Thursday, July 27, 2017

Analysis shows local TV coverage of health bills surged after first Senate bill was released

Senate Republicans have so far failed to accomplish their stated goal of repealing and replacing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, for many reasons. Might one be increased news coverage once they released their bill after weeks of secrecy?

Most Americans get the bulk of their information about the issue from the news media, and local television news has a larger overall audience than cable and network news. Local TV coverage of the issue skyrocketed after Republican senators released the first version of their health-insurance bill, and it seems safe to presume that coverage in other local media did, too.

"That drumbeat of coverage in their home districts during Senate debates may have made some GOP senators think twice about angering constituentsincluding those of their own party," researchers Erika Franklin Fowler and Sarah Gollust write for The Washington Post. Fowler is an associate professor of government at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.; Gollust is associate professor of health policy and management at the University of Minnesota.

To show the jump in coverage after the Senate bill was released, Fowler and Gollust mapped the average mentions of the issue before and after (click on image for larger version):
Researchers looked for key words in closed captioning of local news broadcasts in the 201 U.S. media markets from early March, when House Republicans released their bill. While no firm conclusions can be drawn from the increased coverage, Fowler and Gollust have a hunch that the coverage attention to parts of the ACA that were popular but hadn't been well-covered, such as a ban on denying coverage for pre-existing conditions. "If our hunch is right, and local media drew attention to what might be lost . . . then that would help explain why the ACA has grown more popular, and the AHCA less so, the more citizens learned what one did, and the other would not contain," they write.

Fowler and Gollust caution that their research doesn't say how local TV covered the issue, but "a look at the drop in public approval of efforts to repeal the ACA suggests that local TV coverage cannot have made things easier for wary GOP senators."

Tennessee coal-ash cleanup workers sue, say they weren't warned about toxic substances

A worker at the Kingston spill cleanup
(Knoxville News Sentinel photo)
Nine years after the biggest coal-ash spill in U.S. history, more than 50 of the cleanup workers or surviving family members are suing Jacobs Engineering, the company tapped by the Tennessee Valley Authority to handle the cleanup. At least 17 workers have died, more are dying, and they say it's because of exposure to toxic chemicals they were never warned about.

The spill happened in December 2008 when a dike broke at the TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant, "dumping 5 million cubic yards of sludge into the Emory River and across 300 acres of the Swan Pond community of Roane County," Jamie Satterfield reports for the Knoxville News Sentinel. Some workers were even exposed to radioactive material left over from work at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The Environmental Protection Agency knew the sludge, and the fly ash it turned into when dried, was filled with dangerous metals and chemicals, but workers say Jacobs supervisors told them it was safe. "Their only decontamination unit at the end of the day was a bucket of water and a brush for their boots. When they asked for dust masks, they were denied, and when they complained of health problems, they were mocked," Satterwhite reports. Meanwhile, vehicles leaving the site were extensively decontaminated so that no ash spread out into the community. The TVA told citizens in surrounding communities that the fly ash wouldn't hurt them, even as it "gave out air filters, paid for medical testing, handed out bottled water and held town hall meetings to calm the public. It also paid $27.8 million to landowners, some of them miles away from the spill site, and gave the Roane County coffers $43 million more."

Cleanup worker John Cox told Satterwhite he soon started coughing uncontrollably, and his doctor told him fly ash was responsible. But when Cox showed his supervisor his prescription for a respirator, the supervisor refused to give him one. One foreman said he thinks the TVA didn't want workers wearing masks because it would look bad to the public driving by. "They were very, very concerned about public appearance because so many people were watching this cleanup," heavy equipment operator Michael McCarthy said in his deposition for the lawsuit. "They did not want us out there creating concern by wearing respirators, dust masks, anything like that."

EPA relied on air monitors at the site to assure the public that everything was fine, but workers say Jacobs supervisors ordered them to water down the mounds of ash to fool the monitors, because high levels of ash could cause EPA to shut down the work site to investigate, endangering Jacobs' performance bonuses. Workers with personal air-monitor devices say they were never shown the readings, and that Jacobs supervisors often handpicked workers in less dusty areas to wear the monitors. TVA safety managers said in a deposition that they had no knowledge of tampering and that Jacobs was responsible for the monitoring process.

In an unprecedented move, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross overrules a fish-catch limit

Summer flounder
(Boston Globe illustration)
Earlier this month, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross dismissed a report from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission that concluded that New Jersey was violating a conservation plan for summer flounder, also called fluke. "The decision, which effectively allows New Jersey to harvest more summer flounder, marked the first time the federal government had disregarded such a recommendation by the commission, and it drew a swift rebuke from state officials along the East Coast," David Abel reports for The Boston Globe.

Congress established the multi-state commission 75 years ago to manage fishing in order to maintain a sustainable supply. The commission lowered catch limits after it found that that summer flounder were being overfished, based on government surveys that found their population was down almost 25 percent since 2010. "If the population falls another 14 percent, reaching a critical threshold for the ability of the fishery to rebuild, commissioners will be required by their rules to reduce quotas drastically or implement a region-wide moratorium on catching fluke," Abel reports.

New Jersey, a member of the commission, proposed an alternative plan, but the commission rejected it after its scientists said that plan would result in nearly 94,000 more fish being caught. Ross, who oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, overruled the commission and allowed New Jersey to go ahead with its plan. Members of the commission, fishing officials, and regional NOAA officials were furious. "They said it was unprecedented for a commerce secretary to make a decision without seeking their input," Abel reports. "Such rulings are routinely vetted by NOAA’s regional officials and scientists, who review the commission’s recommendations and then prepare the agency’s response, they said."

New Jersey fishermen argue that the commission's recommended limits would have made it difficult to catch and keep any fluke other than the large females that replenish the flounder population.

The broader impact of the decision remains unknown. Some fishing officials worry that Ross' decision sets a precedent for states to reject the commission's findings and appeal to the federal government whenever they don't like what they're hearing. And if summer flounder are overfished to the point where the population can't rebuild itself, that could impact the marine ecosystem and the coastal economies that rely on it.

Local officials, newspaper advocates debate cost of public-notice ads, effectiveness of online option

All across the country, local officials are trying to get state legislators to cut back or eliminate requirements to buy newspaper advertising about planned or completed government actions, and move the information to government websites. A microcosm of the phenomenon was on display Wednesday in Kentucky, where a House-Senate committee heard from representatives of schools, local governments and newspaper lobbyists. Most from officialdom said they want to keep taxpayers informed, but objected to the cost of public-notice advertising at a time when their budgets are under greater stress, especially in the state's eastern coalfield.

