Friday, January 22, 2016

Postal reform likelier than ever; rural papers OK old rate hike if USPS avoids more service cuts

Reform of the U.S. Postal Service has been "the poster child of a do-nothing Congress . . . but movement now seems more likely than it has in a long time," reports Joe Davidson of The Washington Post. And the idea of ending Saturday mail delivery is "a dead letter."

“There is a remarkable degree of consensus across a broad range of stakeholders—including the unions, postal management and a representative sample of mailing industry companies—about the most important reform elements,” Fredric V. Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, told Davidson. A new, key element of the consensus would require eligible postal retirees to take Medicare and reduce the service's health-care costs.

NNA President Chip Hutcheson
Saturday delivery already seemed safe, but passage of a reform bill could prevent further slowdowns in rural mail delivery, Chip Hutcheson, publisher of The Times-Leader in Princeton, Ky., and president of the National Newspaper Association, told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Thursday.

Hutcheson said a survey found that more than 92 percent of NNA members have had recent problems getting newspapers through the mail on time, and nearly half reported problems with first-class or priority mail. Delays have resulted from closing of many mail processing plants, he said.

"Congress has been trying since 2008 to reach agreement on legislation to help the Postal Service address falling mail volumes but still serve every household in America," NNA noted in a news release. Hutcheson urged Congress to act before April, when USPS finances are expected to worsen by $1 billion because of a court-ordered rollback in postage rates. Though rural newspapers would benefit from that, NNA says the rollback shouldn't happen because it would worsen the service's finances.

“NNA’s support for suspending the mandate to roll back postage rates in April is contingent upon the Postal Service’s commitment to enact no further systematic service cuts and to live within its means without more exigency increases,” Hutcheson said. “To us, that translates into suspending further plant closings and continuing the postmaster general’s commendable efforts to trim costs without risking more mail volume loss through service cuts.”

Hutcheson commended USPS for starting a study of on-time delivery for rural areas. Noting that a third of rural residents do not have broadband service, he reminded the committee that rural areas depend on print communications and the mail in general. A copy of his statement is available here.

'Wet' vote in big lake-tourism county continues gradual trend of rural areas forsaking Prohibtion

This week's front page in Russell County, Ky.
When Congress and the states repealed Prohibition in 1933, they required that each state allow localities to continue banning the sale of alcoholic beverages. A swath of counties, mainly from the Appalachians to Texas, do that, but Prohibition has eroded in recent years.

In Kentucky, where lobbying by the distilling industry apparently created laws that made it impossible to have legal beer without legal liquor, the landscape began to change 25 years ago, when the legislature let cities and localities allow restaurants to serve alcohol. Many chose that local option, and the trend has led to votes to go entirely "wet."

One of the "driest" areas in Kentucky has been the south-central part of the state, where huge Lake Cumberland attracts many tourists who must pack in their alcohol or get it illicitly. Near the eastern end of the lake, the town of Burnside went wet for restaurants several years ago, then extended its city limits downstream about eight miles to let another boat dock serve booze. Then the county seat of Somerset, still a bastion of Baptists, surprisingly went fully wet.

Dark blue counties are dry; light blue have
alcohol in restaurants and/or certain cities.
(This map may not be up to date)
That created an alcohol oasis that threatened the lake trade of Russell County, just to the west, where a big factory closed recently, causing high unemployment. This week, 52 percent of voters there (including a lot of retirees near the lake) voted wet: 3,833 to 3,423. "County and city leaders in Russell County will soon meet on how to prepare for issuing liquor licenses and how to deal with the revenue. The law will take effect in about two months," reports The Times Journal of Russell Springs. "Heavy support from Jamestown and the lake precincts helped to sway the historic vote," reports Larry Smith of 92.7 The Wave. Now, promoters of legal liquor in Adair County, the next county to the west, say they have enough signatures on a petition to force and election.

After Minnesota official took office, his firm got disputed $64,000 for rural bus routes the firm ran

Zelle (StarTrib photo by Glen Stubbe)
"Minnesota’s top transportation official has asked for a review of steps he took to distance himself from his former bus company after the state paid the business $64,000 for work on a contract that had expired," reports Ricardo Lopez of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, who discovered the payment by going through 5,000 emails involving Charlie Zelle, commissioner of the state Department of Transportation. Zelle said he had been unaware of the payment or the request for it.

Zelle resigned as CEO of Jefferson Lines when Gov. Mark Dayton appointed him in 2012 but remains chairman of the family-owned company, which runs rural routes "that would likely go away without taxpayer subsidies," Lopez writes. "Both companies received nearly all of available state and federal grants, or $2.3 million, in 2013, according to a MnDOT report. Those funds accounted for nearly 60 percent of the companies’ budget to operate the subsidized routes that year."

