9 months 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

21 mins ago

Food companies serve free meals, treats to those in need and front-line workers during pandemic

Mary Drennen said she didn’t really understand the far-reaching effects of the COVID-19 pandemic until she and others handed out free meals March 30 on Birmingham’s Southside.

“It’ll tear your heartstrings up,” the Nourish Foods co-owner said. “It’s a greater purpose that we didn’t even realize that we could serve until this disease came about, or virus, however you call it. It is certainly rewarding for us to know that our business can step in and provide something for people that they literally have no access to.”

Nourish Foods is one of several companies – local and national – that have stepped in to help where they can to support those who are on the front lines in the battle against the coronavirus.

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1918 Catering helping others during COVID-19 pandemic from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Drennen and her business partner, Tiffany Davis, have connected with students who are not attending school for the rest of the year.

“Now that they’re without that one or two meals that they would have gotten at school, that’s obviously not an option,” she said. “We’re trying to work through that problem with Avondale, Woodlawn, Gate City areas in particular. Those are the first ones that we’re working with to find a solution for that.”

And they’re not alone. Every Monday, Krispy Kreme is giving a dozen doughnuts to each healthcare worker who visits.

Brittney Payne, a sterile surgical technician at UAB Highlands, said the sweets give healthcare providers their due.

“It’s nice,” the wife and mother of three said, “because healthcare workers don’t get enough credit for the things they do, especially when you work and go home to your family.”

Cristin Buentello said it’s not uncommon for her to pick up a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts on her way to or from her job at Brookwood Hospital and Women’s Center.

The 12 glazed rings she picked up this week at the Hoover Krispy Kreme location were for her co-workers.

“It helps us all out and gives us a little treat,” said Buentello, a surgical assistant. “Any little thing is nice, like food, getting water. Everything’s helping us right now: a little pick-me-up.”

Starbucks is giving a free tall brewed coffee – hot or cold – to front-line responders through May 3. In addition, the Starbucks Foundation is donating $500,000 to support front-line responders.

The $500,000 comes in equal donations to Direct Relief to support the delivery of personal protective equipment and essential medical items, and to Operation Gratitude to deliver 50,000 care packages and handwritten letters to first responders and health care workers.

Similarly, companies and volunteers have rolled up their sleeves to help people who have been adversely affected by the pandemic, including children who might not otherwise be fed because their schools have closed for the school year.

Nourish Foods is among companies offering gifts for healthcare providers at UAB. Some community philanthropists are donating money to be used at area restaurants to provide food for health care workers.

UAB’s Food Services staff is organizing this project through its Meals For Heroes link.

Full Moon Bar-B-Que established its Feed a Friend program, accepting nominations for families to receive a free meal. That program was to have ended this week but is being extended indefinitely until the shelter-in-place order is lifted.

The barbecue restaurant chain’s Tuscaloosa location gave 180 lunches to staffers at Druid City Hospital, while its Montgomery restaurant gave 500 lunches to schoolchildren through the Mercy House nonprofit. The company also gave 100 lunches to the Levite Jewish Community Center and served lunches at the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.

“Serving our communities is always a top priority at Full Moon Bar-B-Que and we are dedicated to providing meals in this trying time,” co-owner Joe Maluff said in a prepared statement. “Now more than ever, people need hope and we believe a warm meal can do just that. Full Moon Bar-B-Que aims to serve the communities surrounding each of our locations the best way we can throughout this pandemic.”

Last week, J&R Bar & Grill – formerly Peyton Place Restaurant – gave free lunches to first responders. On April 2, 1918 Catering gave free lunches to healthcare workers with ID at its location in Homewood.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

Byrne: Love in the time of the coronavirus

Like many of you I “attended” Palm Sunday worship online. It was strange not to be there at St. James Fairhope physically for the Liturgy of the Palms to gather outside for prayers and walk into the church together with our palms singing “All Glory, Laud and Honor.”