"State law requires public agencies, governments and school boards to advertise in the local paper of record notice of meetings, financial statements, pending ordinances and other things like bid proposals," Ronnie Ellis reports for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. "The intent is allow the public, taxpayers and voters to see how their local governments and agencies are operating and doing the public’s business."

But as newspaper circulation has declined and internet use has increased, local officials argue that it would be more efficient and effective to put public notices online "than publishing it in something that seems like an archaic method," Perry County Schools Finance Officer Jody Maggard told the Interim Joint Committee on State and Local Government. He said his district got more than $1.2 million in taxes on unmined coal last year but this year will get only $117,000.

Kentucky Press Association Executive Director David Thompson noted that a recent legislative study found that public-notice advertising is about 1 percent of local government and school-board budgets, and concluded that citizens are more likely to see a public notice in their local newspaper than on a website.

Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog, told Ellis, "National surveys have shown people are not all that interested in going to government websites to look for government information. But if they see it in their newspaper, which has a wide range of information on any two-page spread, they encounter a public notice ad that reveals something about government activity they weren’t aware of – that is the virtue of public notice in printed newspapers."

Thompson said KPA has worked with local officials and legislators to revise public-notice laws to make the advertising less expensive, and is "ready to look into solutions." But he noted that KPA already puts public notices from its papers onto a website at no extra charge, and said public notice is an essential part of a "three-legged stool" of freedom of information, the other two legs being open records and open meetings.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Study: Rural living before age 10, especially before 5, reduces risk of inflammatory bowel disease

A study indicates that living in rural areas, especially at a young age, reduces the risk of getting inflammatory bowel disease later in life, reports Amy Wallace of United Press International. IBD is a general category for afflictions such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, and has become more common in the last 50 years, "particularly in children living in developed nations and in newly industrialized countries experiencing increased urbanization," the study says.

The researchers say they've known that environmental and genetic factors can be involved in IBD, but the study demonstrates the importance of early life experiences. "Our findings show that children, particularly those under the age of 10, experience a protective effect against IBD if they live in a rural household," researcher Dr. Eric Benchimol said in a press release. "This effect is particularly strong in children who are raised in a rural household in the first five years of life," when their intestinal bacteria are being established. "The number of very young children being diagnosed with IBD has jumped in the past 20 years. The findings also strengthen our understanding that environmental risk factors that predispose people to IBD may have a stronger effect in children than adults."

The study was conducted by researchers at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario, the Institute for Clinical Evaluation Sciences, and the Canadian Gastro-Intestinal Epidemiology Consortium and was published in the July 25 issue of the American Journal of Gastroenterology. Canada has one of the highest rates of IBD.

Uncertainty about cost-sharing subsidies for ACA policies may leave rural areas short of coverage

The uncertainty over the future of health-insurance laws and regulations is spooking insurance companies, which may cause millions of Americans to lose their federally subsidized insurance. The risk of that is greater in rural areas. Republican senators are still short of votes to repeal or replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and with open enrollment for subsidized policies for 2018 only three months away, insurers don't know whether they'll be able to continue relying on federal cost-sharing subsidies to make ACA marketplace plans more affordable.

This uncertainty could hurt rural areas particularly hard, since many already have only one insurer offering subsidized plans, and some have none. "Uncertainty about the future of the subsidies has led some insurers to pull out of the exchanges, saying it’s impossible for them to forecast costs. Others have threatened to drastically hike premiums in order to make up for the lost federal funds," Alex Seitz-Wald reports for NBC News. "Time is of the essence, since many insurers have already begun the months-long process of calculating their estimated premiums for next year, which have to be submitted to regulators for approval well before they hit the market."
Bloomberg News map shows number of Obamacare insurers in each county.
The Trump administration said in April that it would keep funding cost-sharing, but the president recently called them "ransom money," and his appointees could work with Republicans in Congress to eliminate them. Professor of health policy Kenneth Thorpe of Emory University told The Columbus Dispatch that such a move would be "deliberately sabotaging" the markets.

Some states are feeling the pinch. "Just last month, Anthem announced plans to drop out of Ohio’s Obamacare marketplace, a move that would leave more than 10,000 people in 18 counties without access to a federally subsidized insurance plan. Anthem said the 'individual market remains volatile,' saying one reason was 'the lack of certainty' about whether the cost-sharing payments would continue," Jack Torry and Jessica Wehrman report for the Dispatch.

After the Senate's original bill failed, a bipartisan group of 11 governors asked Congress to "fix our unstable insurance markets," reports Seitz-Wald. The governors, along with some insurers, want to secure the federal subsidies and leave the long-term issues for another day.

Group posts data on local water systems, says rural areas at more risk from unregulated substances

The Environmental Working Group has created a Tap Water Database to provide easy access to information about local drinking-water systems. The non-profit, non-partisan organization says it compiled 28 million records from nearly 50,000 utilities nationwide from 2010 to 2015, and catalogued 267 contaminants. Users can type in their ZIP code and see what utilities serve the area, the utilities' water suppliers, what contaminants have been found in the local water and why they're dangerous, and when and how EWG gathered the data for that area.

Utilities were given the opportunity to review the data for accuracy, but we recommend that local journalists doing stories based on the data check it with local sources.

EWG also published a report based on the data called State of American Drinking Water. The report says that the vast majority of the nation's drinking water has industrial or agricultural contaminants at levels that are low enough to pass muster under the Safe Drinking Water Act or state regulations, but high enough to post health risks—especially in rural areas. "Pesticides and toxic byproducts from fertilizer and manure are found by water utilities in many areas of the country, but are often detected in greater numbers and at higher readings by utilities serving rural communities in places where agriculture has a significant footprint."

The report says the Environmental Protection Agency hasn't added any new contaminants to the list of drinking-water pollutants in more than 20 years, so there are no legal limits for 160 contaminants that have been detected in tap water. Of the 267 contaminants detected, 93 are linked to an increased risk of cancer, 78 are associated with brain and nervous system damage, 63 are connected to developmental harm in children or fetuses, 38 may cause fertility problems, and 45 are linked to hormone disruption, EWG says. Almost 19,000 public water systems had detectable levels of lead, which can cause brain damage in children at any amount, EWG says.

Federal judge strikes down Utah's 'ag-gag' law

A federal judge has struck down Utah's 2012 "ag-gag" law, which made undercover filming of livestock operations illegal. Several other states have such laws, so the ruling may bring their constitutionality into further doubt.

District Judge Robert Shelby ruled that the law violated the rights of the plaintiffs, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and activist Amy Meyer. State attorneys had argued that the First Amendment doesn't guarantee free speech on private property, and said the law protects the safety of animals and workers, Jessica Miller reports for The Salt Lake Tribune. But the judge wrote that lawmakers didn't seem to be focused on safety, and had said that the law was aimed at "vegetarian people that [are] trying to kill the animal industry."

