Monday, June 27, 2016

High court voids Texas abortion law on grounds it limited rural women's access to the procedure

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning struck down a Texas abortion law as unconstitutionally restrictive, ensuring that women in rural Texas would continue to have reasonable access to the procedure. The court's 5-3 majority noted that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the “two requirements erect a particularly high barrier for poor, rural, or disadvantaged women.”

"The requirements that doctors who perform abortions maintain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and all abortions be performed in hospital-like surgical centers, have caused more than half of the state’s abortion clinics to close," Katie Leslie reports for the Dallas Morning News. "Up to nine more clinics would have closed if the justices had voted to uphold the law in full. The stricter building requirements were on hold while the Supreme Court reviewed the case."

Other states have passed similar laws, but the decision's impact "may not be immediately felt outside of Texas," Leslie writes. Those laws "probably won’t change unless they are challenged in court or repealed by state lawmakers."

"Since the law at the center of the Supreme Court case -- House Bill 2 -- was enacted in July 2013, the number of abortion clinics in Texas has dropped from 40 to 18," Brittney Martin and Andrew Chavez reported for the News. "100 counties are more than 100 miles away from the nearest Texas abortion facility, and 21 counties are more than 250 miles away," as shown by these DMN maps:
"An analysis by the News shows that more clinic closures, specifically the closure of clinics in El Paso and McAllen, would disproportionately affect women in counties with largely non-white populations and higher levels of poverty," Martin and Chavez write. At right is a map representing the newspaper's analysis. For an interactive version of all these maps, with county-by-county information, click here. For larger versions of any of these maps, click on them. The New York Times produced several maps showing past, present and potential distance to abortion clinics; here's the basic national map:

Presidential polls show rural-urban divide growing due to gun control, environmental issues

Since Bill Clinton left the White House, Democrats have "essentially written off rural, gun-friendly heartland states, such as Tennessee, and added cosmopolitan, racially diverse, and urbanized states, particularly along the coasts, that are more receptive to gun control—Virginia, say," Ron Brownstein reports for The Atlantic.

Dan Friedman reports for Fortune, "After attributing their presidential loss in 2000 in part to the assault-weapons ban, Democrats shied away from gun control talk in order to avoid alienating rural voters, particularly blue-collar white males. Today, Democrats are less worried about those voters, who tend to oppose gun laws. That’s because those voters now tend to vote Republican anyway."

Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder notes these reports and points out that recent polls in three states—Arizona, Utah and Wisconsin—have some unusual findings in the presidential race but reflect a growing rural-urban gap driven by issues such as gun control and the environment.

A statewide poll in Arizona shows Democrat Hillary Clinton leading Republican Donald Trump 46.5 percent to 42.2 percent, Mike Sunnucks reports for the Phoenix Business Journal. Clinton leads by 17 points in Tuscon and holds a 12 -point lead among women. The story is different in rural areas, where Trump has a 6-point lead. Clinton's overall lead is surprising, considering Republican Mitt Romney won the state in 2012 and Republicans have carried the state in every election expect 1996, when Bill Clinton beat Sen. Bob Dole by 2 percent.

A Marquette University Law School poll shows that Wisconsin voters are not high on either candidate, with Clinton holding a 7-point lead with registered voters and a 9-point lead among those likely to vote, Craig Gilbert reports for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. In rural areas, Clinton is viewed unfavorably by 62 percent of voters.

The Utah Priorities Project Voter Survey found a big different between how the state's rural and urban voters view the environment, reports Utah Policy. Two-thirds of rural voters (66 percent) say stricter environmental controls are too costly, while only 47 percent of urban voters agreed. Also, "48 percent of voters say stricter environmental controls are worth the cost, while 52 percent say they are not. The results show a wide gap between conservative and liberal voters, with 73 percent of conservative voters saying more stringent controls are too costly. 93 percent of liberal voters hold the opposite position."

Wireless towers on farm structures provide high-speed internet to rural areas, if they're flat

Farmers in rural Illinois are getting some of the state's fastest internet service by allowing telecommunications companies to build towers on their structures, Nat Williams reports for The Southern Illinoisan in Carbondale. The devices include "an antenna on the outside of a house or building and a cable that runs inside the home. A wireless router provides service throughout the property." (Williams photo: A wireless tower atop a grain bin in Franklin County, Illinois)

Nathan Stooke, founder of Wisper Internet, said wireless broadband is easier to provide in northern Illinois because it is mostly flat, than in the southern part of the state, where there are plenty of trees and rolling hills. Stooke told Williams, “We have towers on one-story houses, on grain elevators, whatever we can do to get as close as we can to the customer to provide them service they need. We use the farmer’s grain elevator to provide service to him and his neighbors. It works really, really well. It keeps costs down.”

Williams writes, "It’s a winning system. Those who allow the installation of towers on their property usually receive free or upgraded internet service. Their neighbors get good signals for a lot less than they paid for inferior dial-up." Some say faster and better internet is boosting agriculture, with the younger generation more willing to join in the family business now that they can access high-speed internet. (Read more)

Deal would allow companies to use digital codes for GMO ingredients, nullifying Vermont law

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) last week agreed on genetically-modified-food labeling rules that would allow companies to use digital codes, rather than on-package language or symbols, to disclose GMO ingredients, Philip Brasher reports for Agri-Pulse. "The agreement also would use a narrow definition of genetic engineering that would exempt the newest biotech methods such as gene editing from the national disclosure standards." (Detox Market graphic)

"The legislation, which will need 60 votes to pass the Senate, would nullify Vermont's first-in-the-nation GMO labeling law, which takes effect July 1, and would bar any other state from enacting labeling requirements that differ from the federal standards," Brasher writes. "Under the legislation, most food companies would have the option of disclosing GMO ingredients through either a digital, smartphone code, the industry's preference, or through an on-package symbol or language that the Agriculture Department would approve. The code would be accompanied by: 'Scan here for more food information.' Small companies would have the option of putting a phone number or website URL on labels instead of the digital code."

Vermont's law "requires products with biotech ingredients to be labeled as produced or partially produced with genetic engineering," Brasher writes. "The definition of genetic engineering, or 'bioengineering,' would be restricted to traits developed through recombinant DNA techniques, which involve transferring a gene from one organism to another. Techniques such as RNA interference and gene editing would be exempt."

In anticipation of Vermont's law "many large food companies, including Campbell Soup Co., Kellogg's and General Mills, have already begun labeling some of their products," Peggy Lowe reports for NPR. " Roughly 75 percent of processed foods in the U.S. contain genetically modified ingredients, according to estimates from the Center for Food Safety."

