Friday, February 21, 2020

Newspaper in Marfa, Texas, opens a cafe and bar to help cover its operating costs and engage with its audience

Attacks rise on paid public notices, an increasing part of newspapers' income; Ky. legislation creates rural-urban split

Newspapers' battle to preserve public-notice advertising by governments, an increasing share of revenue as other ad sectors decline, is ramping up in several state legislatures. In some, President Trump's attacks on the news media are taking a toll, the Public Notice Resource Center reports.

"Bills have been introduced in at least seven states so far this year that would move most public notice from its traditional home in newspapers to lightly visited government websites," the center reports. "And at least of few of those bills were introduced by legislators who have had fraught relationships with the newspapers that cover them."

David Thompson
That ire tends to be aimed at larger newspapers, but such papers figure in the debate in another way: Their high ad rates are a greater burden for small governments in metropolitan areas. That has been illustrated recently in Kentucky, where the state House passed a bill on the subject Wednesday. And the way Kentucky has dealt with the issue could be a template for other states. "It's a workable solution," Kentucky Press Association Executive Director David Thompson told The Rural Blog.

The bill would allow government entities in counties with more than 80,000 people to publish their required notices on a special government website, with a small notice in the newspaper. That follows an approach that a Northern Kentucky senator followed in 2018, inserting language into the state budget that made a similar, temporary law for counties of 90,000 or more. The number was designed to capture the three Kentucky counties that border Cincinnati, home of the Cincinnati Enquirer, owned by Gannett Co., which also publishes weeklies in the three counties.

This year's original bill would have applied statewide, and the lobbying groups for cities and counties backed it, perhaps seeing that the political winds were blowing their way; the state House switched from a Democratic majority to a Republican supermajority in the 2016 elections, and stayed that way in 2018. Most votes for the bill came from Republicans; most "no" votes came from Democrats.

When the bill was introduced, KPA told its lobbying adversaries that it would fight the bill hard, but would be willing to set a population threshold in a permanent law, Thompson said. It offered 70,000 and compromised at 80,000, making the website option apply to 10 counties instead of nine.

Thompson said he did not know of another state that uses a population threshold. He and the bill's sponsor, Rep. Jerry Miller R-Louisville, said the approach is based on the fact that counties of less than that size are less likely to have broad access to, and adoption of, broadband internet service. But they both made clear that the battle will go on.

Pew Research Center data and chart
“We often have to walk before we can run, and this is the first attempt to move us down the path toward the realization that times have changed in the world in terms of how people get their news and how they communicate,” Miller told the House. He cited a recent Pew Research Center poll that found only 13 percent of Americans said they got their local news from printed newspapers. He actually said 15%, but his comment was misleading; he didn't say "printed" and he didn't note that 37% said they get most local news "online," mostly from a news website or app. Many such sites or apps are operated by newspapers, and the primary referral sources for such sites are social media.

Those numbers is driven by America's primarily urban population, most of which is served by hometown TV stations. Newspaper readership is higher in rural areas, and Kentucky is one of the more rural states. But Thompson said he expects the Kentucky League of Cities and the Kentucky Association of Counties to "keep coming back. They have said this is probably going to be an annual thing."

And just because a bill hasn't moved doesn't mean that public notices are not under threat, because language can be added to a must-pass bill at the eleventh hour, Thompson said: "I keep warning the other states . . . watch your budget."

Quick hits: rural residents wait longer for ambulances; new book explores how Democrats can win back rural voters

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at heather.chapman@uky.edu.

Another study shows that, because of rural hospital closures, rural residents wait nearly twice as long for ambulances as their urban counterparts. Read more here. We reported the first study here.

A Wisconsin lawmaker says the financial troubles of major rural internet provider Frontier Communications show that federal funds for rural broadband are being spent inefficiently, and that rural electric co-operatives might do the job better. Read more here.

A new book by Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, talks about how Democrats can win back rural voters. Read more here.

Speaking of which: a reporter who covers rural Iowa writes that Democratic candidates campaigning before the Iowa caucuses laid out "some of the most robust rural policies America has seen in some time," which he believes bodes well for Democrats campaigning in other rural areas. Read more here.

Researcher offers tips for local journalists to cope with hostile online audiences in the election season and beyond

"Being on the receiving end of cruel and harassing comments online is part of the job for journalists today, "Andrea Martin writes for The Poynter Institute. "Comments targeted at journalists can include claims of biased reporting, calls for the reporter’s firing, attacks on intelligence and physical appearance, and the now-infamous 'fake news' creed. Though these attacks can be wide-ranging in content, they have the same effect on the journalists who are just trying to do their jobs."

For local newspaper journalists especially, such attacks can be "vitriolic, intense and personal," especially when the story is about politics, crime or sports, writes Martin.

For her journalism master's thesis at the University of North Carolina, Martin, a former journalist, surveyed and interviewed journalists from local papers all over the country to learn more about their experiences in engaging with audiences online. All of them worked for newspapers with circulations under 100,000, and many are in non-metropolitan or rural areas, like The Journal in Seneca, S.C., or the Rio Grande Sun in Española, N.M. (See pages 59-60 of her dissertation for a complete list).

The survey respondents said rude and threatening behavior online has increased in recent years, and 71 percent said there is "definitely" a connection between President Trump's statements about news media and readers' comments about their local papers, Martin writes. But more than half of respondents said online audience engagement is a high priority in their newsrooms, and more than one in three said they have felt pressured to engage with audiences online, Martin writes.

That pressure, and likely that reader hostility, will increase in the coming months as the 2020 election season plays out, Martin writes. She suggests three things newsrooms can do to prepare:

1. Have an ongoing dialogue about best practices for engaging with audiences online. "Create an environment where journalists share situations and best practices on a regular basis, in both large group and one-on-one settings," Martin writes. It need not be a formal process, but it's important to have the conversations and make it clear that they're welcome.

2. Formalize mentorship. "Though young journalists may be the most experienced in using social media, they likely need support from more seasoned journalists when it comes to how to best respond to uncivil comments or harassment — online, in person or over the phone," Martin writes.

3. Make mental health a priority, and mean it. "There likely isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to preventing burnout in journalists, but making mental health care a priority in newsrooms is crucial," Martin writes. "Newsroom leadership should set an example, adjust expectations for online engagement and provide tangible resources for help — even giving reporters permission to take a step back from online engagement. This would not hurt the bottom line, as social media engagement does not bring immediate economic benefit to a newspaper aside from sometimes serving as a direct referral to the newspaper’s website." And prioritizing mental health could keep younger journalists from leaving the profession entirely at a time when they're sorely needed.

USDA chief economist said China will probably buy more U.S. goods than last year, but much less than they promised

When the U.S. and China signed a partial trade deal in January, President Trump promised that China would purchase about $40 billion in American agriculture products this year, but on Thursday a top government economist predicted a much smaller haul.

