Saturday, March 19, 2016

U.S. Virgin Islands leaders get SPJ's Black Hole Award; Wis. lawmakers, Tenn. sheriff runners-up

The Society of Professional Journalists has named the elected leaders of the Virgin Islands of the United States the recipients of its annual Black Hole Award for their "bald and breathtaking contempt of the public’s right to know."
Jonathan Austin

Jonathan Austin of the Virgin Islands Daily News nominated the government, including Gov. Kenneth Mapp and the Legislature, saying their “lack of transparency has caused an uproar in the territory.” (As publisher and editor of the now-defunct Yancey County News in Burnsville, N.C., Austin and his wife Susan won the 2012 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism, given by the publisher of The Rural Blog.)

The newspaper says the territorial legislature won't disclose how much some senators spent at a legislative conference in Seattle, and Mapp has refused to comply with the territory’s open-records law, claimed the right to alter records before release, and "retaliated against a subordinate after that person released documents showing Mapp spent excessively on travel, groceries and alcohol using a government-issued credit card," SPJ says in a news release. The Daily News played its story on the award modestly, on Page 8. To read it, click here. For examples of the paper's reporting on open-government issues, click here.

The runners-up for the Black Hole Award were:
  • The Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, which received the award in 2012. This time, it "voted along party lines to effectively gut the state’s open-records law," SPJ says. "Pressure from the media and public prompted officials to drop the measure, according to Mark Pitsch, president of SPJ’s Madison pro chapter, who submitted the nomination and said Wisconsin citizens "rose up against the changes in an almost unprecedented outpouring of opposition."
  • The Sheriff’s Office in Marshall County, Tennessee, nominated by Prison Legal News, which "had trouble obtaining records about the county jail's contract for phone service," SPJ says. The sheriff at the time, Norman Dalton, demanded that the paper make the request in person, contrary to state law. Told that, Dalton started ignoring the requests, so Prison Legal News got a court order releasing the contract and won reimbursement of its attorney's fees.
Other finalists for the award were the Community Services District of Cambria, Calif.; the Colorado Judicial Branch; Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback; Los Angeles City Hall; the New York State Police; the Trans Pacific Partnership; the Wyoming Legislature and the New York State Thruway Authority.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Campaign to defend and promote coal gains steam; created by former miner in Southern Illinois

Former Southern Illinois coal miner Bob Sandidge last month began a social-media campaign to promote the positive aspects of coal on local economies, while blaming the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan for the downfall of the industry. Sandidge, an industry consultant who mined coal for 35 years, created the Facebook page, Coal Miner's Movement 2016, which now has more than 26,000 likes. (McLean County News photo by Austin Ramsey: Sandidge speaking in Madisonville, Ky.)

Sandidge, who says the industry is at its lowest point in his lifetime, puts much of the blame on federal policies changing emissions standards, Brad Palmer reports for WSIU, the PBS station in Carbondale, Ill. Sandidge told him, "You're told different things. For every mining job, there's three affected. For every mining job, there's eight affected. . . . We're getting retailers; we're getting grocery store people from mom and pop stores that are having to close their doors. The restrictions and regulations that they have imposed on coal generation from power plants totally choked the industry off."

Coal Miner's Movement, which has been granted non-profit status, is having town-hall meetings, Austin Ramsey reports for the McLean County News in Calhoun, Ky. Sandidge told supporters at a meeting in nearby Madisonville, "The minute we formed this we knew we had a struck a nerve. We knew we had created something big. We borrowed from the [presidential] election. We're going to 'make coal great again.'"

Coal Miner's Movement "isn't endorsing any politicians or speaking on behalf of any specific coal companies," Ramsey writes. "It's not a charity, and it doesn't solicit union support, Sandidge said. Several Republican candidates seeking nomination for the First Congressional District were present, and Sandidge encouraged the crowd to take note of that." He said "the movement is seeking to end what Sandidge called President Barack Obama's war on coal; rebalance the energy market to give the coal industry a fighting chance; develop clean-coal research initiatives; and embark on an educational rebranding effort that clears up coal's dirty image."

Chris Williams, one of the hundreds of Western Kentucky residents who have lost coal jobs in the last few months, was at the meeting. He told Ramsey, "It's just a hard time right now. It's tough on all these miners, and it's tough on vendors and contractors. It's hard on everybody, and it affects communities." He said he believes that with enough support the Coal Miner's Movement can make a real difference, telling Ramsey, "People have got voices down in those mines. If they can make those voices heard, we can get something done."

Walmart stops paying more for working on Sunday

Walmart, which in 2011 discontinued premium pay on Sundays for new hires, has now discontinued the practice for employees hired before the practice was halted, Lydia DePillis reports for The Washington Post. Walmart is disproportionately located in rural areas, and Sunday premium pay was typically considered a reward for coming in on a day many considered a day of rest. Craig Rowley, a retail compensation consultant with Korn Ferry, told DePillis, "When I was growing up, Sundays were kind of family day, church day. As we’ve gotten to be a more secular society, staying at home on Sunday is not necessarily expected. 'We’re all going to be here all day Sunday' is not as strong a cultural norm."

Instead of premium pay for Sundays, "those who had continued to receive it will receive a lump sum equal to half the amount of Sunday pay they received last year, according to a company release in January outlining a handful of adjustments that Walmart explained were a way of 'simplifying its pay structure'—and reducing the overall cost of increasing base wages to $10 an hour across the board," DePillis writes.

"In cutting Sunday pay, Walmart is actually behind most of the retail industry, which made that change as legal requirements to pay more on Sundays were stricken from state laws across the country," DePillis writes. "So-called 'blue laws' once prohibited Sunday commerce altogether in 34 states in the 1960s. They were often weakened through compromise, with higher pay mandated in exchange for shopping being legalized. Even with no mandate, premium pay was often what the labor market demanded."

"Sunday premium pay hasn't disappeared as quickly from other sectors, such as manufacturing and transportation, which have held on to a more traditional five or six-day work schedule," DePillis writes. "Most federal employees are still entitled to time and a half on Sundays. But more and more of their neighbors in the private sector won't be so lucky." (Read more)

Most public colleges and universities not required to reveal financial investments of endowments

Colleges and universities are under no obligation "to reveal financial investments made through their endowments," Collin Binkley reports for The Associated Press. Of the 50 public and private universities AP asked to disclose their investments, 39 schools—with combined endowments of $255 billion—refused to provide records, four schools failed to response to requests and "none of the private universities, which are not subject to open-records laws, released any information. The universities that did provide records in most cases revealed only a small fraction of their portfolios."

"Endowments face little federal regulation compared with other fundraising institutions," Binkley  writes. "Private foundations, for example, are required to spend at least 5 percent of their assets each year and pay a 2 percent excise tax on investment earnings. Colleges face no spending rules and, because of their educational purpose, are not taxed on their earnings."

"Colleges drew on a variety of reasons to withhold records," Binkley writes. "The University of Virginia and four other public universities said they house their endowments in outside foundations that are not subject to open-records laws. Michigan State University, also public, cited a state law that explicitly keeps college investments confidential. Private Vanderbilt University said it made agreements with financial managers not to share investment details."

