legislature “he didn’t think he needed to build relationships with everybody else.”

Blackwell said that lawmakers who Canary previously ignored now don’t want to help him on issues. Columnist Steve Flowers, who served in the Alabama Legislature for 16 years, wrote in 2017 that “most GOP lawmakers vote against pro-business legislation because of Canary.”

For Canary, it may be a case of not if he will be asked to step down, but when. Alabama Political Reporter reported Thursday that an email chain among members of the BCA executive committee debated the timing, but agreed he should go.

Some of the largest members of the BCA, including Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Regions Bank, want Canary replaced by June 1, while BCA Chairman Perry Hand wants Canary to stay on until after the general election in November, according to the Alabama Political Reporter story.

BCA couldn’t be reached for comment.

Canary, a native of New York, has led the BCA since 2002, when Bob Riley helped put him in place after his election to the governorship. Under Canary’s leadership, BCA and its Progress PAC helped reduce business-harming regulations in the state, but some say his abrasive style lost its effectiveness after the Alabama Legislature became solidly Republican following the 2010 midterm elections.

Things really came to a head last summer when the BCA was accused of blackballing lawmakers by not inviting previously favored Republicans to its annual government affairs conference in Point Clear in August.

AL.com pointed out that many of those not invited had disagreements with the BCA during the 2017 legislative session.

Alabama Power chose not to participate in that conference and is also one of the BCA members calling for Canary to step down.

The most heated issue during the 2017 session was debate over a bill that would require larger employers to provide advanced autism therapies as part of their insurance coverage, which is mandated in nearly every other state.

Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster), whose 15-year-old daughter is autistic, was among the leaders in fighting for the successful passage of the legislation and was also not invited to the conference.

“I was on one side of the issue and they were on the other,” Ward told Yellowhammer News. “There was some bad blood between us, no question. But we’ve sat down and had some meetings and we’re on good terms now.”

Others aren’t on as good of terms. Sen. Dick Brewbaker (R-Pike Road) told AL.com that BCA is a “punitive organization.” Brewbaker is the senator who threatened to filibuster the remainder of the 2017 legislative session if the autism bill didn’t make it to the floor for a vote. It passed nearly unanimously in the Senate.

Rep. Ed Henry (R-Hartselle), who has fought against the BCA on issues he has described crony capitalism, also had ill words for the organization.

“There’s quite a few of us who tanked all their bull crap this year and now they’re mad at us,” he told AL.com last year before the conference.

4 months ago

Alabama’s highest earners benefit most from tax code changes

(Pixabay)

Alabama’s highest-earning families are benefiting the most from the sweeping changes in the tax code that go into effect this year.

The state’s highest earners – those making at least $150,000 a year – topped a WalletHub study released Wednesday comparing how various income levels in each state and the District of Columbia gain or lose compared to workers in other states.

A prime reason that Alabama’s higher earners benefit more than those in other states is because income producers elsewhere are hurt by the high taxes they pay to their states. The tax code now limits to $10,000 the amount that workers can deduct in state and local taxes paid. Those making higher incomes in states such as California, New Jersey and New York pay more than that threshold so their federal tax liability is increased.

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“Conversely then, those taxpayers in low-tax states – even those with extremely high incomes – such as residents in Florida and Texas, are benefiting,” said attorney David S. Neufeld, one of WalletHub’s tax experts.

Tennessee, Wyoming, Arkansas and Ohio rounded out the top five for the highest income bracket.

On the other hand, Alabama’s lowest-income bracket – those making around $25,000 – are among those who will benefit the least from the tax changes. The Yellowhammer State ranked 47th, topping only Pennsylvania, Montana, Wyoming and Vermont.

Middle-income families in Alabama making around $50,000 were the 15th most positively affected by the tax changes.

WalletHub determined how states most benefited by using data from the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy’s 2018 report, which showed estimates of tax change at seven points in a state-specific income distribution.

Workers in all states will benefit from the simplification of the tax code, which increases the standard deduction from $12,000 to $24,000. Benjamin Goldburd, a partner at Goldburd McCone LLP and another WalletHub expert, said an employee who just receives a W-2 will find tax preparation much easier.

“Previously, such a taxpayer would need to gather all the receipts to prove their viable deductions. Such documentation adds a layer of complexity that might require a professional to review, in order to determine what is viable and what is not,” he said. “Now, such a taxpayer, armed with an online self-filling service, can enter their income…and essentially be finished with their tax return overnight.”

4 months ago

Alabama Rural Broadband Act on governor’s desk

(Yellowhammer)

A bill that would provide grants to aid rural broadband expansion is on Gov. Kay Ivey’s desk.

