1 year ago

Scofield: ‘Broadband is our infrastructure challenge of the 21st century’ — Crucial ‘to save some of the best areas of this state’

GUNTERSVILLE — Yellowhammer News on Thursday held the second event in its 2019 “News Shapers” series. Entitled “Connecting Alabama’s Rural Communities,” the forum regarding broadband expansion drew a great crowd and elicited insightful conversation from the four expert panelists: State Sen. Clay Scofield (R-Arab), Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative’s Fred Johnson, Central Alabama Electric Cooperative’s Tom Stackhouse and Maureen Neighbors of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA).

Tim Howe, Yellowhammer Multimedia co-owner and Yellowhammer News editor-in-chief, moderated the forum, which came days after the second round of grants was awarded under the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund.

This fund was created through legislation sponsored by Scofield and signed into law by Governor Kay Ivey during the Alabama Legislature’s 2018 regular session. The first round of grants was awarded earlier this year. The legislature then passed another bill by Scofield updating the law during the 2019 regular session.

To kick the conversation off on Thursday, Howe noted Scofield’s successful efforts the past two years in passing his broadband expansion legislation, also pointing to HB 400 sponsored by State Rep. Randall Shedd (R-Fairview) and State Sen. Steve Livingston (R-Scottsboro).

Howe asked Scofield about this year’s update of the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Act and the feedback he heard prior to the 2019 regular session that led to him crafting SB 90.

“We passed the broadband expansion bill last year, and we knew that there would be some changes that needed to occur this year — some fine-tuning and some tweaking,” Scofield explained. “And we know that in the future, there will also need to be some fine-tuning as we look to make the program work better… SB 90 reflected some of those changes, and we heard that (the need for changes) from our providers.”

Scofield explained that it is not profitable in many rural areas for companies to install the necessary broadband infrastructure, which is why the Alabama Broadband Accessibility Fund is so important. The fund provides state grants for service providers to supply high-speed internet services in unincorporated areas or communities with 25,000 people or less. Under the law, grant awards cannot exceed 20 percent of the total cost of a project, meaning providers must still have significant “skin in the game” financially.

“At the end of the day, our providers are the ones who are going to be installing the infrastructure for the consumers to enjoy,” Scofield outlined. “So, it’s very important to listen to the providers. This whole thing began by listening to the providers. ‘What is it going to take to get you to expand in rural Alabama?’ And folks, it’s cost. It’s a business decision. The market size is just not there, so the cash flow is just more difficult.”

He likened modern government support of broadband expansion to rural electricity and water expansion of old.

“You’re looking out at Lake Guntersville,” Scofield told the crowd at Guntersville Town Hall, “and it’s a product of government being involved in infrastructure. In the 1930s, the government got involved in rural power. Our co-ops took advantage of that and delivered power to rural customers. And in the 1960s-70s, they expanded to rural water. Well, broadband is our infrastructure challenge of the 21st century.”

“Without our providers, and without government providing some incentive to bring their costs down, it simply wouldn’t occur,” he emphasized. “So, the changes that we’ve seen (through SB 90) are to make the job easier on these guys (the providers).”

‘We still live in a capitalist economy’

Asked to speak to the recommended changes from the provider side, Johnson stressed, “Good public policy has to be based on fact.”

“It’s really easy to blame people for why there’s not broadband in certain parts of the state,” he continued. “But we still live in a capitalist economy — for the time being — and it’s a business case. If it’s (broadband) not there, there’s a really good reason for it. What this legislation does, especially in connection with the federal legislation… what it does is give companies that want to step up to the plate the leverage it may take to swing the pendulum to where a business case can be built and you can serve areas where otherwise there’s no public policy support to build.”

Johnson said he personally thinks “the world of Clay Scofield, Steve Livingston and (House Majority Leader) Nathaniel Ledbetter (R-Rainsville),” who were all in attendance.

“The neatest thing about this (2019 broadband expansion efforts) was you had the leadership in the legislature — and Representative Shedd certainly needs to be included [in that recognition] — they took the time to understand the issue,” he added. “It’s not a Democratic, it’s not a Republican issue. It’s not a partisan issue. It’s an issue that affects all rural Alabamians of every race, color, creed, sex and anything else you want to talk about.”

