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Kentucky wants its money back from investment in proposed aluminum mill

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Kentucky lawmakers are questioning the lack of progress on a proposed $1.7 billion aluminum rolling mill near Ashland and have indicated the company building it should repay $15 million it received from the state.

Officials with Unity Aluminum, formerly Braidy Industries, appeared via video conference before an Interim Joint Appropriations and Revenue Committee on Friday to answer questions about the project, its financing and the $15 million of Kentucky taxpayer funds it received at the request of former Gov. Matt Bevin during the last day of the 2017 session of the Kentucky General Assembly.

The company proposed building a 1.8 million-square foot facility on more than 240 acres in the EastPark Industrial Center. A ceremonial groundbreaking took place in June 2018. Back then, officials said it would open by the second quarter of 2020, but that date has been pushed back several times with the latest being in 2025.

The mill was expected to bring thousands of construction jobs and permanent jobs and have the capacity of producing 300,000 tons of aluminum alloy sheet and plate a year, mainly for the automotive industry.

Rep. Kelly Flood, D-Lexington, started the questioning by asked if there was still any Russian oligarchical funding the project, referring to Rusal, a Russian aluminum firm that had committed $200 million but reportedly backed out, according to Bloomberg News.

“Because we signed a mutual confidentiality agreement with Rusal, we don’t want to get into a lot of details about the Russian oligarch stuff,” said Nate Haney, the company’s vice president, who is also a former member of Bevin’s administration. “However, Rusal did publicly comment that they would not be a part of our financing moving forward. We will confirm that report, and it is true. It’s been a very positive thing for us moving forward. All of the players in this particular final tranche of financing are domestic, and we will not have any further Russian ownership at all in Unity Aluminum.”

Committee co-chairman Senator Christian McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill, then asked Haney how many employees the company has in Kentucky.

“I think we are right about 20,” Haney said.

McDaniel then brought up the company request to for an extension until the first quarter of 2022 to raise the funds to construct the mill. He said the company’s letter in January 2021 stated the funding would be raised by the third quarter of 2021.

“Is that going to happen?” he asked.

“No, sir, that has not happened,” Haney replied. “Rather than bringing in incremental financing, we are bringing in all the ingredients together at once. So when there’s a few ingredients out there we need to wait. Incremental financing stuff that we did previously didn’t get us where we wanted to go.”

The board of Commonwealth Seed Capital, the state-owned venture fund that oversees the investment, voted unanimously to grant the extension until March 31, 2022, on any potential demand of repayment of the state funds.

McDaniel asked Haney if he the company thought would need to request another extension in the end of the third quarter of 2022.

“I do not,” Haney said. “We are very encouraged right now. We are cautiously confident.”

McDaniel’s next question was asking who is the company’s current CEO and his pay. Haney told him the interim CEO for Unity Aluminum is Terry Gill. McDaniel followed up by asked what Gill was being paid, but Haney said Gill was under a contract.

“I do not have that information,” Haney said.

McDaniel asked if Gill was the secretary of economic development under Bevin’s administration and oversaw the $15 million investment into then-named Braidy Industries by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, which Haney confirmed.

Then McDaniel then said he wanted to “cut to the chase.”

“Why don’t you repay your $15 million to the state and not have us continue to ask these questions?” he asked.

“That’s not a question I can answer at this time,” Haney said. “First of all, it’s not up to me, and second of all, that’s during this financing period and something we have to keep confidential. That’s a board of directors question.”

McDaniel then said his vote in 2017 was one of the worst he’s ever taken.

“I feel like two administrations now and multiple General Assemblies have been played for fools and ridden down the road,” he said to Haney. “I think that patience is largely worn thin.”

McDaniel asked for the record if the company would have $1.7 billion in funding by March 2022.

“That’s our goal,” Haney said.

McDaniel continued to grill company executives about property they own and other issues before telling them he plans to file a bill for the 2022 lawmaking session, which begins in January, to recover the money.