The legislation was delivered to the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon after the Senate adopted changes to the Alabama Rural Broadband Act previously made in the House.

Originally conceived as a bill that would offer tax incentives to companies to provide high-speed internet services to some of the state’s more remote areas, the bill was changed to offer grants instead. Projects that would provide speeds of 25 megabits per second down and 3 megabits per second up would be eligible for $1.4 million per project, while projects providing minimum speeds of 10/1 could get $750,000 each.

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The bill is expected to provide $10 million annually, with the program being administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs. Private providers and cooperatives would be eligible for the money, but government entities would not.

The sponsor, Sen. Clay Scofield (R-Guntersville), wanted to give providers tax credits for providing broadband rather than cash. The bill still has safeguards in place – the money won’t be received upfront and a legislative committee would monitor the program for effectiveness.

Scofield couldn’t be reached for comment this week.

Ivey is expected to sign the bill after speaking about the need for such programs in her January State of the State speech. The legislation sailed through the Alabama Legislature, receiving unanimous yes votes in the House on Tuesday and in the Senate concurrence vote on Wednesday.

Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia), said grants are better for taxpayers.

“It’s more transparent and gives us more accountability,” he said.

In reality, both funding mechanisms have been dismissed by critics. The MacIver Institute said in a 2014 report that incentives can actually hurt economic growth, while Obama’s stimulus grant program was one of the more stark examples of grant largesse.

Alabama lawmakers hope their broadband plan goes hand-in-hand with a proposal from President Trump to spend an immediate $200 billion and long-term $1.5 trillion on infrastructure improvements. Trump hopes to spur more public-private partnerships – so-called P3s – with his proposal to help state and local governments shoulder more of the load. But his plan has faced criticism on both sides – Democrats aren’t fans of the president’s goal to put more costs on the states, while many Republicans say the plan calls for too much spending and haven’t exactly deemed it a high priority this session.

Some on both sides have criticized the lack of any guaranteed funds for broadband, although the plan cites high-speed internet as an infrastructure priority. There are concerns that federal broadband grants could accelerate the growth of government internet projects, which have largely been a sinkhole for taxpayer money.

4 months ago

Alabama rural broadband bill now offers grants rather than incentives

A bill that would help the expansion of rural broadband in Alabama passed a House committee Wednesday, but a big change in the legislation could affect the pocketbooks of state taxpayers.

The Alabama Rural Broadband Act, sponsored by Sen. Clay Scofield (R-Guntersville), passed by unanimous voice vote in the House Education Committee after breezing through the Senate.

Scofield had initially hoped to offer tax incentives to private providers to expand into rural areas. His original legislation would have exempted broadband telecommunications network facilities from taxation for 10 years, exempted equipment and materials used by those facilities from the state’s sales and use tax, and would have offered an income tax credit equal to 10 percent of the investment in those facilities. Total tax credits would have been capped at $20 million per company.

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But the House wanted to switch that to a grant program to possibly tap into President Trump’s infrastructure plan. The White House released a few details about the proposal last month. It would dedicate $50 billion to rural America, and governors of each state – as determined by an as-of-yet unspecified formula – would get 80 percent of the money to spend as they wish under the proposal. The other 20 percent of the funds would be provided to “selected states” that apply for Rural Performance Grants. Trump has said he’d like states to buy-in by chipping into the potential grant program.

Trump’s plan doesn’t dedicate infrastructure funds to broadband, but deems it a high priority.

“It’s not the delivery method we devised,” Scofield told Yellowhammer News of his bill. “The credits were not going to pass the House. That was clear.”

The substituted bill approved by the House Education Committee now offers grants at two tiers to pay for up to 20 percent of a broadband project’s total cost – a cap of $1.4 million per project that offers speeds of 25 megabits per second down and 3 megabits per second up, and a cap of $750,000 per project for 10/1 speeds.

The program would be administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs. Companies would apply for grants, providing detailed information about what areas and residents would be served. Cooperatives would be eligible for the grants, but government entities could not receive the money, preventing the spread of municipal broadband projects through this program.

Rep. Donnie Chesteen (R-Geneva), the bill’s champion in the House, said at a Business Council of Alabama briefing earlier this week that compromise was needed to ensure the legislation moves forward in 2018.

“If we are going to be forward looking in technology, we can’t wait,” he said.

Scofield said some lawmakers wanted to provide the cash up front, but the money will still be given on the back end if the bill passes.

“They asked, ‘If you’re OK with the State of Alabama writing a check and say go build,’…unh-uh. It’s still not a giveaway program with cash.”

The total money that will be appropriated to the bill is still up in the air, but Scofield said he’s been told he could expect $10 million annually.