At the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Outlook Forum, Robert Johansson, the department's chief economist, "projected that agricultural exports to China would reach roughly $14 billion in the year that ends Sept. 30, a $4 billion increase from one year ago," Laura Reiley reports for The Washington Post. "At a news conference later at the event, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said that enforcing China’s purchase commitments in the trade deal remained a concern and that variables such as the coronavirus outbreak made predictions difficult." 

The Phase One deal specified that "China was to ensure additional purchases of U.S. agriculture products by $32 billion over two years, $12.5 billion in 2020 over the 2017 baseline of $24 billion and $19.5 billion over that baseline in 2021. This would mean total agricultural and seafood exports to China in 2020 would be $36.5 billion and up to $43.5 billion in 2021," Reiley reports.

Johansson told the Post that some of the discrepancy between the promised buy and the projected buy is that his projections were for a fiscal year, so October, November and December numbers weren't included, Reiley reports. 

However, market conditions could be another big factor: the deal specifies that China will make more purchases as long as it doesn't disrupt other trade relationships. China has already purchased a great deal of its soybean needs for this year from Brazil.

Study notes top 3 reasons rural people are dying off faster than city dwellers; class, insurance and lack of doctors

Rural residents have been dying at a younger age, on average, than their urban counterparts since the 1980s, and that gap is widening. Researchers in Texas name the top three reasons why in a recently published study: socioeconomic status, lack of health insurance, and a shortage of physicians.

"Scott Phillips of Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center co-authored the study, published late last year, which found that those three factors accounted for just over 80 percent of the difference between rural and urban mortality rates," Jeremy Fugleberg reports for Inforum, an online partnership between The Forum newspaper and TV station WDAY in Fargo, North Dakota.

Living in a rural county doesn't automatically mean you're at a higher risk of dying sooner, but "it means you're more likely to grapple with the factors that get in the way of good health care," Fugleberg reports. "The study actually indicates without such hurdles, rural residents would have a lower mortality rates than those who live in urban areas." Only three states had higher mortality rates in urban counties than rural counties: Colorado, Montana and Wyoming.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Fact-checking and recapping the Democratic primary debate

Last night, the top Democratic presidential candidates took to a stage in Las Vegas for a fiery debate moderated by journalists from NBC News, MSNBC, Telemundo, and The Nevada Independent. Candidates tried to woo Nevadans—especially the powerful Culinary Workers local—ahead of the state's Feb. 22 caucuses, so rural issues were less prominent than in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Still, there was plenty of material of interest to rural residents. So, here's a quick recap of rural issues mentioned in the debate, along with fact-checking. Click here for a full transcript.

Bloomberg, Warren, Sanders, Biden, Buttegeig, Klobuchar (NPR)
The candidates debated vigorously about environmental regulations and energy.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont promised to bring working-class people together to "take on the fossil fuel industry, because their short-term profits are not more important than the future of this planet and the need to combat climate change." Later, Sanders elaborated that he supports a total ban on hydraulic fracturing within five years, and scientists warn that the U.S. must take bold action within the next six or seven years to avoid irreparable damage to the climate. The proposed Green New Deal would created up to 20 million good-paying jobs, he said, and implied that extractive-industry workers could take those jobs. FactCheck.org said Sanders overstated the threat to the planet; many scientists disagree that the planet will become uninhabitable because of climate change, though they generally agree that the current way of life would no longer be possible.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who stressed her record of political success in rural areas, said she doesn't support a total ban on fracking, and calls fracked oil and gas transitional fuels on the way toward using more renewable energy. She said the government must make sure all existing fracking operations are operating safely and not grant new permits until they can make sure each is safe.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts noted that 85 percent of Nevada is managed by the federal government, and said the U.S. should stop all new drilling and mining on public lands. Rare exceptions could be made if specific minerals are needed, she said, but they would have to be carefully executed to disturb the land as little as possible. She called for increasing investment in green tech development and said more renewable energy buildout would create manufacturing and infrastructure jobs. She also called for an anti-corruption bill and killing the filibuster to decrease the lobbying power of fossil-fuel industries.

Former Vice President Joe Biden said global warming is an "existential threat" and promoted expansion of solar energy. He also promised to immediately reinstate all Environmental Protection Agency regulations eliminated by the Trump administration and eliminate all oil and gas subsidies.

Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, said it's unlikely the U.S. will cease fracking anytime soon. He agreed with Klobuchar that it's a transition fuel and said enforcing current rules on fracking to reduce methane leaks would help a great deal. He said the increasing closure of coal-fired power plants is "making a difference" with climate change and implied that his financing of the Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal" campaign was at least partly responsible for the coal-plant closures. However, market forces are far more responsible for the coal industry's decline in the U.S., according to fact-checkers at The Associated Press.

Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said the current election is critical "because if we don't elect a president who actually believes in climate science now, we will never meet any of the other scientific or policy deadlines that we need to." His plan to transition to renewable energy would ensure plenty of jobs, he said. He also noted that farmers must be viewed as partners, not adversaries, in the fight to reduce pollution.

Buttigieg said Trump "rose to power by cynically exploiting the frustration of ordinary Americans feeling like leaders weren't speaking to them."

On taxes, health care and the economy:

Biden promised that taxes on small businesses would not increase during his presidency. He said many poor and middle-class voters are hurting even though the economy looks good on paper. That's not entirely true, according to FactCheck.org, which noted that weekly paychecks for rank-and-file workers have been rising. FactCheck acknowledged that CEO pay has increased much more.

Warren, a former special-education teacher, said that a small tax on the ultra-wealthy would fund universal preschool, increase wages for child-care workers, better fund public schools (including programs for children with disabilities), and cancel student-loan debt.

Sanders, who is a Democratic Socialist, said voters who fear the label "socialist" don't understand that, in many ways, we already live in a socialist society. But socialist benefits generally flow to the very rich, while the poor are encouraged to be rugged individuals, he said. "When . . . we have to subsidize Walmart's workers who are on Medicaid and food stamps because the wealthiest family in America pays starvation wages, that's socialism for the rich," he said.

Sanders said he favors a single-payer health care system because health is a human right, and because the U.S. spends twice as much per person on health care as any other country but 87 million Americans are uninsured or under-insured. Over 60,000 die each year because they can't get to the doctor, he said. Sanders also criticized pharmaceutical prices, and said people are going broke because they can't afford medication. FactCheck.org said Sanders overstated statistics on health-care spending and medical bankruptcies.

Buttigieg said that the government couldn't pay for a single-payer plan, and said he supports a public option for Medicare because it's wrong to force people off their health insurance plans.

Bloomberg said he had praised Obamacare since the beginning, but thought it didn't go far enough. He also favors a public option for health insurance.

Biden agreed with a public option and noted his role in getting the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed. He alleged that Bloomberg had called Obamacare a disgrace when it was passed. Fact-checkers from The Washington Post said Biden left out critical context: In a speech at Dartmouth College, Bloomberg called the ACA a disgrace because it didn't cover enough people.

