Saturday, June 21, 2008

Is your state in the dirty dozen of gerrymandering?

In a republic, voters choose their representatives. But often, it's more a matter of representatives choosing their voters, by creating districts that favor one party or the other. That can result in some crazily shaped districts, or gerrymanders, that lump together voters who may favor one party but have disparate interests, such as urban, suburban and rural. The process is also driven by requirements to create districts where minorities constitute majorities, as in North Carolina, especially its 12th District. (NationalAtlas.gov map)Gerryamdering also reduces voter turnout because races are less competitive, argues Marc Dunkelman, vice president for strategy and communications at the Democratic Leadership Council, a group that is generally more moderate than the party as a whole.

Dunkelman looked at 2002 and 2006, the last two years in which the House was elected and there was no presidential race on the ballot to drive up turnout. He estimated that in both years, 11 million more voters would have turned out if districts were drawn to be compact and competitive, rather than gerrymandered by parties for political advantage. He also estimated what the percentage increase in voter turnout would have been in each state. The state with the highest projected increase was Louisiana, with 59 percent. The rest of the report's "Dirty Dozen" were New York, 49 percent; West Virginia, 45; Virginia, 43; California, 38; North Carolina, 36; Alabama, 31.5; New Jersey, 30; Mississippi, 29.5; Georgia, 28; Hawaii, 27; and New Mexico, 25. His report cautions, "States vary in the method that use to draw district lines, and placement on this list should not be confused with a ranking of which states maintain systems most prone to creating non-competitive districts."

Dunkelman notes that in 2002, 91 percent of House members won their seat by 10 percent of the vote or more. In 2006, Democrats took over Congress but the 10-plus number was still 86 percent. "On average, 214,000 voters cast ballots in each of the 60 most competitive House races run in 2006," he writes. "In 60 of the least competitive elections, only 153,000 voters came out." That's 28 percent fewer.

"Gerrymandering has put a wedge between the will of the people and their voices in Washington," Dunkelman writes. "The result has been a drop-off in the number of Americans who choose to participate in their democracy. It need not be that way." He notes that Iowa and Washington use legislative staff and a bipartisan commission, respectively, to draw legislative and congressional districts.

"In only 12 states is the legislature denied ultimate power over its own redistricting," George Skelton of the Los Angeles Times writes in his state political column. "Just six states give congressional redistricting to another entity." This fall, California voters will have on their ballots an initiative from "nonpartisan good-government groups that got fed up waiting for the Legislature to reform redistricting," he notes.

The law would put legislative redistricting in the hands of a citizens' commission. The legislature would still draw congressional districts, because the advocates don't want opposition from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Skelton reports. But the state Democratic Party, which dominates the legislature, is against the proposal. "Gerrymandering is good for Democratic leaders, bad for democracy," Skelton writes. (Read more)

States loosen rules on hunting for feral swine

The hunt is on for hogs -- feral swine, that is, which can stand three feet high, weigh hundreds of pounds, and damage property with their hooves, tusks and snouts as they root for grubs and other food in the earth. (Michigan Farm Bureau photo)

"Across the country, game wardens, wildlife biologists and livestock commissioners have started enlisting hunters to control the population," Michael Brick reports for The New York Times. "North Dakota began an eradication program in January. Kansas has hunted hogs from helicopters. Last month, the Pennsylvania Game Commission ordered unlimited culling by licensed hunters. And new regulations in Mississippi this year allowed wild hogs to be “hunted, taken, killed, chased or pursued on private lands at any time” with any sort of weapon.

Brick writes, "They run pickup trucks off the road. They prey on young livestock and woodland creatures. They carry disease. They gestate in four months and deliver litters of a half dozen. But a landowner’s menace can be a sportsman’s delight. Even to old hands, wild hogs have proved hard to kill and harder to catch. They recognize traps. They move at night. They run quickly over short distances. They evade hunters in the thick brush. When pursued, they lead dogs into the water to drown. Failing that, they back up against a rock or a tree to fight." Brick's story also gives details of a Texas hog hunt.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Hard-hit Iowa towns wonder whether to rebuild

Record floods in Iowa, in some places preceded by damaging weather, may have struck fatal blows to some of the state's small towns, P.J. Huffstutter writes for the Los Angeles Times.