Of the legislative leaders, Johnson reiterated, “They took the time to understand the issue and ask, ‘What do we need to do to swing the pendulum?’ Quite frankly, I think we’ve got one of the more cohesive public policies in the United States [now]… so I think they’ve done an excellent job.”

Stackhouse affirmed just how important SB 90 and HB 400 were from the perspective of an electric utility provider serving a rural nine-county area in central Alabama.

“80 years ago in November, our [co-op’s] first electric customer was connected… and the area flourished because of getting electricity to an area where a lot said, ‘You can’t make money at that, there’s no use doing that,'” Stackhouse advised. “It was huge.”

Now, in modern times, Central Alabama Electric Cooperative’s board has created a subsidiary to handle communications services, like broadband.

“Communication is now the electricity, and without [the legislation], it just doesn’t happen,” Stackhouse said.

He praised Scofield for his leadership, adding of SB 90 and HB 400, “It has really helped us step up.”

“And we’re not building our [broadband efforts just] on grants, we’ve got a business model we believe we can make work,” Stackhouse continued. “But grants help a lot, though, especially when it’s sparsely populated areas that need it just as much.”

Without broadband expansion, ‘they’re going to die’

Following up on just how much many rural areas in the state really do need broadband access, Howe then recalled an op-ed that Scofield wrote and Yellowhammer News published during the 2019 regular session when Scofield stated the survival of rural Alabama depends on broadband expansion.

Howe asked Scofield to outline the various aspects of modern life that are affected by access to high-speed internet services in his district and others like it across Alabama.

“In about every way you can think of,” Scofield said. “Not just agriculture, but economic development — you’re not going to recruit a company with 21st century jobs to an area without a 21st century infrastructure. You’re not going to train a 21st century workforce without 21st century infrastructure.”

“Telemedicine is the future for our healthcare, which I believe is one of the things that’s going to help bring healthcare costs down for a lot of Americans,” he continued.

Scofield stated that this is especially true, “In rural areas where we see increased levels of diabetes and obesity and a lot of ailments that seem to go up, because the healthcare isn’t easily accessible.”

“So, the thought that a person can connect to MD Anderson for a cancer screening in Greene County, and never leave Greene County, can save that person’s life,” he explained. “It’s a game-changer for a lot of people, and I think that a lot of folks just don’t realize that 830,000 or 840,000 Alabamians still don’t have [broadband] access.”

He then reaffirmed just how crucial these broadband expansion efforts are.

“It’s critical that we get this infrastructure out, that we get people hooked up in our rural areas because they’re going to die — they’re going to be left behind, they’re being left behind right now,” Scofield emphasized. “So, I think the quicker that we do that, the quicker we’re going to save some of the best areas of this state.”

‘This is a legacy’

Later in the forum, Scofield did also caution that broadband expansion to all Alabamians logistically cannot and will not happen instantaneously.

However, success will be achieved only when “we get to a point where, like power … if you want high-speed internet [wherever you live] in the state, you can connect to it,” Scofield believes.

“I think that’s where we’ve got to get,” he said. “And that’s not going to happen overnight… Everyone’s got to be patient. Lake Guntersville didn’t fill up in a day, they didn’t build the dam in a day and they didn’t give power to rural Autauga County in a day — or even here. It’s going to take a long time to build this infrastructure out, but I believe that we are on the right track.”

Scofield wrapped up the forum by lauding the integral support and teamwork of some of his fellow legislators who were in attendance, including Livingston, Ledbetter and State Sen. Andrew Jones (R-Centre), along with Shedd, who was unavailable to make the event.

“I’m really proud of what we came out with,” Scofield said of SB 90 as signed into law. “And I think that whether you’re an elected official or not, if you had something to do with this, I think that this is a legacy that we’re going to be able to leave this state. It’s going to benefit generations. And that’s why I do what I do, and I know that’s why they (the legislators in attendance) do what they do. I think it’s going to be something that’s going to move this state forward in ways that we can’t even envision today.”

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

2 hours ago

Anheuser-Busch donating hand sanitizer to Alabama polling places

Anheuser-Busch is helping to brew democracy this fall.