Neal Stoughton, a professor and director of the Endowment Research Center at Vienna University of Economics and Business in Austria, told Binkley, “I think that they go to great lengths to try to isolate themselves. They don’t want the endowments to be subjected to a lot of political influence because that’s not the way to invest for the long term. That’s not the way to get a higher rate of return.”

Lawmakers have tried to fight for more transparency, Binkley writes. "Two congressional committees sent letters to the richest private colleges last month asking for a wide range of information about their endowments, including how the schools use endowment assets 'to fulfill their charitable and educational purposes.' The inquiry was partly meant to determine whether schools deserve the federal tax breaks they receive. Separately, Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) is drafting a proposal that would require all endowments of more than $1 billion to spend at least 25 percent of their profits every year on financial aid. Reed’s goal is to help lower tuition costs for students from working-class families. But as part of his plan, he also hopes to propose stronger reporting requirements to shed light on college investments." (Read more)

State opens investigation into sheriff who sided with armed occupiers at Oregon wildlife refuge

Oregon's Justice Department "has opened a criminal investigation into Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer, who met with militants from the (Malheur National Wildlife Refuge) takeover in eastern Oregon and urged authorities to concede to some of their demands," Lez Zaitz reports for The Oregonian. "The investigation will be handled by the Criminal Justice Division in Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum's office. The division investigates public corruption as part of its duties." Palmer is not the same sheriff who was featured in many stories as trying to broker a peace agreement between the two parties. That was Harney County sheriff Dave Ward. (Oregonian photo: Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer as a roadblock during the standoff)

During the standoff, Palmer "told the local Blue Mountain Eagle newspaper he considered the occupiers to be 'patriots,'" Zaitz writes. He said the takeover would be resolved if authorities met some of the demands of the occupiers, including freeing two jailed ranchers. He was also scheduled to speak at the community meeting that occupiers were traveling to when they were apprehended. Palmer said the event, which led to police killing one of the occupiers, was an "ambush." Last weekend standoff leader Ammon Bundy "released a statement defending the sheriff, encouraging people to 'stand with Sheriff Palmer' in the face of the state licensing agency's actions."

"Nine complaints filed with state regulators all cite Palmer's involvement with the armed militants," Ziatz writes. John Day Police Chief Richard Gray filed one of the complaints, writing, "I have a great public safety concern when the Grant County sheriff is allowed to openly meet with and be part of this group of lawbreakers." Valerie Luttrell, manager of the John Day dispatch center that serves local agencies, including the sheriff's office, wrote that "Palmer was judged a 'security leak' by local police, state troopers and the FBI. She said Palmer promotes his personal agenda 'over the welfare and safety of the general public he is sworn to protect.' The remaining complaints were filed confidentially as allowed by law."

American Soybean Association opposes cuts to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

The American Soybean Association (ASA) is lobbying against proposed cuts in the House budget bill to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps that would transition SNAP "to a block grant-based system administered at the state level," states an ASA press release. ASA said it opposes the proposal "based on its longstanding opposition to reopening of the farm bill and policy opposing the separation of the nutrition and agriculture components of the bill."

ASA president Richard Wilkins said in a statement: "When we talk about maintaining the integrity of programs authorized in the farm bill, we mean all of the programs in the farm bill, including SNAP. As a policy organization, we encourage the regular evaluation of programs to determine how they can be most effective. But as producers of the nation's food, we can't support a proposal that would weaken the ability of Americans in the most need to buy that food. As we approach discussions on the next Farm Bill, we need to stand together as a food community. This partnership is critically important for those of us in production agriculture, since only 60 or 70 members of the House identify themselves as representing rural districts. We must ensure that nutrition and farm programs stay united, and the decades -old link between the people who grow the nation's food and the people in need of help to put it on their family tables is preserved." (Read more)

Air ambulances are a boon to rural areas, but they can leave patients holding the bag

Trudy Lieberman
By Trudy Lieberman
Rural Health News Service

Not many of us think about needing air ambulances. We don’t dwell on that possibility, but for people hurt in car accidents or who live in smaller or rural communities without medical care at hand, being airlifted to a hospital can mean the difference between life and death.

Increasingly, the service also can mean the difference between getting well at a price you can afford or at a price that could push you over a financial cliff.

Air ambulances have become the centerpiece of a nationwide dispute over balance billing, a practice that requires unsuspecting families, even those with good insurance, to pay a large part of the bill.

In Nebraska a woman who was injured when her van rolled on a gravel road found herself with a $44,000 air ambulance bill. Her insurance paid most of the bill. A North Dakota man who got a $67,300 bill from a company that transported his wife to the Mayo Clinic had to pay more than $50,000 out of pocket. In Ohio, a man filed for bankruptcy because he owed $22,000 to an air ambulance company, which had placed a lien on his home.

And so it goes in other states where patients have complained about balance billing, this particularly dark side of the medical marketplace, which affects all health-care services, not just air ambulances. It works like this: You have health coverage, incur a medical bill, and assume the service is covered by your insurance, Medicare, or Medicaid. Then comes the surprise! The bill isn’t covered because the provider is not in your insurer’s network. You’re on the hook for the entire amount.

Sometimes it’s impossible to tell if a provider belongs to a network or not. When you are wheeled into the operating room, are you going to ask the anesthesiologist if he or she belongs to the hospital’s network? How many accident victims suffering from trauma are going to direct EMS workers to check if the air service is in or out of network before they’re lifted to a hospital?

You can also get stuck even if the ambulance company is in the network. An insurance payment may not come close to covering the cost. “Rates ambulance companies charge private patients are much more than they are charging to Medicare or Medicaid patients,” says Chuck Bell, programs director at Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports.

The industry argues that Medicare rates are too low and some patients have no insurance so only by charging insured patients higher fees can they stay in business, Bell told me. “The air ambulance industry has grown rapidly, and prices have shot up a lot with some companies trying to make a quick buck.” For one large company the average bill went from about $17,200 in 2009 to $40,000 in 2014.

The problem with air ambulances is an example of the disorderly introduction of medical technology without any planning or regulation. Patients are trapped in the middle of a tug of war between insurers that want to keep payments low and air ambulance companies that are eager for profits.

To collect more revenue from privately insured patients, ambulance companies sometimes resort to aggressive collection practices, asking for financial information from privately insured patients to assess which ones have assets they can go after, Bell explained.

One solution is to ban balance billing for the air-ambulance industry and create a fee schedule for the entire marketplace, but that seems unlikely because of a 1978 federal law that deregulated the airlines and prohibited the federal government from regulating prices and schedules in the states.

North Dakota passed a law requiring those needing air ambulances to use a list of providers that are part of insurers’ networks. One company sued, and the issue is tied up in court. Other federal laws may also inadvertently prevent a national solution that would apply to all consumers no matter what kind of insurance they had.

The usual shopping advice doesn’t apply here. But you can check your insurance benefits and at least know if you are covered for these services. You can look at a chart from the Kaiser Family Foundation that offers guidance about your state’s rules on balanced billing. And, you can make a lot of noise with state officials if you face one of these bills.