The emails "reveal sometimes deep disagreement over the Jefferson Lines payment and highlight the potential conflicts that Dayton faced in selecting a transportation chief with close ties to a company that still does business with the agency," Lopez reports. "Two officials from MnDOT reviewed the request and rejected it, saying the claim was for work beyond the scope of two contracts that stretched from 2007 to 2011. Just a few weeks after Zelle took over as commissioner, Jefferson again asked the state to be paid for the old contract. This time, they got it, but with it came staff criticism of the unusual payment."

“None of this passes the smell test,” department Audit Director Daniel Kahnke told nine staff members, including an assistant commissioner. "Mike Schadauer, MnDOT’s Office of Transit director, said the situation was the result of an error that should have been caught sooner," Lopez reports.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

County level maps: Indiana's air is most polluted; South, Midwest lead list of top 25 polluted states

Indiana is the most polluted state in the U.S., according to county-level maps by HealthGrove ranking the 25 most polluted states, Christina Lavingia reports for HealthGrove. Rounding out the top 10 are Ohio; Kentucky; Tennessee; Alabama; West Virginia; Washington, D.C.; Maryland; Illinois  and Pennsylvania. At No. 11 is Georgia, followed by Virginia, Mississippi, South Carolina, North Carolina, Nevada, Delaware, New Jersey, Arkansas, Minnesota, California, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska. (Air pollution in Ohio)

Using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HealthGrove analyzed average daily fine particulate matter from 2003 to 2011, Lavingia writes. “PM2.5 particles, classified as a fine air pollutant with an aerodynamic diameter less than 2.5 micrometers, have the ability to penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream. A study published in The Lancet found that for every 10 ug/m3 increase of PM2.5 particles, lung cancer incidences increased by 36 percent. Potential sources of PM2.5 include motor vehicles, power plants, wood burning and other industrial processes.”

Mountaintop-removal coal mining correlates with poor health in Appalachia, researcher says

Michael Hendryx
By Tim Mandell
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

No apparent health disparity exists in Appalachia except in areas where mountaintop removal is occurring, said Michael Hendryx, professor at the School of Public Health at Indiana University, during a lecture Thursday at the University of Kentucky. Hendrix's lecture, "Mountaintop Mining and Public Health," examined scientific research—conducted by him and others—into health effects in Appalachia since large-scale mountaintop removal was introduced in the 1990s. Hendrix, who was part of a 2010 study that called for an end of mountaintop removal, did most of his research in West Virginia.

Hendrix presented data comparing Appalachian areas that have mountaintop removal with Appalachian areas without it, showing that heart, lung and kidney disease, cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and birth defects are all typically more common in areas with mountaintop removal. Also, air and drinking-water pollution—consisting of both well water and public water—are usually higher in mountaintop removal areas. Hendryx's studies have established correlations, but not causation, which is much more difficult.

Hendryx said politicians have stood in the way of eliminating mountaintop removal, despite plenty of scientific evidence of its negative impact on public health. "It's surprising the political and economic power that the coal industry still has," he said. "It doesn't produce the jobs that it used to. It's clearly in decline. Yet it seems to me that politicians will still fall all over each to see who's more pro-coal, and that still seems to influence voters."

While some have called efforts for clean energy a "war on coal," Hendryx argues that coal-depressed communities can find other ways to improve local economies. "Some of the regions have coal; some don't," he said. "They're hilly, they're forested, they're rural . . . the places that didn't have coal developed other ways for people to make a living. . . . If you look at the data, it's clear that the areas that have the heaviest mining have the highest unemployment rates, the highest poverty rates, the lowest income levels. The other areas that didn't have coal developed better alternatives to generate better economies."

Asked for a reply, Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said in an email, “Anti-coal ideologue Michael Hendryx continues his road show against coal production and use by, once again, committing sins of commission in discussing his research. He won’t tell you that he gathers his data by employing environmental groups, like Restore Eden, to do his interviews, so should we expect any result than one that agrees with this anti-coal agenda?"

Walmart, which plans to close 150 stores, to raise minimum wage for most hourly workers

Walmart, which announced last week it was closing 150 stores, said Wednesday that in February most hourly workers will receive a raise, Sarah Nassauer reports for The Wall Street Journal. "Walmart previously said it planned to boost its minimum wage in February to $10 an hour. But the giant retailer said Wednesday that hourly workers employed in its stores as of Dec. 31 would get at least a 2 percent pay bump. The wage increase will affect nearly 1.2 million U.S. employees at the company’s Walmart and Sam’s Club stores."

"The across-the-board pay increase is aimed at addressing complaints by some longtime store workers about Walmart’s more-generous starting wages for new hires," Nassauer writes. "The company also is hoping to stem defections and the sums it spends to hire and train new employees. Walmart loses about half a million store workers a year. Minimum-wage increases took effect in 20 states last year, and several of the biggest employers of hourly workers, including McDonald’s Corp. and Starbucks Corp., have raised their starting pay." The move is expected to force competitors like Target to also raise wages. (Read more)

AHCJ annual conference offering several fellowships, including for rural health journalists

The Association of Health Care Journalists is offering a number of journalism fellowships for its annual conference, scheduled from April 7-10 in Cleveland. One fellowship is for rural health journalists, "intended for reporters and editors working in rural towns and counties or who work for outlets serving a predominately rural population," states AHCJ. The fellowship includes: conference registration fee; one year's membership in AHCJ (new or extended); up to four nights in conference hotel; and up to $400 for travel assistance within the continental U.S. The deadline to apply for the rural health journalists fellowship is Feb. 19.