"State emergency officials are still trying to determine how many of these tiny towns have been damaged by the floods," he writes. "But given that 83 of the state's 99 counties were declared disaster areas by Gov. Chet Culver, and 31 towns and rural areas evacuated residents in recent days, officials said Thursday that the number could be significant."

Huffstutter, the chief of the Times bureau in Chicago, writes from New Hartford (Encarta map), which was hit first by a tornado, then a flood. He updates a Des Moines Register story by Jessie Halladay, which said "All that damage has left many wondering if the town can even survive."

"Several of the businesses in the town of about 650 have decided not to reopen, and even the post office might close," says the Times cutline on the photo above, by Matthew Putney. The businesses include a gas station, a convenience store, and a hardware store that opened in 1931 and "survived the floods of 1947 and the floods of 1993," an owner said. "It's too much. Everything's leaving. People keep wondering if the town's going to die." (Read more)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Tele-seminar on gas prices Tuesday, June 24

What is fueling the gasoline price crisis, and what comes next? To help journalists report the story, the Foundation for American Communications and the Society of Professional Journalists will present a "tele-seminar" with Boston University Professor Robert K. Kaufmann, an expert on gas prices and world oil supply. "Pain at the Pump: What Comes Next in the Gas Price Crisis” is scheduled for Tuesday, June 24, at 2 p.m. Eastern time.

This seminar is aimed at journalists who cover business, energy and consumer issues. Among the issues this program will explore: What’s really driving the current price spikes, and what’s next? Is the world running out of oil? Can the United States insulate itself from world oil shocks? Is there a reasonable policy response to oil prices? What are the economic consequences of high gas prices? Are environmental regulations responsible for refinery shortages? Would a change in environmental policy help solve the problem? We can't think of a more urgent set of questions.

Kaufmann has participated in almost a dozen FACS seminars on energy and climate change. "Hhis presentations consistently draw high marks from attendees for their clarity, timeliness and accessibility," FACS said in a news release. FACS is an independent, nonprofit educational institution providing seminars for journalists on complex issues.

The seminar is free for working journalists, but advance registration is required. For further details or to register, go to www.FACSnet.org. To register on FACSnet, click on “Seminars,” and then select “Registration” on the dropdown menu. Registrants will receive an e-mail with more information and instructions.

Your rural area may be affected by California's same-sex marriage law, with no residency rule

California's legalization of gay marriages could soon create controversy in other states, including rural areas, where gays and lesbians tend to have a lower profiles than in cities but can be a significant slice of the population.

“Unlike Massachusetts, which legalized gay marriage in 2004, California does not impose a residency requirement,” Karen Breslau writes for Newsweek. “While attention for now is focused on jubilant couples, the validity of the California marriages in other states ... is far from assured. Scores of homosexual couples who marry in California may request spousal benefits upon returning to their home states.”

The issue could be more problematic for homosexual couples in rural areas. As "cities nationwide host pride festivals and pride weeks throughout the summer, advocates say there's still room for improvement in rural areas, where gay populations remain small," L.A. Johnson writes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Gary Gates, a senior research fellow at the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, estimated that approximately 20 percent of Pennsylvania same-sex couples live in rural areas. That could be higher than the national rate, which has been calculated only recently and is in flux.

Nearly a million gays and lesbians identified themselves as members of same-sex couples in the 2000 census, the first in which the Census Bureau collected data on "unmarried partner" households. Of the 594,745 same-sex partner households identified by the 2000 census, 14.7 percent were not in a metropolitan area, the Census Bureau reported. The Williams Institute reports that by 2005, the number of same-sex couples had risen more than 20 percent to 776,943 and an estimated 8.8 million gays, lesbians and bisexuals lived in the U.S.

Persad Center Inc. "operates Community SafeZone programs to promote acceptance of the (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender/transsexual) community in underserved, outlying and rural areas, such as Washington County," Pa., Johnson writes. "The programs gather community members to discuss 'what it means to be safe at home, at work, at school, with one's doctor and in one's faith,' said Betty J. Hill, Persad Center's executive director." In years past gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender/transsexual (GLBT) people from Washington County and other rural areas were forced to relocate to large cities to, such as New York or San Francisco, to find gay communities, but this is no longer the case. "You can live in Washington, Pa., have a huge community of friends on the Internet and not be isolated and get the support that you need," Patrick Cameron to the Post-Gazette. "It's just really a phenomenal thing."