Rural Utah town's population has exploded 3,000% since 2010, mainly from high-tech businesses

A rural Utah town has seen its population explode 3,000 percent since 2010, with farms being bought up to provide space for housing, as high-tech jobs replace agriculture. Vineyard, which had a population of 106 in 2010, now has 3,195 residents, with projections calling for the population to reach 40,000, Katie McKellar reports for the Deseret News. (DN graphic)

"The national and state housing market is booming. The county's high-tech Silicon Slopes sector is surging, placing Utah County [county seat, Provo] second in the nation for 2015 job growth, according to new data recently released by the U.S. Department of Labor," McKellar writes. "But as Utah County's prosperity spills over into communities like Vineyard—close enough for convenience yet abundant with open land—longtime residents are faced with a rapid rural-urban shift, and all the growing pains that come with it."

Locals "have watched their town's farmland vanish," McKellar writes. "Where there were once rolling fields, cow barns and chicken coops, there are now neighborhoods, town houses, schools, gas stations." Residents like Robert and Cumorah Holdaway, 86 and 87, "sold all 350 acres of their dairy farm to developers for the usual reasons: The children who would have taken up the business moved on to different work. Farming became less and less practical to turn a profit." Only one farm remains in Vineyard (Best Places map) but local officials "have anticipated it will eventually be rezoned to residential, according to the town's master plan."

Online Appalachian photo project includes 300 photos submitted from all 13 states

Photographer Roger May's project to encourage people to submit photos of Appalachia has resulted in a finalized online version, "Looking at Appalachia," that includes 300 photos from all 13 states, each of which has its own page. May, who moved from West Virginia to North Carolina as a teenager in 1989, said the project's goal is "to break down stereotypes and show that the region is about more than funny accents, pickup trucks and overalls," Sarah Nagem reports for The News & Observer. More than 2,000 photos were submitted for the project, which is to be renewed annually. (Lauren Pond photo: Young Mennonites socialize around a campfire after their friend's wedding in North Bloomfield, Ohio)

"When he speaks to student groups about Appalachia, May said, some young people make jokes about incest, poor dentistry and moonshine. It’s going to take conversation—and some brain re-training—to shift those ideas, he said," Nagem writes. "Ideally, students would talk instead about hard work, pride and persistence in Appalachia." May told her, “People automatically think of Appalachia as this other world. ... There’s this assumption that because we don’t have a 4,000-square-foot house and don’t drive the latest car that you must be poor. What poor looks like to you and what poor looks like to me are different things.”

May said he is "especially interested in how Appalachia is 'looked at and talked about' half a century after the War on Poverty brought international photographic attention to the region. He hopes that his project will help create a 'visual counterpoint' to those images," Layne Amerikaner reports for The Nation. Speaking of those old photos, May told Amerikaner,  “I can’t really say for sure if it equally helped and harmed, but at the time I think it certainly served its purpose." He said the photos did “a phenomenal job of highlighting need, this indelible impression that that’s what Appalachia is.” (George Etheredge photo: Asheville, N.C.)

"Which is not to say that his new project intends to deny or gloss over the poverty in the region," Amerikaner writes. "Appalachia’s poverty rate is more than 17 percent, nearly two points higher than the national average. And in some places, the rate is even higher—as in the Appalachian counties of Kentucky, where one in four people, on average, lives in poverty. May says that while much has changed since the War on Poverty era, 'unfortunately, a lot of the problems that existed then still exist now—they just wear a different mask.'”

Friday, June 24, 2016

Not-so United Kingdom's anti-Europe vote shows English rural-urban divide that resonates in U.S.

Washington Post map (click on it to view a larger version)
British voters' landmark decision to leave the European Union displayed a rural-urban divide that resonates in the U.S. London, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay, "but outside the capital, every English region had a majority for leave," notes The Guardian.

"The result confirmed polling about high rates of euroscepticism in Labour's former heartlands in the north and in farming areas in eastern England which have seen high numbers of arrivals of migrant workers from eastern Europe," Agence-France Presse reports.

The vote "suggests that we’ve been seriously underestimating Donald Trump’s ability to win the presidential election," James Hohmann writes in "The Daily 202" for The Washington Post. His colleague Dan Balz writes, "Trump’s slogan, ‘Make America Great Again,’ could easily have been adapted to the messaging of those in the ‘leave’ campaign."

Trump endorsed "Brexit," and "The quintessential anti-EU voter, an aging unemployed white working-class citizen in northern England, might feel a certain solidarity with a similar Trump voter in rural America," write Brian Klaas, a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics, and Marcel Dirsus, a lecturer in politics at the University of Kiel in Germany, for the Los Angeles Times. "Both have reason to feel victimized by a global economy that has left them behind. Both have concluded that the culprits are out-of-control immigration and an unresponsive government far away, in Washington or Brussels. And both have decided the answer is disengagement, solving problems alone at home rather than preventing them through cooperation abroad."

Genevieve Hayward
Genevieve Hayward, an Australian-British dual citizen, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp., "I live in an area of England where people are very proud of their Britishness. They are surrounded by breathtaking countryside, cottages that are hundreds of years old, and the area is steeped in tradition and a good dose of a 'can do' attitude. There is a real fear among people in these areas, both young and old, that being a part of the EU is slowly taking away Britain's sovereignty and with it their tradition and values. On top of that, they feel farming and small business would be better off without EU regulations, that there are too many bureaucrats and wasted pennies involved with being a part of the EU, that Britain is perfectly capable of making its own trade deals and that there will be little loss of exports to European countries that have a market for British goods and vice versa."

For UK journalism professor Roy Greenslade's rundown of how British newspapers reported the story this morning, click here.

Democrats return to gun control as an issue for elections; gun-rights advocates say 'bring it on'

Democrats have largely avoided gun control as an election issue for the last two decades, but not now. "The massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, followed by Republican Donald Trump’s calls for new firearms restrictions, have convinced Democrats that they can run and win on the issue of gun control this year," but Second Amendment advocates remain confident, Ed O'Keefe and Isaac Stanley-Becker report for The Washington Post.

"The worst mass shooting in U.S. history ... has pushed advocates for greater gun restrictions to new levels of outrage: and shifted public opinion "in favor of new laws," the Post reports, and Trump is bucked his own party by initially "pushing for restrictions and putting some fellow Republicans in a sticky position with their constituents back home. All of it has prompted Democratic lawmakers to conclude that, even with little hope for legislative action this year, an election looms this fall that could change everything."

Rural areas will be battlegrounds. "The issue is expected to be a subject of attacks on Republican candidates in at least two House seats in upstate New York, five swing districts in Florida and districts in rural states such as Colorado, Iowa and Kansas," the Post reports, citing unnamed Democratic aides. "In the Senate, where Republicans are defending 24 seats, Democrats expect that gun-control-themed messages will resonate with swing voters in Florida, New Hampshire, Ohio and Pennsylvania."

