Governor Kay Ivey responds to 2018 gubernatorial candidate questionnaire

Governor Kay Ivey recently responded to a gubernatorial candidate questionnaire from the Alabama Policy Institute and Yellowhammer News. Her responses are below:

POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY AND PRINCIPLES

Question: What is your political philosophy and, if elected, how would it shape the way you govern?

Ivey: Growing up on the family farm in Wilcox County, I learned to put in a hard day’s work, to live within our means, and the importance of faith, family and community. These are the same values I have carried with me throughout my life.  As a public servant, I have always fought for conservative principles: promoting economic growth, protecting taxpayer dollars, fighting for the unborn, preserving our Second Amendment rights and restoring the people’s trust in government.
How have you demonstrated your commitment to your political philosophy?

When I became Governor, I told you we’d clean up the mess in Montgomery and bring back conservative values—and we have. Immediately upon assuming the role of Governor, I turned over nearly half the cabinet and replaced them with people of integrity. With executive orders, I’ve streamlined state government, shut down unnecessary task forces, and banned lobbyists from appointments by the executive branch.

From my experience as Lieutenant Governor, I understood and prioritized open communications between the Executive and Legislative Branch to make sure we were effectively working together for the people of Alabama – and we did. In only one year, I signed hundreds of bills and resolutions – nearly one for every day I’ve been in office – and now Alabama is working again. But, I’m not done yet.

What is the most important role of the governor?

First and foremost, a Governor should have a vision and plan to promote conservative values, incentivize economic prosperity, improve education, and maintain the trust of the people. As Governor, I have made it my job to make sure you have a job with a good paycheck. Under my leadership, Alabama has created more than 13,000 new jobs, achieved the lowest unemployment rate in Alabama history, and most recently, I signed the largest middle class tax cut in a decade.

What is the most challenging social issue facing families in Alabama? Does government have a role in helping to solve that problem, and if so, what would you propose?

As a pro-life conservative, I believe every life is precious, starting at conception. Throughout my time as a public servant, I have championed policies such as protecting the unborn and preventing the use of taxpayer dollars from paying for abortions.

Alabama has four abortion clinics operating across the state, and Planned Parenthood has announced plans to build a new clinic in downtown Birmingham. How do you feel about these clinics and what would you do as governor about any taxpayer funds they receive?

I have and will always advocate for those who are unable to advocate for themselves. I’m pro-life because God teaches us to love life, and he created us and wants us to love one another, and I will always fight to protect the unborn.

As Governor, I supported President Trump’s action to rollback Obama-era regulations and stop the use of state Medicaid dollars from paying abortion providers. Prohibiting the use of tax dollars for abortions or abortion-related services is just one small step towards saving the unborn.

I am honored to have been recognized for my pro-life record, receiving endorsements for Governor from Alabama Citizens for Life and Susan B. Anthony List, two leading pro-life groups.

EDUCATION

PUBLIC EDUCATION

Alabama is ranked number forty-seven on U.S. News and World Report’s list of Best States for Education, and ranked number 1 in Pre-Kindergarten quality. As far as public education reforms, there have been many suggestions for improvement including increased investment in STEM education, distance learning, and reforming teacher tenure. What reforms would you propose or support to improve public education and prepare Alabama’s children for school success and lifelong learning?

I have an experience in my life that makes me unique among a lot of Governors—I began my career as a teacher. Being a teacher shows you what a school can do, and what an adult in the life of a child can help them achieve.

Alabama needs a comprehensive approach that improves education from Pre-K to the workforce, that’s why I launched “Strong Start, Strong Finish.” The “Strong Start, Strong Finish” education initiative focuses on three stages of education: 1) early childhood education, 2) computer science in middle school and high school, and 3) workforce preparedness. I instituted Strong Start, Strong Finish because we must prepare our people for the jobs of today and for the jobs of tomorrow. By 2020, 62 percent of all jobs available in Alabama will require some form of postsecondary education.  However, today, only 37 percent of our workforce has achieved such an education. We must ensure that our students graduate high school and then earn a postsecondary certificate or degree.