Although he had to compromise on the funding method for rural broadband expansion, the legislation still contains language that restricts overbuilding and establishes a legislative oversight committee that would monitor the grants to ensure effectiveness.

“It’s a good start to begin getting broadband out to our unserved and underserved areas of the state,” Scofield said.

The bill will be considered by the entire House next week – Scofield said he hopes to place it first on the agenda for Tuesday – and, if passed, would go to Gov. Kay Ivey’s desk. Ivey, in her State of the State speech in January, expressed a strong desire for programs to expand rural broadband.

5 months ago

Alabama Power happy to help restore electricity in Puerto Rico

(Alabama Power)
(Alabama Power)

Some Puerto Ricans have been without power for so long that when the lights come back on the celebration is intense. John Woody, an engineering supervisor with Alabama Power, said he’s seen residents step out onto their porches and bang pots and pans.

You can’t really blame them when many have been without power for five months.

“When we can restore their power it gives them a sense of normalcy back,” Woody told Yellowhammer News. “It puts a smile on their faces, and it also puts a smile on our faces because we know how much it means to them.”

The U.S. territory was devastated by Hurricane Maria in late September, with dozens dying in the most intense tropical storm of 2017. Maria left the entire island and its 3.4 million residents without power.

Utility crews have worked with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to restore the power, but the process is slow. Utility trucks must be shipped by barge, for example, and specific conductors must be used that can withstand tropical weather while suppliers for such materials are few.

“I would hesitate to give you a date,” Lt. Col. John Cunningham of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the deputy commander for the Task Force Power Restoration on Puerto Rico, told NBC News of an estimated completion for power restoration. “We would like to go faster, but right now we’re going as fast as we can.”

ABC News reported on Tuesday the restoration effort could last into summer.

Alabama Power is among a number of investor-owned utilities working diligently in Puerto Rico to help restore power to the estimated third of the population still without it. Crews from across the country have descended onto the island to help in the massive effort.

Woody said his crew is currently in Mayaguez in the western part of the island, having left Birmingham on Jan. 20. He said it’s been a rewarding effort to help return a sense of normalcy to the lives of Puerto Rico residents.

“Anytime you come on a storm reconstruction effort you want to do the job well and do it safely,” Woody said.

Lineman Lazaro Gonzalez, part of that crew, told Yellowhammer News the job is similar to other post-storm reconstruction efforts — clearing trees, raising poles, getting lines in the air — but the hardest part is the time away from home. By the time the crew returns home mid-March they will have been there for six weeks. Most jobs on the mainland last two weeks or less.

“It’s really hard being away from my family for so long,” Gonzalez said of his wife, Jaci, 6-year-old daughter Lily and 5-year-old daughter Lola.

But ultimately the sacrifice is worth the time away, knowing that the crew is able to make a difference in the lives of Puerto Ricans.

“I’m really excited,” Gonzalez said. “It’s the part of the job that makes me feel good — being able to help.”

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6 months ago

Alabama’s new prison health-care provider faces legal scrutiny

(Pixabay)

 

 

The chairman of the Alabama Legislature’s joint oversight committee on prisons says lawmakers must “have transparent oversight” of a health-care provider picked to service the state’s prisons that is embroiled in legal turmoil in Mississippi.

The Alabama Department of Corrections recently selected Wexford Health Services, Inc. to provide medical care in state prisons. Commissioner Jeff Dunn said in December the Pittsburgh-based company was chosen “based on a combination of quality of care and overall cost.”

The exact details of the contract must still be ironed out, but will be in the ballpark of $100 million annually to serve Alabama’s 20,000 state prisoners. The contract calls for a 25 percent boost in staff both for medical care and mental health, and the Legislature must give final approval.

Wexford is one of a dozen companies that the state of Mississippi has sued for its alleged involvement in a bribery scheme involving former state prison commissioner Chris Epps and former legislator Cecil McCrory. Wexford held Mississippi’s prison health-care contract from 2006 to 2015 and paid consulting fees to McCrory.

A grand jury indicted McCrory and Epps in 2014 on charges that Epps accepted bribes to steer prison contracts to McCrory. Last year, Epps received a 20-year prison sentence while McCrory got hit with eight-and-a-half years in prison.

Ward told Yellowhammer News that Dunn told the prison oversight committee on Wednesday that he and a panel of four others selected Wexford, one of three companies in the running for the contract. All three of those companies face legal trouble in other states, Ward said.

“All three companies are being sued in different states for different reasons,” he said.

The prison oversight committee will continue examining the issue when it meets again in February.

“We want to make sure we have transparent oversight of what’s going on,” Ward said. “Of course, we can’t force them to pick one company or another, but we have right to get access to how the decision was made, what’s the process, how much are we talking about.”