Klobuchar, who also supports a public option, said converting to a single-payer system would cause 149 million Americans to lose their current health insurance. She said her plan would reduce premiums for 12 million people immediately and expand coverage for about the same number.

Warren said Buttigieg and Klobuchar's plans were poorly thought-out, and Buttigieg's plan would leave millions unable to afford health care. Sanders' plan "has a good start," she said, but noted that even his own advisers acknowledged that he was unlikely to make it happen. However, AP fact-checkers say Buttigieg's plan would cover virtually all U.S. citizens and legal residents. Warren promoted a single-payer health care plan at the beginning of her campaign, but switched to the public option, saying that more data had convinced her it was the correct path.

China to allow U.S. to apply for agriculture tariff waivers

China announced Tuesday that, starting March 2, it will allow importers to apply for tariff exemptions on 696 American goods, the third round of such exemptions China has offered in the wake of the Phase 1 trade deal that took effect on Feb. 14., Stella Qiu and Se Young Lee report for Reuters.

"U.S. goods eligible for tariff exemptions include key agricultural and energy products such as pork, beef, soybeans, liquefied natural gas and crude oil, which were subject to extra tariffs imposed during the escalation of the bilateral trade dispute," Qiu and Lee report. "Other products subject to exemption on additional tariffs imposed include denatured ethanol and wheat, corn and sorghum. Some medical devices and metals including copper ore and concentrates, copper scrap and aluminum scrap are also subject to exemption."

The announcement emphasized that exemptions will be granted based on market conditions and commercial considerations, Qiu and Lee report. Though Chinese President Xi Jinping assured President Trump during a recent call that China will meet its Phase 1 purchasing targets, the caveat allows China more latitude in what it buys from the U.S., especially since China has already purchased a large amount of soybeans from Brazil. The coronavirus epidemic may also make it difficult for China to meet its purchasing targets.

March 23 Agri-Pulse Ag & Food Policy Summit in D.C. to explore issues like climate change, swine flu and more

Head to Washington, D.C., March 23 for the 2020 Agri-Pulse Ag & Food Policy Summit, a day-long exploration of agriculture and food policy that will cover public and private-sector issues from climate change and swine flu to the links between food security and national security.

The summit will be held at the National Press Club from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Featured speakers (including invitees) include:
  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (invited)
  • Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (invited)
  • Senate Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Sen. Debbie Stabenow
  • House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson
  • House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Mike Conaway
  • American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall
  • Ambassador Kip Tom, U.S. representative to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture
  • Indigo Agriculture CEO David Perry
  • Land O’Lakes Chief Technology Officer Ted Bekele
  • Alan Rudolph, V.P. for research, Colorado State University
  • Everett Hoekstra, president, Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health
  • Liz Wagstrom, chief veterinarian, National Pork Producers Council
  • Jeff Simmons, president and CEO, Elanco
  • Retired Army Gen. William "Kip" Ward, inaugural commander of the U.S. Africa Command
Click here for a complete schedule and ticket information. News-media tickets are free for those with press credentials.

EPA proposes further rollbacks to coal ash regulations

The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday announced a new proposed rollback to an Obama-era regulation dealing with waste from coal-fired power plants known as coal ash," Rachel Frazin reports for The Hill. "The proposed changes are the Trump administration's second set of changes to protections on waste laden with arsenic."

The proposal would also expand the use of coal ash in closing landfills under some circumstances, and ease regulations for the liners that coat the bottom of coal-ash pits, which are meant to keep toxins from leeching into groundwater or nearby waterways, Frazin reports. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement that the changes will give coal-fired power plant operators much-needed flexibility to address site-specific conditions, but critics believe the changes will weaken environmental protections.

The proposal is the administration's second recent effort to roll back coal-ash disposal regulations. In January the EPA proposed a rule amendment that would effectively shield all but the most high-hazard coal-fired plants from the old regulations.

The EPA is seeking public comments on the proposal for 45 days, and will hold a public hearing within that time.

Poverty journalist says rural Black Belt deserves more federal funding and attention, like Appalachia has received

A map showing deeply disadvantaged counties in the South (left) compared to an 1860 Census map showing slavery distribution across the Deep South. (Modern map by University of Michigan)
Appalachia has been the de facto face of rural poverty since President Johnson went to Eastern Kentucky in 1964 to promote his War on Poverty. That visit presaged action; the Appalachian Regional Commission was created the next year to promote economic development.

Since then, the ARC has received $38 billion in federal funding (adjusted for inflation) and has helped reduce disparities in 13 states. But the Black Belt has a great deal of rural poverty as well, much of it among people of color, and it isn't receiving the attention and funding it deserves, Greg Kaufmann writes for The Nation magazine.

Greg Kaufmann
The Black Belt was originally named for a swath of rich, dark soil crossing the Deep South, but came to refer to the high African American population, since many slave-based plantations were located on that soil. Broadly defined, the Black Belt has about 300 rural counties with populations between 30 and 80 percent African American. As of 2008, 83% of rural African Americans lived in the Black Belt. "The black rural South’s current unemployment rate of approximately 14 percent and child poverty rate of 51 percent are double those found in rural counties included in the ARC, according to a forthcoming paper from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies," Kaufmann reports.

Though "piecemeal legislative efforts" have been made to boost investment in the Black Belt, "none include all 11 states, focus exclusively on Black Belt counties, or—critically—prioritize community participation in designing and leading a commission to address the Black Belt’s unique challenges," Kaufmann writes. "We’re just two weeks away from the South Carolina Democratic primary, on February 29; six more Black Belt states will vote on March 3. It’s time for a presidential candidate to not only engage with the needs of people living in this region but also begin to rectify a history of exploitation and neglect."

Kaufmann is a contributing writer to The Nation and the journalist-in-residence at the Roosevelt Institute; his work focuses on poverty.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Join Feb. 27 Twitter chat to discuss rural health-care stakeholder strategies to maximize rural census count

The Rural Health Information Hub will host a Twitter chat at 2 p.m. ET on Feb. 27 to discuss how rural health stakeholders can help increase census turnout in their communities.

Rural areas risk being undercounted in the decennial census, which could leave them with less political representation and less federal funding. During the chat, guests will discuss challenges in reaching hard-to-count populations and strategies that can maximize census response.

The National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health (@NOSORH) will co-host the hour-long chat. You can find it by searching for the hashtag #RuralHealthChat on Twitter.

Click here for a list of participating experts and their Twitter handles, as well as ground rules for participation.

EPA allows massive use of antibiotics on citrus trees despite federal warnings antibiotic-resistant diseases will spread

The Asian citrus psyllid, which spreads
the disease (USDA photo)
Florida citrus production has dropped 70 percent in the past 15 years because of citrus greening, a disease spread by a tiny insect that carries a harmful bacteria. "The rapid onset of the disease has left growers with few effective management strategies. Since 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency has allowed citrus farmers to spray medically important antibiotics on their groves in hopes of reversing the devastating trajectory," H. Claire Brown reports for The Counter, formerly The New Food Economy. "But this last-ditch solution has its consequences: It’s expensive, and scientists aren’t sure it works very well, while public health advocates worry it’s hastening the spread of antibiotic resistance."