I am also proud of the education budget that I signed into law.  We added another $216 million in education funding, for the largest investment in education in a decade, and this money goes straight into the classrooms.

Education is the cornerstone of a better life, and I am committed to doing everything I can to make sure Alabama children have the resources they need to complete school, be prepared for the workplace and succeed.

ALABAMA STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION

Dr. Eric Mackey was recently named Alabama’s next State Superintendent of Education. The governor serves as a voting member of the Alabama State Board of Education. What vision for Alabama do you share with the new superintendent and where do your philosophies differ? How will you prioritize Alabama’s school children in your role on the Board?

Choosing the next State Superintendent is one the most important decisions entrusted to the Board. Before we began the process, I laid out a thorough and deliberate process to ensure we chose someone with a forward thinking vision that would improve the quality of education for all Alabama students.

Ultimately, I voted for Dr. Mackey because of our shared vision and commitment to ensuring children have a strong start to their educational journey and a strong finish so they can succeed when they enter the workforce. I also appreciate Dr. Mackey’s plans to improve assessments,  the quality and quantity of our teachers, and to reduce administrative overhead. Dr. Mackey also demonstrated an important and strong commitment to continue and complete the Montgomery Public School intervention.

As president of the Board, I am focused on setting clear goals to improve learning and adopting strategy for educators to implement. I believe the Board must also see that Dr. Mackey is fully empowered to focus on students, unhindered from personal or political agendas.

SCHOOL SAFETY

The recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida reignited the discussion about school safety. President Trump has suggested arming teachers while others have argued for increased use of school resource officers and funding for mental health programs. As governor, how would you ensure the safety of Alabama’s children in public schools?

Earlier this year, I unveiled the “Smart on Safety Initiative”, a four-pronged plan to ensure the safety of our children at school. It’s an unfortunate reality but we must be prepared to prevent and respond to violence on our school grounds.

Details on the Smart on Safety Initiatives:

Secure Schools: While each school is different, the state will support local educators and administrators as they meet their own safety needs. As part of this plan, I signed a bill that allows schools to access funds from the Education Trust Fund Rolling Reserve Acts for the improvement and enhancement of school safety.

We Know Our Schools: A key part of the plan includes prevention. Schools are encouraged to identify at-risk students through student engagement and intervene before they harm themselves or others.

Emergency Operations Plan (EOPs): If a tragedy does occur, school personnel need to be empowered to act before first responders arrive. Schools should work with first responders and law enforcement on an ongoing basis to develop and maintain a current coordinated response to emergencies. Teachers and students will also receive regular trainings.

SAFE Council: An issue this critical does not leave room for error, which is why I established the SAFE Council. Composed of the Secretary of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, the Secretary of the Office of Information Technology, the Alabama State Superintendent of Education and the Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Mental Health, the SAFE Council carefully and thoroughly developed a report focused on the improvement of physical security, threat assessments and mental health and coordinated training. Some of the council’s recommendations will be immediately implemented, and I will be working with the State Legislature on the items that require further action and consideration.

SCHOOL CHOICE

In 2015, Alabama became the 43rd state to approve legislation to authorize charter schools. Many states now allow parents to transfer their child from a failing public school to a non-failing public school, to utilize education savings accounts or school vouchers, or to send students to alternative schools using tax-credit scholarships, allowing parents greater control in their child’s educational endeavors. How should school choice fit into Alabama’s education system?

As president of the Board of Education, an intimate knowledge of the education system is critical to our children’s success and ultimately the success of this great state. As a former teacher, I appreciate the benefits of school choice. School choice provides healthy competition, and competition can effectively raise student performance, teacher attendance, and financial management. As a conservative leader, I will always support and empower local administrators.

FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY

TAX CODE

In Alabama, the bottom 20% of earners pay 10% of their income in state and local taxes while the top 1% only pays 3.8% of their income in the same taxes. If elected, what would be the future of the state income tax and do you see this disparity as a problem?

This year, I was proud to work together with the state legislature to pass the largest middle class tax cut in a decade. Under the new law, we increased the threshold for claiming the maximum exemption for state income taxes.

I understand that every dollar spent by the government belongs to the people. And with the economy booming, I am pleased that we were able to give back to Alabamians some of their hard earned money.

STATE AND LOCAL TAXES

According to the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy, Alabama boasts the 12th most regressive state and local tax system in the nation. One contributor to this ranking is our combined 9% grocery tax (only four states tax groceries more than Alabama). In 2017, Governor Bentley proposed decreasing the grocery tax by 4%. If you are elected, would you suggest changes to the grocery tax?

During my first year in office, I focused on giving Alabamians back some of their hard earned money with the largest middle class tax cut in a decade. This is a first step, but we are certainly not finished. With support from the people of Alabama, I would dedicate the next four years to continuing the good work we have begun.

Tax reform requires a comprehensive approach. As families know, financial planning requires an examination of how much money is being earned and how much money is being spent. Before we can determine what taxes should be changed or eliminated, we must conduct a thorough review of government spending to identify and eliminate unnecessary spending.

Promoting economic growth is another important step to reducing the tax burden on families. As Governor, I have made it my job to make sure everybody has a job with a good paycheck.

In less than a year, we steadied the ship, achieved record low unemployment, approved record funding for education and still managed to give Alabamians the largest middle class tax cut in a decade. Imagine the progress we can make if given four years to implement our agenda.

INFRASTRUCTURE INVESTMENT

US News ranks Alabama’s roads and bridges as the 16th and 21st best in the country, respectively. Even so, every neighbor of ours—except Mississippi—has roads and bridges that rank in the top 10. Alabama also ranks 45th in terms of broadband access. If elected, what would you prioritize as the most important infrastructure investment projects, and what innovative options would you propose to fund such projects?

Infrastructure is a critical component to job creation efforts. If we want to be competitive in the 21st Century economy, we must invest in our roads, bridges and broadband Internet.

However, current infrastructure funding in Alabama provides for only two of three important aspects:  1) We are able to provide for the general maintenance of roads and bridges; and 2) We periodically fund priority projects to alleviate some of the state’s most congested roadways.  The third aspect which we are unable to fund under our current structure is that of 3) priority projects which continue to be on our state’s “wish list.” This wish list is typically driven by the recommendations of local officials as they determine their greatest needs.

Shortly after being sworn in as Governor, I was chosen as one of eight governors to work with President Trump on how to improve our infrastructure.  As we have worked with President Trump and the Federal Highway Administration, we have begun to implement alternative methods to address the expansion of infrastructure. For example, we have applied the utilization of public-private partnerships (P3s).  The greatest example of this is the I-10 Mobile River Bridge.  This project is one of the most significant infrastructure projects in the United States, and we will take a business-minded approach by leveraging the private sector for a more efficient and cost-effective outcome to the state and its residents.

Infrastructure is not just limited to our roads and bridges. Our ability to continue to attract world-class companies and improve access to quality education and health care is dependent on widespread access to high speed Internet. I prioritized broadband access by supporting and signing “The Broadband Accessibility Act” into law during my first full legislative session as Governor.  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. But I’m not done yet.

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.

STATE-RUN LOTTERY

Most states resort to installing a state-run lottery to increase revenue and pay for government projects. Do you support a lottery to solve the state’s fiscal woes? Why or why not?

In Alabama, a state lottery would require a Constitutional amendment, which requires the state legislature to pass a bill which then goes directly to the people for a vote.  If the state legislature passed a bill, I would support allowing the people of Alabama to vote.

THE RIGHT TO WORK

JOB CREATION

The Census Bureau suggests that Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee are creating more jobs than Alabama. As governor, how would you foster job creation that rivals our neighbors to the north, east, and south?