Some companies offer membership programs for a nominal fee that will pay some portion of the bills. These cards, which are not insurance, may not cover the full cost, and you may be picked up by a service that doesn’t honor your card. And in an emergency, are you going to look for your card and tell the EMS worker, “Hey, call this one?”

Have you had experience with balance billing? Write to Trudy at trudy.lieberman@gmail.com.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Feds offer millions to replace Appalachian coal jobs, shun most of blame for industry's decline

By Al Cross
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Federal officials trying to help Central Appalachian counties reeling from losses of coal jobs say they will use a pot of new money "to demonstrate that Appalachia really is the next great investment opportunity in America."

That's how Earl Gohl, federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, described it Thursday in a conference call with reporters from the region. Jay Williams, assistant secretary of commerce for economic development, endorsed the description.

They were joined by Jason Walsh, a senior economic policy adviser at the White House, who in response to a question challenged the widespread belief in Central Appalachia that President Obama's environmental policies are largely responsible for the sharp decline of coal in the region.

The officials announced that the administration would have $65.8 million available for economic-development efforts in communities that have historically relied on coal and have been hurt by changes in the coal economy. The money comes from a recent congressional appropriation from the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Fund, funded by a federal tax on coal. Walsh said the administration wants to prioritize projects where reclamation can be linked to job development.

The money can be used for "projects that diversify local and regional economies, create jobs in new and/or existing industries, attract new sources of job-creating investment and provide a range of workforce services and skills training; building partnerships to attract and invest in the economic future of coal-impacted communities; and increasing capacity and other technical assistance fostering long term economic growth and opportunity in coal-impacted communities," the ARC and the Economic Development Administration said in a press release.

"This program is really an investment in the next generation of leadership of Appalachians," Gohl said, citing the youthful energy he sees in places like Whitesburg and Harlan County, Kentucky, and Princeton, W.Va.

The effort is part of the administration's Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization, or POWER initiative. Obama proposed a $1 billion aid package, but Republicans in Congress largely rejected it. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said through an aide in August that he was for helping laid-off coal miners "but that no amount of federal relief can paper over the devastating damage this president and his policies have had on coal country."

It is an article of faith among many if not most residents of the Central Appalachian coalfield that Obama's environmental policies are largely responsible for the losses of coal jobs. The evidence does not support that, Walsh said, when asked if administration officials could get people in the coalfield to put that belief aside to work with them.

"It has been our premise all along that we can find some common ground here," Walsh said, citing "bipartisan legislation moving in Congress" to provide even more money as an example.

"The fact is that the decline in coal jobs began well before President Obama took office, largely because of market forces," most recently competition form cheap natural gas, Walsh said. "Any independent analyst who tracks the industry closely will tell you that the economic drivers are paramount."

Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette-Mail cited such experts in making the same point almost two years ago. For Ward's story on the conference call, click here.

Noting that most of the region's good coal has been mined, Walsh said, "You gotta dig deeper or you gotta blow the tops off of mountains, and that's really expensive. . . . The economic data is just there for anyone who cares to look at it." He said people in coal communities are "less interested in data and debate than solutions."

Obama said in his major climate-change speech at Georgetown University in 2013, "We’re going to need to give special care to people and communities that are unsettled by this transition."

Gohl noted that Obama asked Congress to give ARC an extra $50 million this year, and said the agency has "not had a position in any administration's domestic policy like in the Obama administration since the early days of ARC."

Asked if the region can attract private capital to crate jobs, Gohl said, "The challenge of this work is that it's local work," dependent on local entrepreneurs like BitSource in Pikeville, Ky., which is training laid-off miners to be computer coders. He said the two owners have "big ideas, big plans and real serious challenges to meet, but they also have a sense that this is their future. This is an example of the creativity that we have in the region and allows us to have a great future."

Limit on painkiller prescriptions hurts rural doctors treating honest patients suffering from pain

An increase in opioid overdose deaths and a move by many states to limit prescriptions of opioids—along with a draft proposal of regulations released this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to reduce use of the drugs—is putting small town doctors in the unenviable position of refusing to prescribe painkillers to patients who actually need them, Jan Hoffman reports for The New York Times. According to a recent study in JAMA Internal Medicine, 15.3 million painkiller prescriptions were for Medicare patients alone in 2013. A Stateline study found that the largest number of painkiller prescriptions are in the South, led by Alabama, where 142.9 prescriptions are given for every 100 people. A CDC study from December found that rural areas—where opoid use and overdoses are on the rise—lack prevention services for opiate addiction.

In Nebraska, Medicaid patients "may face limits this year that have been recommended by a state drug review board," Hoffman writes. Dr. Robert L. Wergin, the only physician in rural Milford, Neb., (City-Data map) told Hoffman, “I have a patient with inoperable spinal stenosis who needs to be able to keep chopping wood to heat his home. A one-size-fits-all prescription algorithm just doesn’t fit him. But I have to comply.”

Wergin, who is also chairman of the board of the American Academy of Family Physicians, is taking professional and personal risks when he prescribes opioids, Hoffman writes. "He must go through an elaborate prescription checklist, with state and federal officials looking over his shoulder. He has faced threats from addicts who show up at the hospital emergency room, desperate for pills. Following the recommendation of his malpractice insurance carrier, he now requires his patients to sign 'pain management contracts,' in which they must agree to random drug tests before receiving an opioid prescription."

"The new vigilance has injected an uncomfortable layer of suspicion in his relationships with" patients, some of whom he has known since grade school, Hoffman writes. And if patients want to see another doctor—one they don't know personally—there are not many alternatives, with the closest city to Milford 30 miles away in Lincoln. (Read more)

Political spending of 'dark money' has increased with names of donors legally kept secret

Political spending from donors whose names candidates are not required to disclose—often referred to as dark money—has been on the rise and is expected to explode during this year's presidential election, reports Mary Spicuzza of the Milwaukee Sentinel-Journal and Jeremy White of The Sacramento Bee in a story written for Sunshine Week, an annual event to celebrate open government and freedom of the press. Sunshine Week runs through Saturday.

An analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics found that "more than $308 million in dark money was spent during the 2012 election cycle," Spicuzza and White write. "Of that, about 86 percent was spent by conservative groups, 11 percent by liberal groups and 3 percent by others."

"States can take action to stem the tide at the local level, but few have," Spicuzza and White write. "Congress could require more disclosure about who is financing campaigns, but it has made no move to do so." Late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once wrote in an opinion in favor of disclosing petition signatures, “Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed."

"The U.S. Supreme Court repeatedly has ruled in favor of public disclosure of campaign contributions, even in its earth-moving Citizens United decision," Spicuzza and White write. "The 2010 ruling found that political spending is protected under the First Amendment and said that corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts of money on political activities. It effectively wiped out key campaign finance regulations that had been in effect for decades. But it also upheld disclosure requirements. That and other Supreme Court decisions have resulted in unprecedented amounts of money pouring into elections. Because Congress has not acted to require further disclosure, the old limits are gone, and new rules have not been passed to take their place, leaving citizens more in the dark than ever about whether elected officials are working for them or for special interests behind their campaigns."