Today, about 90 percent of Florida's citrus trees are infected; the state produces more than two-thirds of the nation's citrus and more than 90% of its orange juice. By 2016, Florida citrus farmers were reporting an average loss of 40% of their crops from the disease. That year, EPA began allowing farmers to spray the streptomycin and oxytetracycline on citrus crops, as "emergency applications," Brown reports. Since both antibiotics are used to treat medical problems in humans, including urinary tract infections, syphilis, and tuberculosis, many public-health advocates were concerned.

"The agency was proposing to allow as much as 650,000 pounds of streptomycin to be sprayed on crops each year. That’s more than 10 times the amount used to treat human diseases. The concern was that the widespread use of antibiotics on crops would select for antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which would then spread throughout the ecosystem," Brown reports. "Antibiotic-resistant infections are expected to claim 10 million human lives by the year 2050, and critics worry the spread of so-called 'superbugs' will be aided by the extensive use of antibiotics in agriculture."

In late 2018 the EPA approved routine use of oxytetracycline on citrus groves, ignoring objections from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, Brown reports. Emergency use of streptomycin has also been approved in California.

Despite the possible public health risk, it's unclear that the antibiotics are helping. Paul Meador, a fourth-generation citrus farmer, said the antibiotics make farming much more expensive. "He remembers spending $1,000 per acre on production costs less than two decades ago. Now he spends $3,000. And the rising bills have been accompanied by a slump in yield. Production on his land has diminished by half, if not more," Brown reports.

Meador said the antibiotics have substantially diminished his crop loss though, especially compared to citrus farmers who weren't using the antibiotics. A 2019 University of Florida study seemed to contradict Meador, finding that oxytetracycline didn't help much over six months, but that study didn't test streptomycin, which Meador uses. The study also found that injecting the antibiotics directly into tree trunks instead of spraying them on leaves might help fight the bacteria better, but injection isn't an EPA-approved application method.

USDA's five-year blueprint doesn't adequately address climate change or sustainability, farm economists write

Over the past decade, climate change has increasingly hurt American farmers, but many farmers and farm groups have tried to ignore or downplay its role. So University of Tennessee agricultural economists Harwood D. Schaffer and Daryll E. Ray were hopeful when the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced a new five-year blueprint with sections that appeared to address sustainable agriculture and adaptation to climate change.

However, the document had "nothing about sustainable practices. Not once did the paper give any sense that research in ag sustainability or sustainable practices were given serious attention. There were no items that suggested that sustainable practices might play a role in reducing agriculture’s contribution to global climate change," Schaffer and Ray write. "We would have thought that agriculture’s role in climate mitigation would have been mentioned alongside Ag Climate Adaptation. But we were wrong."

Though they believe many USDA scientists take climate change seriously, the economists are troubled by the administration's official stance that denies humans' role in climate change and ignores the need for all Americans to help reduce it. That puts "conscientious scientists in a bind when they apply for USDA grants," they write. "Though the results of their research may play a significant role in mitigating climate change, they need to hide that fact when they write their grant proposals. Given the recent dismissals of military and diplomatic officials by the White House, we are concerned that scientists who acknowledge the impact of their research on climate change could see their consideration for future grants limited. That would not be in the interest of farmers who want to use the latest research to reduce or eliminate the impact of their agricultural operations on the climate. It would also not be in the best interest of our children, grandchildren and all future generations."

Why have farmers, so close to nature, resisted action against climate change? "Either because they do not believe that humans are playing a significant role in climate change or more likely they are opposed to any regulations that might force them to change their agricultural production practices," write in their latest "Policy Pennings" column.

Some small-town police try a new tactic in fighting the opioid epidemic: helping drug abusers instead of arresting them

Officer John Cacela of Ware, Mass., and Emily Ligawiec take a weekly pottery class. Rather than arrest Ligawiec last winter when she took heroin and stole her mom's car, he offered her help. (New England Public Radio photo by Karen Brown)
Law-enforcement officials in small-town Massachusetts and a few other states are trying a new tactic in fighting the opioid epidemic: reaching out to drug abusers with offers of help instead of arresting them, Karen Brown reports for NPR.

"It's based on the idea that, for many drug users, a call to the police — for a nonfatal overdose or a drug-related crime such as theft — is the first time they get on the radar of any authority," Brown reports. "So after the immediate crisis is over, officers follow up and offer help. That could be a warm bed for the night, a referral to a recovery coach or needle-exchange program, a ride to detox. At the very least, they'll give out the overdose-rescue drug Narcan and talk about how to stay alive."

Officer John Cacela of Ware, Mass., summed it up: "We can't arrest our way out of this problem."

Last year, Emily Ligawiec took heroin and stole her mother's car. But instead of arresting her, Cacela repeatedly reached out to Ligawiec and offered her help. She initially resisted, but soon Cacela was able to talk her into meeting with him and recovery coach Susan Daley at a nearby donut shop. After Ligawiec later overdosed at home, she saved herself with the Narcan Daley left her, and then agreed to go to rehab. "It was like a tornado went through and all that was left in the center was me and a vast land of ruin," Ligaweic told Brown. "And having Susan and Officer Cacela there — it's life changing."

Sixteen states open offices to help rural areas cash in on outdoor recreation; most are in West; East targeted

State Offices of Outdoor Recreation map; click the image to enlarge it.
Some states are trying to help spur rural economic growth by opening outdoor-recreation offices that promote activities like hiking, mountain biking and more. Sixteen states have opened such offices, many of them signatories to the Confluence Accords, a bipartisan effort that seeks to increase conservation to help grow the economy, Bryce Oates reports for The Daily Yonder.

Outdoor recreation can be a big help to rural economies. Rural counties whose economies depended on recreation recovered from the Great Recession more quickly than other rural counties' economies, according to a Headwaters Economics study. Rural recreation counties also slightly gained population through migration while most other rural counties lost population the same way, and saw slightly higher incomes, the study said.

And, the outdoor recreation sector grew faster than the overall economy, according to the most recent figures from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis. In 2017, the outdoor recreation sector grew by 3.9 percent, faster than the overall U.S. economy's 2.4% growth, Oates reports.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

EPA poised to roll back mercury pollution regulation, but power sector isn't interested

The Environmental Protection Agency is about to finalize a rollback on a rule that has cut emissions of mercury and other toxins, but the power industry mostly doesn't want it. Coal executives lobbied for the change, but coal makes up a diminishing share of the energy sector. "The changes could give a boost to struggling coal companies, while hamstringing future efforts to limit mercury emissions from the nation’s power plants," Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report for The Washington Post.