Under my leadership, Alabama is attracting world class companies. In only a year, more than $6 billion have been invested, 13,000 jobs have been created and we have achieved record low unemployment. But, we’re not done yet. If we want to continue to recruit job creators, we need to improve education, modernize our infrastructure and strengthen our workforce development.

ROLE OF LABOR

Alabama is a right-to-work state. In your opinion, what is the proper role of organized labor and should Alabama remain a right-to-work state?

Yes, workers should be entitled to work without being forced to join a labor union. This affords workers more freedom, including financial burdens. Being a right to work state is not only good for workers, it’s good for the overall economy as it increases competition and promotes more economic growth. I believe a free marketplace is most effective.

OCCUPATIONAL LICENSING IN ALABAMA

The state of Alabama licenses 151 different occupations and over 20% of Alabama workers need a license to work. If elected, how would address these regulations—regulations that both the Obama and Trump administrations have regarded as problematic?

I am fully committed to reducing the size and scope of state government.  I have led efforts to streamline government operations and continue to make that a priority. Government should exist to protect citizens, help the most vulnerable, and create an optimal environment for job creation.  Our economic development successes over the last year prove that companies see Alabama as a state with a favorable economic and regulatory climate.  However, government can always operate more efficiently and effectively for the people.

I will continue to push for more friendly policies for businesses and individuals and fully commit to President Trump’s policies for a less burdensome government. Government was created for the people and by the people.  It should not be an “us vs. them” mentality.  The dollars that support state government do not belong to the bureaucrat – but to the residents of this state.  We must always remember to spend them with meticulous and thoughtful results in mind.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE

OPIOID EPIDEMIC

According to the CDC, Alabama is the state highest-prescribed with opioids, with more prescriptions than people. Opioids are the main driver of overdose deaths and, in 2016, 756 Alabamians died from drug overdoses. As governor, how would you tackle Alabama’s share of this national crisis?

The opioid crisis is an issue that touches all our communities. This isn’t a political issue, it’s destroying lives regardless of political parties, and we must do everything in our power to stop it.

That is why I signed an executive order to establish the Opioid Overdose and Addiction Council, which is tasked with addressing the urgent epidemic that is ravaging our families.

CRIME PREVENTION

Alabama has the third highest murder rate in the country. As governor, how would you address crime and what policies, specifically, would you propose?

Any efforts to target crime reduction must begin early in an individual’s life with commitment to create a different culture, environment and opportunity for everyone.  For Alabamians to have career opportunities, they must be prepared when the right job comes along. My education initiative, Strong Start, Strong Finish does just that. Under Strong Start, Strong Finish we will coordinate our efforts and bring all stakeholders to the table in order to improve education all the way from Pre-K to the workforce effective education requires a strong foundation in a child’s early years. In 2017, under the leadership of Secretary Jeana Ross, Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program increased the number of classrooms to 938 statewide. Research shows us that students who participate in Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program are more likely than other students to be proficient in reading and math at every grade level.

For the 11th year in a row, our First-Class Pre-K program was recognized for being the highest-quality Pre-K in the nation. In fact, Harvard University is currently developing a full-length documentary on Alabama’s Pre-K program to share across the country with those interested in following our lead. Our First-Class Pre-K is certainly a bright spot for Alabama.

I’m proud to have quickly become known as a governor focused on education. Over the past nine months, I have devoted a great deal of my time to my role as president of the State Board of Education. In less than two years, Alabama has had four different K-12 superintendents. That is nothing to be proud of. The members of the State Board of Education must ensure continuity to see progress. Board members must set goals and adopt strategies to achieve student learning at high standards. Our central focus must be on our students, not on personal agendas or political maneuvering.

PRISON REFORMS

Alabama has received national attention for the state of its prisons and a federal judge recently called inmate care “horrendously inadequate”. How would you address this issue, and do you support the use of private prisons?