Other fellowships are for: Missouri journalists; College journalism students and college journalism instructors; Journalists in the ethnic media; Journalists on non-health beats; Colorado journalists; California journalists; Rhode Island journalists; and New York journalists. Journalists can apply for multiple fellowships. For more information on the conference, click here.

Alternative homeschool programs growing in popularity in rural remote Alaska

A growing number of students in rural remote Alaska are switching from traditional schools to alternative homeschooling programs such as Interior Distance Education of Alaska (IDEA), Kelly Sullivan reports for the Peninsula Clarion. The program, which has grown five percent annually the past five years, allows families to determine instruction.

Suzanne Alioto, field representative for the Kenai Peninsula region, said "there is no mandated curriculum, although, because it is a public school, students are required to take the Alaska Measures of Progress and state-required standardized tests," Sullivan writes. Alioto said "for some families, the trip to their nearest school is too far to comfortably travel in the state’s harsh winter temperatures, and IDEA offers a flexibility other public schools don’t have."

"Enrollment is also increasing in other areas of the IDEA program, such as the iGrad High School Recovery Program," Sullivan writes. Kristie Miller, a coach with the program, said more than 230 students are enrollment in the program, up from 170 in 2014-15.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Report: Undocumented numbers lowest since 2003; border security key in Republican debates

The number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. continues to decline, says a report by the Center for Migration Studies, Jerry Markon reports for The Washington Post. Numbers have fallen each year since 2008, going under 11 million—10.9 million—for the first time since 2003. The main reason for the decline is fewer illegal immigrants' entering the U.S. from Mexico, South America and Europe, despite rising numbers from Central America.

"A key—but largely overlooked—sign of these ebbing flows is the changing makeup of the undocumented population," Markon writes. "Until recent years, illegal immigrants tended to be young men streaming across the Southern border in pursuit of work. But demographic data show that the typical illegal immigrant now is much more likely someone who is 35 or older and has lived in the United States for a decade or more."

Immigration has been one of the main focuses of the presidential debate, with Republicans calling for stricter border security and Democrats saying the border has never been more secure, Markon writes. "While it doesn’t take a political position or name a party, the paper uses 2014 Census Bureau data to essentially argue that the Republican portrayal is inaccurate." The report states: “One reason for the high and sustained level of interest in undocumented immigration is the widespread belief that the trend in the undocumented population is ever upward. This paper shows that this belief is mistaken and that, in fact, the undocumented population has been decreasing for more than a half a decade.”

Map shows the massive size of the nation's most densely populated rural counties

Highlighting exactly how rural the U.S. is, The Washington Post has created a map that shows that the 462 least densely populated counties in the U.S. consist of 42 percent of land and only one percent of the population, Christopher Ingraham reports for the Post. None of the 462 least densely populated counties has more than 7.4 people per square mile, and 65 counties have less than one person per square mile. Alaska's Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area, which is more than 145,000 square miles, is home to only 5,547 people, a population density of fewer than four people for every 100 miles.

For example, New York's Bronx and Queens, which are considerably smaller than any of the 462 counties, are home to 3.8 million people, more than the entire total in the 462 rural counties, Ingraham writes. "Geographically speaking, we are a nation of mountains, forests and farmland surrounding tiny islands of urbanity."

Oregon governor proposes raising minimum wage higher in urban areas than rural ones

Oregon Democratic Gov. Kate Brown introduced a plan to raise the state's minimum wage, setting the wage hike higher in the Portland metro area than in the rest of the mostly rural state, Denis Theriault reports for The Oregonian. Under the plan Oregon, which currently has a state minimum wage of $9.25—$2 higher than the national figure—would raise minimum wage in Portland to $15.52 in 2022 and $13.50 in the rest of the state. The first increases, taking place in January 2017, would raise Portland's minimum wage to $11.79 and to $10.22 in the rest of the state.

For the bill to pass, Brown will need support from Democrats in rural areas, where the minimum wage hike is not popular among businesses and some Republicans, who say raising the minimum wage will force businesses to close or move out of state, Theriault writes. Supporters of raising the minimum wage say waiting six years for the plan to take its full effect is too long for workers who need the increased wages now.