"Ag-gag laws target animal rights groups trying to document abusive practices at feedlots and slaughterhouses — but they also make it illegal for journalists to report on livestock operations that may affect the wholesomeness of people’s food or water pollution," Joseph Davis reports for the Society of Environmental Journalists. Seventeen journalism organizations, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, filed a friend-of-the-court brief in 2013 arguing that Utah's ag-gag law violated freedom of the press.

"The federal court ruling is important because similar laws exist in other states, including Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and North Carolina," Davis reports. "Legally, a district court decision may be of limited precedential value in other federal circuits. But Idaho’s ag-gag law was also held unconstitutional by a federal district court in 2015. That case is now before an appeals court." More states have tried to pass such laws but haven't succeeded. Utah officials have not said whether they will appeal the ruling.

Report gives data about rural students, schools

The latest report from the nonpartisan, nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust urges state and federal leaders to make rural students a bigger priority. The new edition of Why Rural Matters includes state-by-state data from 2015-2016 on student achievement, state resources, demographics, college and career readiness, and poverty. The report also ranks states by needs in rural education. The state with the greatest need is Mississippi, followed by Arizona, Alabama, South Carolina, South Dakota, Georgia, Nevada, Florida, Oklahoma, and Alaska rounding out the top 10.

"While some rural schools thrive, far too many rural students face nothing less than a national emergency. Many rural schools and districts face vastly inequitable funding and simply cannot provide the opportunities that many suburban and urban schools do,” said Robert Mahaffey, the organization's executive director. The 164-page report was assembled by Daniel Showalter, Ph.D., of Eastern Mennonite University; Robert Klein, Ph.D. and Sara L. Hartman, Ph.D., both of Ohio University; and Jerry Johnson, Ed.D., of the University of Central Florida's Institute for the Advancement of Research, Innovation and Practice in Rural Education.

Some of the report's findings:
  • Almost 9 million students attend rural schools; more than the enrollments of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and the nation's next 75 largest school districts combined.
  • Half of rural school districts in 23 states have fewer than 485 students enrolled.
  • Half of rural students live in just 10 states: Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Alabama, Indiana, and Michigan.
  • Overall, rural schools do as well as suburban schools on the Nation's Report Card, but scores are lowest for rural students in New Mexico, Mississippi, Alabama, Hawaii, and Louisiana.
  • Rural America is demographically diverse. In several states such as California and New Mexico, the majority of rural students identify as non-white.
  • Resources for rural schools are often a problem. Many rural districts spend much less than the national average on students, and teacher pay is low.
  • Most of the top 10 "priority" states have fewer than 12 percent of children enrolled in early childhood preschool programs.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

9 farm lobbies push back against Microsoft's plans for rural broadband, say it will hurt broadcasters

Ajit Pai (FCC photo)
Nine lobbying groups representing rural interests are protesting Microsoft's push to reserve TV spectrum channels for unlicensed use, John Eggerton reports for Broadcasting & Cable. Microsoft argues that it needs the spectrum to provide rural areas with broadband internet service, but "cattlemen, wheat growers, 'agri-women' and state agriculture departments" wrote a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai saying they need the spectrum because broadcasting is vital to keep rural areas connected to each other. "While our organizations certainly understand the need for improved broadband access in rural America and support the deployment of high-speed broadband in our communities, this proposal will only serve to deprive our members of critical access to local broadcast television coverage," they wrote.

Pai, who got the chair through President Trump, has made rural broadband access a main goal of the FCC. Several times in past years, the agency has reallocated space on the broadcast spectrum to make room for more broadband and other services that use the spectrum. This has often been accomplished through auctions in which private companies can bid on the rights to use certain parts of the spectrum. After the auction, stations are "repacked" or moved to different parts of the spectrum to accommodate the new channel assignments. The most recent was on March 30 of this year; stations will have 39 months to move to their new channels.

The protest letter says Microsoft's plan to use white spaces will leave less room for low-power TV stations and translators, which rebroadcast signals to remote areas. The letter says those are often the only means rural people have of receiving free TV. "Combining this loss of spectrum for unlicensed use with the sheer number of full-power stations needing to be repacked and the interference protections between neighboring stations, many LPTVs and television translators could be left without a new home and would be forced out of business," the letter said. "When local broadcast stations go dark, rural communities are deprived of a vital source of information that is essential for managing our day-to-day lives."

The groups that signed the letter were: American Agri-Women, Intertribal Agriculture Council, National Association of Wheat Growers, National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, National Black Growers Council, National Farmers Union, Rural & Agriculture Council of America, U.S. Cattlemen’s Association and Women Involved in Farm Economics.

Opioid addicts get promises of free coverage for treatment that turns out to be subpar or worse

Peter SanAngelo died of a heroin OD
after his phony insurance was cancelled
and he was forced to leave the treatment
center. (Facebook photo)
An investigation by The Boston Globe and its medical and science news outlet, Stat, found that some drug users seeking help for opioid addiction are "pawns in a sprawling national network of insurance fraud." It works like this: Treatment centers pocket thousands of dollars in claims money from insurance companies for each patient, so they pay patient brokers a fee to find addicts who have insurance. The brokers, eager to make more money, promise people free or cheap insurance so they can get addiction treatment. Opioid users in rural areas have much less access to treatment and are easy pickings for such a pitch. The brokers then sign them up for high-payout plans using a phony address and refer them to the treatment center.

The fake address exploits a loophole that allows people whose address changes to sign up for coverage without waiting for the end-of-year open enrollment. "They often target certain Blue Cross Blue Shield plans, because of their generous benefits and few restrictions on seeking care from out-of-network treatment programs," Evan Allen and David Armstrong report. "For them, the most attractive plans to exploit are PPOs — which stands for preferred provider organizations. These plans often impose few limits on where people with addiction can seek treatment and often actually pay more for rehab provided out of their coverage area." Patients are often enrolled through the online insurance exchange created under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. HMOs and government plans like Medicaid are "shunned" by treatment centers that use patient brokers, because they limit the geographic area where treatment can be provided or don't pay out as much as PPOs.

The geographic factor is important. Because PPOs plans pay more for out-of-coverage treatment, brokers have an incentive to send patients far from home. The treatment centers that engage in patient brokering often offer shoddy or nonexistent care, so they benefit when patients' friends and families are less likely to be able to check in on them. Some patients don't realize they've been the victim of fraud until a billing problem arises or the broker stops paying the monthly premiums. And, stranded far from home, some patients keep using.