On the other hand, "Gun-rights advocates predicted that their supporters would participate heavily in an election in which guns are a major issue," the Post reports. "Richard Feldman, president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association and a former NRA lobbyist, said that the Democratic Party’s shift away from rural areas means that 'It can write off 100 million gun owners and that its strength doesn’t lie with the gun issue. And it can beat up on those 100 million people and bet that that will work in their benefit. We shall see, but what I know from history is that gun owners care deeply about their firearms and their rights to own them.'"

"Democrats have lost the rural vote so they are no longer worried about trying to appease these voters," Bill Bishop writes for the Daily Yonder, noting a Fortune magazine story by Dan Friedman, who writes, “With a polarized electorate, both parties believe they benefit more by turning out core supporters than from courting a shrinking group of swing voters. Guns, like abortion, have become an issue both parties want to talk about.” (See next item below.)

Progressives, liberals largely ignore rural interests, but shouldn't, 2012 candidate writes

Anthony Flaccavento
Rural voters have become more Republican in the last decade, and the reasons you usually hear for that shift obscure one reason that deserves more attention, rural food entrepreneur and recent congressional candidate Anthony Flaccavento of Abingdon, Va., writes in the liberal magazine The Nation.

Flaccavento acknowledges "the relentless propaganda of Fox News and conservative talk radio, to the right’s timely and well-funded co-opting of public anger over the economic crash and bank bailouts of 2008–09," as documented by several writers. "Dark Money, Jane Mayer’s recent book, provides further detail, a chronology of how such a comprehensive, patient plan to change the narrative was developed and funded. And multiple commentators have taken advantage of the presidential campaign season to highlight how the Democratic Party has steadily moved towards Wall Street and away from working people, at least since Bill Clinton."

But Flaccavento also blames "the near-complete absence of the 'rural' among the priorities, policies, and leaders on the other side, i.e., in the progressive movement. By rural, I mean the people, their communities, the predominant livelihoods, and the culture and language of these places. The plain fact of the matter is that, excepting recent transplants from the cities, most rural people see progressives as elitist, dismissive of their concerns, largely ignorant of both their problems and their contributions to the nation. And too often, living 'in their head' rather than getting their hands dirty."

As one example, Flaccavento says this year's "Good Jobs for All" report by several progressive groups doesn't mention "the words 'farm,' 'farmer,' and 'agriculture' ... and 'rural' is alluded to only once or twice, in the context of USDA programs. Mind you, there are plenty of 'struggling Americans' living in the countryside."

Flaccavento says he understands that "liberals and progressives default to the triage approach: that is, we focus our priorities and resources on the places we can win or at least win over. I experienced that when I ran for Congress in 2012 on a very progressive agenda. We met with folks at the Democratic National Committee, and they seemed genuinely impressed with both our platform and our campaign. But because I live in a very rural, red area, the DNC decided it was hopeless, and not a dime was offered to the campaign. In spite of that, we fared best—approaching 45 percent of the vote—in the coal counties, where rural jobs and livelihoods were most in decline. If it turns out that if your words and actions make sense to people and honor their experiences, they’ll get behind you. Even in the country." (Read more)

Defacer of seven national parks is convicted, banned with help of investigators on social media

One violation in Yosemite
The social-media platform Reddit helped the National Park Service find a graffiti artist who had defaced seven national parks, Justina Vasquez of NPR reports: "Casey Nocket, 23, of San Diego, was banned this month from national parks and other federally administered lands."

An October 2014 post  "in Reddit's hiking community questioning whether action could be taken against Nocket caught the attention of many users who had seen her work, including Yosemite National Park investigator Steve Yu," who picked up on the tips. One poster noted, "Her name on Instgram shows her FB page as well, so she's not hard to find."

"Yu joined the Reddit conversation and began receiving tips from users who were conducting their own investigations, uncovering Nocket's Instagram, Facebook and Tumblr accounts," Vasquez reports. "Her home address and other contact information also surfaced, giving way to a bout of Internet trolling and harassment, The Guardian reported."

"Nocket pleaded guilty and received two years of probation and 200 hours of community service," Vasquez reports. NPS law-enforcement chief Charles Cuvelier said in a release, "This case illustrates the important role that the public can play in identifying and sharing evidence of illegal behavior in parks."

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Ralph Stanley's race is run: Oh, come, Angel Band

My latest sun is sinking fast; my race is nearly run.
My strongest trials now are past; my triumph has begun.
Oh, come, Angel Band! Come, and, around me stand!
Oh, bear me away on your snow-white wings, to my immortal home.

--"Angel Band," a Stanley Brothers classic

Ralph Stanley (Virginia Living photo by Robb Scharetg)
Ralph Stanley, whose clawhammer banjo picking and high-lonesome singing helped create a distinctive genre of American music in which he was an icon for seven decades, died today at the age of 89 after a long fight with skin cancer. "His musical importance cannot be overemphasized," writes John Curtis Goad of Bluegrass Today.

UPDATE, June 26: Stanley "leaves behind an enormously influential—and just plain enormous—body of work," David Cantwell writes for The New Yorker. "He was careful to identify not as bluegrass but as the old-time music that folks today call bluegrass. . . . His voice sounded so vital and powerful, and yet at the same time so frail and so very, very old." His funeral is Tuesday evening; here's the formal obituary. And an editorial tribute from the Bristol Herald Courier.


Stanley and his brother Carter, a guitar player, helped pioneer bluegrass in the 1940s, but he preferred to call it "mountain music," having come from Southwest Virginia, not Kentucky, the home of Bill Monroe, whose native-state name stuck commercially. But the Stanley Brothers and their "Clinch Mountain sound," drawn partly from their Primitive Baptist upbringing, were just as important to the genre as Monroe, writes Jana Pendragon of AllMusic. "The Stanleys are the reason that Monroe is remembered today as the father of bluegrass music," Cantwell opines. "Monroe, with key assists from Flatt and Scruggs, invented an exciting sound. As the first to adopt that sound, Ralph and Carter Stanley helped to invent a genre."

When Carter Stanley died at 41 in 1966, his shy brother considered giving up performing, but he revived the Clinch Mountain Boys. The band remained a staple of bluegrass, and "helped launch the careers of such country and bluegrass stars as Larry Sparks, Ricky Skaggs and the late Keith Whitley," notes Terence McArdle in an excellent obituary for The Washington Post. For a comprehensive obituary from The Associated Press, click here.

"Some new bands called their music 'new grass' and added rock songs to their playlists. Ralph decided to go in the opposite direction," Herb E. Smith of Appalshop, director of The Ralph Stanley Story, writes in a tribute for the Daily Yonder. "He described it as 'taking the music more back into the mountains.' . . . Those of us who choose to stay, who care about these mountains and the well-being of mountain communities, must remember Ralph and the old songs. We must also write new ones, so that the next generations will be strong."