I heard the words of the Passion according to St. Matthew but wasn’t there to see the faces and expressions of the readers. We said prayers for those afflicted by the disease and those caring for them. We also said the right words for the offering, the Eucharist and the peace, but there was no offering or Eucharist, and we couldn’t physically greet one another with the words, “The Peace of the Lord be always with you; And also with you.”

Worship is more than just words. It’s the act of coming together as God’s people to worship Him, sing hymns, pray, hear God’s Word and be one body. We did it apart last Sunday and will do it this Sunday for Easter. It’s strange but necessary.

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When I was a teenager, there was a novel and movie called “Love Story.” It had one of the dumbest lines I’ve ever heard: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Love means frequently having to say you’re sorry, whether or not you caused another’s trouble or hurt.

Over a million people worldwide are confirmed to have COVID-19. Tens of thousands have died from it. I’m very sorry for them, their family members and loved ones. I’m sorry so many on the front lines are working long hours, exposing themselves to danger, and that so many have lost their jobs as we practice social distancing.

All that could drive many to depression, anti-social behavior, and self-destructive acts. To avoid that we all must help one another, just as we do down here during hurricanes, except at a physical distance. And it doesn’t do any good – in fact it’s harmful – to play the blame game. While there will be a time to assess the culpability of the Chinese government, rhetoric or discrimination against Asian Americans is irrational, harmful and just plain wrong.

Congress and President Trump put aside our differences, however temporarily, to overwhelmingly pass the CARES Act, pumping over $2 trillion into our economy in a bold move to cushion the economic effects of social distancing and pay for the health care and research to defeat this disease. I and my staff are working around the clock to get information to our constituents about the disease itself and these new government programs. And, as we hear needs, we take them directly to those in charge of providing help. We aren’t on the front lines caring for the sick, but we have a supportive role to play and are determined to do our part.

During Sunday’s online service, I remembered that love isn’t a sugary, sentimental thing. It often involves sacrifice. It’s not that sacrificial for me to miss being physically in church, though I felt I was missing something. That something is a small thing compared with risking the spread of this disease.

And, listening to the Passion narrative, I remembered what real sacrifice, the ultimate sacrifice, really is. And why did Jesus do it? Because He loved us that much. It wasn’t just the physical agony, but more painful to him, taking on all our sins to himself, all our collective denial of and disobedience to God. He said “I and the Father are one” and then allowed Himself to be separated from God as He took on all our sins. No wonder he cried out at that moment, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

But God did not leave Jesus to death, for the Resurrection was three days away.

God has not forsaken us. To care for us, he requires each of us to love and take care of one another. Right now, in part, that means we must be apart from one another, and for many to suffer economically and perhaps even emotionally. Let’s all be more attuned and sensitive, and helpful, to one another.

Good Friday isn’t good because Jesus was killed but because He rose again. It may seem dark now, but the light of Easter morning is just around the corner.

The last verse of an old French Easter carol called Now The Green Blade Riseth says, “When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain, thy touch can call us back to life again, fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been: Love is come again like wheat that springeth green”.

Spring is here. So is love. Pass it on.

U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne is a Republican from Fairhope.

13 hours ago

Executive power in a pandemic

This unusual moment in history has been full of surprises. Some of those surprises raise profound questions that we will be thinking through for a long time after COVID-19 passes.

Many people have been surprised to learn how much power state and county health officials have. In a March 25 guidance letter, Attorney General Steve Marshall reminded health officials to exercise their powers lawfully. This important reminder raises many questions about the legal sources and limits of executive power to respond to a pandemic.

Right away, we should acknowledge that most Alabamians are staying home and social distancing not because they fear legal reprisals but rather because it is the reasonable and courteous thing to do. Public health experts did their job, informing us of the danger and explaining how to reduce it. The average Alabama resident responded to that information responsibly and voluntarily.