"Brown has been clear since last fall that she supports a higher statewide wage that goes easier on rural economies but that also reflects the expense of living and working in Portland," Theriault writes. "But she repeatedly declined to give any numbers or say how she thought lawmakers should separate the state from its largest city." Brown said in a statement: "The costs of essentials such as food, child care and rent are rising so fast that wages can't keep up. Many Oregonians working full-time can't make ends meet, and that's not right." (Read more)

New American Farm Bureau president says immigration reform is No. 1 issue

Vincent Duvall
The new president of the American Farm Bureau said "immigration reform would be the first issue he would choose to testify on before Congress if he were given the option," Chris Clayton reports for DTN The Progressive Farmer. Vincent "Zippy" Duvall, who was elected to the position last week, "said immigration needs to be addressed immediately." He told reporters, "There is a crisis across this country of having a stable workforce to be able to get the crops out of the field. Americans no longer want to do the work that we do with the cows and the chickens and the fields anymore. It is absolutely vital that sometime soon in the future we find a solution to that. It is a moral issue. It's a sensitive issue, but it is a business issue."

Duvall, who has been president of the Georgia Farm Bureau for the past nine years, said in his first press conference as president that he "will be dealing immediately with issues such as EPA's waters of the U.S. rule, trade and biotechnology labeling," Clayton writes.

"Duvall stressed that farmers are overburdened by regulation and challenged by the lack of labor for farm jobs," Clayton writes. "A Farm Bureau member since 1977, Duvall is a beef, poultry and hay producer near Greshamville, Ga. He has a 300-head cattle herd and produces about 750,000 broilers every year. Duvall grew up mostly in the dairy industry until he converted the dairy to a beef herd about a decade ago. Duvall talks frequently about the diversity of agriculture in his state, ranging from fruits and vegetables to cotton, dairy and poultry." (Read more)

Ultra low quality North Dakota crude oil re-priced at $1.50 per barrel, up from negative number

Flint Hills Resources LLC, owned by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, originally asked producers in North Dakota's Bakken formation to pay the company to take shipments of a certain type of low-quality crude, Dan Murtaugh and Javier Blas report for Bloomberg. The company, which last week posted a price of -$0.50 per barrel, said the negative price was incorrectly posted and raised the price to $1.50 per barrel. The crude is down from $13.50 per barrel a year ago and $47.60 in January 2014.

"While the near-zero price is due to the lack of pipeline capacity for a particular variety of ultra low quality crude, it underscores how dire things are in the U.S. oil patch," Murtaugh and Blas write. "U.S. benchmark oil prices have collapsed more than 70 percent in the past 18 months and fell below $30 a barrel for the first time in 12 years last week. West Texas Intermediate traded as low as $28.36 in New York. Brent, the international benchmark, settled at $28.55 in London."

"Different grades of oil are priced based on their quality and transport costs to refineries," reports Bloomberg. "High-sulfur crudes are generally priced lower because they can only be processed at plants that have specific equipment to remove sulfur. Producers and refiners often mix grades to achieve specific blends, and prices for each component can rise or fall to reflect current economics." While negative prices are rare, they aren't unheard of. "Oil refineries sometimes pay people to take away low-demand products such as sulfur or petroleum coke to free up space."

Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group annual conference Jan. 27-30 in Lexington, Ky.

The Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SAWG) annual conference is scheduled Jan. 27-30 in Lexington, Ky. SAWG, which operates in 13 states in the SouthAlabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia"was founded in 1991 to foster a movement toward a more sustainable farming and food system, one that is ecologically sound, economically viable, socially just and humane," states the organization's website.

The conference consists of courses, field trips and information and educational sessions, including an event called "Voices in the Field: 25 Years in the Field," featuring special guests Wendell Berry, author and farmer (Ky.); Alex Hitt, Peregrine Farm (N.C.); Janie Simms Hipp, University of Arkansas School of Law (AR); and Andrew Williams, The United Christian Community Association (AL). Online registration is closed, but registration will be accepted at the door. (Read more)

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Covering suicide can raise awareness, help people seek care; social media have altered news policies

Suicide rates are 70 percent higher in rural areas than urban ones, according to 2013 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet, rural newspapers usually shy away from stories about suicide. Bradley Martin of the Hickman County Times in Centerville, Tenn., 50 miles west of Nashville, takes a different approach, tackling the subject head on in an attempt to raise awareness about suicide. In an article for the Daily Yonder, Martin describes how writing about a difficult issue has helped changed the community.


Brad Martin
"I woke up to the depth of the problem in my community in 2003 when, during the first four months of that year, six persons had taken their lives, all by firearms," Martin writes. "It’s hard for a reporter who tracks police activity to ignore that, even if you don’t report it. By the end of the year, Hickman County, Tennessee (population 23,000 at the time) had experienced 13 suicides, all of them violent. That’s a rate of 56 per 100,000."

Working with the state-funded Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, Martin helped form the Hickman County Suicide Prevention Task Force in 2003 to organize training sessions, he writes. "In the years since, the group has become a fixture at community events, supplying prevention information; an annual remembrance is focused on victims and families, highlighted by a balloon release. The local task force chair has been the statewide chair, too; and a second group has been created to bring together surviving family members who are struggling with their losses. All of it has added awareness."