One Massachusetts woman who was sent to a Florida treatment center said that patients openly used drugs, and that she was required to give urine samples several times a day just so the center could bill her insurance for them. "The whole thing was one big insurance scam," she told the Globe. "I was there trying, actually trying, to do the right thing. It was tough being in an environment like that." Another Massachusetts man, Peter SanAngelo, died of a heroin overdose after being sent to a Florida treatment center by a broker. When his phony insurance was canceled for nonpayment, he left and tried to make it on his own in Florida, but was found dead soon after.

Blue Cross Blue Shield confirms that insurance fraud by patient brokers is a problem and they're investigating.

Appalachian lawmakers ask Trump to spare loan program that would help fund a gas-storage facility

A bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by West Virginia Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito, sent President Donald Trump a letter last week asking him to "spare a loan program he wants to kill and use it to help a $10 billion gas-storage project in the hard-hit Appalachian region of the eastern U.S. where coal had once dominated," Ari Natter reports for Bloomberg.

The spending bill up for debate in the House later this week proposes to kill the storage-hub project, which advocates say "would help spur new chemical, refining and other manufacturing industries -- and give out-of-work miners a new career path," Natter reports. The West Virginia senators also introduced legislation that would allow the proposed storage hub to qualify for Energy Department loan guarantees.

The states the lawmakers represent have lost thousands of coal jobs in recent years to the natural-gas boom. They say they hope new jobs in the gas industry will help unemployed coal workers. The Appalachian Storage Hub in particular could be a boon to the struggling Appalachian region. The project, which could cost as much as $10 billion, would take advantage of underground caverns in Pennsylvania, Ohio, or West Virginia to store as much as 100 million barrels of ethane, methane, and other gas products. It would require a 3,000-mile pipeline network to link it up to petrochemical plants.

Supporters say that not having storage and pipelines has kept the price of gas produced in Appalachia 30 percent lower than what it brings in Louisiana, where natural-gas prices are set. "A report by the American Chemistry Council found the project could create more than 100,000 jobs and nearly $36 billion in capital investment. The project would be similar, though smaller, to the Mont Belvieu natural gas liquids hub just outside Houston that has bolstered that area’s chemical industry," Natter reports. Even without the government storage hub project, "there are initial signs that investment is coming to the region," such as a proposed $6 billion ethane cracker plant along the Ohio River and a planned chemical complex in western Pennsylvania.

Memoir by foreign correspondent is also a tribute to local newspapers and their value to journalism

Jeffrey Gettleman (Twitter photo)
A new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist Jeffrey Gettleman is more than a memoir of his career as the East Africa bureau chief; it's a "passionate swan song" to local American newspapers, "even if he didn’t intend it to be." In his review of Love, Africa for Columbia Journalism Review, Joe Freeman says Gettleman was determined to cover Africa, where he had traveled as a student, from the beginning of his career. But the conventional wisdom of the late '90s dictated that he needed to work his way up. He started out at the St. Petersburg Times in Florida in 1998, by 2001 was a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, then went on to the NYT, where he is now East Africa bureau chief

"His heart wasn't in Florida," writes Freeman, a Burma-based correspondent. But he says Gettleman's stint in Florida was crucial to his development as a reporter—and wonders about the future of journalism. Local news coverage is "more important than ever, but the jobs aren’t as plentiful as they once were, and working at a scrappy local or regional paper doesn’t have the pull that it once had. Nor is it seen as a reliable stepping stone professionally. That’s a significant change, and raises the question of what, if anything, has been lost in the process," Freeman writes. "Gettleman would not be the journalist he is today without that interlude. It makes me think about all the journalists who don’t get the same opportunity today. The chapter on those years is also one of the most enjoyable to read because he’s not a hotshot reporter yet. He’s getting his purple prose excised. He’s being reined in left and right. He’s learning a craft. That’s a beautiful thing to watch."

And impatient as Gettleman was to rise in his career, he looks back on his time in Florida with nostalgia. "That job was the best f---ing job," he writes. "It was rooted in the real world. Newspapers, especially small ones, are like that—they’re old school, they’re fact-based, they’re pure. The journalism they practice is less adorned than magazine work; it has less spin than radio; it’s much deeper than TV. Walt Whitman worked at a small newspaper; so did Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Everybody should work at a small newspaper. The amount of life you take in is staggering."

Monday, July 24, 2017

Interactive maps give county-by-county estimates of premiums under Senate health-insurance bill

The fate of health-insurance legislation in the Senate remains very much up in the air, but the Kaiser Family Foundation has updated its interactive, county-level map showing how the latest version of the Better Care Reconciliation Act would affect premiums for silver-level Obamacare plans, the type most commonly purchased with tax-credit subsidies. Pop-up tables for each county also show premiums for cheaper bronze-level plans, the amounts of tax credits (or savings from putting pre-tax income into health-savings accounts), and the change from current law.

The map can be adjusted for age (27, 40 and 60) and income (mostly in in $10,000 increments), and individual states can be selected for a closer look. The figures are the estimated premium in 2020 after tax credits. Here's a screenshot of estimates for a 40-year-old with $40,000 annual income (click on it for a larger version):
Here's an example of the detail available, showing one county in Kentucky. Click on it for a larger version.

Rural areas and small towns prepare for influx of solar-eclipse viewers four weeks from today

The path of the August 21 solar eclipse (Los Angeles Times graphic)
As the historic August 21 solar eclipse draws near, towns along the path of totality are bracing for tens of thousands of visitors. "Whatever the biggest event in town is, they are going to get at least twice as many people — and usually more than that,"eclipse chaser and crowd consultant Kate Russo told Deborah Netburn of the Los Angeles Times. "This is not just a science event. This is a human event and something very powerful and life-changing." The eclipse will be the first to affect coast-to-coast America since 1918.

Signs in Hopkinsville, Ky., mark sites to view
eclipse. (Associated Press photo by Alex Sanz)
Hopkinsville, Ky., began planning for the eclipse 10 years ago since it is close to the point of greatest eclipse, which means the moon will look the biggest relative to the sun and the eclipse will last the longest. That will draw a big crowd, including some NASA astronomers. The town of 30,000 has employed a full-time eclipse coordinator since last September. "The community has enthusiastically embraced its role as eclipse central, even adopting the name 'Eclipseville' and painting a mural on the building next to Whistlestop Donuts, an iconic spot next to the railroad tracks that most everyone sees when pulling into downtown," Netburn reports. "It is renting 15-by-15-foot viewing stations in local parks for $30, parking pass included." The city also asked for 85 members of the National Guard to help with anticipated traffic. Since most of the world's bowling balls are manufactured in Hopkinsville, they're planning to produce a solar eclipse-themed bowling ball for the occasion, too.