The famous American beermaker is producing and donating more than 8 million ounces of hand sanitizer to polling places across the country.

A partnership between Anheuser and the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) is helping to bring some of that free sanitizer to precincts in Alabama.

Secretary of State John Merril, Alabama’s chief elections official, says his office has distributed 1,579 gallons of hand sanitizer among 44 counties that requested the substance. Merill is heavily involved in NASS, including currently serving as the organization’s vice chair for the southern region.

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“It is critical that counties are supplied with adequate sanitation supplies, personal protective equipment, and other items necessary to protect voters, poll workers, and others involved in the electoral process,” he said in a release on Friday morning.

Facilities that create alcoholic beverages have the ability to switch to making alcohol-based hand sanitizer quickly. It is a substance easily made with the equipment and materials on hand at such beverage producers.

Breweries and distilleries in Alabama and across the nation switched to making sanitizer for a time when the coronavirus began spreading in the United States this past spring.

Cesar Vargas, Anheuser-Busch chief external affairs officer, remarked in a statement, “Anheuser-Busch is committed to uniting our communities, strength­ening our democracy and encouraging even greater participation in the political process.”

“One part of this commitment is shifting our production capabilities to donate hand sanitizer so that election officials and voters throughout the country can take part in a safe election this fall,” he added.

Anheuser has donated over 500,000 bottles of hand sanitizer since COVID-19 reached the United States.

Additional groups helping to distribute the sanitizer are the National Association of State Election Directors and the online payments company PayPal.

Grace Newcombe, press secretary for the secretary of state’s office, told Yellowhammer that “because such a high volume of hand sanitizer was requested, PayPal provided an additional 630 bottles of hand sanitizer on top of those provided by Anheuser-Busch.”

Merrill credited the multi-group partnership with helping to make it so that “voters can confidently head to the polls on Election Day to cast their ballot in a safe and sanitary environment.”

The general election will occur on November 3; Alabama’s precincts will be open for voters from 7:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95

2 hours ago

How to vote if you test positive for COVID-19 before Election Day

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall has issued guidance for voters who receive a positive coronavirus test between Friday, October 30, and the day before the election, Monday, November 2.

Marshall says that a positive COVID-19 test during that period qualifies a voter to apply for an emergency absentee ballot.

Such ballots, and the system to get one, already exist in Alabama law.

Citizens who test positive may designate an adult to assist with the emergency absentee ballot process, meaning an individual who tests positive will be able to remain in quarantine and still vote.

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The voter’s designee can deliver the emergency ballot application, pick up that ballot and bring it to the voter, and return the filled out ballot to the absentee election manager.

The space to assign the designee is at the bottom of the emergency absentee ballot application.

Voters can access an emergency absentee ballot application here, and citizens can find the address for their county’s absentee election manager here.

An application for an emergency absentee ballot requires the signature of a physician, or a physician can issue a signed report, and the voter can include that with their application.

Applications for an emergency absentee ballot must be turned in by the close of business on Monday, November 2.

Filled out emergency absentee ballots must be returned to the county absentee election manager by noon on Election Day.

In a typical year, emergency absentee ballots are used by individuals who find out suddenly that they must undergo a serious medical procedure on Election Day, or people who have their employer send them out of town for business at the last minute.

There appears to be no alternative to voting in person for someone who receives a positive coronavirus test result on Election Day.

The last day to apply for a standard absentee ballot was Thursday, October 29, creating the relatively narrow window of time for which Marshall has issued guidance.

People can also contact their absentee election managers by phone to get more details on hours of operation or answers to any questions they have about their emergency absentee ballot application.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95

Setting the record straight on Baldwin County’s toll fallacies

Baldwin County voters will head to the polls in just a matter of days to cast their vote on a full ballot, including several local amendments which will influence various aspects of residents’ everyday living. Of the four local amendments on this year’s ballot is Local Amendment 2, which I co-authored, and which proposes the creation of the Baldwin Beach Express II (BBEII), extending the northern end of the current Baldwin Beach Express to link I-10 with I-65 (the project).