"In Tennessee, it has been helpful that teachers must go through suicide prevention training each year, since young people are of major concern for suicide," Martin writes. "A year ago, because of the task force’s work here, the statewide group was permitted to bring grief counselors to one of our high schools when a 15-year-old girl took her life. . . . No link to the local task force can be directly made, but I know that the number of suicides here have decreased on an annual basis since that awful 2003. The worst since then has been eight, in 2010; in 2013, there were 4, which was a rate of 16.5 per 100,000. That’s almost even with the Tennessee rate, which was 14.4 that year. Both are better than the U.S. rate—but there’s still more suicides that murders here." (Yonder map)
Rural newspapers' policies for reporting suicides vary widely but lean toward privacy. In a recent discussion on the emailed Hotline of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, Paul Keane, editor and publisher of the Wayne County News in Waynesboro, Miss., gave a typical policy: "The general, basic rule we've followed here is that is the death/suicide takes place in the public, then we cover the story and try to handle it as gently as possible out of respect to the family."

Publisher Robert M. Williams Jr. of The Blackshear (Ga.) Times posted his detailed policy: "If a person takes their own life in a private manner, in a private place such as their home, property, etc., and the police do not become a part of the situation until after the person is found by someone with access to that private place, we carry no news story. If the person chooses to take their life in a place that would not be considered private, such as on neighboring property or any place where someone who would not have access to their home may find them, we print a discreet news story. If the police become involved, such as in a hunt, then it is a news story from beginning to end. We have had people break into their workplace after hours to commit suicide."

Newspaper consultant Jim Pumarlo said his small daily in Red Wing, Minn., tried to report "the causes of all deaths which are other than by natural causes. . . . But the definitions are not always so clear. Think about a bank president who has served on almost every community board imaginable, found dead in a car in a city lot. As an alternative, consider if he commits suicide in the privacy of his home. Reflect on the same circumstances, but now substitute a retail clerk as the suicide victim." Giving other cases, Pumarlo asked, "Is any one of these deaths less newsworthy? . . . It’s common practice today for communities to have formal responses to youth deaths whether the cause is an accident or a suicide. Grief counselors often come into the schools and meet with students. The kids come home, and it’s a dinner topic. Can you really ignore reporting the suicide and still promote yourself as the premier source of information?"

The rise of social media has made several papers change their policies. Allan Burke, publisher emeritus of the Emmons County Record in Linton, N.D., said that paper reports every suicide, partly because the investigation of it involves law enforcement, and because "When facts are not reported, people make up the stories. . . . In the world of social media, newspapers are left with the burden, or privilege, of reporting the facts."

Managing Editor Paul Goetz of The Mountain Mail in Salida, Colo, noted a good guide for suicide coverage, ReportingOnSuicide.org. It notes research showing that heavy or sensational coverage of the topic "can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals." But it also encourages the kind of reporting that Brad Martin does in the Hickman County Times, about suicide as an issue.


Martin said in the email discussion, "Yes, people will be mad at you. First time for that? In my community, I no longer get any flak for it. Actually we give more ink on an annual basis to the prevention group, which also has a 'Do you know the signs?' training component that does a major service by not only raising awareness but providing an approach to preventing it."

Female farmworkers, mostly immigrants, suffering high rates of sexual abuse

A large portion of the 400,000 women working in agriculture—mostly immigrants—have been subjected to sexual violence, José Padilla and David Baco report for The New York Times. "The reasons behind this epidemic aren’t hard to fathom. Fields are vast and sparsely monitored; workers are often alone. It’s particularly bad for immigrant workers: The Department of Labor estimates that about half of farmworkers don’t have legal immigration papers, which makes them especially vulnerable."

A 2010 study from the University of California, Santa Cruz found that of the 150 female farmworkers interviewed, 60 percent said they had suffered some form of sexual harassment, Padilla and Baco write. A 2012 Human Rights Watch report of 52 female farmworkers found that most of them had experienced sexual violence or knew someone else who had. An Iowa immigrant farmworker told her lawyer, “We thought it was normal in the United States that in order to keep your job, you had to have sex.”

Sexual violence in agriculture is not a new trend—20 years ago the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, along with California Rural Legal Assistance, a legal service program that promotes the interests of migrant laborers and the rural poor, created a joint project to concentrate on sexual harassment in the fields," Padilla and Baco write. The problem is that each instance has to be tried case by case, making it a long, arduous process.

"When women do file complaints, investigations can takes months, even years, which can discourage other women from speaking up," Padilla and Baco write. "And even when a case is won, criminal prosecution of the harasser or rapist rarely follows. Still, many employers do know—and use threats and intimidation to keep their workers quiet."

