Friday, March 31, 2017

Disability rates highest in rural, white, working-class counties; see your county's since 2004

Washington Post maps; click on them to enlarge
Rural America has "experienced the most rapid increase in disability rates over the past decade," with 133 of 136 of the counties with the highest rates—where more than one in six working-age adults receive disability—being rural, Terrence McCoy reports for The Washington Post. Of those counties, all but 18 were, on average, 87 percent white.

McCoy's report includes an interactive chart that allows users to track each county's disability rate since 2014.

From 1996 to 2015, the number of working-age adults receiving disability rose from 7.7 million to 13 million and "the federal government this year will spend an estimated $192 billion on disability payments, more than the combined total for food stamps, welfare, housing subsidies and unemployment assistance," McCoy writes.

"The rise in disability has emerged as yet another indicator of a widening political, cultural and economic chasm between urban and rural America," McCoy writes. "In the 2016 presidential election, the majority-white counties voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, whose rhetoric of a rotting nation with vast joblessness often reflects lived experiences in these communities."

"Most people aren’t employed when they apply for disability—one reason applicant rates skyrocketed during the recession," McCoy writes. "Full-time employment would, in fact, disqualify most applicants. And once on it, few ever get off, their ranks uncounted in the national unemployment rate, which doesn’t include people on disability. The decision to apply, in many cases, is a decision to effectively abandon working altogether. For the severely disabled, this choice is, in essence, made for them. But for others, it’s murkier. Aches accumulate. Years pile up. Job prospects diminish."

McCoy gives a detailed example in the case of Desmond Spencer, a former roofer in Beaverton, Ala., who lost two jobs when companies left the country, before losing another during the recession, McCoy writes. At 39, Spencer, who limps from a work accident that he never sought treatment for, hasn't had a job in a year. Family members urge him to apply for disability benefits, but he doesn't want to be seen as a failure and he wonders if he is actually able to work and thus doesn't need assistance. He told McCoy, “There’s a stigma about it. Disabled. Disability. Drawing a check. But if you’re putting food on the table, does it matter?”

Spencer's situation may not be typical of all people who get disability benefits or are considering seeking them, but the Post is casting a wider net; at the bottom the story it has a questionnaire asking people to tell about their own applications.

Climate skeptics sending teachers a book and DVD; National Geographic offers contrary info

"A libertarian think tank that rejects the scientific consensus on climate change" has mailed 25,000 public-school teachers its book and DVD Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming, and plans to reach 200,000 teachers, Katie Worth reports for PBS's "Frontline." The Heartland Institute "dismisses multiple studies showing scientists are in near unanimous agreement that humans are changing the climate," Worth reports.

A more scientific approach appears in the April edition of National Geographic, which lists the things everyone should know about climate change. Last year was the warmest on record, "1.69 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the 20th century average," the magazine reports. Warming trends didn't come from one or two sources, but from thousands of weather stations, buoys, ships and satellites. "No natural cause explains the half-century warning trend. The sun's output cycles up and down every 11 years; volcanic eruptions sporadically cool the planet. Meanwhile, human-emitted greenhouse gases form a steadily thickening blanket that traps heat at the Earth's surface."

Nine of 10 scientists agree that climate change is occurring and they have the data to back it up, National Geographic reports. Ice is melting fast, sea levels are rising and the weather is getting more intense, led by an increase in heat waves, droughts and flooding.

Climate change has negatively affected wildlife, as rising temperatures depress some animal and plant populations, "driving species toward the poles, shifting migration and patterns," the magazine reports. That has led to extinction of some species, with regions being transformed, ice loss forcing some animals to land, alpine ecosystems being squeezed off mountaintops and warming ocean temperatures triggering coal bleaching and die-offs at reefs.

Overall, 47 percent of species surveyed in a 2016 study "had vanished from areas they'd previously occupied on the warm edge of their range." A 2015 study found that 16 percent of species risk global extinction if the climate warms by eight degrees, which could occur by 2100 if emissions are not cut.

The main thing to take away from climate change is that we can do something about it, National Geographic says. "The cost of solar energy is plummeting. Even without a carbon tax, renewables soon may be cheaper sources of electricity." A 2016 study found that every ton of CO2 we emit melts 32 square feet of Arctic ice, or 525 square feet annually. National Geographic notes, "Every energy-saving building, retired gas-guzzler and acre of preserved forest helps. But none of it will help much if the world doesn't switch to carbon-free energy support soon."

UPDATE, April 4: Some leading Democratic members of Congress urged teachers to throw the books away, Hanna Hess of Greenwire reports.