Sen. Michael “Jason” Nemes, R-Shepherdsville, told company executives they need to hit benchmarks and provide more information.

“We feel like we’ve been played,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’re your partner in some ways because you have $15 million in taxpayer funds that we regret giving.”

Co-chairman Jason Petrie, R-Elkton, said he voted for the mill’s funding, but his role on the committee is to ensure a return on investment.

“At this point, I see nothing,” he said.

Current Gov. Andy Beshear said in April that he wanted to give the project more time to move forward, but that he would take action to retrieve the $15 million the commonwealth had invested if necessary.

The Center: Youth Opportunity Hub opens at new location

HUNTINGTON — The Center: Youth Opportunity Hub, which was created to assist youth and provide assistances that other programs could not, has a new home.

The Center, now located at Cabell Hall, 2002 7th Ave., Huntington, is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. It aims to provide a safe space for youth without a place of their own.

In 2016, United Way of the River Cites and Cabell-Huntington Coalition for the Homeless began a project to work with underserved youth. Over recent years, the River Cities has seen an increase in youth ages 16-24 who are facing unstable housing and homelessness. The Center: Youth Opportunity Hub was created to assist those youth and to provide assistance that other programs could not.

Since 2019, the Center has shifted and grown. It has transformed into a multi-patterned program that is advised by United Way, Cabell-Huntington Coalition for the Homeless, Marshall University departments of Psychology and Center of Excellence, Prestera Center for Mental Health Services and Bowles Rice. This project serves as a Collective Impact model that brings together multiple entities.

The program has secured nearly $2.5 million from multiple foundation and grant sources that allowed The Center to move into a larger, permanent location and expand services.

“The Center is a great example of United Way’s unique role in the community,” said Carol Bailey, executive director at United Way of the River Cities, in a news release. “As we became aware of the growing number of this group of disconnected youth, we pulled together several partners, each of whom can contribute to meeting the needs of these at-risk youth. Working collaboratively, we’ve been able to secure enough funding to have a significant impact.”

“The Center is a unique and innovative low-barrier space for at-risk youth between the ages of 16 and 24,” says Christina Walters, program director for The Center. “We pride ourselves in creating an atmosphere that youth just want to be in. We take that opportunity to start talking with folks about their development and growth.”

The Center staff works with the youth to develop and stay on track with personal goals and helps them work on areas like resume building and independent living skills. The Center also provides consultation and referrals for behavioral health needs. The street outreach team at The Center works to make connections with youth on the streets.

For more information about The Center or to schedule an appointment, call 304-544-1877.

Big pressure on Biden, Dems to trim $3.5T federal overhaul
Two key Democratic senators are expected to meet with President Joe Biden at the White House as he works to trim his $3.5 trillion government overhaul

WASHINGTON — Pressure mounting, President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress strained Tuesday to trim back his $3.5 trillion government overhaul to win support from two key holdout senators ahead of make-or-break deadlines for votes.

Child care subsidies could be offered for several years, or just a few. Funding to expand dental, vision and hearing care for seniors is likely to start later. Tax hikes on corporations and the wealthy may be adjusted. And provisions to fight climate change or curb prescription drug prices could change.

With Republicans solidly opposed and no votes to spare, Democrats are poised to adjust the tax proposals and spending goals to meet the overall size demanded by party colleagues Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. The two say Biden’s plan is too big but are publicly quiet about a number they can live with.

The president met separately with them at the White House seeking agreement before a Thursday test vote.

Assuming nothing, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters at the Capitol, “In the next day or so we hope to come to a place where we can all move forward.”

The stakes are as high as ever as Biden and his party try to accomplish a giant legislative lift, promising a vast rewrite of the nation’s tax priorities and spending goals with an oh-so-slim majority in Congress.

Biden is under pressure to close the deal with Manchin and Sinema who are seen as linchpins for the final package. The two centrist senators have said they can’t support the proposed price tag and are now being pressed to say how high they are willing to go.

“Really good, honest, straightforward negotiations,” Manchin told reporters back at the Capitol. He said he did not give Biden a new topline figure.