In 2000, Stanley's a cappella, Primitive Baptist version of "O Death" in the film O Brother Where Art Thou "(a new cut of a song he had originally recorded as part of the Stanley Brothers), brought his music to an entirely new audience," with a soundtrack that sold 6 million copies, Joad notes. The performance won him a Grammy for best male country vocal, and that and the film "put the icing on the cake for me. It put me in a different category," Stanley told Don Harrison for Virginia Living magazine.

"Ralph Stanley was elemental. His voice was freshwater, wind, sky, and stone," Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum CEO Kyle Young told AP. "Dr. Ralph is revered by Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, Elvis Costello, Gillian Welch, Ricky Skaggs, and most anyone else equipped to handle the unfiltered truth." Stanley had an honorary doctorate from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tenn.

Stanley was not known as a writer, but was a favored interpreter and popularizer of classic folk and Appalachian songs, such as "Rank Stranger," "Man of Constant Sorrow" and this other song of farewell and longing, by his Southwest Virginia neighbors, the Carter Family:

When death shall close these eyelids, and this heart shall cease to beat
And they lay me down to rest, in some flowery bound retreat
Will you miss me? (Miss me when I'm gone)
Will you miss me? (Miss me when I'm gone)
Will you miss me? (Miss me when I'm gone)
Will you miss me when I'm gone?

Yes, we will.

Report shows rising income inequality, by county

Illustration: cfo.com
A report released by the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal labor-and-income think tank, says income inequality has risen in every state since the 1970s and in many states is up in the post–Great Recession era.

In 24 states, the top 1 percent of earners captured at least half of all income growth between 2009 and 2013, according to the EPI report, issued last week. In 15 of those states, the top 1 percent captured all income growth. In another 10 states, top 1 percent incomes grew in the double digits, while bottom 99 percent incomes fell. For the United States overall, the top 1 percent captured 85 percent of total income growth between 2009 and 2013. In 2013 the top 1 percent of families nationally made more than 25 times as much as everyone else.

EPI representatives contend that growing income inequality is not just a story of those in the financial sector in the greater New York City area reaping outsized rewards from speculation in financial markets. While New York and Connecticut are the most unequal states (as measured by the ratio of top 1 percent to bottom 99 percent income in 2013), nine states, 54 metro areas and 165 counties have gaps wider than the national gap. The unequal income growth since the late 1970s has pushed the top 1 percent’s share of all income above 24 percent (the 1928 national peak share) in five states, 22 metro areas and 75 counties.

The rise of top incomes relative to the bottom 99 percent represents a sharp reversal of the trend that prevailed in the mid-20th century, the report explains. From 1928 to 1979, the share of income goign to the top 1 percent declined in every state except Alaska (where the top 1 percent had a relatively low share of income). These were the years of a rising minimum wage, typically low unemployment after the 1930s, widespread collective bargaining in private industries and a cultural and political environment in which it was outrageous for executives to receive outsized bonuses while laying off workers. EPI calls for policies that would return the economy to full employment, return bargaining power to workers and reinstate the cultural taboo against gilding the corporate suiteholders.

What does income inequality look like in your area? Find county-by-county information with the Economic Policy Institute's interactive data feature.

Judge says feds lack authority to set fracking rules

Photo: hbwresources.com
A federal judge in Wyoming struck down the Obama administration's regulations on hydraulic fracturing on Tuesday, ruling that the Bureau of Land Management doesn't have the authority to establish rules over fracking on federal and Indian lands.

U.S. District Judge Scott Skavdahl said the agency can’t set the rules because Congress has not authorized it to do so, The Associated Press reports. The judge, whom Obama nominated, wrote that the court’s role is not to decide whether the practice is good or bad for the environment, but to interpret whether Congress has given the Interior Department the legal authority to regulate the practice.

Skavdahl also blocked implementation of rules drafted by the agency in 2015, AP notes. Colorado, North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming oppose the rules involving fracking, which involves injecting substances including water, sand and chemicals underground to increase production from oil and gas wells. The agency and some environmental groups say the rules are necessary to protect the environment. The bureau’s rules would have required petroleum developers to disclose to regulators the ingredients in the chemical products they use.

The states and other opponents, including groups representing the energy industry and the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray, based in Utah, filed briefs with Skavdahl, AP explains. The tribe said it agrees with the states that the feds lack authority to make such rules, or authority to regulate fracking on land that the U.S. holds in trust for tribes and their members.

Tuesday’s ruling marks the latest setback for the administration’s efforts on environmental issues. Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing the Clean Power Plan, Obama’s effort to slow climate change by reducing power-plant emissions by one-third by 2030. The court said legal challenges to the rules had to be resolved first. About two dozen states, most of them GOP-led, and scores of utilities and coal companies have sued to stop the rules.

Auburn University architecture team makes tiny houses that are as chic as they are affordable

Co.Exist photo
Architecture students at Rural Studio, Auburn University's design-build program, have been working on a riddle of sorts for more than a decade: how do you design a home that someone living below the poverty line can afford, but that anyone would want, while also providing living wage construction jobs?

After years of building prototypes, the team finished their first pilot project in the real world in January, Adele Peters of Co.Exist reports. They partnered with a commercial developer in the tiny town of Serenbe, Georgia, southwest of Atlanta, to build two one-bedroom houses, with materials that cost just $14,000 each, making their goal of a $20,000 home feasible.

Their goal was simple: to figure out how to bring the ultra-low-cost homes, called the 20K Home, to a broader market. Many cohorts of architecture students and their advisers have spent more than 100,000 hours tweaking each detail of the house to optimize both the function and the price, Peters writes. But the bigger challenge is fitting a house that's completely different than normal into the existing system of zoning and codes, how contractors do their jobs and even mortgages.

For example, the foundation of the house uses cantilevers, seesaw-like joists that help save wood and concrete and actually make the house stronger than a typical foundation would. But the design isn't in the usual guides that code officials consult, so the architects had to go back and explain how it worked. The team realized that in order to make 20K Homes accessible they would have to create a detailed guide that explained everything from how to build each piece—with Ikea-like instructions—to how to educate local officials, Peters notes.

Another hurdle has been financing. The homes in the pilot project will be owned by the community and shared with artists as part of a residency program. But in a typical case, when someone is buying the house on a limited income and can't afford to pay $20,000 upfront, banks won't finance a mortgage for such a small amount of money; a $100,000 mortgage costs a bank about as much as a $20,000 mortgage, Peters explains.

The project originally aimed for a house that would cost $20,000 in total, including construction; however, the team now believes that more money may be needed to provide a living wage for builders. They've rejected the idea of using factory-made prefabricated parts because one of the main goals is to create jobs. Still, whatever the final cost, it will be inexpensive, Peters notes. And if someone wants to construct it together themselves, it would cost less than $20,000.