Top 3 coal producers want U.S. to keep climate-change agreement; top independent doesn't

The top three coal producers in the U.S.—Peabody Energy, Arch Coal and Cloud Peak Energy—told White House officials they would not object to the U.S. remaining in the Paris climate-change agreement, particularly if the Trump administration "can secure more financial support for technology to reduce pollution from the use of coal," Andrew Restuccia reports for Politico. But that approach faces resistance from others in the industry, such as Murray Energy, the largest private coal company in the country. CEO Robert Murray has close ties to the Trump administration.

White House sources said Peabody, Arch and Cloud Peak, which are publicly traded and mine more than 42 percent of the coal produced in the U.S., "hope to see their policy priorities reflected in the reworked domestic climate plan that the Trump administration would probably submit if it decides to stay in the 2015 Paris deal," Restuccia reports. "In the agreement, the U.S. and nearly 200 nations committed to take steps in the coming decades to sharply reduce their emissions of the greenhouse gases that are warming the planet."

Arch spokeswoman Logan Bonacorsi "praised the administration for reconsidering former President Barack Obama's climate change regulations for power plants and focusing instead on 'driving progress on advanced, low-emissions fossil fuel technologies that will provide far greater benefits over time,' but she did not directly address the company's position on the international deal," Restuccia writes. Peabody and Cloud Peak did not comment.

"Other coal companies remain deeply opposed to the U.S. remaining in the Paris deal, arguing that the global effort to crack down on emissions could further harm the ailing industry," Restuccia writes. Robert Murray "called the deal 'illegal' and a waste of taxpayer money in a February speech in Miami. He joined the president on Tuesday when Trump signed an executive order that took the first steps toward repealing key portions of Obama's climate agenda."

Stricter immigration laws, border wall threaten ag industries that rely on undocumented workers

Farm workers pick broccolini in King City, Calif.
(Associated Press photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Of the 1.5 to 2 million farm workers in the country, 46 percent are undocumented, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates in its National Agricultural Workers Survey. The United Fresh Produce Association, a produce industry trade group, estimates numbers are higher, anywhere from 50 to 70 percent, reports Tamar Haspel reports for The Washington Post.

Either way, the industry could take a tremendous hit under President Trump's increased immigration enforcement and his proposed border wall, Haspel writes. And it's not as if Americans are standing in line for farm jobs, which often require long hours of backbreaking work for low pay.

A study in North Carolina in 2011, a year in which almost 500,000 people in the state were unemployed, found that when the North Carolina Growers Association listed 6,500 available jobs, only 268 Americans applied, 245 were hired, 163 showed up to work and only seven finished the season. Haspel notes, "Of the mostly Mexican workers who took the rest of the jobs, 90 percent made it through to the end."

Haspel also reports the undocumented workforce is shrinking because of Trump administration policies, stricter enforcement under the Obama administration, better conditions in Mexico, and an aging immigrant workforce. These scenarios have put pressure on farmers to raise wages and improve conditions, which could lead to higher prices for consumers. "If wages increased 25 percent (from $12 to $15), and that cost were passed on to us, produce prices would rise 2 to 3 percent. The yearly impact would be in the range of $30 per household, certainly affordable for many but not for all," Haspel writes.

News series in South Dakota weekly is based on public notices, showing their value to the public

April 7 column. All eight columns can be found here.
South Dakota is one of several states where lawmakers are considering removing public notices from newspapers and placing them instead on government websites. The proposed law in South Dakota inspired Yankton County Register of Deeds Brian Hunhoff, a contributing editor of the weekly Yankton County Observer, to begin an ongoing column, "In a Minutes Notice," showing the importance of public notices being published in newspapers.

Hunhoff told The Rural Blog in an email: "It’s a news series I created by taking 90-plus percent of the content from local public notices. The idea is to remind people how much valuable info can be found in those legals and readers have really responded well." Hunoff has already written eight columns.

Hunhoff told the Public Notice Resource Center that the series is "based on news culled from meeting minutes and legal notices published in the Observer and other newspapers in the state," PNRC reports. He told the center, “I’ve been meaning to do this series for a long time, but could never seem to find the time. Then I read the [PNRC] story in the National Newspaper Association’s PubAux about all the public-notice battles taking place around the country and decided it would be a good year to finally make time and get it done.”

Hunhoff's columns "include deep dives on particular subjects, like the salaries of local public officials or the frequency and length of their executive sessions," reports PNRC. "He has also reviewed meeting minutes and budgets from 12 similar-size cities and counties to learn how Yankton County and City of Yankton rank in comparison."