And it’s not just Biden’s fellow Democrats in the Senate. A small number of House Democrats also are bristling at the far-reaching scope of Biden’s domestic agenda and demanding changes before agreeing to vote yes.

“We’re obviously at a very sensitive time,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

The president, she said, is “not going to tell anyone what to do. He’s going to have a discussion, have an engagement.”

The closed-door talks come after Republican senators for a second time blocked a bill to keep the government operating past Thursday and allow federal borrowing, risking a federal shutdown and devastating debt default — though both seem highly unlikely.

Democrats said they will try again before Thursday’s deadline to pass a bill funding government operations past the Sept. 30 fiscal year-end, likely stripping out the more-heated debate over the debt limit for another day, closer to a separate October deadline.

Taken together, it’s all putting the entire Biden agenda perilously closer to collapse, with consequences certain to shape his presidency and the lawmakers’ political futures.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told Congress in a letter Tuesday that Oct. 18 is a critical date — when the Treasury Department will likely exhaust all of its “extraordinary measures” being taken to avoid a default on the government’s obligations.

Yellen urged Congress to “protect the full faith and credit of the United States by acting as soon as possible” to either raise the debt limit or suspend it.

Meanwhile, the behind the scenes action over the $3.5 trillion measure is testing Biden’s grip on his party, as he seeks a once-in-a-generation reworking of the nation’s balance sheets.

Applying pressure, progressives are unwavering so far in their refusal to go along with a vote expected Thursday on a companion bill, a $1 trillion public works measure that they say is too meager without Biden’s bigger package assured.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said they have the votes to derail the smaller bill unless it comes with Biden’s broader one — tacit pressure on the holdouts to arrive at a deal. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., urged a no vote.

“It won’t be the end of the world Thursday if we vote it down,” said Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., a progressive caucus member. He said the House will just wait for the Senate to act on Biden’s plan, “and then we’ll vote again.”

With all Republicans opposed to the big bill, Democratic leaders can’t spare a single vote in the 50-50 Senate, relying on Vice President Kamala Harris to break a tie to pass the eventual package.

Physically holding up the 2,000-plus page bill, Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming warned it was nothing but “big government socialism.”

“This bill represents Bernie Sanders’ socialist dream. It is a nightmare for American taxpayers,” he said.

Biden insists the price tag actually will be zero because the expansion of government programs would be largely paid for with higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy — businesses earning more than $5 million a year, and individuals earning more than $400,000 a year, or $450,000 for couples.

To lower the price tag and win over centrist Democrats, it’s not necessary that any specific programs be get axed, those familiar with the process have said.

Rather, lawmakers are eyeing ways to adjust the scope and duration of some of Biden’s proposals.

For example, instead of immediately launching the massive expansion of the Medicare program for seniors by allowing them to qualify for vision, dental and hearing aid benefits, changes might be spaced out to save money.

The corporate tax hikes, proposed to spike from 21% to 26.5% under the House’s version of Biden’s bill, could shift again in talks with the Senate Democrats.

Failing to fund all the program expansions indefinitely could well be seen as a loss for Democrats. But some see the built-in deadlines as a chance to revisit the issues again — likely during election years when both sides can argue their cases to voters.

Tensions are flaring at the Capitol as the contours of Biden’s big agenda come into focus at the same time as a Democrat-Republican standoff over normally routine votes to fund the government and prevent a federal debt default.

For a second day on Tuesday, Senate Republicans rejected an effort to ease the nation’s debt limit to avoid a dangerous default on its payments for past bills.

Republican leader Mitch McConnell grew testy with reporters when asked about Yellen’s warning that Congress must swiftly resolve the issue.

“Of course the debt ceiling has to be raised,” he said. But he insisted Democrats shoulder the unpopular vote on their own.

On Monday, Republicans had rejected the Democrats’ effort to link the debt ceiling vote to the must-pass funding bill to keep government running.

An exasperated Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said, “It is clear insanity and disaster are now the Republican party line.”