What is the climate for GLBT people and same-sex couples in your rural community?

Record flooding partly an act of man, experts say

Some experts believe the record floods in the upper Mississippi River valley are partly the result of the region's farming practices, Joel Achenbach reports in The Washington Post. But it's hard to say just how much, because several factors are in play.

Achanbach's story starts with Kamyar Enshayan, a Cedar Falls city councilman and director of an environmental center at the University of Northern Iowa, who "suspects that this natural disaster wasn't really all that natural. He points out that the heavy rains fell on a landscape radically reengineered by humans. Plowed fields have replaced tallgrass prairies. Fields have been meticulously drained with underground pipes. Streams and creeks have been straightened. Most of the wetlands are gone. Flood plains have been filled and developed."

Jerry DeWitt, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, told Achenbach, "I sense that the flooding is not the result of a 500-year event," the designation of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "We're farming closer to creeks, farming closer to rivers. Without adequate buffer strips, the water moves rapidly from the field directly to the surface water."

Also, rivers are filling up with sediment and don't have as much carrying capacity, said Lyle Asell, a special assistant for agriculture and environment with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. And he reported that in the last year, Iowa farmers withdrew 106,000 acres from the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which had paid them not to cultivate the marginal land. Much of the new plowing was for corn, prices for which are setting records in part because of the demand for ethanol.

Iowa State meterologist Elwynn Taylor "attributes the flooding in recent years to cyclical climate change: The entire Midwest, he says, has been in a wet cycle for the past 30 years," Achenbach writes. "There has also been speculation that global warming could be a factor." Climate change is one reason that "500-year floods" can occur twice in 15 years. "Hydrologists use the term to indicate a flooding event that they believe has a 0.2 percent chance -- 1 in 500 -- of happening in any given year in a specific location. A 100-year flood has a 1 in 100 chance of happening, and so on. Such estimates are based on many years of data collection, in some cases going back a century or more. But the database can be spotty. Robert Holmes, national flood coordinator with the U.S. Geological Survey, said a lack of funding since 1999 has forced his agency to discontinue hundreds of stream gauges across the country." (Read more) For our recent post about stream gauges and real-time from them, click here.

Achenbach is a leading explanatory journalist. He is the author of the 1991 book Why Things Are and the 1996 book Why Things Are and Why Things Aren't, which explain such things as why the Oval Office is oval. He also writes Achenblog.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Assembly ends with wish list, calls for diversity

The second National Rural Assembly ended today in Washington, D.C., with calls from the audience for a broader constituency for the effort, which is aimed at developing The Rural Compact, a comprehensive public-policy platform for rural interests to advocate collectively.

The assembly was an invitation-only event, dominated by nonprofit groups and sponsored chiefly by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, whose historic focus has been on food systems and rural development. Yesterday, breakout groups focused on health, education, natural resources and development worked up messages to the presidential candidates and wish lists of ideas for action by the new president and Congress.

After the lists were presented to the entire group today without dissent, Gail Bellamy, the rural health director at Florida State University, said she had heard another attendee say "We seem to be too much in agreement," and she said that may be true. Noting that her main interest group, the National Rural Health Association, has many disagreements because it encompasses a broad range of health providers, Bellamy said, "Maybe we need to look a little harder to find those people . . . who would not agree with what we're saying here."

Phil Anderson of the Indiana Rural Development Council noted the absence of agricultural commodity groups he once worked with, such as the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which he said was a block away from the J.W. Marriott Hotel, the assembly's main meeting place. "Those are not corporate folks, those are my family," he said, adding that such groups need to be part of discussions about programs that affect them because they are powerful lobbies. Other speakers called for more ethnic diversity.

Organizers of the assembly offered no public reaction to the comments, but Catherine Pearson Criss of the Center for Rural Strategies, who moderated the session, endorsed an idea offered by NRHA lobbyist Tim Fry, who spoke before Bellamy. Noting that the final point of the compact now says "We are accountable to ourselves," Fry said it should say that the assembly is accountable to the 60 million residents of rural America. "I think we should be accountable to more than ourselves," he said. Criss replied, "Good suggestion."