"The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has few offices in rural areas; they’re usually open only when women are working; and the staff often don’t speak Spanish, much less indigenous languages," Padilla and Baco write. "What’s more, many government agencies require complaints to be filed online. Many farmworkers do not have access to computers. The commission could make filing complaints easier by setting up a 24/7 hotline in multiple languages, with an actual person answering the phone, instead of automated messages." Another problem is that "federal regulations forbid legal aid organizations like California Rural Legal Assistance from directly representing undocumented people, and the illegal nature of their work situations makes it difficult for them to come forward."

Iowa governor says caucus-goers should defeat Cruz because he opposes ethanol subsidy

Branstad urges Cruz defeat (DMR)
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad has called on his fellow Republicans to defeat Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the Feb. 1 presidential caucuses because Cruz is the only major candidate who opposes the Renewable Fuels Standard, which "sets the amount of ethanol and renewable fuel that must be blended into gasoline," The Des Moines Register reports.

The standard is a key to Iowa's ethanol industry and the corn growers who supply it. Branstad said of Cruz, "He’s heavily financed by Big Oil. So we think once Iowans realize that fact, they might find other things attractive, but he could be very damaging to our state." Branstad's son, Eric, heads a super PAC that has been attacking Cruz, along with other elements of the ethanol lobby.

CNN correspondent Jeff Zeleny, who started out in Iowa, said he hadn't seen Branstad do anything like this, and while the governor is popular, Cruz could also flip the issue to his advantage by saying he's running against the Republican establishment.

Shift in power from rural to urban Oregon has left isolated counties with few economic opportunities

Harney County (Wikipedia map)
Some residents in isolated rural Harney County, Oregon—where an armed protest continues at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge—blame the government for losing their once thriving economy to urban areas and rural counties located near urban centers, Kirk Johnson reports for The New York Times. A study by nonprofit research group Headwaters Economics found that half of Oregon jobs are in three counties in and around Portland. "Counties like Harney—with 7,126 people in an area about the size of Massachusetts—are too far from those urban centers to catch the economic uplift, the study said. So the population grows ever older, poorer and less educated, and opportunities continue to dry up."

Harney County, which has 10 percent fewer jobs today than in 1979, is part of a national shift in poverty, Johnson writes. Since the last 1960s "poverty rates fell or remained stable across the Northeast, South and Midwest—but rose significantly across the West, a Pew Research Center study said in 2014 . . . Harney County has lost 4 percent of its population just since 2010, according to U.S. census figures, even as the state’s population, especially in and around Portland, has surged."

"What happened was a steep downturn, especially in the timber industry, which has all but disappeared," Johnson writes. "Oregon lost about three-fourths of its timber mills between 1980 and 2010; Harney County lost all seven. Changes in the wood industry were clearly also having an effect over those years, with more wood buyers shopping in Canada and more mills becoming automated, but many people here also said they thought the U.S. Forest Service did not fight back to save the mills and jobs."

In Harney County, 60 percent of the pay earned in the county now comes "from the public sector—including schools and federal management jobs at the 188,000-acre wildlife refuge—this was the most government-dependent county in Oregon in 2013, according the most recent analysis by the state," Johnson writes. "But the sense that government—not just federal but state as well—no longer hears the voice of places like this echoes through the community, even among those who wish (the armed protesters) would go home." (Read more)

Mistrust of government medicine among African Americans in Alabama blamed for rural TB outbreak

A tuberculosis outbreak mostly among African Americans in rural Perry County, Alabama—a state that did not expand Medicaid under federal health reform—is being blamed on "generations of limited health care access, endemic poverty and mistrust—problems that are common across the rural South," Alan Blinder reports for The New York Times. Dr. R. Allen Perkins, former president of the Alabama Rural Health Association, told Blinder, "There’s not a culture of care-seeking behavior unless you’re really sick. There’s not support for local medical care, so when something like this happens, you have a health delivery system that’s unprepared.” (NYT map)

As of Monday, 47 cases of tuberculosis have been reported in Perry County in West Alabama, states a press release from the Alabama Department of Public Health. Officials in Perry County, which has about 10,000 residents, have tested around 800 people for tuberculosis, whose symptoms "include cough lasting more than two weeks, shortness of breath, fever, night sweats, weight loss and fatigue. A person may be infected with the TB germ and have no symptoms."

Authorities, who said they expect the number of positive cases to increase, "said the outbreak had spread so widely and lasted so long because patients had been reluctant to disclose their contacts to public health officials," Blinder writes. "Some of that is linked to suspicions that the health officials will report illegal activity to law enforcement, but it is also connected to worries of being ostracized—or at least stigmatized—in a community as small as this one."

Mistrust of government medicine in Alabama dates back more than 80 years to a 1932 Macon County medical study involving African Americans that a federal panel later ruled 'ethically unjustified,' Blinder writes. While many people in Marion, Ala. (located in Perry County), where about 63 percent of the residents are black, said they knew little about they study, "they often said their wariness of medical professionals had been passed on through generations. Some said the dire nature of the tuberculosis warnings made them feel that they had little choice but to consult heath officials."