Farmers markets aren't what they used to be

Photo: getrealmaine.com
Many growers who once earned a living selling fresh produce at farmers' markets have found it harder and harder to remain profitable as the culture at those markets changes.

Zach Lester, co-owner of Tree and Leaf Farm in Unionville, Va., has noticed a shift in recent years, especially at the Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market in Washington, where he once could expect to generate $200,000 or more a year in gross sales. “The customers have changed,” Lester told The Washington Post. “A lot of people that walk through markets are not shopping. They’re there to meet. They’re there to socialize.”

Such "customers" are there to eat and drink, not to buy produce, and they tend to be young. Lester says they hang out with friends, grab some pizza or booze and "window shop."

The change in market demographics, Lester says, has affected Tree and Leaf’s sales, which have plummeted by as much as $50,000 annually at the Dupont Cicle market compared with his peak years in the late 2000s and early 2010s.

The decline in sales is, arguably, one result of the contemporary farmers' market, which has evolved to meet the needs of a new generation of shoppers who view these urban markets as more a lifestyle choice than an opportunity to support local agriculture.

When farmers' markets first started springing up in the 1990s, local growers practically had the organic market to themselves. Now they face stiff competition from bricks-and-mortar retailers such as Glen’s Garden Market and Whole Foods, and from online delivery services such as Washington’s Green Grocer and AmazonFresh. As they increase in popularity, farmers markets have even begun competing with each other. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s national directory lists 8,553 farmers' markets, almost double the 4,385 markets in 2006.

The markets have been forced to evolve. In Seattle, for example, organizers offer cooking demonstrations to show young techies how to prepare simple dishes with ingredients sold at the market. Organizers at other markets help prepare farmers for Good Agricultural Practices certification from the USDA. It’s a food-safety program that, once completed, allows growers to sell wholesale fruits and vegetables to retailers or restaurant chains.

But market managers say farmers must also help themselves if they want to survive and thrive in this new era. It’s not enough to show up at a market and expect consumers to buy all your fruits and vegetables. Farmers must be attuned to consumer demand and be better marketers and shopkeepers, even at their makeshift outdoor stands.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Ky. governor who opposed Medicaid expansion offers plan with premiums, work-oriented rules

Gov. Matt Bevin (Courier-Journal photo by Michael Clevenger)
The new Republican governor of Kentucky, who as a candidate said he would abolish the Medicaid expansion of his Democratic predecessor, unveiled his plan for big changes that would preserve the expansion -- if Obama administration officials approve.

Most Medicaid members "would have to pay premiums of $1 to $15 a month, and be more actively involved in their health care," Al Cross and Melissa Patrick report for Kentucky Health News. "The program would no longer include some benefits, such as dental and vision care. However, recipients could gain access to those benefits, as well as non-prescription drugs and gym-membership subsidies, by enrolling in job training, volunteer work or health-related classes."

"There is nothing good or healthy or productive, long-term for the individual or for society as a whole, that comes from able-bodied, working-age men and women with no expectation of their involvement and no opportunity for that involvement," Gov. Matt Bevin said. "So we are providing an expectation and an opportunity and a reward. . . . When they get out there and they get engaged and they start to realize the value that they add, it will change people's lives."

The plan also asks for Medicaid funding of inpatient substance-abuse treatment, something Bevin said no other state has done, in an effort to address the state's growing drug-abuse problems. This would be a demonstration project limited to 10 to 20 "high risk" counties that have not been chosen.

The plan says it "represents the terms under which the Commonwealth will continue Medicaid expansion," and Bevin said that if federal officials don't approve it, he would end the expansion, which provides largely free health care for about 400,000 Kentuckians. But he said he was confident that federal officials would approve the request, which seeks a waiver of a wide range of Medicaid rules, because he and his aides have been in frequent contact with the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services and its overseer, Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell.

The plan must undergo a 30-day comment period with public hearings, after which it will be finalized and submitted to CMS. (Read more)

FAA issues regulations for drone aircraft, which take effect in 60 days; give room for journalism

New York Times photo by Michael Ciaglo
"In 60 days, drone journalism will be legally possible in any newsroom in the United States. That’s not to say it will be easy, but it will be legally possible in ways that it has never been before," now that the Federal Aviation Administration has issued regulations on the topic, Matt Waite writes for the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska.

Drone operators will need a certificate, which requires passing a test “that includes knowledge of airspace, airspace operating requirements, and the use of aeronautical charts,” the FAA's summary of the regulations says. "Generally, the FAA’s tests are 40 questions, multiple choice and you have to get a 70 percent to pass," Waite reports. "Anyone committed to learning the material can pass the test. And you can take it again," but that might be costly. Waite says he couldn't find a cost for the test, but the one for manned aircraft costs $150.

The regulations require the drone to be in the operator's line of sight at all times and ban flying at night, over people or more than 400 feet above the ground, 100 feet lower than any manned aircraft is supposed to be unless taking off or landing. Reckless or careless operation is also prohibited. The lack of specifics on that point "gives the FAA wide latitude to go after pilots they feel are operating poorly," Waite writes, so if you want to use a drone to cover a public event, "You’re going to have to rope off a space set back from the main group, keep people out of it, and do not leave that spot. And make sure you document what you’ve done to keep you drone from flying over people and keep them safe for when the FAA inspector comes calling." The rules also ban flying in restricted airspaces, generally five miles from an air traffic control tower, which are marked with solid color lines on this map.

Waite concludes, "The day we’ve been waiting for is here. The news is reasonably good. There are still challenges, and we haven’t even talked about state and local laws that have been piling up while the FAA lumbered toward today. But the future of drones in journalism is much brighter today than it has ever been."

Alternative energy in Wyoming doesn't mean alternative jobs for displaced coal miners

Photo: thinkprogress.org
While the coal and wind energy industries are on opposite trajectories, out of work coal miners struggle to find gainful employment in clean energy.

About 66 percent of U.S. electricity is still produced by burning coal and natural gas; just 7 percent comes from renewable sources such as wind and solar, The New York Times reports. But market forces and government regulations are rapidly changing the energy landscape.

President Obama's climate change regulations, the Clean Power Plan, have taken direct aim at coal. The Department of the Interior has halted new mines on public lands. In addition, the international Paris agreement on climate change could make efforts to end the burning of coal a global campaign.

These policies are closing the remaining coal-fired plants and freezing the construction of new ones, but they also aim to aggressively increase the production of renewable power. The Clean Power Plan has a goal for 20 percent of the nation’s electricity to come from wind, solar and other clean sources by 2030. Hillary Clinton, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has pledged to raise that amount to 33 percent by 2027, The Times reports.

In Wyoming, for example, about 600 coal miners have been laid off this year alone, and thousands more job cuts are expected this summer, the Times noted. In with a population of fewer than 600,000 people, those cuts are taking a toll.