Details of the compact are to be finalized by a committee. Criss said a final report on the assembly will be issued within six weeks. The compact is likely to focus on "why rural is important," said John Molinaro of the Community Strategies Group of the Aspen Institute, who facilitated a breakout meeting of national groups while regional groups had their own breakouts.

Dee Davis, right, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, told the assembly that it was an effort to "create agency" in an unusual way -- less by membership in a group than "by the power of the ideas we have." Davis said he has often been frustrated by rural advocates' propensity to "retreat to our neck of the woods," not just geographically, but by interest sector. He said the assembly prompted "rooting" by disparate interests across regions and sectors, "and also about the country as a whole. In that, we should all take some comfort that we are creating some conversation to move this country forward." The closing speaker, U.S. Sen. Blanche Lambert Lincoln, D-Ark., said, "When we work together, we find solutions."

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues was invited to the assembly, and attended, but played no role in development of the wish list. The Institute has endorsed the general compact but generally does not advocate -- except for coverage of issues important to rural communities. For Davis's op-ed piece about the compact, click here.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

McCain probably considering one-term pledge, Sen. Sam Brownback tells National Rural Assembly

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain is probably thinking about announcing that he would serve only one term if elected, as a way to signal that he aims to resolve big issues without regard to re-election concerns, U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas told the National Rural Assembly and Stand Up for Rural America yesterday. (Photo by Shawn Poynter)

"He's probably even considering announcing that he would serve only one term, as a way of pushing the agenda on a bipartisan basis," said Brownback, who appeared before the rural advocates as a representative of the McCain campaign. Afterward, Brownback told reporters that he had heard the Arizona senator mention the one-term possibility, then said he had not.

Asked what basis he had for his statement to the assembly, Brownback said, "I heard him say that months ago." Asked if McCain had mentioned the possibility only to him, or if the conversation involved more than just the two of them, Brownback said McCain had not made such a statement. "This was just something that was rumored months ago," he said.

As he headed out of the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, Brownback was asked if he thought a one-term pledge would be a good idea. He suggested that it might be, but not at this juncture: "It might be a time, but I don't know if it's the point for him to do now."

Both Brownback and former Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, a close adviser to the presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, said their candidates could forge bipartisan consensus. Brownback suggested the dialogue between the candidates could begin the process. "We've got a presidential race where there's a chance to highlight rural issues and ... come together around some common causes and elevate them," he said, adding that McCain has a record "of getting things, big things, done in this town."

Daschle, a former Senate majority leader, said Obama "could be one of the most transformational political figures of my lifetime," like the Kennedys in the 1960s. "We've got to create more opportunities for meaningful bipartisanship so we can address the issues of the day."

Daschle was more specific on issues, contrasting the positions of Obama and McCain on congressional earmarks and health care. He said Obama wants to make health care accessible to all Americans by the end of his first term, and the familiar line that the U.S. has the world's best health-care system is a myth, since the nation ranks 29th in infant mortality, 31st in life expectancy and 35th in the world in overall health outcomes.

McCain has vowed to veto any bills with earmarks, or specific appropriations inserted by senators or House members. Daschle said the power has been abused, and "God knows there's need for reform," but he said eliminating earmarks entirely would be just as bad for rural America. He said they are "an ability for Congress to weigh in on what the priorities ought to be."

Brownback, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, did not mention the issue in his remarks but was questioned about it by an audience member who said earmarks funnel $10 billion to rural areas. "These have clearly gotten out of hand," Brownback said, undermining Americans' confidence in their government. He said the solution he prefers is requiring earmarks to be approved not just by the appropriations committees but by the authorizing committees, those that create and continue programs to which earmarks are added.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Rural advocates gather to develop policy platform

Scores of rural advocates gathered in Washington today for the second National Rural Assembly, a three-day meeting aimed at developing "The Rural Compact," a policy platform for rural America.

"Rural America today is not a political force," Ali Webb, deputy director of programming for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, chief sponsor of the event, said at the opening session. She said the compact is intended to be "an inclusive policy agenda that can make rural America a force to be reckoned with."

The compact already exists in general form, and has a long list of endorsers, including the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. It needs to be short on specifics in order to build the broadest possible consensus, cautioned Bill Greener, a Republican pollster who studies rural voters. He advocated "an approach that can create and maintain bipartisan, non-ideological support." He pushed one specific idea, universal high-speed Internet service, or broadband.