If approved by the voters of Baldwin County, a toll authority would be established on this new stretch of road to pay for the construction and continual maintenance of the roadway. The toll authority would only be granted jurisdiction over the BBEII, and no other road, leaving drivers the choice to take this new roadway or continue using their everyday roadways just as they have been doing for years, still free of charge. We anticipate the new road will be available for use in five to eight years.

Due to the four-letter word “toll,” opposition has taken to various platforms urging Baldwin County voters to reject Local Amendment 2. However, these opposing voices misrepresent crucial aspects and facts of Local Amendment 2 that make the BBEII a safe and sound move for Baldwin County. While similar initiatives have appeared on ballots in years past, this year elected officials are asking Baldwin County voters to vote yes on this new roadway. The proposed BBEII is a totally different, locally controlled toll authority.

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This amendment is appearing on this year’s ballot in a timely manner. If not voted on this year, it is likely the amendment would not be presented to the public for at least another two years. Moreover, construction of the approved roadway would not finish until five to eight years after the initial vote. This is time we simply do not have when dealing with matters of infrastructure, county growth, safety, and economic opportunity.

Since 2014, our county’s population has grown nearly 50%. The time to invest in our future infrastructure is now and doing so will assure that we are able to support and sustain Baldwin County’s potential growth for years to come.

Recently, it has been suggested that Baldwin County voters will be giving lawmakers a blank check to construct this new roadway. The blank spaces found in the legislation are put in place due to the introduction of contingent acts. In other words, this amendment cannot be considered an act until final passage, and until Baldwin County votes “yes” on Local Amendment 2.

False assertions have also been made regarding the makeup of the toll authority members and their powers. The proposed act clearly requires that the Toll Authority Directors be appointed by the Baldwin County Commission and will serve a maximum six-year term limit. Toll Authority Directors will be held accountable by the Baldwin County Commission and may be subject to impeachment by the County Grand Jury, District Attorney or the Alabama Attorney General. The legislation also includes a provision of law (page 23, line 17) that prohibits nepotism, ensuring the Toll Authority Directors are acting on behalf of the common good for Baldwin County.

A yes vote on Local Amendment 2 will only improve our way of life in Baldwin County. We may continue using the existing free routes as we have been doing, free of charge, and will never have to be concerned with any toll. Your tax dollars are not going toward this project. Rather, the roadway extension will be 100% paid for by the toll itself, if and only if you choose to drive on the BBEII. Drivers who opt to take their regular free routes will never have to pay the toll fee.

This local amendment offers strengthened infrastructure to keep up with our rapidly growing population, secures an additional north-bound evacuation route, and will bring new job and economic development opportunities to our region.

Please, join me in voting yes on Local Amendment 2.

Alabama State Representative Steve McMillan represents District 95 and serves as Chairman of the Baldwin County Legislative Delegation.

7 hours ago

7 Things: Only 13 coronavirus deaths in Alabama without pre-existing conditions, Jones’ voting record is closer to Schumer than Shelby, vaccine info by December and more …

7. Stephen King’s Twitter isn’t IT

  • It’s no secret that famed author Stephen King has been politically outspoken, especially in more recent years. Now, he’s calling out former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville for not being willing to debate U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-AL).
  • King on Wednesday tweeted, “Tommy Tuberville wouldn’t even debate Doug Jones. Hey, Alabama, do you know a chicken___ when you see one? Or – ha-ha—when you DON’T see one?” This came right after Tuberville was a no-show at the debate event co-hosted by the College Democrats and Republicans at Auburn University, which Jones attended.

6. Walmart is removing guns

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  • Due to continued civil unrest in Philadelphia, Walmart has decided to remove firearms and ammunition from the sales floor in stores throughout the United States. Store spokesperson Kory Lundberg said this is being done as a “precaution.”
  • The firearms and ammunition will still be available for purchase, but they’ll no longer be on display. Lundberg also noted that this has been “done on several occasions over the last few years” in times of civil unrest.