"Exelon, one of the nation’s largest utilities, told the EPA that its effort to change a rule that has cut emissions of mercury and other toxins is 'an action that is entirely unnecessary, unreasonable, and universally opposed by the power generation sector,'" Eilperin and Dennis report. An environmental policy manager at the company told the Post that the industry had complied with the rule long ago, and that the sector was much cleaner as a result.

"The agency plans to declare that it is not 'appropriate and necessary' for the government to limit harmful pollutants from power plants, even though every utility in America has complied with standards put in place in 2011 under President Barack Obama. While it will technically keep existing restrictions on mercury in place, it means the government would not be able to count collateral benefits — such as reducing soot and smog — when it sets limits on toxic air pollutants."

The rule, known as the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, aims to reduce exposure to a powerful neurotoxin that can damage the brains of children and fetuses. Emissions of the neurotoxin declined 85 percent between 2006, when states began to curb mercury from coal plants, and 2016, when the MATS rule took full effect, Eilperin and Dennis report.

The Obama administration said the benefits would ultimately outweigh the costs: the industry might spend up to $9.6 billion each year to comply with the regulation, but the U.S. as a whole would save $37 billion to $90 billion by preventing deaths and illnesses. The industry ended up paying about $3 billion annually to implement the rule, but the Trump administration has said the cost-benefit analysis still doesn't justify the rule, and accused the Obama administration of using creative math to pass a burdensome regulation, Eilperin and Dennis report.

Andrew Wheeler, the current EPA Administrator under President Trump, insinuated that the rule's real reason was to hurt the coal industry in a recent interview. "The 2011 requirements did more to hasten the closure of coal-fired power plants than any other regulation adopted under Obama," Eilperin and Dennis report. "Facing the first-ever limits on these pollutants, companies across the country chose to switch to natural gas or renewable energy rather than invest in costly new pollution controls.

Rural areas find road and bridge upkeep more difficult as traffic grows and trucks get heavier but taxes remain taboo

"Throughout much of the Midwest and South, the rural transportation system is crumbling. Two-thirds of the nation’s freight emanates from rural areas. Traffic volume has increased. And over the years, tractor-trailers and farm equipment have been supersized, ballooning in length, breadth and weight," Patricia Cohen reports for The New York Times. "A legally loaded semi-trailer truck can produce 5,000 to 10,000 times the road damage of one car according to some estimates, said Benjamin J. Jordan, director of the Wisconsin Transportation Information Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Roads and bridges have not kept up."

Many state and county governments are finding it difficult to keep rural roads in repair, Cohen reports. Though rural areas have only 19 percent of the nation's population, 68% of the nation's total road miles are in rural areas. Who pays for road repairs depends: county or city governments generally pay for local road repairs, and states generally pay for highway repairs. Some of that money comes from gas taxes at the federal and state level, with rural areas in the West and South relying more heavily on federal money to pay for roads.

A few states, like Illinois, also empower counties to assess additional taxes specifically for road repair. States are sometimes leery of implementing local gas taxes or property taxes to raise money for road repair since it's generally unpopular with voters, Cohen reports. Al Rinka, the highway commissioner in Trempeleau County, Wisconsin, where Cohen focused her story, told her that taxpayers need a “culture change.”

Cohen writes, “Someone will beg to have a road repaired, Mr. Rinka said. ‘I’ll say, “O.K., I’ll fix your road, and you’re going to see an increase in your property tax.” “Oh, no, no,” they say, “I don’t want that.’””

New liver-transplant rule will mean longer waits for many rural patients, say health-care officials fighting the change

A new federal policy governing how donated livers are allocated is being criticized by health-care officials who say rural patients, especially in the South and Midwest, will have to wait longer for a transplant. The Department of Health and Human Services' Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, which runs the nation's transplant system, implemented the policy on the recommendation of the United Network for Organ Sharing, a private non-profit organization.

Under the old system, local patients had priority when a liver became available. Wealthier patients sometimes traveled to other states to get on shorter waiting lists, but the new rule is meant to level the playing field. Under the new rule, livers will be offered first to the sickest patient in a 500-mile radius. "Patients that aren't as sick living in areas where there are more organ donors, such as parts of the South and Midwest, likely will wait longer as livers once used locally are shipped to urban centers where the shortage is more severe," Lauran Neergaard reports for The Associated Press.

"As a federal judge in Atlanta has already noted, the . . . rule change means regional patients awaiting transplants, many of whom live in rural and lower socioeconomic areas, will no longer be first in line to have their lives saved," writes the editorial board of the Kansas City Star. The judge ruled in a suit against OPTN and UNOS by a group of hospitals opposing the policy.

UNOS officials say the policy will save 100 more lives per year than the old policy, but many doctors in the South and Midwest disagree, Jayla Whitfield reports for Fox News.

Though the rule is well-intentioned, the rulemaking process was rushed and deeply flawed, write University of Kentucky and University of Louisville health care officials in an op-ed for the Lexington Herald-Leader and Kentucky Health News. The new rule, they write, will decrease rural access to livers, will increase costs because of increased travel (both for the livers and the patients), will result in longer waiting periods and poorer health outcomes for people who have to wait longer for donated livers, and will increase the likelihood that some patients will die while waiting for a liver.

Wolves have been back in Yellowstone Park for 25 years

Yellowstone wolves keeping the elk population in check.
(Getty Images photo by Jeff Vanuga)
Twenty-five years ago in January, U.S. and Canadian agencies reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone National Park in an effort to correct an ecosystem "dangerously out of whack, owing to the extirpation of its top predator," Cassidy Randall reports for The Guardian.

It was the first deliberate attempt to return a top carnivore to a large ecosystem. "Now scientists are celebrating the gray wolves’ successful return from the brink of extinction as one of the greatest rewilding stories the world has ever seen," Randall reports.

Wolves were once common in vast swaths of North America, but humans killed them indiscriminately, believing them to be a danger, though wolves rarely attack humans and kill about one-fourth of 1 percent of available wildlife. The last wolves were killed in Yellowstone in 1926 as part of a policy to eliminate predators, Randall reports.

The Endangered Species Act obliges the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect endangered and threatened species and create a plan for increasing their numbers. Farmers and ranchers opposed return of wolves to Yellowstone so strongly that they weren't reintroduced to the park until 1995, more than 20 years after the ESA was enacted, Randall reports.

Yellowstone National Park map
Yellowstone needed the predators badly. "In the 70 years of the wolves’ absence, the entire Yellowstone ecosystem had fallen out of balance. Coyotes ran rampant, and the elk population exploded, overgrazing willows and aspens," Randall notes. "Without those trees, songbirds began to decline, beavers could no longer build their dams and riverbanks started to erode. Without beaver dams and the shade from trees and other plants, water temperatures were too high for cold-water fish."

Though scientists knew wolves would help the ecosystem, they were surprised by how quickly it happened. "The elk and deer populations started responding immediately. Within about 10 years, willows rebounded. In 20, the aspen began flourishing. Riverbanks stabilized. Songbirds returned as did beavers, eagles, foxes and badgers," Randall reports.