Wyoming also offers prime real estate for wind farms. The Anschutz Corp. is set to begin construction later this year or early 2017 on a Carbon County wind farm that will cover some 2,000 acres. When completed, it will be the largest wind power producer in North America, generating enough electricity to power about a million homes, the Times reports. Construction will create about 900 seasonal jobs over the course of the decade it's expected to take to complete and then about 150 full-time jobs to operate and maintain it.

If payroll cuts in Wyoming's coal industry continue as predicted, the number of jobs created by wind farms will not match the number lost in coal, and the vast majority of wind jobs are temporary. Also, the limited number of full-time wind jobs don't pay as well in general as those in coal. A wind turbine technician makes an average of about $51,000 per year, compared to $82,000 for coal miners.

Two Vermont dailies to print four days a week

The Herald, founded in 1794, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for
editorials on civil unions. (SavingCommunityJournalism.com)
Early next month Vermont's Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus will stop publishing print editions on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

The sister newspapers will continue to publish online seven days a week. The reduced printing schedule will result in expanded newsprint editions Thursday through Sunday, Patrick McArdle of the Herald reported.

Company executives announced the decision to employees on Monday evening. R. John Mitchell, chairman and president of the Herald Association Inc., said the changes will allow the company to continue its mission without cutting additional jobs.

“I think we were at the place that all newspapers get to currently,” Mitchell said. "We've cut, I think, all the jobs we can without really decimating the newsroom. This is an attempt to keep from having dramatic layoffs in the newsroom and to try and monetize the technical base we've built for social media.” Mitchell said most of the newspapers' revenue is generated by the print edition of the paper. His goal is to expand online revenue so that both sides contribute equally.

Catherine Nelson, publisher and CEO, said the company would be lax if administrators didn't pursue another model for delivering the news. She described the traditional standard of printing newspapers and driving them to people's homes is archaic and no longer cost-effective. She said most people now get their news from computers or smartphones, and the technology has become so ubiquitous, even in rural Vermont, that e-papers can be delivered as effectively and consistently as if paper copies were brought to people's doorsteps.

The company says that since 2010, readers have purchased 49,500 digital subscriptions. The combined print subscriptions of both newspapers is 18,000. Mitchell said the company will revamp websites for both papers. Both papers will still be considered dailies by industry convention.

The papers eliminated their Sunday news desk in 2009 and laid off 20 people over the course of a year, Anne Galloway of VTDigger.org reported. More layoffs have followed. The Times Argus sold its building in Barre several years ago, and the Herald building has been up for sale. In December, the papers dropped publication of the New England Business Journals.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Waukesha, Wis., outside Great Lakes basin, gets approval to draw water from Lake Michigan

Delegates for governors of eight Great Lakes states unanimously voted on Tuesday to allow Waukesha, Wisconsin, to pump 8 million of gallons of water per day from Lake Michigan.

Absent any legal challenges, the city will become the first U.S. community located entirely outside the Great Lakes drainage basin to receive a diversion of lake water under the Great Lakes Compact, an agreement among states.

The compact was approved in 2008 to protect the largest source of fresh water in the world from diversions outside the basin. Waukesha County straddles the subcontinental divide between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins, making the city eligible to apply for lake water.

Waukesha asked for 10 million gallons per day of Lake Michigan water several years ago after its water supply became contaminated by naturally occurring radium, The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported. In addition to limiting daily withdrawal to 8 million gallons, Waukesha must also restrict its water service area to the city's borders, submit to performance audits and return an equal amount of the water pumped from the lake. It will return as fully treated wastewater discharged to the Root River, a tributary of the lake, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

In the months leading up to the historic vote, 38,000 citizens from around the Great Lakes basin offered their opinions on the request, 99 percent of whom opposed Waukesha's request, The Plain Dealer noted. In addition, 11 of Michigan's members of Congress urged Gov. Rick Snyder to veto the diversion request.

To qualify for an exception to the compact, Waukesha had to prove it had no feasible alternative to Great Lakes water to meet its needs. Some environmental groups argued that the city failed to meet that standard, contending that Waukesha could update its water treatment plant to remove radium from its deep groundwater wells like some of its neighboring communities have done. The environmental groups fear approval will set a dangerous precedent for future diversions, leaving it vulnerable to water-thirsty areas in the Southwest. Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly disputed that in an op-ed piece in the Journal Sentinel.

'Digital divide' between rural and urban shows no sign of disappearing as broadband gets faster

Photo: bradselectronics.com
The "digital divide" between rural and urban areas has not disappeared despite ever-improving technology. The latest data from the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration show that only 55 percent of people living in rural areas have access to broadband internet service, while 94 percent of their urban counterparts do.

Why does it matter? Broadband adoption can help improve the economy in rural areas, including increasing income, lowering unemployment rates and creating jobs, Brian Whitacre, associate professor and Extension economist at Oklahoma State University, wrote in USA Today.

Lack of access to a fast internet connection at school and at home can also set children living in poor rural areas up for failure. The Rural Blog previously reported that these children often suffer with important life skills that require online fluency: college applications, research for papers and job searches.

Technology continues to improve, allowing existing wiring to carry heavier loads of data. The federal government has historically tried to expand infrastructure that would allow for broadband access to rural communities. The "Connect America Fund" offered $10 billion in subsidies to the nation's largest telecommunication companies to offer service to more than 4 million un-served homes and businesses in 2015.

What classifies as "broadband" is determined by the FCC, and it changes fairly regularly as technology evolves. In the early 2000s, the FCC defined broadband connections as those that could transfer data at a speed of 200 kilobytes per second (kbps) in at least one direction, either downloading or uploading. That was about four times faster than historical dial-up modems (56 kbps).

In 2010, the FCC required connections to be five times faster still to be considered broadband. The minimum downstream (downloading) speed increased to 4 megabits per second (mbps), with at least 1 mbps upstream (uploading). Companies receiving Connect America Funds have to provide at least 10 mbps downstream and 1 upstream. But in 2015, the FCC again upgraded its broadband requirement to 25 mbps downstream and 3 mbps upstream, meaning that federal dollars funded service that already falls short of current requirements at the time of implementation.

Whitacre predicts the threshold will continue to increase, and rural areas will require the most work to reach it and stay compliant; their existing bandwidth is generally slower than in urban areas. Only 75 percent of rural Americans have access to fixed (not mobile) connections of at least 10 mbps download speeds, compared to 98 percent of urban residents, Whitacre notes. Only 61 percent of rural residents meet the current 25 mbps threshold for any type of technology, compared to 94 percent of city dwellers.

A major obstacle to rural broadband access is cost. It's more efficient for companies to install lines in high population areas because there are far more people to pay for use of those lines. Installing lines in rural areas is costly, and because there are fewer potential customers per square mile, they don't turn a profit as readily as those in cities.