Hopkinsville, Ky. (Wikipedia map)
Though 12 million Americans live in the 70-mile swath of totality, where the eclipse will be most dramatic, most of that path goes over rural areas. Almost all public campsites along the eclipse path have been reserved a long time ago, and managers for public lands are worried about the influx of eclipse watchers, reports Zach Urness for The Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon. "It’s the peak of fire season. Our emergency responders are going to be spread thin. And the forest is going to be filled with a lot of people who don’t camp very often and might have little experience with the outdoors," Jean Nelson-Dean, the public information officer for Deschutes National Forest, told Urness. Park rangers advise those who want to view the eclipse on public lands to get to your viewing spot early, expect traffic to be heavy, don't litter or destroy fresh vegetation, and don't try to climb mountains for a better view if you're an inexperienced mountaineer.

One other piece of advice: Watch the weather forecast and have alternate locations in mind. An eclips just isn't the same if it's cloudy.

Bankers' view of heartland economy takes biggest dip since Great Recession

The overall Rural Mainstreet Index, for 10 Plains and Western states where agriculture and energy dominate the economy, experienced the biggest drop since the Great Recession last month, The Associated Press reports. The index "plummeted to 40.7 in July from June's index of 50. The index ranges between 0 and 100, with any number under 50 indicating a shrinking economy." Creighton University economist Ernie Goss says the drop is the largest since November 2008. Drought conditions and weak grain prices were factors in the region's rural economy slump.

The confidence index also fell this month, to 38.4, down from 48.9 in June. The confidence index measures bankers' expectations for the economy six months out. Bankers from Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming were surveyed.
(Creighton graphic: Rural Mainstreet Index)

Rural pregnant women put at greater risk by closing of maternity wards or entire hospitals

Pregnant women in rural America are facing riskier pregnancies because of the declining availability of hospital care. Since 2010, 80 rural hospitals nationwide have closed, according to the North Carolina Rural Health Research Program. And hospitals that do stay afloat are often forced to cut programs. Maternity departments are often the first to go, since obstetricians pay some of the highest malpractice insurance premiums. Data from the University of Minnesota Rural Health Research Center show that "more than 200 maternity wards closed between 2004 and 2014 because of higher costs, fewer births and staffing shortages, leaving 54 percent of rural counties across the United States without hospital-based obstetrics," Jilian Mincer reports for Reuters.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was designed partly to help rural hospitals, but the National Rural Health Association reports that unpaid patient debt has risen among rural hospitals by 50 percent since the ACA was passed, especially in states that chose not to expand Medicaid. The recent Senate health-insurance bill's proposed Medicaid cuts would put about 150 more hospitals in mainly Republican-voting states in debt, according to the Chartis Center for Rural Health. And Medicaid is not a big money-maker for rural hospitals. Diane Calmus, government affairs and policy manager for the National Rural Health Association, told Mincer: "The majority of births in rural America are paid for by Medicaid, and Medicaid is not the most generous payer. . . . For most hospitals it is a money losing proposition."
What does this mean for pregnant women? Fewer available obstetricians mean it's harder to get an appointment, and may mean a longer drive, which may lead women to miss important prenatal care, Mincer writes. It's also leading to an increase in Caesarean sections, which are riskier and more expensive than a vaginal birth. Rural obstetricians increasingly schedule them, instead of waiting to see if one is needed, because they can't guarantee that a patient living far away will make it to the hospital in time, or that qualified staff such as anesthesiologists, will be on hand 24 hours a day.

Micro-credentialing helps rural teachers get high-quality professional development to help students

Owsley County Supt. Timothy Bobrowski
gave teachers stipend out of his own pocket
for micro-credentialing. (LinkedIn photo)
Teachers in rural communities may have a hard time getting high-quality professional development, but a new concept called micro-credentialing could help them become better educators.

Several states such as Tennessee and Kentucky, as well as individual school districts, are piloting these programs in which teachers work on single competencies such as classroom management or collaborative coaching, Madeline Will reports for Teaching Now. Educators prove mastery of the selected subjects by showing samples of student work, videos, and more; they usually receive a digital badge upon completion of the micro-credential that can be displayed on the school website, or the teacher's LinkedIn profile, blog, or online portfolio.

It could make a big impact in Appalachia, where teachers are often too far away from the nearest university to take a graduate course, school districts are often too broke to pay for those courses, and the teachers too low-paid to comfortably pay for it themselves. Micro-credentialing "answers a really dramatic need for us . . . There is no interstate highway that touches our region," says Jeff Hawkins, executive director of Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, a group of 21 rural school districts in southeastern Kentucky. "We are in an area where it is difficult for us to attract and employ teachers in certain subject areas—foreign language, computer sciences, some advanced sciences. With micro-credentialing, we believe we can work with our department of education, particularly with the division of technology, to have folks become certified to teach computer science programs, robotics, aerospace . . . [so] our students will have access to 21st century coursework."

Owsley County, part of the cooperative, has already piloted micro-credentials across the school district. Supt. Timothy Bobrowski says he knows they have many obstacles to overcome, including a high poverty rate and geographical isolation. "We have a hard time keeping our teachers and it's hard to replace them," he says. "If you're a science, chemistry, math teacher and you don't have a family here, you're probably going to take a job somewhere else rather than coming and taking a chance in little America."

But Bobrowski has embraced micro-credentialing as a way to help teachers—so much so that he committed $5,000 out of his own pocket to give each teacher a $150 stipend for each micro-credential they complete. Will reports that more than 60 percent of Owsley County's 48 teachers completed a micro-credential in the past school year. A report published last year says that pay or leadership incentives help motivate teachers to do the difficult work involved in obtaining a micro-credential. Coaching and support are important too. Bobrowski says that's one of the reasons he put his own money on the line. "I wanted them to see that it's coming from me personally," he said. "It's a personal way to say, look, I really value this."

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Rural editor explains small-town papers, questions cable-news 'hysteria' about Trump and Russia

Gary Abernathy
Rural editor Gary Abernathy writes that he doesn't read many comments about his pieces in The Washington Post "because I’m an old-fashioned journalist who prefers signed letters to the editor, or even phone calls or emails. But friends and family told me that my last Post op-ed apparently inspired a lot of responses ridiculing me and, by extension, editors of small-town newspapers everywhere." So he offers to "explain a little more about small-town newspapers — which I have often said are the last newspapers practicing old-school, non-sensationalized journalism — and in so doing perhaps help the head-scratchers better understand Trump country."