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However, not everyone is responsible, as spring break revelers recently reminded us. And some responsible people have a lot at stake in the decision to stay at home, especially small business owners, those who live alone, and people whose livelihood depends on working with their hands. For these people, law comes into play.

We all have an obligation to obey the law. And because this is America, everyone shares this obligation, including public officials. That is what it means to have the rule of law. So, as they move from advising us to directing us, public health officials must take care to exercise only the legal powers they have, and not to use their powers to deprive citizens of their fundamental rights. The ends do not alone justify the means.

Health officials are exercising two executive powers. One power is conferred upon them by statute. That is the power to quarantine. The other power is inherent in the executive prerogative. That is the power to take strictly necessary actions to preserve human life in an emergency. Both of these powers are well-established in our laws, stretching all the way back to the customary law that we inherited from Great Britain at the American founding. And both must be exercised according to law. They have inherent limits on them, and an official who exceeds those limits is acting unlawfully; his actions are legally invalid.

The power to quarantine has two, important limitations. First, it can be activated only by the legislature, not by an executive officer, such as a state or county health official. As the Alabama Supreme Court explained in a 1944 decision, the legislature proclaims a quarantine and the executive executes the quarantine.

This is analogous to the war power at the federal level. The Constitution of the United States confers upon Congress the power to declare war and on the President the power to execute the war as Commander in Chief. The Constitution does not confer upon the President power to make war in his own discretion.

Similarly, the State Health Officer does not enjoy power to quarantine anyone he thinks should be quarantined. “Quarantine” is a term of art from the common law and maritime law. In maritime law, “quarantine” refers to a particular probationary period during which a ship returning from a country infected by plague was held in isolation for forty days. On land, quarantine is proclaimed by the legislature as an exercise of its police powers to promote the health, safety, and general welfare.

The Alabama legislature purports to have delegated the power to “proclaim quarantine” to “the Governor, whenever he deems it necessary, or the State Board of Health.” But this should not be read as a blanket delegation. That would be a violation of the non-delegation doctrine, a constitutional rule that prohibits the delegation of legislative powers to the executive.

The nondelegation doctrine reinforces common sense. The legislature is in the best position to consider and balance all of the various goods and interests at stake in an emergency such as this, to take into account the importance not only of public health but also the livelihoods of Alabama’s citizens. State and local health officials are experts in medicine and public health, but are not as well situated as others to consider the competing goods at stake, to understand the economic implications of their actions, or to establish benchmarks for measuring success of a quarantine.

The second limitation is that quarantine can lawfully be imposed only on a person who is infected, reasonably suspect of being infected, or dwelling in an infected house. In other words, quarantine is a targeted remedy, and it is incumbent on officials to discern who is infected and who is not. The common law remedy for an unlawful quarantine is a writ of habeas corpus, a right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. It secures the ancient rights of freedom of movement and of the presumption of innocence, two of the most fundamental rights in our law.

Like everyone else, executive officials also have the right to do things that would otherwise be unlawful acts of trespass or battery, if those acts are strictly necessary to save lives. But necessity is a temporary and limited justification. A state that wants to restrain the movement of its people for an extended time must tailor the remedy to the danger under the quarantine power.

That is the job of the legislature. As this crisis drags on, it becomes more important for the people to gather in Montgomery through their elected representatives and fashion a long-term solution to the problems that we face.

Adam J. MacLeod is Professorial Fellow of the Alabama Policy Institute and Professor of Law at Faulkner University, Jones School of Law. He is a prolific writer and his latest book, The Age of Selfies: Reasoning About Rights When the Stakes Are Personal, is available on Amazon.

14 hours ago

Business Council of Alabama experts to answer coronavirus relief questions in televised event

The Business Council of Alabama (BCA) continues to be a leading resource for Yellowhammer State job creators looking to navigate the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The BCA on Monday announced that it will present the Small Business Exchange on Alabama Public Television (APT) this coming Thursday night. This event is designed to help small businesses apply for relief funding under the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion federal stimulus package recently enacted in response to the pandemic.