Even improving existing wires in rural areas can be expensive. Fiber optic cable is used in new installs. In areas still served by older copper wires, though, sending data at high speeds for long distances can be a problem. Signals degrade after about three miles. To get data traveling longer distances to and through rural areas, companies must install signal-amplifying equipment called "access multipliers," which add to the cost of serving rural areas, Whitacre writes.

However, rural broadband advocates have had some good news the past couple of years with the continuing development of the Connect America Fund. The FCC set up several "Rural Broadband Experiments" in 2015, with 14 projects ongoing (10 fiber and four wireless). Whitacre said that he expects these experiments to provide some insight into the technological, administrative and logistical issues associated with funding rural broadband.

Even if rural broadband infrastructure were exactly the same as in cities, there would still be a "digital divide" in adoption rates, Whitacre noted because rural populations are older, less educated and have lower income.

Anti-Trump GOP delegates organize, claim almost 400 backers; it's a political story for every state

Organizers of Republican convention delegates who want to dump Donald Trump because of "deep-rooted concerns among conservatives" about him say they have attracted nearly 400 delegates to their cause, reports Ed O'Keefe of The Washington Post. If that number is anywhere close to real, there's a story to be done in every state about what delegates are in the group and what others think about it. Your state party headquarters has a list of delegates.

Unruh (photo via Ballotpedia)
Kendal Unruh of Castle Rock, Colo., a veteran delegate and co-founder of Free the Delegates, told O'Keefe, “Long-term, this saves the party and we win the election. Everything has to go through birthing pains to birth something great. We’re going to go through the trauma of the birthing pains, but the reward will be worth it.” O'Keefe reports that Unruh says her cause is gaining support from “the non-rabble rousers. The rule-following, churchgoing grandmas who aren’t out protesting in the streets. This is the way they push back.”

O'Keefe reports: "Unruh and other GOP delegates from Colorado hatched the idea of trying to stop Trump by introducing a rule change: Instead of binding delegates to the results of the caucuses and primaries — as many party leaders insist they are — the convention’s 2,472 delegates should instead be able to vote their conscience and select whomever they want. For weeks, Unruh, her colleague Regina Thomson and other Colorado Republicans sought out like-minded delegates in other states. After Unruh appeared in newspaper interviews and called in to a few radio talk shows, she said other delegates with similar concerns in places such as Louisiana and Missouri reached out. By this past weekend, Unruh was consulting a lawyer about possible fundraising plans while Thomson was compiling the list of interested delegates, building a website and booking a conference call phone line that could host 1,000 participants."

Thomson said at least that many participated in the call, during which leaders of the group said "They are not working on behalf of any of Trump's former opponents," O'Keefe reports. "Delegates in several states are under pressure not to join anti-Trump groups. In North Carolina, some have proposed fining delegates or kicking them out of the party if they vote against Trump. In other states, party leaders are threatening to strip delegates of their credentials if they buck primary results and vote against Trump, according to delegates who have contacted The Post. Some reached out on the condition of anonymity, saying that their spouses are fearful of physical threats if they speak out publicly. But several delegates said they were buoyed by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who told NBC’s 'Meet the Press' on Sunday that 'It is not my job to tell delegates what to do, what not to do, or to weigh in on things like that. They write the rules. They make their decisions.'"

Vermont, other states steer addicts to treatment, but services remain scarce in many rural areas

One of the most rural states, Vermont, has come up with some answers to a growing problem that is disproportionately rural: heroin addiction.

So reports Elizabeth Hewitt of VTDigger.org for The Washington Monthly, in a package of storeis on mental-health issues. She writes, "Centers for Disease Control data shows that drug overdose death rates, up nationwide, are particularly high in the most rural parts of the country. Resources for mental illness and substance abuse are limited, and many people who struggle with those issues end up in the criminal justice system."

“It was the perfect storm,” Governor Peter Shumlin told her. “Rising addiction, rising prison population, lack of money to keep doing what we were doing, and a real sense of social injustice being served to people who were suffering from a disease that led to petty crime.”

Several policy changes "have helped lower incarceration rates by keeping addicts in treatment and out of prison" in Vermont, Hewitt writes. "While the shift in policy and attitude began with the previous administration, Shumlin made criminal justice reform a key part of his successful 2010 campaign for governor and has carried the initiative through his second and third terms, dedicating his entire 2014 State of the State address to opiate abuse." Still, "Scarcity of services in rural areas remains a significant challenge in efforts to curb opiate addiction and related crimes."

Other states with large rural populations "are implementing similar programs to try to divert nonviolent defendants away from the correctional system," Hewitt notes. "The programs attempt to relieve taxed criminal dockets and maximize exhausted treatment services, while curbing the recidivism associated with addiction and mental illness."

Rural Oregon firefighters seek money for body cameras to document, discourage harassment

Facing hostility, firefighters in rural southwestern Oregon are raising money to buy body cameras to document and thus discourage such things as assaults and other illegal or inappropriate behavior.

Wolf Creek Rural Fire Protection District headquarters
"In what appears to be a first in Oregon, the Wolf Creek Rural Fire Protection District has launched a crowdfunding attempt to purchase 10 small Wolfcom Vision body cameras, which would cost a total of $2,750," reports Patricia Snyder of the Grants Pass Daily Courier. "A few weeks ago, Wolf Creek Fire Chief Steve Scruggs says, a man walked up to a firefighter and spit beer on her while she and an engine crew waited for law enforcement before going to a call."

Scruggs "suspects the department is being targeted because it is taking a stronger stance on illegal fire activity. When he arrived five years ago, he steered practices toward educating people about fire laws before taking action, but no longer. . . . Some people responded to educational efforts over the years. Others indicated they felt harassed. The department posted information that scofflaws promptly tore down. Scruggs figured enough time had gone into education. In May the department implemented a policy citing people who violate existing fire laws. . . . Some people appreciate that the law defines when and where you can burn debris on your property — an important tool in rural Oregon — but for others fire represents something else." As Scruggs said, “A lot of people use that for their recreation.”

Resurgence of gray wolves in Great Lakes bad for deer, good for wildflowers and maples, study finds

A resurgence of gray wolves around the Great Lakes is helping to boost wildflowers and maples, says a report by researchers at the University of Notre Dame and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. That's because gray wolves are the natural predator of herbivores such as white-tailed deer. An increase in gray wolves means deer stay away, allowing wildflowers and maples to flourish.

"In scientific terms, it’s not a question of deer getting smart. Rather, they adapt their behavior in wolf-heavy areas to improve their chances of survival—and incidentally improve the survivability of the maples and forbs, or herbaceous flowering plants," reports Eric Freedman, director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University, for the center's Great Lakes Echo. "On a practical level, that means deer have adapted by spending less time foraging in 'heavy wolf use areas,' the study found."