"Groups that advocate for more transparency say the federal stalemate has driven reform efforts to the local level in some states, where they see greater opportunity to push for change," Spicuzza and White write. "Efforts to change state disclosure laws are not just a function of opportunity, advocates say. They also are a necessity, given a state-level influx of dark money paralleling the federal flood. But there’s a limit to what states can do, since they don’t have oversight of spending on federal races—such as presidential and Congressional contests, which are consistently the costliest elections."

Some people cite safety concerns for keeping donor names secret, Spicuzza and White write. James Bopp, Jr., a conservative attorney based in Indiana, "said he supports transparency for public officials, but that it’s another matter when people obtain and use information about donors to 'punish them and harass them.'" He told  Spicuzza and White, “It’s a completely different agenda, and what it does is turn the First Amendment on its head."

Trump beats Gov. Kasich in rural areas in his home state, despite losing overall vote in Ohio

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Tuesday beat Ohio Gov. John Kasich in rural areas in his home state, despite Kasich winning the overall vote, Tim Marema and Bill Bishop report for the Daily Yonder. Overall, Trump dominated in rural areas Tuesday, while rural voters were split on Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Trump took the rural vote in all five states, while Clinton won the rural vote in four of five states. (Yonder map)
While Kasich won in metro and suburban Ohio, Trump edged him in rural areas, 39.6 percent to 38.9 percent, Marema and Bishop write. In Florida, Trump destroyed the field in rural areas, earning 51.1 percent, beating, earning nearly twice as many rural votes as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (26.2 percent) and easily beating Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who garnered 16.3 percent of rural votes in his home state. Trump also won in rural Missouri, beating Cruz 48.1 percent to 38.8 percent for Cruz. In rural North Carolina Trump beat Cruz 47.8 percent to 35.4 percent, and in rural Illinois Trump beat Cruz 44.2 percent to 35 percent.

Rural Democrats remain split on Clinton and Sanders, Mareman and Bishop write. Clinton won the rural vote by a wide margin in North Carolin but narrowly defeated Sanders in rural areas in Missouri, Ohio and Florida, while Sanders beat Clinton in Illinois. Clinton beat Sanders in rural North Carolina, 57.7 percent to 32.9 percent, in rural Florida 47.2 percent to 41.4 percent, in rural Ohio 51.6 percent to 45.9 percent and in rural Missouri 50.1 percent to 47.7 percent. Sanders won the rural vote in Illinois by a margin of 51.4 percent to 45.7 percent. (Read more)

Hillary Clinton struggling in Appalachia; has no connection to 'hard-working white Americans'

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has scored well in urban areas and among rural and urban African Americans but continues to perform poorly among whites in Appalachia, much like President Obama did in 2008 and 2012, Sasha Issenberg reports for Bloomberg. The problem for Clinton is that some of the areas where she is now getting low numbers are the same areas where she beat Obama in 2008. (Bloomberg photo by Daniel Acker)

Clinton is being abandoned by the voters she "infelicitously celebrated in May 2008 as 'working, hard-working Americans, white Americans,'” Issenberg writes. In 2008 "she racked up her biggest margins within the skein of Scots-Irish heritage that cuts from Pennsylvania and Ohio down to North Carolina and Tennessee, including landslide victories over Obama in the Kentucky and West Virginia primaries." Clinton told USA Today in May 2008, “These are the people you have to win if you’re a Democrat in sufficient numbers to actually win the election. Everybody knows that.”

Issenberg writes, "That turned out not to be quite true. What the New Yorker that fall diagnosed as 'the Appalachian problem' was real. Nearly all the counties where Obama did significantly worse than the 2004 nominee, John Kerry, stretched contiguously across that economically depressed region, and yet despite that loss of support from rural whites Obama managed to carry Pennsylvania, Ohio and North Carolina in his rout of John McCain." (Bloomberg graphic: Clinton's vote share change from 2008 to 2016)
"On Tuesday, that mountainous stretch handed Clinton some of her most staggering reversals: In Ohio’s Galia County, along the West Virginia border, Clinton’s share of the vote fell by 30 percentage points; by 33 in North Carolina’s Graham County, abutting Tennessee," Issenberg writes. "This is all a reminder of how circumstantial Clinton’s position as tribune of the white working class was during her first presidential campaign. Perhaps now that she is no longer running against an African-American candidate—and has anointed herself a crusader against the 'challenges of racism, of sexism, of discrimination against the LGBT community'—Clinton no longer has much of a connection with those 'hard-working Americans.'"

"Those results may give Sanders cause to be optimistic about his prospects in Pennsylvania—where Clinton won by nearly 10 points in 2008 even as Obama trounced her in Philadelphia—and Clinton a reason to worry about facing Donald Trump in the general election," Issenberg writes. "This year, the Appalachian problem may be hers." (Read more)

Lobbying by AT&T, Comcast being blamed for killing bill to expand broadband to rural Tennessee

Lobbying by Internet giants AT&T and Comcast in Tennessee is being blamed for dealing a fatal blow to legislation that would allow municipal electric power services to expand their lightning-fast Internet offerings to underserved areas, Richard Locker reports for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. The bill will be deferred to next year's bills. State Rep. Kevin Brooks (R-Cleveland), who wrote the bill, told Locker, "It's a testament to the power of lobbying against this bill and not listening to our electorate. We have thousands of petitions signed [in support of the bill], and the voice of the people was not heard today."

The House Business and Utilities Subcommittee killed the bill, "even though Brooks had amended it down to a 'pilot' program in which the city-owned Electric Power Board of Chattanooga could expand its nationally acclaimed broadband service outside its Hamilton County service area and into adjoining Bradley County," Locker writes. "Current Tennessee law allows municipal electric utilities to provide Internet service only within the boundaries of their electric service."

"Supporters of rural broadband have tried for seven consecutive years to win approval of some form of legislation allowing local publicly owned electric utilities to expand their high-speed internet services outside of their immediate service areas but have been thwarted annually by lobbying by for-profit companies who have been slow to expand their high-speed telecommunications services into more sparsely populated—and less profitable—areas," Locker writes.

Rural Idaho sheriff draws criticism for saying most rapes are 'actually consensual sex'

A rural Idaho sheriff has gotten into hot water for telling a local television station that he objects to new state legislation that tracks sexual assault kits, asserting that most rape claims in his county are false, Tom Holm reports for the Post Register in Idaho Falls. Craig Rowland, sheriff of Bingham County, said in the interview, “They need to let us decide if we’re going to send the kit and when we send the kits in. Because the majority of our rapes, not to say that we don’t have rapes, we do, but the majority of our rapes that are called in, are actually consensual sex." He said a typical rape claim in Bingham County (Wikipedia map) is "a 17-year-old girl who had consensual sex with her boyfriend but didn’t know how to tell her parents."

The bill "would require the state forensic lab to test every kit submitted to them and would set up a timeline for law enforcement to submit the kits, instead of leaving it up to individual agencies as it’s done now," Holm writes. "Rowland has said he wants to be in charge of when his office sends a kit in for testing because too many rapes end up being falsely reported."