"Small-town newspapers report hard news and local political controversies," writes Abernathy, editor and publisher of The Times-Gazette in Hillsboro, Ohio. "They do investigative reporting and in-depth analysis. They win awards from The Associated Press and other media organizations for their efforts." One commenter "surmised that for newspapers like ours," the biggest news is a dollar-store opening, he writes "We have done stories on dollar-store openings. In some tiny communities in southern Ohio, the opening of a dollar store is real news because it means that local residents no longer have to drive 30 minutes or more to buy some important household and grocery items. The reality of life in rural flyover country is lost on those who mock us."

Noting a recent Reuters story reporting that people in his area didn't seem concerned "about the Trump-Russia controversy," Abernathy explains, "One reason might be that they have more important things to do than sit glued to cable news. But in addition to the scarcity of grocery choices in some areas, broadband Internet has yet to reach many parts of southern Ohio. . . . The media’s Russia fixation may not be fake news in the way that Trump uses the phrase. But for millions of Americans, Trump’s claim strikes a chord because the Russia hysteria is not real news, either, not compared with the issues that impact their daily lives."

Friday, July 21, 2017

Disability benefits are nearly twice as common in rural areas, and they can deepen a cultural divide

From 1996 to 2015, "the number of working-age adults receiving federal disability payments increased significantly across the country — but nowhere more so than in rural America," The Washington Post reports in the latest piece of a series on "how disability is shaping the culture, economy and politics" of 102 rural counties "where, at minimum, about one in six working-age residents receive either Supplemental Security Income, a program for the disabled poor, or Social Security Disability Insurance for disabled workers. These are places — primarily white, rural and working-class — where once-dominant industries have collapsed or modernized and the number of people who are jobless or receiving public-assistance benefits has soared."

Tyler McGlothlin and his mother, Sheila
(Washington Post photo by Linda Davidson)
One of those places is Grundy, Va., near where the Old Dominion meets Kentucky and West Virginia, and one of those families is the McGlothlins: a father who became disabled in the coal mines, became addicted to painkillers and is now in jail for selling them; a mother whose disability check isn't enough for her household, which includes her son's fiance; and the son, who got fired from McDonald's for "missing a shift during a snowstorm," then totaled his car and had to drop out of community college, and now begs for money -- following in the footsteps of his father, who was confronted personally and on social media by a neighbor who was offended when the disabled miner wouldn't accept a job offer, Terrence McCoy reports.

McCoy gets into the head of Sheila McGlothlin: "She had wanted something more for him, something other than what she felt most days: shame. She knew how she must look, in her pajamas and mismatched socks, to people who work. She knew what they must say about her disability: It’s only anxiety, only depression. Why couldn’t she work? Why did she buy soda and cigarettes when they needed food? How could she afford the Internet and cable TV bills on a $500 monthly disability check? She would sometimes consider how she would answer. She would say that cigarettes and soda make hard days a little easier. That television is just about her only connection to a world that hasn’t seemed to want her anymore. But it’s simpler to say nothing at all, so she rarely leaves the house now."

Disability has become so prevalent that the federal government will spend more on it this year than food stamps, welfare, housing subsidies and unemployment, combined, and the programs are running out of money, the Post reports. In rural counties, 9.1 percent of working-age people are on disability — nearly twice the urban rate and 40 percent higher than the national average. In Buchanan County, where Grundy is the seat, one in four adults are on SSI or disability, but that doesn't mean it's a broadly popular pursuit. “There is a critical divide in the minds of low-income whites, between people who work, even if they struggle, and what has historically been called ‘white trash’,” University of California, Davis professor Lisa Pruitt, who researches rural poverty and grew up in Newton County, Arkansas, which has one of the nation’s highest disability rates, told McCoy. “The worst thing you can do in rural America among low-income whites is not work.” The a mentality, she told him, is that “only lazy white trash” accept “handouts.” A poll by the Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation confirmed that such feelings are more common in rural areas:

Proposed gas pipelines opposed from varied corners; ex-regulator questions approval process

Pennsylvania nuns hold church in a roofless chapel established on land earmarked
for construction of a gas pipeline. (Washington Post photo by Michael S, Williamson)
Construction of natural gas pipelines is increasing because of a boom in the gas industry from horizontal hydraulic fracturing, but with it comes increasing pushback from government watchdog groups, environmental organizations, and landowners who live in proposed paths of the pipes.

Pipelines are permitted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and National Public Radio-backed StateImpact Pennsylvania raises questions about FERC's neutrality. They found that that FERC has rejected only two pipelines out of hundreds proposed over the last 30 years, and 80 percent of former commissioners went on to work at energy companies or the groups representing them.

The outgoing chief of FERC under the Obama administration, Norman Bay, "surprised the gas industry and activists by cautioning that the federal approval process for gas pipelines was full of shortcomings, creating a risk of overbuilding. In a six-page essay filed as part of a commission proceeding, Bay, long an ally of the industry, opined that regulators are not paying enough attention to legitimate concerns about the long-term viability of the projects, their impact on global warming and the hardships they can cause for communities along their routes," reports Evan Halper of the Los Angeles Times.

Environmental groups worry that 9,000 new miles of pipeline in the planning stages will reduce interest in renewable sources of energy. “If we build all this gas capacity, we will have a strong incentive to use it for its useful life, which extends well into the 21st century. That will blow our climate goals," said Michael Wara, an energy law scholar at Stanford University. Climate groups also worry that much of the gas that will be shipped through pipelines such as the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline in Virginia will end up going to foreign countries through tanks of compressed gas instead of being used by Americans. They're also concerned that the pipeline would run through the Appalachian Trail and ruin iconic views.

Some residents who live on land targeted for pipeline construction are refusing to grant easements, leases or sales. A family in central Pennsylvania was forced by a judge to leave their property to allow construction of the Mariner East 2 Pipeline. And some ecologically-minded nuns elsewhere in Pennsylvania built an outdoor chapel in the middle of land they were asked to temporarily turn over for the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline construction. Williams Cos. says they're only asking to pay for an easement to bury the pipeline. The nuns filed a complaint with the FERC saying that putting the pipeline on their property would violate their religious freedom, Julie Zauzmer reports for The Washington Post. The tactic might work because of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.

Health insurance is a big worry for farmers

Shoshana Inwood
(University of Vermont photo)
A new study funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture says that lack of access to affordable health care is one of the biggest problems facing American farmers, affecting their risk management, productivity, health, retirement, the need for a secondary source of income, and land access for new farmers.

"The rising cost of healthcare and the availability of affordable health insurance have joined more traditional risk factors like access to capital, credit and land as a major source of worry for farmers," principal investigator Shoshana Inwood of the University of Vermont said in a press release. She conducted the study with researchers from the Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis, part of the research organization Norc at the University of Chicago.