Perhaps our state’s biggest challenge is found in our prison system. For far too long we have run our state’s prison system in a way that risks a takeover by the federal courts. Now, one federal court has found that our prisons are overcrowded and understaffed, due at least in part to facilities that are worn and old. Correctional professionals work diligently to provide security, medical, mental health and rehabilitative services in a challenging environment. 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.

Immediately after taking office, I instructed Commissioner Jeff Dunn and his staff to work closely with my staff to develop a viable plan to address correctional staffing and make capital investments in our infrastructure.

We have commissioned comprehensive reviews to determine the compensation levels necessary to recruit and retain corrections staff. And I have instructed the Commissioner to hire a project management team to help us develop a master plan so we will be able to make smart, cost-effective decisions when addressing our outdated prison infrastructure.

We will no longer guess about possible fixes. Instead, I will present to the people a workable solution to this generational problem. I am committed to meeting this challenge head-on. Together, with the support of the legislature, we will solve this problem for generations to come. This is an Alabama problem that must have an Alabama solution; now is the time to act.

CIVIL ASSET FORFEITURE

Some states are eliminating provisions that allow police to seize property without securing a criminal conviction. Do you support the use of civil asset forfeiture by law enforcement and the provision that allows agencies to keep the proceeds of seized property? Why or why not?

I support reform to protect personal property and due process rights of all Alabamians. This year, the state legislature took an important step by starting the conversation. It is my hope that we can build upon the foundation that was laid and implement real reform that balances individuals’ protection of personal property and the flexibility necessary for law enforcement to hold criminals accountable.

9 hours ago

State Sen. Elliott: ‘I am not interested in discussing’ the I-10 Mobile Bay proposal until we have a new governor, ALDOT director

According to a report last week, efforts were underway for the Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) to put a new I-10 Mobile Bay Bridge proposal back on its Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) after being removed in 2019 to prevent the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) from proceeding with a controversial toll bridge proposal.

Under ALDOT’s public-private partnership plan, backed by Gov. Kay Ivey, travelers across the bridge that would have connected Mobile and Baldwin Counties would have paid $6 each way.

State Sen. Chris Elliott (R-Daphne), whose district is adjacent to the proposed project’s site, expressed his shock the proposal was back on the table during an appearance on Mobile radio FM Talk 106.5’s “Midday Mobile.” He also signaled his distrust of Ivey and ALDOT Director John Cooper for the way they had proceeded in the past.

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“[I] was a little bit taken aback that was even being brought up again — not because the project is not needed, that is for sure,” he said, “not because we don’t need to figure out a way to move people and commerce back and forth and back and forth across the region a whole lot easier and more efficiently. But just because of the manner in which this was handled by the governor and her administration. But I just cannot believe it is even being seriously discussed again.”

Elliott argued the Eastern Shore MPO’s decision to take it out of the TIP was the “last line of defense” for residents and elected officials that opposed the project. He said given that the Ivey administration was willing to proceed despite residents’ wishes, he was not interested in discussing the project until there was a new governor and ALDOT director.

“[T]o be clear — what has happened, the news is this will be going back on the Eastern Shore MPO’s visionary list,” Elliott said. “That puts it back into the MPO’s plan for consideration once a planning source has been identified. And their caveat is the funding source has not yet been identified. Of course, that is where we got hung up last time. But I’m going to tell you — the bigger issue here is not the funding source. It is not the need of the bridge. It is that the MPO, the Eastern Shore MPO specifically, was the last line of defense to keep this from happening. As the former chairman of the MPO, I know that all too well. That was how it got stopped. This governor and this ALDOT director were more than happy to proceed with a funding scheme and mechanism that was completely unfair for residents of coastal Alabama, that was objected to by every elected official I know of. And yet, they were perfectly willing to proceed with it.”