Rowland, who said he has no plans to give in to calls for him to resign or retire, claims he misspoke during the interview. He told Holm, “I, by no means, meant to belittle victims. . . . Every single rape that is called into Dispatch is investigated thoroughly, usually initially by a patrol officer and then by a detective . . . to the full extent of his or her ability."

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Annual county health rankings are released; rural counties continue to lag; check on yours

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute today released the annual County Health Rankings. The rankings are a good resource for assessing a county's overall health status and for comparing counties within the same state. "The rankings look at many interconnected factors that influence community health including education, jobs, smoking, physical inactivity and access to health care," Donald Schwarz reports for the foundation. "This year, we added a new measure on residential segregation to help communities see where disparities may cluster because some neighborhoods or areas have been cut off from opportunities and investments that fuel good health."

Counties are ranked relative to the health of other counties in the same state and are based on eight factors: overall health outcomes; length of life, quality of life; overall health factors; health behaviors; clinical care; social and economic factors; and physical environment, states the report. "The overall health outcomes summary score is a weighted composite of length of life (50 percent) and quality of life (50 percent). The overall health factors summary score is a weighted composite of four components: health behaviors (30 percent), clinical care (20 percent), social and economic factors (40 percent), and physical environment (10 percent). The component weights for Health Outcomes and Health Factors each add to 100 percent."

Rural areas didn't score well in this year's rankings, receiving high scores in areas such as tobacco use, teen births and preventable hospital stays, Sarah Hedgecock reports for Forbes. Schwarz told her, “The lack of improvement in health in rural counties while other counties have shown improvement over the last almost two decades was shocking to see." (Click on chart for larger, clearer version)
One measure in which rural areas did poorly was premature death, with those rates worsening in one of out of every five rural counties, Hedgecock writes. Bridget Catlin, a senior scientist at the Population Health Institute and author of the report, told her, “There really is no one single factor that is contributing to the situation in rural counties. It’s not just access to health care." To search the rankings by state, click here.

Senate approves Freedom of Information Act amendments to improve government transparency

President Obama said he would "sign a Freedom of Information Act reform bill the Senate passed Tuesday, if it reaches his desk in that form, a White House spokesperson said," Josh Gerstein reports for Politico. The measure, which cleared the Senate unanimously Tuesday—and is similar, but not identical, to a FOIA bill that passed the House in January—"calls for a centralized portal to request records from all government agencies and writes into the law a presumption of openness that the Obama administration adopted by executive order when he took office in 2009. . . . The bill was watered down somewhat before it passed."

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) said on the Senate floor just before the bill passed by unanimous consent, "A continued culture of government secrecy has served to undermine FOIA's fundamental promise. Problems with FOIA have persisted under both Republican and Democrat presidents, but under President Obama things have only worsened, and his commitment to a new era of openness has proven illusory at best . . . More and more agencies are simply finding ways to avoid their duties under FOIA altogether."

The decision comes in the middle of Sunshine Week, an annual event to celebrate open government and freedom of the press. The Sunshine Week site provides plenty of tools, including opinion columns, editorial cartoons, Sunshine Week logos and icons, a sample proclamation for state and local governments, the Schools and Colleges page for students and educators and a series of open government questions to ask candidates running for federal positions. Sunshine Week runs through Saturday.

Broadband gap between rural and urban healthcare facilities grew significantly from 2010 to 2014

The gap between Internet speeds at rural and metro healthcare facilities grew significantly from 2010 to 2014, says a report from researchers at Oklahoma State University published in The Journal of Rural Health. The study found that in 2010, 14 percent of all metro healthcare facilities "had the fastest category of connections, at least 50 Megabits per second (MBPS)," compared to only 5 percent of non-metro facilities, Brian Whitaker, Denna Wheeler and Chad Landgraf report for the Daily Yonder. In 2014, more than 55 percent of metro facilities had the fastest speeds, compared to only 12 percent in non-metro areas. (OSU graphic)
In 2010, 38 percent of non-metro facilities had "higher rates of the lowest category of speeds (< 3 MBPS)," compared to 33 percent in metro areas, reports the Yonder. From 2010 to 2014 the percentage of metro facilities with the slowest connections decreased from 33 percent to 11 percent, while non-metro facilities decreased from 38 percent to 28 percent. "Similar gaps exist for upload speeds, which are important for technologies like EHRs and HIEs."

The report used data from the National Broadband Map (NBM) "to compare levels of health care facility connectivity across metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties," states the report. "The number of health and medical entries in the Community Anchor Institution data collected as part of the NBM grew from 35,000 to 63,000 between 2010 and 2014. About one-fifth provided information on the speed of their connections in 2014."

Feds propose two crew minimum for trains; many trains operated by a crew of one

Rural residents concerned over a rise in train derailments in recent years might be surprised to know that many trains are operated by a crew of one. The Federal Railroad Administration would like to change that, proposing regulations on Monday requiring trains have a minimum of two crew members, Joan Lowy reports for The Associated Press. The move is partly in response to the 2013 crude oil train derailment in Quebec that resulted in 47 deaths. The train was unattended. (Reuters graphic)

The Association of American Railroads opposes the proposal, Lowy writes. Railroad association president Edward Hamberger said there is “simply no safety case” for requiring two-person crews. He also said there will be no point in two person crews once a 2008 law becomes operational. The law requires positive train control technology—which relies on GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor train positions and automatically slow or stop trains that are in danger of colliding or derailing—on all tracks used by passenger trains or trains that haul liquids that turn into toxic gas when exposed to air by Dec. 31, 2015. "After it became clear most railroads wouldn’t make that deadline, Congress passed a bill last fall giving railroads another three to five years to complete the task."

"The Federal Railroad Administration is also considering allowing railroads that operate with only one engineer to apply for an exception to the proposed two-person crew rule, according to a notice published in the Federal Regulator," Lowy writes.

Half of all dairy farms are now large farms with 900 cows, up from 80 cows in 1987, says USDA report

Dairy farms have been shifting to much larger operations over the past two decades, leading to a rise in factory farms, according to a report from the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The report found that "in 1987, after decades of consolidation, half of all dairy cows were on farms with 80 or fewer cows. By 2012, that midpoint herd size was 900 cows."

The main reason for consolidation is costs, states the report. "The largest farms earn substantially higher net returns per hundredweight of milk produced, and they have strong incentives to expand. Average milk costs of production fall sharply as herd sizes increase, and the largest farms—those with 2,000 or more head—realize costs, per hundredweight of production, that are 16 percent below farms with 1,000-1,999 head and 24 percent below farms with 500-999 head." Exports are also on the rise, accounting for $7.2 billion in 2014, up from $1 billion in 2003.