The wolves have helped bring in more revenue to Yellowstone, too. The wolf reintroduction cost about $30 million, but wolf ecotourism brings in $35 million every year, since Yellowstone is one of the best places in the world for tourists to observe wild wolves, Randall reports.

The Yellowstone wolves have spread outward, repopulating areas as far away as Colorado, northern California, and eastern Oregon and Washington, Randall reports.

Poll underlines rural/urban partisan divides, but suggests possible bridges in worldviews and values

A new Axios/Survey Monkey poll explores the notion that some of the rural-urban divide is driven by suspicion that people in other types of communities look down on them. "Sizable minorities from both cities and rural areas said they're worried about how the other perceives them, and partisan politics explains a lot of those divisions," Stef Kight reports for Axios.

According to the survey, 43.1 percent of rural residents surveyed said they think people living in a major urban city view them negatively, Kight reports. About one-third of respondents who live in a major city, 34.6%, said they believe rural residents think of them negatively.

Questions about partisan politics revealed the largest rural-urban differences: "For example, half of those living in major cities said they 'strongly disapprove' of Trump's presidency," Kight reports, while "41% of rural respondents said they 'strongly approve.'"

But the poll also revealed that rural and urban values and worldviews are often similar, suggesting that it's possible to bridge the gap.

For example, 53% of urban respondents said they often feel like a stranger in their own country, compared to 55% of rural respondents. "The economy, health care and the environment were the three most important issues — in that order — regardless of where respondents lived. Kight reports. "Rural and urban respondents are equally likely to attend a religious service once a week — or to never attend. Rural areas, however, have a higher share who attend more than once a week."

Rural residents have harder time acquiring 'Real IDs'

American residents must have an enhanced form of identification called a Real ID by Oct. 1, or they will need a passport to board domestic flights or enter military bases or federal buildings. But some rural residents are having a hard time getting access to the motor-vehicle agencies that issue such IDs.

That's because not every office issues Real IDs, obliging many rural and suburban residents to make long treks to the nearest one that does. And compounding the transportation and time issue, Real IDs require more documents to verify one's identity, and many say they've had to make several trips to get it right, Chris Davis reports for News Channel 5 in Nashville.

In addition, some states have been dealing with glitch-ridden delays in implementing the new system, Elaine Povich reports for Stateline. A late start means a smaller window for rural residents to get a Real ID.

The problem is especially acute in Alaska, where many rural residents must rely on small planes to get to the nearest motor-vehicle agency. One resident said it cost her about $200 one way, Becky Bohrer reports for The Associated Press.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Some rural schools getting less federal money because of change in how poverty-based funds are distributed

Hundreds of school districts are receiving significantly less federal funding this year because of a change in how the U.S. Department of Education distributes funds for a rural schools program based on poverty, Daarel Burnette reports for Education Week.

"In years past, the department distributed a part of the Rural Education Achievement Program funds for poor communities based on the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, which is often used as a proxy for low-income families," Burnette reports. "The department this year is using U.S. Census Bureau data on families in poverty . . . which doesn't necessarily capture the same set of families. Several states in recent weeks have received letters from the department notifying them of the change and that they will get less money they did than last year."

Rural schools in Maine, for example, are expected to lose $1.2 million in federal funding because of the change—a 75 percent drop, Rachel Ohm reports for the Portland Press Herald.

Congress created the REAP fund in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act to help rural districts that don't have the time or expertise to compete for federal grants. But "there's a long-standing debate among policymakers about what's the best indicator to determine how poor a district's student body is," Burnette reports. "That debate has flared again in recent years as more districts started qualifying all their students free and/or reduced price lunch as part of an effort to expand the meal program."

Jury awards peach farm $265 million in dicamba lawsuit

Campbell, in Dunklin County
(Wikipedia map)
A federal jury found in favor of a Southeast Missouri peach farm that sued dicamba makers Bayer and BASF after its crop was damaged, Gil Gullickson reports for Successful Farming. Dicamba is notorious for vaporizing after application and drifting to nearby fields, where it can damage crops not genetically engineered to resist it. Dicamba drift complaints are at an all-time high in states across the nation.

Attorneys for Bader Farms of Campbell, Mo., argued that the pesticide companies sold the products even though they knew non-resistant crops could be damaged. Bayer and BASF attorneys argued that there is no evidence that either of their products damaged Bader Farms' peaches, and that the crop was actually damaged by a kind of root rot, Gullickson reports. Bader Farms is in the Bootheel, which leads Missouri in soybean production. Dicamba is most commonly used on soybeans.

The jury awarded Bader Farms $265 million: $15 million in compensation for the damaged crop, and $250 million in punitive damages, Gullickson reports. He did not mention that the verdict was first reported by Johnathan Hettinger of the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

13-year tempest over historic hotel prompts legislation that could limit other small W.Va. towns' say on such projects

The Hilltop House Hotel today. (Washington Post photo by Robb Hill)
A bitter, years-long battle over a historic hotel in a small West Virginia town had prompted state legislation that would strip towns with under 2,000 residents of their ability to regulate development of large tourism projects, Peter Jamison reports for The Washington Post.

At the heart of the matter is the Hilltop House Hotel in Harpers Ferry, pop. 281, at the eastern tip of the state. The 130-year-old hotel, which sits atop a bluff overlooking the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, once hosted guests such as Mark Twain, W.E.B. Du Bois and President Woodrow Wilson. But it has been closed because of unsafe conditions for many years, Jamison reports.

In 2007, Northern Virginia investors Fred and Karen Schaufeld bought the hotel for $10 million and promised to turn it into a $139 million resort. But for the past 13 years, "The town has been riven by disputes over the new hotel’s size and its design; its parking and sewage needs; and the effects of an influx of clientele for its $500-a-night rooms, underground golf simulator and restaurant overseen by celebrity chef José Andrés," Jamison reports.

Harpers Ferry, in Jefferson County,
West Virginia (Wikipedia map)
"Matt Ward, an independent consultant hired to shepherd the project’s regulatory review, resigned in 2010," Jamison reports. Ward wrote to the mayor and council at the time: "I have seldom seen such a dysfunctional local process as the one that is present here, which has resulted from the shenanigans of a few and the apparent unwillingness of the community to reject those tactics."

In 2013, some locals became particularly upset when the Schaufelds sought to buy a few pieces of land that run through the hotel property; the city meant to turn the land into roads in the 1800s but never got around to it; today those patches of land are public rights of way that guarantee townspeople access to river views. The Schaufelds said they need to own a "fully intact property" to secure financing, but some townspeople worried they'd lose access to the hotel's famous views, even though the Schaufelds promised that wouldn't happen, Jamison reports.