“So, I would say the issue with this project is not necessarily the need for it or even the funding mechanism for it — although that is obviously a problem if it involves a toll,” he continued. “But rather — it is an issue of trust with this administration, with this ALDOT director. That, if you will forgive the pun, that bridge is burned. It has not been rebuilt, and I doubt that it will be.”

“I am not interested in discussing this bridge or a Bayway proposal at all until we have a new governor and a new ALDOT director,” Elliott added.

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.

10 hours ago

NFIB Alabama: Small Business Saturday especially important this year

It’s especially important this year for people to shop small on Small Business Saturday, says National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) Alabama State Director Rosemary Elebash.

A release outlined that Alabamians can do so in person, online or over the phone.

Small Business Saturday, as it is annually, is this coming Saturday, the one immediately following Thanksgiving. However, this year’s Small Business Saturday may be the most important one ever, as hardworking small business owners and employees continue to be hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The coronavirus is taking a toll on Alabama’s small businesses,” Elebash stated. “Governor Ivey has gradually eased many of the restrictions put in place to keep customers and employees safe, but small business owners say it may be months, perhaps years, before the local economy fully recovers from the pandemic.”

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“Small business is the backbone of our economy, making up 99.4 percent of all employers in the state. And while it makes headlines whenever a big corporation adds a few hundred jobs here or there, small businesses are responsible for a net increase of 23,841 jobs statewide in 2019,” she continued.

Small Business Saturday 2020 comes as a coalition led by the Business Council of Alabama (BCA) — and including NFIB Alabama — continues to undertake the Keep Alabama Open campaign.

“Our small businesses were doing well at the beginning of the year,” Elebash added. “Since spring, however, many people have lost their jobs or had their hours greatly reduced, while employers have had to learn new safety procedures and invest in additional equipment from hand sanitizer stations and face masks to plastic shields at the checkout. Some small businesses intended to close temporarily and wound up closing for good.”

“That’s why we need to make a point of supporting local shops and restaurants, not just on Small Business Saturday but throughout the holiday shopping season,” she explained. “If you can’t visit them in person, then order online or place your order by phone and take advantage of local delivery or curbside pickup. Or, buy gift cards that you can redeem once the crisis is over.”

“Alabama’s economy is built on its small businesses,” Elebash concluded. “Without our support, we could lose them, and that would be bad for everyone.”

RELATED: Why Small Business Saturday really matters in 2020

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

11 hours ago

Alabama Power joins industry partners to raise awareness on scams

Alabama Power partnered with utilities across the nation through Utilities United Against Scams (UUAS) to recognize the fifth annual Utility Scam Awareness Day on Wednesday, Nov. 18. Utility Scam Awareness Day is part of International Scam Awareness Week, an advocacy and awareness campaign focused on educating customers and exposing tactics used by scammers.

“Alabama Power is joining with our partners on Utility Scam Awareness Day with one goal in mind – to protect our customers against scams,” said Alisa Summerville, Customer Service Center director for Alabama Power. “We’ve seen a higher number of scammers trying to take advantage of our customers during the coronavirus pandemic, and this is another opportunity to equip our customers with information to identify and combat scams.”

Alabama Power is sharing tips to help customers protect themselves from false tactics used by scammers. Customers should know that Alabama Power:

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  • Will never call to demand an immediate payment.
  • Will never call to request bank or credit card information.
  • Will never come to your door to demand an immediate payment.

Here are ways to spot scams from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Customers with any questions about the status of their Alabama Power account should not hesitate to call Customer Service at 1-800-245-2244. The automated voice system is available 24 hours a day to check account balances and status. Customers can reach a Customer Service agent weekdays from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. at 1-800-245-2244.

“A simple tip for our customers: If you are unsure if a call is a scam, hang up and contact our Customer Service team at 1-800-245-2244,” Summerville added.

UUAS, a consortium of more than 145 U.S. and Canadian electric, water and natural gas utilities and their respective trade associations, continues to build awareness of common scams and new scam tactics being used during the pandemic. Through its work and with the help of customer reporting, UUAS has succeeded in taking out of operation nearly 6,000 toll-free numbers used by scammers against utility customers.