"Changes in the size structure of dairy farms reduced national-average milk production costs by nearly 19 percent between 1998 and 2012," states the report. "In turn, lower milk production costs reduced milk prices compared with what they would have been without structural change." (Read more)

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Most state legislatures deny open records requests, claiming exemption from laws, says AP study

Most state legislatures deny open records requests, claiming they are legally exempt from doing so, according to a study by The Associated Press, which sent requests to more than 170 of the top Republican and Democratic legislatures in each state asking for emails and daily schedules, David Lieb reports for AP. "Some lawmakers claimed 'legislative immunity' from the public-records laws that apply to most state and local officials. Others said secrecy was essential to the deliberative process of making laws. And some feared that releasing the records could invade the privacy of citizens, creating a 'chilling effect' on the right of people to petition their government."

"All legislatures allow people to watch and listen to their debates," Lieb writes. "But an AP review of open-government policies found that many state legislatures allow closed-door caucus meetings in which a majority of lawmakers discuss policy positions before public debates. Others have restrictions on taking photos and videos of legislative proceedings. In some places, lawmakers have no obligation to disclose financial information that could reveal conflicts of interest."

"Legislators possess the power to change that but are sometimes reluctant to act," Lieb writes. "That mirrors the way things work in Washington. Congress exempted itself when it passed the national Freedom of Information Act 50 years ago. The president and his immediate staff also are exempt. By contrast, many governors are subject to state sunshine laws." Charles Davis, dean of the College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia and a former executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, said requirements passed by lawmakers present "a stunning contradiction." He told Lieb, “I have just always found it astonishing that they would put those requirements on public officials throughout government and exempt themselves at the same time."

Sunshine Week, an annual event to celebrate open government and freedom of the press runs through through Saturday, while National Freedom of Information Day is today, the birthday of James Madison, father of the First Amendment. The Sunshine Week site provides plenty of tools, including opinion columns, editorial cartoons, Sunshine Week logos and icons, a sample proclamation for state and local governments, the Schools and Colleges page for students and educators and a series of open government questions to ask candidates running for federal positions.

CDC proposal would limit painkiller prescriptions; prescription rates highest in the South

A rising death toll from opioid overdoses—especially in rural areas—has led health and government officials in many states to call for a limit on the number and strength of painkiller pills prescribed by doctors, Christine Vestal reports for Stateline. "The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is close to taking the unprecedented step of issuing national guidelines to curb liberal opioid prescribing practices widely blamed as the cause of the epidemic."

The largest number of painkiller prescriptions are in the South, led by Alabama, where 142.9 prescriptions are given for every 100 people, Vestal writes. Other states where the number of prescriptions is more than one for every person are: Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Indiana, Michigan and South Carolina. Hawaii has the fewest, at 52 prescriptions per every 100 people. (Stateline graphic)
"CDC’s draft proposal urges primary care doctors to try drug-free methods to relieve chronic pain, such as exercise, weight loss and physical therapy, as well as non-opioid pain relievers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen, before resorting to powerful opioid pills," Vestal writes. "If opioids are needed, the guidelines recommend starting with the smallest effective dose of immediate-release opioids, avoiding more dangerous time-release formulations except when needed." (Stateline graphic)
"Democratic and Republican governors unanimously support the CDC initiative and have pledged to promote the voluntary physician guidelines in their states," Vestal writes. "But the American Medical Association and pain organizations backed by drugmakers are complaining the initiative could make it difficult for chronic pain sufferers to get the pills they need."

High costs, lack of availability keeping rural children from enrolling in afterschool programs

About 3.1 million rural children would enroll in an afterschool program, if an affordable and accessible one were available in their community, says a report called America After 3PM from the Afterschool Alliance. Among rural low-income families, 44 percent would like to participate in an afterschool program, but only 14 percent do. The report also found that 45 percent of rural parents in 2014 said they wanted their child to be in a summer learning program, but only 28 percent enrolled their child in such a program.

Of those surveyed, 73 percent of rural parents said they felt being in an afterschool program would help with homework assignments, and 62 percent said it would increase STEM skills. Also, 61 percent of rural parents said afterschool programs provide children with healthy foods, 73 percent said afterschool programs keeps children physically active, 73 percent said afterschool programs give parents peace of mind knowing their children are safe and 72 percent said programs help working parents keep their jobs.

Affordability, accessibility and availability are the main barriers keeping children from attending aftershcool programs, the report found. Because the average weekly cost of rural afterschool programs is $95.80 in 2014, up from $51.86 in 2009, 59 percent of rural parents said current economic conditions made it difficult for them to afford afterschool. Overall, 46 percent of rural parents cited costs as an important reason why they didn't enroll children in afterschool.

Also, 32 percent of rural parents said afterschool programs were not available in their area, and 67 percent of rural parents "agreed that it was challenging to find an enriching environment for their child in the hours after school." Also, 46 percent of rural parents "report that they opted not to select an afterschool program because of the lack of a safe way for their child to get to and come home from the program, and 42 percent said that inconvenient program locations factored into their decision."

Survey: 34% of rural Minnesota grocery store owners expect to no longer own store in five years

More than one-third of rural grocery store owners in Minnesota don't expect to still own the store in five years, according to a survey by the University of Minnesota Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships and the Minnesota Center for Survey Research. The survey was sent to to grocery stores in Minnesota communities with populations less than 2,500. Of the 254 surveys sent, 179 were returned. Of those respondents, 34 percent said they intend to own the grocery store for five years or less, 29 percent said six to 10 years, 22 percent said 11 to 20 years and 16 percent said they plan to own the grocery for more than 20 years.

While 63 percent of owners said they do not expect to still own the business in 10 years, at least 71 percent said they have no transition plan. The survey also found that 28 percent of stores have customers who travel 30 or more miles to shop, and 61 percent said the nearest discount grocery store was 20 or more miles away, with only two percent saying there was one was less than 10 miles away.

More than 90 percent of grocers indicated that competition with large chain grocery stores (97 percent), high operating costs (95 percent), and narrow profit margins (94 percent) are major or minor challenges, and 29 percent cited competition with large chain grocers as the most significant challenge they face. A total of 84 percent of respondents said they own the building where the store is owned, with 36 percent saying they have owned the store for more than 20 years, 27 percent for 11 to 20 years, 12 percent from six to 10 years and 25 percent for five or fewer years.

Other major economic challenges "include high operating costs and narrow profit margins," reports the Brainerd Dispatch. "The majority of survey respondents have stores housed in older buildings, which can often require more upkeep. More than 44 percent of grocery stores operate in buildings 16 to 50 years old." Kathryn Draeger, the statewide director of the University of Minnesota RSDP, told the Dispatch, “With aging buildings and thin profit margins, I'm concerned that we will see a continuation and worsening of our loss of small town grocery stores."

Another slip of the tongue leaves Clinton facing backlash, this time from coal industry, Appalachia

While Republicans and the coal industry have been quick to jump on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for telling CNN on Sunday, "We're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business," the Clinton campaign says the quote was taken out context and purposely twisted to make her look anti-coal, Dan Merica reports for CNN. Brian Fallon, Clinton's press secretary, told Merica, "Obviously she was making the exact opposite point: that we have to take proactive steps to make sure coal workers, their families and their communities get not just the benefits they've earned but also the future they deserve." (AP photo by David Goldman)

Clinton told CNN that the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan was going to "put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business" and that she was going to "make clear that we don't want to forget these people," Merica writes. She then "touted her plan to spend federal dollars on rebuilding coal country." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul, both Republicans from Kentucky, immediately accused Clinton of joining Obama's "war on coal" and not caring about the struggles of people in poverty-stricken Appalachia.