The researchers interviewed farmers in 10 states, and sent 1,062 of them a mail survey in March 2017. In the interviews, many farmers said they knew someone who had lost a farm because of an uninsured illness or injury. Nearly three-quarters of the survey respondents said affordable health care was important to reducing their business risk, and half said they are not confident they could pay for a major illness without going into debt. "With an average age of 58, farmers and ranchers are also vulnerable to higher insurance premiums due to age-rating bands," the release said.

Farmers are also likely to have pre-existing conditions (64 percent in the survey), so many of them took off-farm jobs in order to qualify for group insurance policies, which must cover such conditions. With passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, “A number of farmers in their 50s we spoke with said they had left off-farm employment in the last five years to commit to full-time farming because they and their families would not be denied health insurance in the individual market due to pre-existing conditions,” said Alana Knudson, co-director of the NORC Walsh Center.

Most states' expansion of Medicaid under the ACA was a boon to younger farmers, who said it allowed them to get health care for their children without having to take an off-farm job. There's another possible factor for young farmers: Almost half the farmers surveyed said they're worried they'll have to sell some or all of their farm if they need to pay for long-term medical expenses such as nursing-home care, and selling off land to the highest bidder could make it less likely that land is sold to young farmers who lack capital, said Inwood.

Farmers are looking to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to represent their concerns in national health-policy discussions, said Inwood. “We have a shrinking and aging farm population,” she said. “The next Farm Bill is an opportunity to start thinking about how health insurance affects the trajectory of farms in the United States.” The bill is up for renewal next year.

Maine papers consolidate again, but buck national trend toward ownership by investment chains

Reade Brower
(Press Herald photo)
Maine resident Reade Brower will soon own four out of Maine's seven daily newspapers and more than a third of its weeklies, Megan Doyle reports for the Portland Press Herald. He plans to buy Sun Media Group, which publishes the Lewiston Sun Journal and smaller weekly papers; he already owns the MaineToday Media group, which publishes the Press Herald, its sister papers and four weeklies. Brower lives in Camden and also owns media companies in New Hampshire and Vermont.

With the sale, Maine bucks the nationwide trend of local newspapers getting snapped up by large chains or investment companies. Only a handful of Maine papers are owned by investment companies such as NewMedia/GateHouse. A University of North Carolina study found that in 2014 investment companies owned 47 percent (more than 1,000) of U.S. newspapers included in the study. More than a third of the country's newspapers changed ownership from 2004 to 2014, some more than once. 'Today there are at least 600 fewer newspapers and almost 900 fewer owners than in 2004," researcher Penny Abernathy wrote. "Circulation has dropped 25 percent. As newspapers and owners fell by the wayside – and circulation declined along with profits – consolidation in the industry increased. The largest chains grew even larger, as a new type of owner emerged," one organized to make money, not to render public service.

Maine may have avoided the trend because the state did not have many newspapers to begin with. “These chain owners like to have large groups of papers in one geographic cluster, and the population of Maine being what it is, you can’t really put together a particularly large cluster,” Dan Kennedy, a media commentator and associate professor at Northeastern University, told Doyle. But he said a group may be more attractive to advertisers.

Economies of scale, combining functions among several papers, also may help the Maine papers stay financially strong. "In order to meet the changing demands in the digital world we live in, you need scale to do that," said Steve Costello, the vice president of advertising and marketing at Sun Media.

Chains often cut newsroom staff and increase news sharing among papers, but "Brower said he won't try to cut costs by firing employees and consolidating operations." He told her, "We’re not going to do anything to disrupt the autonomy," Brower said. Press Herald Executive Editor Cliff Schectman said Brower is a "hands-off owner" who rehired almost every employee after his 2015 purchase. Rick Edmonds of The Poynter Institute said collaborations between papers could increase while still maintaining a healthy sense of rivalry. "Editors at the Sun Journal and the Forecaster weeklies said they hope a sense of competition will remain between the papers despite a common owner," Doyle reports.

Trump timetable to roll back many Obama-era regulations on environment, other subjects

EPA plans to change data-gathering
requirements about pesticides that
threaten pollinators. (
The White House Office of Management and Budget announced an "aggressive plan to roll back environmental regulations," Timothy Cama reports for The Hill.

The list deals with a wide range of policy areas and "shows the extent to which this administration is determined to erase many of the Obama administration’s policy priorities," report Juliet Eilperin and Damian Paletta of The Washington Post. "In several instances, the administration is dropping rules aimed at tightening worker safety standards or omitting species the government had pledged to protect under the Endangered Species Act. In other cases, it is proposing new regulations that provide employers with more leeway in how they run their businesses or report their activities to federal officials."

OMB provided new timelines or reasoning for several plans that had already been announced, such as repeal of the Clean Power Plan, which would limit carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants, and the definition of "waters of the United States" in the Clean Water Act.

Next month, the Environmental Protection Agency plans to finalize its delays to "methane pollution limits for landfills and methane limits for oil and gas drilling," reports Cama. In January, it plans to propose a new procedure for cancelling or denying pesticide regulations, reports Arianna Skibell of Environmental & Energy News. In April, it plans to issue a rule allowing some notices about new uses of pesticides to be published on a new EPA page rather than in the Federal Register. In June it plans to propose an update to requirements for gathering data about pesticides that could threaten pollinators.

OMB Director Mick Mulvaney said, “Our philosophy has been that the previous administration fudged the numbers — that they either overstated the benefits to people or understated the costs — and we are going to look at it in a much more pragmatic perspective.” The Post reports, "Consumer and worker advocates countered that Trump officials were scrapping critical government safeguards, and the implications of these actions could ripple across the country for years."

Interior officials kept Glacier Park climate-change experts from meeting with Facebook's Zuckerberg

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg toured Glacier National Park
on Saturday. (Facebook photo via the Flathead Beacon)
The Interior Department prevented the superintendent of Glacier National Park "and a prominent climate scientist from participating in a highly publicized visit by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg" July 15, Dillon Tabish and Tristan Scott report for the Flathead Beacon in Kalispell, Mont.

The episode was first reported by Lisa Rein of The Washington Post, who wrote, "The decision to micromanage Zuckerberg’s stop in Montana from 2,232 miles east in Washington, . . . was highly unusual — even for a celebrity visit. It capped days of internal discussions — including conference calls and multiple emails — among top Interior Department and Park Service officials about how much the park should roll out the welcome mat for Zuckerberg, who with the broader tech community in Silicon Valley has positioned himself as a vocal critic of President Trump, particularly of his withdrawal from the Paris climate accord."

Park Superintendent Jeff Mow "is known as a climate expert who frequently tells visitors that the retreating ice sheets at Glacier are evidence of a climate undergoing rapid change," the Post reports. Also barred from meeting with Zuckerberg was "Dan Fagre, a well-known scientist with the U.S Geological Survey who’s conducted seminal research on climate change," the Beacon reports.