That and other specific policy ideas were raised at the final afternoon session, "Speaking Rural American Truth to Power," featuring 10 rural advocates. Connie Stewart, a California legislative aide, called for a national broadband policy of bringing fiber-optic lines to every home and not relying partly on wireless, which has some promise for rural areas but, Stewart said, lacks the bandwidth needed for economic growth. Edyael Casaperalta of the Center for Rural Strategies, which is staffing the assembly, said education should not be promoted as "a ticket out" of rural communities, but an opportunity to bring knoweldge and skills to them.

Advancing broader approaches, Jeff Yost of the Nebraska Community Foundation promoted the idea of tapping the huge transfer of wealth in coming years as Baby Boomers die and leave their rural estates to heirs, many of whom do not live in rural areas. Sharon Walden of Stop Abusive Family Environments talked about her group's work in McDowell County, W.Va., and got a big hand by saying "Non-profits are front-line change-makers in rural America."

Tonight, the focus was on politics, with Greener, Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg and a "pundit panel" moderated by Bob Edwards of XM Radio. Laurie Ezzell Brown, left, editor of The Canadian Record, a weekly newspaper in Canadian, Tex., said she endorsed Barack Obama in the Texas primary after visits from two elderly Democrats who asked her, "What are we gonna do about that n-----?" Brown said she hadn't heard that word in Canadian since the 1960s, and said the two men were "a symbol of the dying old guard of the Democratic Party" in the Panhandle. "There's a change occurring," she said, adding, "George W. Bush was our guy. We came out in force for him, and people don't like to talk about him anymore."

The assembly continues Tuesday, first as a joint meeting with Stand Up for Rural America, including remarks by representatives of the presidential candidates, followed by small-group sessions focused on education, health, natural resources and community investment. It concludes Wednesday with regional sessions to develop advocacy ideas, reports from the breakout sessions and a lunch focused on activating the compact.

Congress going wild over preserving wild areas

This year the House and Senate could place "as much as 2 million acres of unspoiled land under federal control, a total that rivals the wilderness acreage set aside by Congress over the previous five years," reports Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post.

"A confluence of factors is driving this wilderness renaissance: the shift in Congress from Republican to Democratic control; environmentalists' decision to take a more pragmatic approach in which they enlist local support for their proposals by making concessions to opposing interests; and some communities' recognition that intact ecosystems can often offer a greater economic payoff than extractive industries."

While the Bush Administration is known for opening much federal land to mineral exploration, it is also interested in expanding wilderness areas, Eilperin writes, because the idea is supported by "local faith, business and hunting groups as well as GOP officeholders. And as Bush approaches the end of his second term, he is eyeing opportunities to leave his mark on the nation's landscape." (Read more)

Sunday, June 15, 2008

W. Va. Democrats reject resolution calling for freeze on mountaintop-removal coal mine permits

The majority political party in the state where mountaintop-removal mining for coal is most prevalent is deeply divided over the issue, or at least on what to say about it. At yesterday's convention of the West Virginia Democratic Party, delegates voted 215-190 against a resolution for a freeze on new permits for mountaintop mines.

The vote ran counter to a public-opinion poll taken in 2004, which found that "more than 56 percent of West Virginians are opposed to mountaintop removal, compared to just 29 percent who support it," Veronica Nett notes in The Charleston Gazette. The Democratic polling firm of Lake, Snell, Perry and Associates took the survey for the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, a group at the forefront of opposition to mountaintop mining.

Nick Busch, a delegate from Wirt County, which has coal but no mountaintop mines, "said the vote doesn't reflect delegates' true feelings about the issue," Nett writes, quoting him: "You won't find a person here that supports mountaintop removal." Busch said he and other delegates voted against the resolution, Nett reports, "because delegates were concerned it would cost the party the presidential election. He said the Republican Party would say Democrats were trying to take jobs out of the state. state Chairman Nick Casey said the issues brought up by the resolution are better addressed by the courts than by the party." President Bush carried West Virginia twice, in large measure because of his coal-friendly stance.

Daniel Chiotos, environmental caucus delegate for West Virginia Young Democrats, told Nett that the resolution would not have become part of the party's official platform, but "would have sent a clear signal to politicians in the state," Nett writes. (Read more)