Clinton tried to make amends Monday, saying, "I'm the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity, using clean renewable energy as the key, into coal country. Because we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business. We're going to make it clear that we don't want to forget those people," Adam Beam and Jonathan Mattise report for The Associated Press.

AP writes, "Clinton has been dogged by a series of slip-ups in recent days. On Friday, she outraged LGBT and HIV/AIDS activists when she attributed early efforts to combat the disease to former First Lady Nancy Reagan. A day later, she prompted swift blowback from Sanders' team when she said she didn't know 'where he was' when she was trying to get a health care overhaul through Congress in 1993. His team produced a photo of Sanders standing right behind her at an event promoting the plan and a hand-written note from Clinton thanking him for his work on the issue."

Utah passes bill to fund $53 million Oakland coal port; some Oakland officials fear health hazards

Utah state legislators last week passed a bill approving $53 million "to help build a deep-water port in California in the belief the project will allow Utah to sell coal and other products overseas," Lee Davidson reports for The Salt Lake Tribune. Republican Gov. Gary Herbert is expected to sign the bill into law. (Tribune photo by Francisco Kjolseth: Coal is piled up at the Levan transfer facility along Interstate 15—south of Nephi, Utah.)

Rep. Brad King (D-Price), who represents Utah's coal country, "argued the deal poses no risk to taxpayers because the state treasury would be reimbursed almost instantly by the Permanent Community Impact Board (CIB) with money from federal mineral royalties," Davidson writes. "At the same time, the lone Democrat representing rural Utah said the deal has a good chance of saving jobs by opening new markets abroad for Utah coal and other products from oil to alfalfa."

"Critics have called it a suspect 'shell game,' and it has sparked an outcry from environmental groups in California and Utah that say such coal shipments would further global warming and question if there is a market for such exports," Davidson writes. "Environmentalists filed complaints with Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes challenging the use of CIB funds for an out-of-state project. Reyes has declined to comment on the legality, but concerns led to the unusual plan to trade royalty proceeds for state money that has fewer strings and regulations attached."

Officials in Oakland are reviewing evidence to see if transporting coal would endanger residents, David DeBolt reports for the San Jose Mercury News. "Coal would be taken by rail from Utah to Oakland and shipped overseas to Asia. Environmental groups argue it would expose West Oakland residents to greater risks of respiratory illness, and the exports of coal fly in the face of the state's commitment to clean air and energy." Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Oakland) last month "introduced four bills targeting coal shipments in California and asked the California Transportation Commission to stop funding to the Oakland project."

Monday, March 14, 2016

Poor, uneducated, angry, rural whites are fueling Donald Trump's presidential campaign

Poor, uneducated, angry white rural residents are one of the biggest driving forces behind Donald Trump's run toward the Republican presidential nomination, Neil Irwin and Josh Katz report for The New York Times. William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, told the Times, “It’s a nonurban, blue-collar and now apparently quite angry population. They’re not people who have moved around a lot, and things have been changing away from them, but they live in areas that feel stagnant in a lot of ways.”

Using election results from The Associated Press, the American Community Survey, Dave Leip's Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections and the Equality of Opportunity Project, the Times put together demographics of 10 variables most closely linked to a county's support of Trump. His biggest supporters are whites with no high school diploma. The second biggest supporters are those who self-identify with the Census Bureau as being of American descent. That's followed by people living in mobile homes, those working "old economy" jobs, such as agriculture, construction, manufacturing and trade. Trump has also done well with people born in the U.S., Evangelicals and those with a history of voting for segregationists, such as George Wallace in 1968. (Whites without a high school education by county)
"The places where Trump has done well cut across many of the usual fault lines of American politics—North and South, liberal and conservative, rural and suburban," Irwin and Katz write. "What they have in common is that they have largely missed the generation-long transition of the U.S. away from manufacturing and into a diverse, information-driven economy deeply intertwined with the rest of the world."

"Trump has performed well thus far in Appalachian coal counties and in rural parts of Alabama and Mississippi, which are coping with economic and social dysfunctions like high unemployment rates and heroin addiction," Irwin and Katz write. "And in places where Trump does well, relatively high proportions of workers are in fields that involve working with one’s hands, especially manufacturing. The decline in manufacturing employment is not a story of merely a rough few years for the economy; nationwide factory employment peaked in 1979 and as a proportion of total jobs has been declining almost continually since 1943. Forces including mechanization and trade have put employment prospects in the sector in an ever-worsening position." (Read more)

Surveys detail struggles crime reporters have in getting data from public information officers

Crime reporters say public information officers "often make their jobs more difficult by creating barriers to agency experts who have information the public needs to know," Jonathan Anderson, Carolyn Carlson and Jennifer Royer report for the Society of Professional Journalists as part of Sunshine Week, an annual event to celebrate open government and freedom of the press. Sunshine Week runs through through Saturday, while National Freedom of Information Day is Tuesday, the birthday of James Madison, father of the First Amendment.

SPJ conducted a survey of 181 law enforcement agency public information officers (PIOs) that "found that most maintain message control by requiring police officers to refer reporters to them when contacted directly by a reporter," SPJ reports. "A majority of PIOs also monitor the interviews they set up with reporters. Most said they monitored to make sure the officer doesn’t reveal information that is not part of the official message, although some said they were there simply to reassure a nervous officer who is not comfortable being interviewed, especially on television."

An SPJ crime reporters survey of 195 respondents found that "less than 15 percent of the crime reporters said they were able to get around the policy of having to go through a PIO to get an interview," reports SPJ. "The rest said they had to use the PIO if they wanted to talk to an officer or investigator. This holds true even at crime scenes. Reporters generally have to wait until the PIO shows up to find out what’s going on and, on rare occasions, talk to an investigator. However, for many, the PIO doesn’t come to the crime scene."

Carlson, an associate professor of journalism at Kennesaw State University, who helped conduct the surveys, said one of the most disturbing findings was that "about half of the PIOs surveyed have a policy of banning interviews with a reporter or media outlet after they have problems with their stories," SPJ reports. Carlson said, “PIOs say they monitor interviews to ensure that correct, consistent messaging is released, to ensure a reporter stays on topic and to ensure interviews stay within the parameters the agencies want, but the extent of these controls are incompatible with a free society."

Only a few of the reporters said "that the crime records that they used to have to ask for, like crime incident reports, are now being put online," reports SPJ. "Most say police computer systems make access to public records difficult. Many PIOs report that their records management software is older than four years old, some as old as 10-15 years. They agree that their systems often make it difficult to separate the public from the private information When asked to provide more details about the problem, many PIOs said they had to manually redact information, like driver’s license numbers, that could not be released by law, and that slows down the process. Reporters said they usually would get the records they requested within the time frame required by their state law but rarely right away. Usually the PIO or the records custodian is able to answer questions about the records, but the reporters say that they rarely will explain why things have been redacted."