“It is no surprise that scammers have been seeking to exploit the heightened anxiety of people coping with the pandemic,” said UUAS founder and Executive Committee Chairman Jared Lawrence. “I am proud to report that UUAS education efforts and utilities well-publicized customer testimonials have prevented a drastic increase in victims. However, the relentless attempts by these criminals make it clear that we must continue to actively work to protect our customers and to keep scammers from casting confusion on our pandemic recovery messages.”

The Federal Trade Commission website provides additional information about protecting personal information and other information regarding impostor scams.

Visit www.utilitiesunited.org for more information and tips on how customers can protect themselves from impostor utility scams. Follow along with UUAS on Twitter and Facebook.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

14 hours ago

University of South Alabama leads program to address wastewater treatment

The University of South Alabama will lead on a pilot program funded with a $710,000 grant from Columbia World Projects to address wastewater treatment in the rural Black Belt of Alabama. The project aims to demonstrate that better wastewater treatment systems can yield health, economic and environmental benefits for rural communities in the United States and around the world.

“The lack of wastewater management in the rural Black Belt is fundamentally a public health issue,” said Dr. Kevin White, professor and chair of the USA department of civil, coastal and environmental engineering. “It’s also about the lack of a critical developed world infrastructure that allows for economic growth and development, environmental protection, and public health protection.”

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The project is a collaboration between South, the University of Alabama, the University of North Carolina, the University of California, Irvine, communities in Alabama’s Black Belt region, the Consortium for Alabama Rural Water & Wastewater and state and federal officials.

White has studied wastewater treatment for 25 years and has been able to bring academia, government officials, state agencies and the private sector to the table to address the problem connected with poor infrastructure.

In addition to the initial award, Columbia World Projects will match up to $5 million raised separately. White and his colleague Dr. Mark Elliott, associate professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering at the University of Alabama recently submitted a $5 million proposal to the United States Department of Agriculture they hope can be used as a match.

“Finally, with some projects funded, we are beginning to make a difference,” White said. “If not for COVID-19, many onsite systems would have been installed in the spring. But soon both onsite and clusters of homes in Hale, Wilcox, and Marengo counties will have functional sewer.”

Alabama’s Black Belt historically includes 17 counties that stretch from southwest of Tuscaloosa across the state to the Georgia line southeast of Auburn. Named for its dark impermeable soil that does not support standard septic systems.

The project calls for installing and testing new wastewater treatment systems at select pilot site clustered and decentralized, connecting neighboring homes or businesses in a single system that collects, treats and re-uses water, reducing the cost of upkeep.

Data on how to adopt such treatment systems will be collected and published on an open-source platform, so that governments and rural communities worldwide can benefit from what is learned.

“I think we are on our way to making good things happen. Better public health protection, better environmental health protection, better economic development outlook,” White said.

(Courtesy of the University of South Alabama)

15 hours ago

ALS diagnosis drives AI engineer to build better eye-activation software

We see it in the movies all the time: the computer whiz furiously typing at his keyboard to bypass the security system or open the un-openable door for the hero. For real computer whizzes, such as Dustin Fast, computer programming is not that dramatic, but Fast can do things on a computer keyboard that are beyond the skills of most people.

Rather, he used to be able to do so.

Fast, an Army veteran who spent nearly a year in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division, works for Boeing in Huntsville as an artificial intelligence software engineer. He writes code all day long, and he is good at it. He uses a lot of complex key strokes and shortcuts in his coding, many he designed himself. Until he began to notice that his right hand was not working quite right.

“My right hand was getting stiffer, and it ached,” Fast said. “I thought it had to do with sitting at a computer all day. I thought it was carpal tunnel syndrome.”