Another problem is that "the TB outbreak has implicitly reinforced Marion’s chronic divides of race and class, particularly because of a controversial plan to compensate people if they submit to blood screenings," Blinder writes. "With money from a federal grant, health officials in Alabama are offering residents $20 for initial tuberculosis testing, $20 for a follow-up visit and another $20 for keeping an appointment for a chest X-ray, if one has been recommended. Anyone who is found to have been infected can receive $100 for completing treatment." (Read more)

Semifinalists named for $10 million competition to stimulate growth in small towns and cities

Frontier Communications and DISH Network have named the 15 semifinalists for America's Best Communities competition, a $10 million initiative to stimulate economic revitalization in small towns and cities, states Frontier. The list of 15 was narrowed from 50 communities, which all received $50,000 and had six months "to further develop and implement their comprehensive strategies to accelerate their local economies and improve quality of life." The competition was open to all towns and cities in Frontier's service areas with populations between 9,500 and 80,000. Smaller communities could collaborate on projects.

The 15 semifinalists are: Lake Havasu City, Ariz; Angola, Ind.; Tualatin, Ore.; Statesboro, Ga.; Madison, Ind.; Arlington, Wash.; Fort Dodge, Iowa; Valaparaiso, Ind.; Wenatchee, Wash.; Valley County, Idaho; Chicago Lakes Area in Minnesota; Charleston, W.Va.; DeKalb, Ill.; Portsmouth, Ohio; and Huntington, W.Va. Up to eight finalists will be named in April. Those finalists will receive $100,000 and 11 months to begin implementing plans. Winners will be announced in April 2017. The winner will get $3 million, second-place $2 million and third-place $1 million. (Frontier map: Semifinalists)

Government watchdog objects to bankrupt Alpha's plan to give executives up to $11.9M in bonuses

A government watchdog has filed objections to a proposal by Alpha Natural Resources—which earlier this month filed for bankruptcy protection—to pay executive bonuses of up to $11.9 million in 2016, Benjamin Storrow reports for the Casper Star Tribune. The U.S. Trustee, a division of the Justice Department, argues that "the bankrupt coal company cannot justify the additional pay at a time when it has recorded steep losses and sought to cut retiree benefits. A hearing on Alpha’s proposals to pay executive bonuses and cut medical and life insurance benefits for 4,580 nonunion miners and their spouses is scheduled for Thursday."

Alpha, which last recorded a profit in 2011, "has argued the bonuses are necessary to retain key executives during its Chapter 11 proceedings," Storrow writes. "But in court filings submitted Friday, the trustee’s office challenged that argument. The government noted Alpha’s request to pay bonuses coincided with a $1.3 billion loss in 2015 and a plan to save $3 million annually by cutting retiree benefits."

The watchdog wrote, “According to Alpha, these executives need these bonuses as an incentive to do the very jobs they were hired to do, that they are already highly compensated for with generous salaries, and which their fiduciary duties compel them to do. Such bonuses cannot be justified under the facts and circumstances of this case.”

Storrow writes, "Executives will receive a total of $3.4 million if they meet a 'threshold' performance level, $6.8 million if they meet a so-called 'target' level and as much as $11.9 million if they exceed expectations. The government questioned the size of those bonuses, noting they exceeded what Alpha executives received in the years leading up to its bankruptcy filing." (Read more)

Wendell Berry to receive lifetime achievement award from National Book Critics Circle

Wendell Berry
Renowned Kentucky farmer-author-poet-philosopher Wendell Berry will receive the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement award from the National Book Critics Circle, states the organization. "Now 81 and still productive, Berry is the author of eight novels, two short story collections, 28 volumes of poetry and 31 volumes of nonfiction. Set in the imaginary town of Port William, Kentucky, his fiction constitutes a cycle about themes of life in rural America. An outspoken environmentalist, organic farmer and pacifist, Berry has written about and engaged in civil disobedience against industrial agribusiness, ecological destruction and militarization."

The National Book Critics Circle also named the 30 finalists six categories—autobiography, biography, criticism, fiction, nonfiction and poetry—for the outstanding books of 2015. Awards will be presented on March 17 at the New School, in a free ceremony open to the public. For a complete list of finalists, as well as winners of other awards, click here.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Is your Wal-Mart closing? Here's a list and a map

Walmart announced Friday that it would close more than 150 stores in the U.S. Is one near you? The Wall Street Journal has a state-by-state list, from the supercenter in Juneau (AK comes before AL) to the neighborhood market in Waukesha. Here's the WSJ map:

Texas and Florida illustrate Obamacare enrollment contrasts; being rural poses some obstacles

Southern states are lagging in the percentage of eligible people who have bought subsidized health-insurance policies under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, with three big exceptions: Arkansas, Kentucky and Florida. Kentucky and Arkansas embraced Obamacare in ways other Southern states did not, expanding Medicaid and creating state-based exchanges to buy insurance (only for small businesses in Arkansas).