“The Mississippi case for Wexford does stand out, and I think it’s something we have an obligation in the Legislature to ask a lot about and continue questioning their ability to perform the contract in a good way,” he added.

One of the firms that Wexford beat out was Corizon Correctional Care Health, the current provider. Alabama now faces a federal lawsuit alleging its correctional system isn’t providing adequate mental health care for its inmates. Corizon also faced scrutiny in New York City, which ended a contract with the firm after it claimed that Corizon hired doctors and workers with criminal histories.

Corizon issued a statement to Yellowhammer News that said after the company’s contract with New York City expired in 2015, the new administration chose not to outsource correctional health care moving forward.

“While our company typically screens its own employees, the New York contract mandated that the city perform all background checks,” the statement read. “Corizon submitted each and every applicant for the necessary screening, but an audit later determined the city granted security clearances without conducting background checks as the contract required.”

“The issues arising in New York had nothing to do with allegations of kickbacks or bribery. While legal issues arise in prison health care just as they do in every other medical setting, corruption is not and should never be considered ‘business as usual’ in our industry,” the statement continued.

Alabama has submitted a plan in the federal suit that calls for doubling the mental health staff in prisons at an annual estimated cost of $10 million, with additional money needed for programs. Prison funding promises to be one of the hottest topics during the 2018 legislative session.

Wexford said in a statement it didn’t know about the misdeeds of Epps or McCrory and was ensnared in Mississippi’s lawsuit only because it had employed a consultant mentioned in the investigation, AL.com reported.

“We were never accused of doing anything wrong or inappropriate,” said company marketing director Wendelyn Pekich.

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6 months ago

State Senator hopes to spur rural broadband development in Alabama with incentive program

(Tanner Boriack/Unsplash)
(Tanner Boriack/Unsplash)

 

A state senator in Alabama hopes the third time is the charm in his effort to spur rural broadband development by creating tax incentives for providers.

Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville, told Yellowhammer News he plans to file legislation on Thursday that has the same three-pronged approach he’s tried in the past.

The legislation would exempt broadband telecommunications network facilities from taxation for 10 years, exempt equipment and materials used by those facilities from the state’s sales and use tax, and would offer an income tax credit equal to 10 percent of the investment in those facilities.

Tax credits would be capped at $20 million per company – but a credit that large would require an investment of $200 million in rural Alabama.

Scofield introduced similar bills too late in the 2016 session to get any traction and his legislation passed the Senate before becoming stuck in the House in 2017. But he’s optimistic this year could be different, given the increased focus on broadband investment.

“Trump’s talking about it,” Scofield said. “Gov. Ivey included it in her State of the State address.”

Ivey, a native of Camden in rural Wilcox County, said in her speech Tuesday night that many rural communities in Alabama lack sufficient broadband access.

“Adequate broadband enhances educational opportunities, increases economic development prospects and develops critical communication systems,” she said. “I strongly support legislation to encourage new broadband investments, and I ask the Legislature to join me in assessing our state’s broadband needs, to ensure resources are placed where they are most needed.”

Scofield notes that rural broadband is lacking because the return on investment isn’t there for providers who must build costly infrastructure to serve sparsely populated regions. While providers such as AT&T are investing in new technologies such as fixed wireless, which beam internet signals from cell towers to nearby homes, those speeds are only a slight step up from DSL.

Some lawmakers are pressing for government to step into the fray, such as Sen. Tom Whatley (R-Auburn), who has introduced bills to allow the expansion of government-owned networks – such as the broadband system of Opelika Power Services located in his district.

But Scofield takes a more limited government approach, noting that the private sector has both the expertise and the economies of scale to do the job more efficiently.

While tax incentives have sometimes taken a beating as corporate giveaways, Scofield points out that his legislation is trying to spur development that doesn’t – and probably wouldn’t – exist without the laws he’s trying to create.

“Obviously, we’re not losing anything because nothing is there now,” he said.

The 2018 incarnation of his legislation will include a sunset provision after five years, and put the administration of the credits under the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs. Scofield said that since any federal broadband infrastructure funds that might be allocated by Congress in 2018 would likely go to ADECA, it makes sense to have that department oversee this program, too.

Scofield’s legislation would also create a legislative oversight committee that will ensure the incentives are effective.

“I don’t know any other incentive that has a legislative oversight committee,” he said. “So essentially there’s accountability built into the legislation.”

Johnny Kampis is a contributing writer for Yellowhammer News and has been published in such outlets as the New York Times, Time, Fox News and Daily Caller over the course of his nearly 20 years in journalism. He is the author of the upcoming book “Vegas or Bust: A Family Man Takes on the Poker Pros”  detailing his adventures at the World Series of Poker.

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