By the late 1950s, hunting had eliminated gray wolves in the study area, along the border of Michigan and Wisconsin, Freedman writes. "They stayed extinct in the area until MDNR discovered a new pack around 2000-06. The department’s winter 2015-16 survey found a 'minimum population or 618 wolves in the Upper Peninsula [of Michigan] ... White-tailed deer populations in Great Lakes forests increased dramatically without grey wolves," and that had big impacts on forest sapling growth and diversity of non-grassy herbs. (Read more)

Monday, June 20, 2016

Coal may have gotten so bad that it's getting good for investors; production has surged since April

U.S. coal production recently hit historically low level, but is rebounding, and investors seem to think it has bottomed out, BB&T capital markets analyst Mark Levin said in a note to clients last week. Tim Loh of Bloomberg reports on that, adding: "Some coal stocks are rallying as a recovery in natural gas prices brings the power-plant fuels closer to parity." With a chart, Bloomberg cites a two-month rise in stock prices of Alliance Resource Partners and CNX Coal Resources and notes a report from the Energy Information Administration that weekly coal production is up 26 percent since April.

Levin said in his note, “Markets are a forward-looking mechanism, and what they are saying right now about coal in 2017 is bullish.” He said bankruptcies of major coal companies have reduced the over-supply built up during a mild winter, and a hot summer would lead to higher demand. Also in coal's favor is a 60 percent rise in natural-gas futures since March, Loh reports: "That has made coal mined in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana and, to a lesser extent, in the Illinois Basin, more cost-competitive, said Andrew Cosgrove, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence."

Still, "Coal bulls face daunting challenges," Loh writes, quoting Cosgrove: “The sentiment back in January was about as low as it could possibly get. Some people invest off that premise and you never know. Coal’s been beaten up for the better part of six years. Any green shoots whatsoever, people may choose to hang their hat on that.”


Church-state separation group says pulpit politicking continues, in defiance of LBJ's 1954 law

Despite a 1954 law that blocks all non-profit entities with 501(c)(3) status from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office, the practice continues unabated, Simon Brown reports for Church & State, the monthly magazine of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The 2008 election, when preachers were known to discourage congregations from voting for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, "was something of a watershed year in the relationship between the Internal Revenue Service, houses of worship and politics," Brown writes. It was part of a "coordinated effort by pastors to defy the IRS."

Starting in 2008, "A group of far-right pastors teamed up with a prominent Religious Right legal organization, Alliance Defending Freedom, to ignore federal law against campaign intervention by houses of worship," Brown reports. ADF launched “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” which "openly encourages Christian clergy to endorse or oppose candidates for office. ADF claims that 2,032 pastors have taken part in it since the beginning. Critics, including Americans United, have expressed skepticism over that number, however, noting that some participating pastors may think they are defying the IRS simply by speaking about political issues and some of them never actually made a formal endorsement."

The IRS has done little to determine whether or not “Pulpit Freedom Sunday" is a violation of the law, Brown writes. "In 2009, the IRS offered a proposal that included new protocol for investigating houses of worship. But that submission has yet to be finalized; and even so, critics have said the agency still failed to select the 'appropriate' official to initiate church-tax inquiries." The Political Activities Referral Committee, created by the IRS, "determined 'as of June 23, 2014, 99 churches merit a high priority examination' for partisan political activity undertaken during the years 2010-13.' . . . It appeared that the IRS took no action to punish those pastors who openly defied the law."

Brown reports that "a series of legal and political setbacks" has left unclear what the IRS plans to do. Around 2008, "just when it appeared the IRS was really flexing its muscle on this matter, a church under investigation successfully appealed an agency audit—exposing a procedural snafu that may have caused enforcement activity to halt."

ADF says it is fighting for religious freedom and a repeal of the 1954 law, sponsored by Lyndon Johnson, then a senator from Texas and later president.

Brown reports, "A 2012 survey taken by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 66 percent of respondents don’t want houses of worship to endorse or oppose candidates for public office. Another poll taken that year revealed that pastors themselves are highly against partisan activity as well." (Read more)

Community college offers two-year program for entry-level social services jobs, in high demand

A program at a rural community college hopes to fill the region's high demand for entry level social services jobs in one-third the time students normally take for similar positions. Walla Walla Community College last fall launched its Associate of Applied Science in Human and Social Services program, Sheila Hagar reports for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. "Historically, jobs in children’s services, juvenile or adult corrections, government welfare agencies, and nonprofits that provide support services have been filled by people who have earned master’s degrees, completed an internship, and passed state licensing requirements." (U-B photo by Greg Lehman: Instructor Curtis Phillips)

"Not every piece of human services requires a master’s degree, however," Hagar writes. That includes jobs such as a human services case manager. Curtis Phillips, who heads the college program, told Hagar the position is basically “an organized way of providing care, usually involving some type of review of the case and client. Then you create a plan to get better and achieve self-sufficiency, make some goals. Like what your mom did for you in junior high.”

Phillips said graduates will be able to get jobs at places such as schools and counseling centers, where they will help "with food assistance, mental health, homelessness and crisis," Hagar writes. Cost for the program will run students about $11,000 for tuition and books, with jobs "starting at about $25,000 a year in salary, moving on up to $40,000 with experience." Getting a job shouldn't be difficult. Phillips told Hagar, “We won’t even be able to produce enough graduates just to meet the regional demand, and that doesn’t even count filling retirement vacancies." (Read more)

Sunday, June 19, 2016

AMA calls gun violence public-health crisis, backs background checks, waiting periods, research

The American Medical Association Tuesday declared gun violence a public-health crisis and endorsed waiting periods an background checks for purchases of all firearms, not just handguns.

"The AMA, the country's largest doctor group, also vowed to lobby Congress to overturn a decades-old ban on gun violence research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention," two days after the Orlando shooting that left 49 dead and 53 wounded, reports Kimberly Leonard of U.S. News and World Report. "The AMA joins the American College of Physicians in its position, which has been calling gun violence an epidemic since 1995."

Dr. Steven Stack
AMA President Steven Stack, an emergency-room physician, said the research "is vital so physicians and other health providers, law enforcement and society at large may be able to prevent injury, death and other harms to society resulting from firearms. . . . With approximately 30,000 men, women and children dying each year at the barrel of a gun in elementary schools, movie theaters, workplaces, houses of worship and on live television, the United States faces a public-health crisis of gun violence."

Leonard notes, "Federal law doesn't technically outlaw the CDC from studying gun violence, but prohibits the agency from using federal dollars to advocate or promote gun control. Though President Barack Obama lifted the research ban through executive order nearly three years ago, Congress has blocked funding for these studies."

The National Rifle Association has called the public-health approach a back-door path to more gun control, Leonard writes, and "has said that doctors shouldn't be asking patients about gun ownership because they are not gun safety experts."