Florida didn't take either step, but "It fielded a bigger, centrally managed army of trained helpers" than Texas, the largest Southern state, reports Robert T. Garrett of The Dallas Morning News. Research indicates that's one reason "nearly 60 percent of Floridians eligible to buy policies in the online state exchange actually purchase them, only 36 percent of eligible Texans do, the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation estimates. Nationally, the take-up rate is 41 percent, it says." For state-by-state data, click here.

A recent study of Texas, Arkansas and Kentucky found that "receiving assistance in filling out the applications was the strongest predictor of successful enrollment in coverage," Garrett notes. In Texas, nonprofit-group workers wanting to provide assistance were required to pay for additional training, fingerprinting and additional background checks.

Garrett writes that's an example of the "roadblocks" Texas’ Republican leaders have erected, more so than in Florida. He also notes that state is more compact and less rural than Texas, making outreach easier.

Rural enrollment in Obamacare has lagged, and that is the case in rural West Texas, reports Enrique Rangel of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. He quotes Don McBeath of the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals: “Our association does not have any hard data, but as we talk to the rural hospitals, the sense that they continue to share with us is that any increase in the number of insured under the exchanges is very minimal. This is not an issue just in Texas; it is nationwide.”

Rangel notes that rural residents often pay more for Obamacare policies because few insurance companies offer them, lacking competition that holds down prices, and a Rice University study that found most of the uninsured population in Texas is Hispanic.

Immigrants in Texas are more likely than those in Florida to be unauthorized, making them ineligible, and the Texas director of Enroll America, a nonprofit pushing signups, said families with unauthorized immigrants "often fear to sign up for Obamacare because they must provide the names of everyone in their household," Garrett reports, even though the information is confidential.

States slow to develop plans to protect bees and other pollinators; Virginia sets meetings

After the Obama administration called for a national strategy to protect bees and other pollinators, which are essential to many crops, most states agreed to develop pollinator protection plans. Few have done so, according to the Pollinator Stewardship Council, which tracks the process with an interactive map. Here's a screenshot with an example of information on one state:
In Virginia, where almost half the state's bee colonies are estimated to have died last year, seven meetings have been scheduled, in Roanoke, Warrenton, Blackstone, Charlottesville, Henrico, Suffolk and on the Eastern Shore, reports Tonia Moxley of The Roanoke Times. The state's pollinator protection plan "will focus on how officials can help users of pesticides and beekeepers communicate to prevent problems, according to Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services." That is likely to include registration of hives, which will help inform pesticide applicators where hives are located. Pollinators also include bats, hummingbirds, butterflies and other insects.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Shootdown of drone in Kentucky prompts federal lawsuit that could lead to clearer privacy rules

When a Kentucky man with a shotgun brought down a drone near his home last summer, it set off a dispute that "could settle an issue that experts say has never before been addressed by the courts: the conflict between a homeowner’s right to privacy and the federal government’s exclusive sovereignty over the skies," Andrew Wolfson reports for The Courier-Journal in Louisville.

Charges against "drone slayer" Willie Merideth of Hillview, above, were dismissed but the owner of the drone, John David Boggs, has filed suit for damages and what he calls “clarity to protect the right to fly responsibly without fear of being shot at.” He wants U.S. District Judge David J. Hale to resolve the “boundaries of the airspace surrounding real property, the reasonable expectation of privacy as viewed from the air, and the right to damage or destroy an aircraft in flight.”

Wolfson reports, "Merideth also says he looks forward to the court’s resolution of where private property ends and the open sky begins. Boggs’ Nashville lawyer, James Mackler, a former Army Blackhawk helicopter pilot who specializes in drone law, says much is at stake, including for companies like Amazon, which plans to deliver packages to customers via drones that would touch down on their lawns." Mackler todl Wolfson, “If every property owner has a right to take a shot at them, that pretty much ends that business model.”

States and local governments that want to regulate drones are clashing with the Federal Aviation Administration, which "says it has sole authority over the national airspace while Kentucky law gives landowners the right to use force necessary to prevent trespassing," Wolfson writes. "The Supreme Court hasn’t addressed the issue since 1946 when it ruled that a North Carolina farmer could assert property rights up to 83 feet in the air -- and win compensation for military aircraft that were flying so low they were disturbing his cows and chickens. But that was long before the advent of drones, which are now used for everything from law enforcement to land surveys, from search and rescue to wildlife tracking. Best Buy offers 50 models just for photo hobbyists, while more than 50 companies produce 155 models in the U.S., with wingspans ranging from six inches to 246 feet."

The Academy of Model Aeronautics, which was founded in 1936 and says it has 175,000 members, "says it welcomes guidance from the federal courts but that states already have enough laws on the books that make harassment and peeping a crime. The Muncie, Ind.,-based group says its policies already ban members from flying directly over unprotected people or houses or flying near an airport," and notes that a 2012 federal law "bars drones and model aircraft owners from interfering with other aircraft and says they must be operated within direct sight of the owner," Wolfson reports.