5. Biden campaign refuses to address Hunter Biden issues

  • There has been further confirmation that the FBI has an open investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son Hunter. In spite of that, the Biden campaign continues to not even address the issue and declare that they will not engage in questions about the matter.
  • During an interview with financial outlet Cheddar, the Biden campaign’s national press secretary Jamal Brown was asked to respond to the allegations made by Hunter Biden’s former business partner Tony Bobulinksi. He responded by declaring the question off-limits, saying, “We’re not going to waste any time on this smear campaign. It’s just another distraction from Trump’s failed leadership.” Instead of receiving further grilling, the anchor responded by saying, “Fair enough.”

4. Democrats could take the Senate

  • Sheffield, AL’s own Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has been very honest about where the Senate stands, and he’s said that there’s a “50-50” chance that Republicans could lose control of the Senate.
  • McConnell also said that looking “at the Democrat Party today, you out to be frightened. We’re fighting for our way of life.” He has remained confident that he’ll win reelection in Kentucky.

3. We’ll know more about vaccines by December

  • As one of the leading infectious disease experts and members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Dr. Anthony Fauci told the University of Alabama at Birmingham during a virtual coronavirus research symposium that we’ll have more information on a vaccine for the virus in the coming months.
  • Fauci advised, “[B]y the end of November to the beginning of December, we will know – based on the size of the trial and rate of infections that are going on in this country – if we will have a safe and effective vaccine.” Facui added that he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the vaccine.

2. Jones is closer to Schumer

  • FiveThirtyEight.com has released a “Trump Score” for how closely members of the legislature have voted with President Donald Trump, and U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) only scored 34.8% since taking office in 2018.
  • For comparison, U.S. Senators Angus King (I-ME) and Mark Werner (D-VA) scored closely with Jones at 37.9% and 35.5%, respectively, but Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) scored 23.4%, U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) had 22.6%, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) had 20.3% and U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) scored 23.0%.

1. Cases and hospitalizations are on the rise

  • There have been spikes with the coronavirus across the globe, the United States saw its biggest day ever yesterday. Alabama is now seeing an increase in both cases and hospitalizations, but both numbers are far below the peak of the pandemic Alabama saw in July.
  • The Alabama Department of Public Health is now reporting that there have only been 13 deaths from the coronavirus that didn’t have any underlying health conditions as a contributing factor, which is due to a change in criteria that dropped the number from 130 to 13. This isn’t to say this isn’t a big deal, but it does mean that it is even more important to protect the vulnerable as we continue to safely reopen.

7 hours ago

State Sen. Albritton: ‘Still questions’ on Ivey prison proposal locations, including Escambia County site

Two of the three locations named in Governor Kay Ivey’s recently announced prison proposal have received a degree of public pushback from local residents.

A location near Brierfield had been the subject of public scrutiny by Bibb County and nearby Shelby County residents. Elected officials in Elmore County have also expressed concern over a site near Tallassee.

The third site in Escambia County near Atmore had been seemingly free of controversy. However, according to State Sen. Greg Albritton (R-Atmore),whose district includes the proposed Escambia County location, that is not necessarily the case.

During an interview with Mobile radio’s FM Talk 106.5, Albritton said there were some issues he and others were attempting to iron out with the Alabama Department of Corrections on the southern proposed site.

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“I spoke with Commissioner Dunn yesterday about this very issue, and there are still questions out there about all three of the sites selected, and we’re still trying to get some answers on some things,” he said. “But Jeff, we have got to have new prisons. There’s just no doubt that some construction has got to be done. We tried several times on the legislative side to put through a plan, and both times that we got it through the Senate and down to the House, the House killed it. The latest one, it had been through the House, it had been through the Senate. It had even been through the conference committee in the Senate and the House wouldn’t take it out of the basket. It just died. The governor — we challenged her, and she challenged us and said if I could depend on the legislature pass something, fine. But you haven’t. We’ve got to have a plan. At least the Governor has a plan. Whether I like it or don’t like it, it is a better plan than what we have right now.”

The Escambia County lawmaker said there had been complaints but said they had chosen not to take a public approach to their response.

“Of course, we’ve gotten complaints,” Albritton said. “We’ve got all unique circumstances. We have been pushing back. We haven’t been pushing back publicly. We have had discussions, and that was part of the discussion yesterday. We are trying to work out some of the details and finalize some of the matters and get some answers. But I did not see any particular gain in going public in this fight. We just need to try to work it out the best we could.”

@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.