Sunshine Week, an annual event to celebrate open government and freedom of the press, celebrates its 11th year this week through Saturday. National Freedom of Information Day is Tuesday, the birthday of James Madison, father of the First Amendment. The Sunshine Week site provides plenty of tools, including opinion columns, editorial cartoons, Sunshine Week logos and icons, a sample proclamation for state and local governments, the Schools and Colleges page for students and educators and a series of open government questions to ask candidates running for federal positions.

Central Appalachian coal county residents training to field jobs in growing teleworks field

While Central Appalachian communities continue to search for ways to revitalize local economies that have lost coal jobs, some of the nation's poorest counties in Eastern Kentucky are taking advantage of the region's high Internet speeds to train local residents to work at a growing call center business, Bill Estep reports for Lexington Herald-Leader. Hazard, Ky.-based Teleworks USA, born out of the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, serves 23 counties and hired 213 employees in 2015, said Michael Cornett, head of Teleworks USA. (Estep photo: Training on computer and customer-service skills at the Teleworks USA training hub in Annville, Ky.)

"Teleworks USA employees train people in computer and customer-service skills during a course that lasts from three to four weeks and also helps them polish résumés and get ready to interview for jobs," Estep writes. "The trainees receive several certifications covering customer service and sales, digital literacy and work ethic, which boosts their value to potential employers, said Betty Hays, operations manager for Teleworks USA." She told Estep, “They’re getting someone who knows what they’re doing. They’re trainable, they’re intelligent and they’re willing to work."

The program uses a $200,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to equip hubs set to open soon, Estep writes. "Teleworks USA provides equipment and staff at the hubs, but communities must provide a space and pay for utilities and Internet service. Officials in other cities have expressed interest in having a teleworks hub."

An initiative of Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative was one of the key reasons Teleworks USA has been so successful, Estep writes. "The co-op, which serves Jackson and Owsley counties, put together $50 million in grant and loan financing to lay fiber-optic lines throughout its territory, said Keith Gabbard, the general manager. That means every home and business in those counties has access to Internet speeds of up to one gigabit per second, or 1,000 megabytes per second, Gabbard said. The average speed in the U.S. in early 2015 was 11.7 megabytes per second, according to a company called Akamai that tracks Internet speeds." (Read more)

Online project launched to provide educational safety courses for youth in agriculture

Safety in Agriculture for Youth (SAY) has been launched to provide training courses to increase safety and health knowledge for youths and reduce hazards and risks youth are exposed to on farms and ranches. The one-stop shop includes links to courses for safety for new and beginning farmers and entry level workers and safety with animals, ATVs, chemicals, dairy, equine, tractors, rural roadways, grain operations, heat, ladders and manure pits. It also includes the Farm Family Emergency Response Program, the Gearing Up for Safety program, the Injury Risk Assessment for Supervised Agricultural Experiences and the National Safe Tractor & Machinery Operation Program.

All educational resources "are aligned to the 2015 Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (AFNR) standards," according to SAY. "Each educational resource has a page that provides a description, type of resource, language (English and/or Spanish), website link to resource and alignment chart to AFNR standards. The AFNR Standards provide agricultural educators (both formal and informal) with a high-quality, rigorous set of standards to guide what youth should know and be able to do after completing a program or educational event." (Read more)

Christian organization training teachers to get around laws and promote religion in public schools

An organization called the Christian Educators Association International, which "sees the nation’s public schools as 'the largest single mission field in America,' aims to show Christian teachers how to live their faith—and evangelize in public schools—without running afoul of the Constitution’s prohibition on the government establishing or promoting any particular religion," Emma Brown reports for The Washington Post.

Finn Laursen, executive director of the organization, told Brown, “We’re not talking about proselytizing. That would be illegal. But we’re saying you can do a lot of things. . . . It’s a mission field that you fish in differently.”

Some advocates argue that "the organization urges teachers to invite Christianity into the classroom in ways that might be unconstitutional and that are bound to make some children—and their parents—uncomfortable," Brown writes. "Others say that there would be outrage if teachers of any other faith were being encouraged to express their beliefs in the classroom, legally or otherwise—particularly at a time when anti- Muslim sentiment is on the rise and some parents have complained that academic lessons about Islam can amount to religious indoctrination."

"Laursen said he believes teachers of every faith have—and deserve—the same constitutional protections as Christian teachers when it comes to expressing religion at school," Brown writes. "He and some other Christian educators say the culture in many public schools feels particularly hostile to Christianity compared with other religions, making it intimidating to admit a relationship with Jesus. And they say that by explaining the law in concrete terms, the Christian Educators Association has empowered them to express their faith with new boldness."

"During weekend-long seminars in hotel conference rooms, the group teaches teachers that they have a right to pray with colleagues during breaks or at lunchtime," Brown writes. "They may lead before- and after-school religious clubs for students. They can honestly answer students’ questions about their beliefs, and they may even pray with students outside work hours. Teachers are told it’s OK to keep a Bible on their desk and teach about it in class, so long as it fits within the curriculum. And they are urged to witness for Jesus by acting in a godly manner, in part so that others might be provoked to wonder—and ask—why they have so much kindness and compassion."

Charles C. Haynes, a First Amendment expert at the Newseum Institute’s Religious Freedom Center, said that "while the Constitution says that government cannot establish religion, it also says that the government cannot inhibit religious freedom—a provision that allows students—and to a lesser degree, teachers—to express their faith in school," Brown writes. He told her, “The First Amendment does not exclude religion from public schools. It gives us the ground rules for how religion comes into public schools.”

Federal jury awards $4.2M to last plaintiffs in battle over contaminated rural Pa. drinking water

"A federal jury on Thursday found Cabot Oil and Gas Corp. responsible for contaminating two Susquehanna County water wells through its natural gas drilling operations and awarded the families a total of $4.24 million," Laura Legere reports for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The Dimock Township (Post-Gazette map) families "were the last plaintiffs in a high-profile case that began in 2009 and originally included 44 of the rural town’s residents who claimed shoddy Cabot wells drilled early in the Marcellus Shale gas boom allowed methane and other constituents to migrate into their drinking water."

"A state investigation that began in 2009 concluded that Cabot was responsible for contaminating 18 Dimock water supplies with high levels of methane and metals," Legere  writes. "Residents had complained of brown, fetid water that was so full of gas it would cause a lit match to burst into flame. That drew the attention of federal regulators, the international press, celebrities, filmmakers and anti-fracking activists to the tiny community, which was described as a cautionary tale for other regions hoping to capitalize on advanced but invasive extraction technologies to release oil and gas from stubborn shale formations. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection barred Cabot from drilling new wells in a 9-square-mile section of the township in April 2010."

The other families settled in 2012, reports Reuters. Dimrock was featured in the 2010 documentary "Gasland" that "showed local residents lighting their tap water on fire because of the high amount of methane it contained." Lawyers for Cabot "argued in court that the methane occurred naturally and was not caused by the company's drilling operations" and the "groundwater, while aesthetically displeasing, was safe to drink."