In partnership with APT, BCA will bring together experts in business, banking, accounting and law to answer phone calls from Alabama business owners and employers as they grapple with the impact of the coronavirus on the state’s economy.

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New federal loans are now available for small businesses, but funding is limited in some cases and quick action is required to take full advantage.

“We have to make sure that Alabama’s small businesses get the loans and support they deserve in these tough economic times,” BCA president and CEO Katie Boyd Britt said in a statement. “These business owners need as much help as we can give them to work through the process. The first step in getting Alabama back to work is to get this loan money flowing to our businesses.”

Available funding includes $10 billion in Economic Injury Disaster Loans and $349 billion in Paycheck Protection Loans. Each program has different eligibility criteria, financing and application processes, and, coupled with general confusion about the programs, this has led many business owners to be uncertain about availability, qualifications, requirements and deadlines.

The point of the Small Business Exchange is to get much-needed accurate information to business owners as expeditiously as possible.

“Our team of experts is donating their time and resources because this is a critical time for small businesses,” Britt concluded. “This federal funding can and will save companies and save jobs, so the BCA is facilitating this process in any way we can.”

The Small Business Exchange program will air Thursday on APT from 7:00-8:00 p.m. CT.

In total, BCA experts will be available to answer questions over the phone from 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Thursday and from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. on Friday.

To ask a question or consult with the BCA experts during these time slots, you can call 1-833-BCA4BIZ (1-833-222-4249).

Since the start of the pandemic, BCA has hosted a landing page featuring the latest resources and information for business owners related to the coronavirus. You can access that website here.

RELATED: Keep up with Alabama’s confirmed coronavirus cases, locations here

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

15 hours ago

Alabama State Port Authority names John Driscoll as next director, CEO

The Alabama State Port Authority on Monday announced that its board of directors has named John C. Driscoll as director and chief executive officer for the port authority effective June 1.

He will succeed the retiring James K. “Jimmy” Lyons, who will assist Driscoll in the transition and serve as director emeritus until his full retirement at the end of the calendar year.

Driscoll most recently served as maritime director at the Port of Oakland in Oakland, CA. According to a release, he had operational and marketing responsibility for one of the nation’s top-10 container seaports. He was also credited with improving that port’s operating efficiency, financial performance and community relations.

“Over the last several months, the board and Jimmy Lyons worked through a nationwide search to identify a slate of qualified candidates,” Bestor Ward, chairman of the Alabama State Port Authority’s board of directors, explained in a statement. “It was John’s qualifications that made him the natural choice. Our board looks forward to John joining the Port Authority team in June.”

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Prior to working in Oakland, Driscoll served as vice president of export sales for CMA CGM (America) LLC, a leading global container shipping group.

He reportedly gained deep international maritime experience and contacts working with Sea-Land Service, Maersk Line and CMA CGM. Additionally, Driscoll successfully developed business operations in the Caribbean, Central America and South America.

The Alabama State Port Authority owns and operates the State of Alabama’s deep-water port facilities at the Port of Mobile, currently the 11th-largest U.S. seaport by total trade.

“This is a gratifying opportunity and a career highlight,” Driscoll stated. “I’ve seen the caliber of people who work here and the contributions the Port of Mobile makes to Alabama, the local community, and global trade. There is so much to be proud of at Mobile. The responsibility in leading this port is fantastic, and we will work together to continue the progress made under Executive Director Lyons.”

RELATED: Alabama’s seaport expansion reaches another milestone

Driscoll attended the University of Maryland (College Park) and graduated with a B.S. in Business Management with an emphasis on Transportation and Marketing.

Lyons commented, “I’ve observed over the years John’s incredible contributions to the industry. His abilities were affirmed through our extensive assessment of his body of work and my conversations with those who have worked with him. I am confident John will be an excellent fit for our seaport, our management team, and our employees, and I personally look forward to the transition.”

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