When the town council refused to sell the small patches of land, the 2019 election became a referendum on the hotel. After the election, the faction that opposed the hotel held a four-seat majority on the seven-member council, but by only a handful of votes, Jamison reports. A losing pro-hotel candidate contested the election because the council refused to open four provisional ballots that could have tied the votes for the seat. The votes were not tallied because of technical errors involving the voters' addresses. Two losing pro-hotel candidates sued to force the town to open the ballots, and the case is pending in the West Virginia Supreme Court. The secretary of state is also examining voting irregularities in the election.

"For the Schaufelds, the electoral antics in Harpers Ferry were the last straw. Working with a lobbyist in Charleston, they approached state officials to seek a way to build the hotel. Last month, a group of state senators introduced SB 657, which would limit the power of municipalities of 2,000 or fewer residents to regulate the development of tourism-industry projects worth at least $25 million. Such projects would instead be overseen by the state development office. Up to five such 'tourism development districts' would be allowed statewide," Jamison reports. "The state Senate approved the measure Feb. 11, and the House is expected to take it up in the coming days. Last week, the Harpers Ferry Town Council voted 4-3 to pass a resolution opposing the bill, which critics say will give developers too much power."

Coal company asks feds to let it mine ridge that Tenn. and Obama administration declared off limits to strip mining

Murders draw attention to confusing legal jurisdictions in Native American reservations

Yakama Reservation, in pink.
(Yakama Nation Wildlife Program map)
A 2019 shooting that left five dead has called attention to the often-confusing patchwork of legal jurisdictions on Native American reservations that leaves many residents feeling unprotected. "The tangled web of jurisdictional issues that plague Indian Country . . . have hindered investigations of cases ranging from murders to drugs to missing indigenous women," Mary Hudetz reports for The Seattle Times.

The shooting happened on June 8 in White Swan, a town of under 1,000 in the Yakama Indian Reservation in Washington state. Even before the shooting, Yakama tribal leaders had begged for more federal help to combat drug trafficking and property crime. "And they denounced the Washington State Patrol’s 2016 decision to stop patrolling the 1,765-square-mile reservation — an area larger than the size of Rhode Island — due to liability concerns amid a shifting web of jurisdictions," Hudetz reports.

Tribal leaders want Washington state government to cede the authority it claimed over the reservation almost 60 years ago; they're frustrated that state officials have want to keep legal authority over tribal lands but won't allow troopers to patrol the area, Hudetz reports. The tribe says it has one or two officers and sheriff's deputies to cover large portions of the reservation.

Meanwhile, justice is moving slowly in the White Swan shooting. James Dean Cloud and his brother Donovan Cloud have been held since June on charges related to the killings, but federal prosecutors didn't file charges in the case until last week. Even then, James Dean Cloud was the only one named in the first-degree murder charge against only one of the victims. Prosecutors "have not said whether more charges are coming in connection with the other deaths," Hudetz reports.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Open-records laws are often violated with impunity due to lax laws and agencies' ability to use taxpayer-paid lawyers

Map shows jail time for violating state records laws. Only penalties explicitly included in those laws were included.
Maximum civil fine for a first offense of open records law. Only provisions which penalized under-disclosure were counted.
Sometimes not much happens when government officials and agencies violate a state’s open-records laws, the National Freedom of Information Coalition says in its latest white paper, “Blueprint to Transparency: Non-compliance and Lack of Enforcement of Open Records Laws in Select U.S. States.”

The paper looks at the varying enforcement mechanisms in state laws, including criminal penalties, civil penalties and "fee shifting," the disadvantage that record-seekers face in legal battles with government agencies that don't incur hourly legal fees because they have in-house attorneys.

The paper, which includes case studies of several states, makes five recommendations for improving open-records laws and policies to enforce them:
  • Strengthen fee-shifting provisions, which are paramount to ensuring compliance, by allowing any plaintiff that substantially prevails to recover attorney’s fees, or even making it mandatory.
  • Enforce civil penalties that accrue from the date of unlawful withholding of records; enact provisions to make the responding public official or agency head personally liable for civil fines; escalate penalties for repeated violations to encourage compliance.
  • Increase accountability and powers among enforcement officials and agencies tasked with these roles, like attorneys general and ombuds, while considering new roles for inspectors general, public-information officers and citizen oversight boards.
  • Initiate robust primary (alternative) dispute-resolution solutions that give requesters the ability to appeal a decision without the need to hire a lawyer.
  • Advocate for imposition of other sanctions, such as mandatory open-government training, to prevent repeat violations; institute mandatory training for all public-record stewards, public employees and officials, to prevent violations from occurring in the first place.
NFOIC is publishing a series of white papers examining how freedom of information affects citizens' lives, offering comparative analysis of laws, practices and policies across the U.S. "If you know academics, government agencies or stakeholder groups who may be interested in online public records portal administration, please share this research with them," NFOIC says. "We hope this white paper can assist in the effort for improved records administration in cities and states across the U.S and look forward to hearing your feedback: nfoic@nfoic.org."
Map shows attorney-fee-shifting provisions. Indiana and Minnesota mandate fee-shifting only when a requester seeks enforcement after a state agency fails to release records in violation of an administrative advisory opinion. Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire and Rhode Island allow or mandate fee-shifting only when the violating agency has withheld the records knowingly, willingly, or otherwise in bad faith. (National Freedom of Information Coalition maps)

Friday, February 14, 2020

Former federal strip-mine inspector leads decades-long effort to reforest reclaimed mines in Eastern Kentucky

Patrick Angel on his farm near London,
Ky. (Post photo by Jahi Chikwendiu)
Coal companies are required to reclaim mined land when they're done with a site, but one Interior Department inspector realized that the companies' practices weren't encouraging forests to grow back. So the native of Eastern Kentucky has spent the past two decades bringing them back on his own, Gabriel Popkin reports for The Washington Post Magazine.

Patrick Angel spent his career in the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. "For 25 years, he oversaw the process that may represent humans' best attempt to date at total annihilation of land: strip-mining and mountaintop-removal mining of coal," Popkin reports. "He told coal companies to do one thing when they were done with a site: pack the remaining rubble as tightly as possible, and plant grass — the only type of plant he trusted to hold the ground in place."

But that didn't allow tree roots to take hold, so the forests that had existed on most of the nearly 1.5 million acres of mined land in Appalachia weren't growing back. In 2002, six years after foresters at Virginia Tech and the University of Kentucky tried to persuade him to try other methods, Angel saw that they were working, and his "guilt was almost overwhelming," Popkin reports. Angel told him, “The lightbulb came on. I said, ‘Oh my God, what have we done?’”

With the help of local volunteers and some bulldozers, Angel has spent the past two decades trying to reforest mined areas. The dozers rip up the ground and loosen the rubble so tree roots can take hold, then volunteers plant saplings from species native to the area: tulip poplars, oaks, pines and chestnuts, Popkin reports.

Washington Post map from U.S. Geological Survey National Land Cover Database
"Thanks in large part to Angel, now 70, more than 187 million trees have been planted on about 275,000 acres of former mines, an area more than six times the size of the District of Columbia," Popkin reports. This represents one of the most ambitious restoration efforts in one of the country’s most devastated places. It is led not by big name-brand environmental groups but by people from the mountains, operating with small budgets and with little fanfare or recognition."