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He lost the ability to grip things with that hand and had muscle tremors up his right arm. A physical therapist recommended he see a neurologist. In March he saw Dr. Peter King, a professor in the Department of Neurology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and an expert in neuromuscular disease. King told Fast his condition was not carpal tunnel syndrome, but something much worse. Fast had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, leading to the loss of muscle movement. With voluntary muscle action progressively affected, people eventually lose the ability to speak, eat, move and breathe.

For Fast, 38, loss of the ability to move his hands and arms would mean the loss of his career. The loss of his passion.

“Work is my happy place,” he said. “I’m surrounded by really smart people doing really amazing, really important work. Even with a diagnosis of ALS, I knew I wanted to keep working.”

So Fast looked into eye-activation software for computers. This software allows people with loss of mobility in their hands and arms to use a computer through eye-tracking technology. Users move a mouse and click based on where and how they look at the screen. The technology exists and is available. But for Fast, it has limitations.

“What is available on the market now is sufficient for someone who wants to send an email, surf the internet, do online shopping or watch a movie on their iPad,” he said. “It is not sophisticated enough for a programmer to write code, which is what I need.”

“Dustin told me that he had ideas on using artificial intelligence to improve eye-activation software,” King said. “He needed a structure to implement his ideas, mentors to help guide him and access to experts in fields outside computer programming. Fortunately, an option at UAB had just been put in place.”

UAB has created a Ph.D. program in neuroengineering, a collaboration between the School of Medicine and the School of Engineering. It is a first-of-its-kind program in Alabama and one of the only freestanding neuroengineering doctoral programs in the country.

By combining faculty expertise in neurobiology, neuroscience and engineering, the program will train a new generation of neuroengineers to advance understanding of neurodegenerative disorders and other brain diseases and develop novel therapeutics, neuroprosthetics and tools to restore lost brain function and improve patient outcomes.

King reached out to the co-directors of the program, Lynn Dobrunz, Ph.D., in neurobiology and Gregg Janowski, Ph.D., in engineering, along with Lori McMahon, Ph.D., the dean of the UAB Graduate School.

“Dustin Fast and his desire to create a better eye-activation software system fit perfectly with our program,” Dobrunz said. “We can link him to the experts he needs and give him the tools to accomplish his goal.”

Fast, who describes himself as a lifelong learner, will be the third enrollee in the new doctoral program and is a recipient of a Blazer Fellowship from the graduate school, awarded to top students to provide financial support.

“Typically, students take a variety of classes during their first year in a doctoral program while determining the project that will become the centerpiece of their educational experience,” Janowski said. “Dustin’s eye-activation project is already underway, and we will tailor the program to provide the base set of courses he will need while he continues work on that software.”

Fast says that current eye-activation software requires a user to look at an area on the screen for a specific time in order to activate a click. Some systems use autocorrect to finish a sentence that has been started when writing text.

“I don’t use a keyboard the way most other people do,” Fast said. “I need a tool that is intuitive and has the same throughput on a keyboard as my fingers did. There will be challenges, but I see the path to the solution. I have some possibilities in mind, and I believe I can solve the challenges.”

Fast says he will put his background in artificial intelligence and machine learning to use as key elements for his project.

“You could describe the brain as an extremely powerful computer,” he said. “It works by encoding information, very much the way machine learning works.”

Fast is scheduled to begin the doctoral program in January. Dobrunz and Jankowski are recruiting students for the fall 2021 semester. The program hopes to enroll five or six students each year.

“Dustin’s project is the kind of endeavor that could ultimately benefit many people, and we are committed to getting him the resources he needs,” Dobrunz said.

“Clearly there are potential benefits of his project for others with disabilities,” King said. “Improvement in eye-tracking software could have tremendous benefit for many people with neurodegenerative disease or loss of mobility from stroke, spinal injury or traumatic brain injury.”

“I am excited to begin the Ph.D. program,” Fast said. “This started as a way for me to continue working. Now it’s becoming a way for me to help make the world a better place.”

This story originally appeared on the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s UAB News website.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)