Rein reports that the decision was made by Interior press secretary Heather Swift, who told National Park Service staff "not to post anything about Zuckerberg’s visit on its Facebook or other social media accounts, including sharing a Facebook post he wrote during the visit in which he registered his alarm at the shrinking glaciers at the park, according to someone with knowledge of the directive."

In a Twitter post, Swift said, “Allocating extensive government resources at the taxpayer expense to a celebrity would have been a waste of taxpayer money and a disservice to average park-goers.”

The Beacon says the episode was "the latest example" of Interior officials "wading into local matters in Glacier Park. In the last week, Glacier Park officials responded to a mandate from the Interior Department to abruptly alter its aquatic invasive species emergency response plan." The Interior secretary is Ryan Zinke, who was Montana's congressman.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Student journalists faced local backlash after story revealed disqualifying facts about new principal

Investigative reporters often receive public acclaim, but community journalists may face an unsupportive community that feels embarrassed about misdeeds they uncover. That applies to student journalists, as the story of The Booster Redux, the student newspaper at Pittsburg High School in southeast Kansas, illustrates.

The paper made national headlines in April when it reported that the school's new principal wasn't licensed and it couldn't find any evidence that her purported alma mater existed. The students worried about backlash from the start, but adviser Emily Smith said that she told them they didn't have to publish the story if they were too uncomfortable with that, Dylan Lysen reports for The Mercury in Manhattan, Kan.

Speaking at at a recent high-school journalism workshop at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Smith said she told the students, "This is probably going to be the hardest thing you do in your life because you’re doing the right thing and it’s not always easy and it’s not always popular."

And so it went. “I would say some people were really supportive, and they think it was great and they support the kids,” Smith said. “Most people were really mad because they said we made everyone look really bad.”

Some backlash was more subtle. Though the school board fired the principal and thanked the students for uncovering the story, the school district's press release about the matter mentioned neither the national coverage the story had attracted or the fact that the students were invited to the White House Correspondents Dinner. "That sent a huge message to the teachers and the community that they did not support us,” Smith said. "It’s really weird, because we didn’t even want to go out in public because people were mad at us, and they still are."

Smith said there are still unanswered questions about the principal's hire, since other news media have lost interest, but she isn't encouraging her students to pursue them. "We could have gone after that angle, but I really don’t feel like it’s my kids’ place to go find personal dirt,” she told Lysen. "To me it’s going to look like a vendetta."

House passes bills to streamline permitting process for some oil, gas and electric lines

Construction workers lay a natural gas pipeline.
(Natural Gas Now photo)
The House of Representatives voted July 19 to streamline the federal permitting process for some oil and natural-gas pipelines, Timothy Cama reports for The Hill. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas), would designate the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as the lead agency for approving permits for interstate gas pipelines.

The House also passed a bill by Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.), that would put FERC (instead of the State Department) in charge of electric transmission lines and oil and gas pipelines that cross the Mexican or Canadian border. The president would no longer be required to issue permits for cross-border lines, a move that would prevent future presidents from delaying projects as Barack Obama did with the Keystone XL pipeline.

Congressional Republicans say streamlining the review process will encourage timely decisions about pipelines, which will in turn create jobs and stimulate the economy. Democratic critics say that streamlining approvals is unnecessary because FERC already approves 90 percent of gas pipelines a year.

Pick for USDA research undersecretary has no science background, but strong Trump credentials

Samuel Clovis
President Trump has announced a list of nominations for key administration posts; one may prove controversial, Jerry Hagstrom reports for The Progressive Farmer. Former Trump campaign co-chair and rural Kansas native Samuel Clovis was nominated July 19 to be undersecretary for research, education and economics.

The controversy stems from Clovis' lack of scientific expertise, since the position he has been nominated for is expected to be the Agriculture Department's chief scientist. Under both Democratic and Republican administrations, each of the last five people to hold the job have had a master's degree and doctorate in natural sciences, so Consumers Union and the Union of Concerned Scientists weighed in against the nomination, Hagstrom reports. UCS noted that federal law requires the nominee to come "from among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics."

Clovis was an economics professor at United Methodist Church-affiliated Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. He "holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the U.S. Air Force Academy, a master’s in business administration from Golden Gate University in San Francisco and a doctorate in public administration from the University of Alabama," Hagstrom reports. He has other credentials: chief ag-policy adviser and a national co-chair of the Trump campaign, during which he was "in an operation hoping to obtain Hillary Clinton emails from hackers," The Wall Street Journal reported. Now he is Trump's insider at USDA, as senior White House adviser to Secretary Sonny Perdue, who said Clovis "has become a trusted adviser and steady hand. . . . He looks at every problem with a critical eye, relying on sound science and data, and will be the facilitator and integrator we need."

A graduate of both Army and Air Force war colleges, Clovis served 25 years in the Air Force as a command pilot and the inspector general of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and the United States Space Command

General stores in rural New England are closing because of new competition from dollar chains

This store closed because of new competition.
(Photo by Ben Conant, Monadnock Ledger-Transcript)
All over New England, small-town general stores are struggling or closing, Jennifer Levitz reports for The Wall Street Journal. The Francestown Village Store in New Hampshire, which sold "everything from fresh-baked bread and live fishing bait to winter hats and groceries while offering a place where residents could gather and gossip" for 203 years, closed July 6; its owners said new competition is the main reason such stores are closing.

Chain stores such as Dollar General, which has expanded rapidly in rural areas all over the U.S. in recent years, have buying power that gives them a wide selection, national name brands and prices that make it hard for mom-and-pop stores to compete. Increased online shopping is also siphoning general-store shoppers away, and small-town residents who increasingly commute to cities may stop at larger grocery stores on their way home, Levitz reports.

Jack Garvin, chairman of the Vermont Alliance of Independent Country Stores, told Levitz that the state is losing three or four general stores a year, "and is down to about 80 from more than 100 a decade ago," she writes. "Along with more competition, aging owners who retire is another factor in the decline, he said."

Some New Englanders are trying to save local general stores, saying that they're important to towns. In Putney, Vermont, the local historical society raised money and took over the local general store to keep it from closing. In other places, local individuals are stepping up to buy struggling stores. Some stores are doing well by offering new items such as craft beer or prepared foods, and some are marketing themselves as tourist attractions.

The Village Store “really felt like a community hub where people gathered, and there are not very many places like that anymore,” Francestown resident Maureen Troy told Levitz. “In rural towns, people live far apart and it can be lonely almost if you don’t have that social interaction.”