Aside from an Appalachian Regional Commission grant, the federal government has helped little. As the Obama administration was ending, it issued regulations "that all but required reforestation for surface-mine reclamation," Popkin notes. "One of President Trump’s first acts, supposedly to reward the coal miners and industry leaders who supported him, was to kill the new rule."

Popkin's long-form piece delves into the history of coal and surface mining in Eastern Kentucky, and how it has affected the land and the people. It's a lovely example of national reporting that avoids parachute-style coverage. Popkin is a science writer who was born and raised in Kentucky, and chief photographer Jahi Chikwendiu and drone videographer Ron Garrison are from Kentucky too. The story was partly funded by a grant from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.

Federal appeals court strikes down Medicaid work rules

A federal appeals court ruled Friday against the work requirements that some states have tried to impose on Medicaid enrollees who are not "medically frail" and had no dependents.

The Trump administration was arbitrary and capricious when it approved plans from Kentucky and Arkansas, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled unanimously.

The Department for Health and Human Services essentially ignored the main purpose of Medicaid, which “was to provide health-care coverage to populations that otherwise could not afford it,” wrote Senior Judge David Sentelle, who was appointed to the court by Ronald Reagan. The Trump administration is expected to ask the Supreme Court to hear the case.

The decision technically applies only to Arkansas, but "is sure to set a powerful precedent for other states," writes James Romoser of Inside Health Policy. "A few of those states have already been hit with lawsuits similar to the Arkansas litigation. Two states, Michigan and Utah, currently have active Medicaid work requirements, though penalties for non-compliance do not kick in until May 1 in both states. A lawsuit challenging the Michigan waiver is pending, as are similar lawsuits challenging waivers for Indiana and New Hampshire. Arizona, Indiana and Wisconsin all have paused the implementation of work requirement waivers. Ohio and South Carolina waivers are scheduled for future implementation."

The ruling upheld several by a judge in the D.C. District Court, which scuttled a program Arkansas had started and kept Kentucky's from taking effect. Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who defeated Republican Gov. Matt Bevin in the November election, rescinded Kentucky's plan soon after taking office in December. Republicans control the state legislature but have shown no interest in enacting Bevin's plan.

The plan had been challenged by 16 Medicaid beneficiaries in the state, who noted the Bevin administration's initial forecast that Kentucky Medicaid rolls would have 95,000 fewer people in five years than without the plan, in large measure because of noncompliance with the requirements to work, attend school or perform community service 80 hours a month and report monthly. "About 18,000 people in Arkansas lost coverage over seven months after the state’s work requirement commenced, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank," report Brent Kendall and Stephanie Armour of The Wall Street Journal.

"Friday’s decision comes as some other states have shown mounting interest in adopting work requirements," they note. "Ten states including Kentucky, Arkansas, New Hampshire, Arizona and Michigan have received approval to adopt work requirements, according to George Washington University’s Milken Institute of Public Health.

Report names states whose rural hospitals are most vulnerable to closure, and the number in each

Percentage of rural hospitals in each state deemed "most
vulnerable." Click the image to enlarge it. (Chartis Center map)
Rural hospitals have been closing at unprecedented rates over the past decade, and the trend is accelerating, according to a new report by The Chartis Center for Rural Health, part of health care analytics consultancy The Chartis Group.

In the last decade, 120 rural hospitals have closed. The closures slowed a little in 2016 and 2017, but picked back up in 2018. There have been 34 in the past two years, and 2019 was the single worst year yet, with 19.

The report digs into the reasons for the closures, and shares the metrics the researchers used to predict future closures among the 1,844 hospitals they studied. Their statistical model identifies the factors most likely to impact a hospital's ability to cope during a critical window about two years before closure. The model also identifies which rural hospitals are performing like those that have closed, and explores those vulnerable hospitals' performance.

Among the factors most likely to influence a hospital's closure: the average age of the building, percentage of occupancy, affiliation with a larger health-care system, and whether it's in a state with expanded Medicaid.

The states with the highest numbers of hospital closures since 2010 are Texas (20), Tennessee (12), Oklahoma (7) and Georgia (7). The states with the highest number of vulnerable hospitals are Texas (36), Kansas (19), Missouri (15), Nebraska (14) and Mississippi (13). And in seven states, more than 20 percent of the rural hospitals are extremely vulnerable to closure: Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

Quick hits: small churches arming themselves; firefighters must adapt to climate change

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at heather.chapman@uky.edu.

Houses of worship have been increasingly targeted by shooters in recent years. Some churches, too worried to go gun-free, are arming themselves. Read more here.

Wildfires are bigger and more destructive than ever because of climate change. That means firefighters and their communities need to adapt to meet the challenge, writes one firefighter. Read more here.

Texas leads the nation in the number of rural hospitals closing. But the funding cuts to hospitals in President Trump's proposed budget would threaten even more hospitals in Texas (and other states). Read more here.

Beloved Kentucky priest Father John Rausch, a passionate advocate for Appalachians, has died at 75. Read more here.

The American Farm Bureau Foundation hopes to help bridge the rural-urban divide by educating young consumers about agriculture and the role it plays in our lives. Read more here.

A new Veterans Affairs Department initiative aims to fill the shortage of rural medical practitioners. Read more here.

Two Trump-voting half-brothers in Pa. coal country, black and white, say they're on a mission to fight local racism

Andy Barrow and "Stosh" Webb Jr. (Photo by Matt Smith)
Andy Barrow and his younger half-brother Ronald Stanley "Stosh" Webb Jr. have much in common: They were born in Schuykill County, Pennsylvania, voted for President Trump, and are combat veterans and firefighters. But Barrow is white and Webb is black. And now the brothers say they're on a mission to combat local racism in their coal-country town, Jen Kinney reports for WHYY in Philadelphia.

Webb said he had overheard and seen racist behavior in Schuykill County, but had never been blatantly confronted with it until one night in July 2019. He and some buddies went to a firefighter bar for their weekly meet-up. Such bars are common in the region; they're semi-private bars that usually require a small membership fee to help fund volunteer fire departments. At the Port Clinton Fire Co. bar that night, the bartender recommended that Webb listen to a racist country music song whose title includes the N-word, Kinney reports.

Schuykill County
(Wikipedia map)
Webb and his friends left, he said, but noted that Port Clinton's volunteer fire chief was present and didn't intervene. Webb and Barrow were furious, both at the bartender and at the fire chief for not speaking up, Kinney reports. They complained, but the bartender wasn't fired.

"Now, these model 'Skooks' have become unlikely champions for so-called 'cancel culture,' on a mission to hold their neighbors accountable for racism they say has been too easily overlooked, both past and present," Kinney reports. "Their campaign has brought the issue into local public debate in an election year that feels, to many voters, like a referendum on President Trump’s treatment of non-white communities."