DEA seizes billions from people never charged with crime; they must prove innocence to recoup assets

More than 80 percent—$3.2 billion—in assets seized by the Drug Enforcement Administration from 2007 to 2016 was taken from people who were never charged with criminal activity, says a report by the U.S. Department of Justice's inspector general.

Cash seizures have dropped dramatically since then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in January 2015 "issued an order that eliminated most opportunities for state and local law enforcement to use adoptive seizure to avail themselves of federal forfeiture and related equitable sharing proceeds," the report found. (DOJ graphic: Cash seizures from 2007-16.)
"The seizures are all legal under the controversial practice of civil asset forfeiture, which allows authorities to take cash, contraband and property from people suspected of crime," Christopher Ingraham reports for The Washington Post. "The practice does not require authorities to obtain a criminal conviction and it allows departments to keep seized cash and property for themselves unless individuals successfully challenge the forfeiture in court." (Value of cash seizures by department)
Critics "say this creates a perverse profit motive, incentivizing police to seize goods not for the purpose of fighting crime, but for padding department budgets," Ingraham writes. "Law enforcement groups say the practice is a valuable tool for fighting criminal organizations, allowing them to seize drug profits and other ill-gotten goods." Ingraham notes that people who have had money seized often don't fight it, because of high court costs, which sometimes amount to more than the amount seized.

The report found that "the Department of Justice 'does not collect or evaluate the data necessary to know whether its seizures and forfeitures are effective, or the extent to which seizures present potential risks to civil liberties'," Ingraham writes. The report said: "When seizure and administrative forfeitures do not ultimately advance an investigation or prosecution, law enforcement creates the appearance, and risks the reality, that it is more interested in seizing and forfeiting cash than advancing an investigation or prosecution."

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Rural jobs schemes not as successful as promised, but tax credits still flow to investors

Investment companies are cashing in on rural jobs bills that often fail to deliver on promises, Jen Fifield reports for Stateline in the first of a two-part series. "Under the bills, state tax credits are awarded to companies that agree to invest in or loan money to funds set up by investment firms or other brokers. The funds then invest the money in rural businesses. But states that have evaluated the multilayered subsidized lending programs—originally CAPCO (certified capital companies) programs and later New Markets Tax Credit programs—have found that they failed to deliver promised jobs and tax revenue."

This year 11 states have proposed rural jobs bills and Utah Republican Gov. Gary Herbert signed one into law last week, Fifield writes. "Three firms—Advantage Capital Partners, Enhanced Capital and Stonehenge Capital—have led the lobbying for the programs and have been the main participants in several states. The laws, through which states have awarded billions in tax credits, are generally structured in such a way that these and other firms that participate can profit from the deals even if the businesses they fund never create another job." (Stateline graphic: Rural jobs bills)
"The programs are so complex, and the promises so appealing, that states typically don’t take a close look at them until it’s too late, according to 10 economists and policy analysts who have studied them," Fifield writes. "Many critics, such as Steven Miller, senior vice president of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, call the programs 'schemes.' Miller says he expects a public backlash once they 'have gone belly up and taxpayer dollars have been used for private benefit.'"

"Under the new rural jobs bills—being considered in Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, South Carolina and Washington state—investments would be made in small, rural businesses," Fifield writes. "The idea behind the programs is that they will generate economic activity that exceeds the cost of the tax credit. Unlike many other economic development programs, in which the state directs the flow of money, these programs rely on private firms or nonprofits—often investment firms or their affiliates—to act as brokers, directing the investments and loans made under the program."

State reports from Alabama, Colorado, Missouri and New York found that programs failed to create as many jobs or as much state revenue as promised and recommended they be shut down, Fifield writes. Only one state, Maine, "has concluded that the economic benefits of a program outweighed its costs." That study found "the state’s New Markets program would generate millions more in tax revenue than the state offered in tax credits. But some analysts cast doubt on its conclusions, arguing that the authors used methods for counting jobs, backed by the investment firms, that overestimate the number of jobs directly linked to the tax-credit program."

EPA, farm groups reach deal to release more info on concentrated animal feeding operations

The Environmental Protection Agency reached a deal this week with two farm groups "to make public the city, county, ZIP code and permit status—but no more—of certain big livestock farms," Marc Heller reports for Greenwire. The deal reached with the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Pork Producers Council "averts the need for a court order, after the groups successfully sued the agency for releasing names, addresses and phone numbers connected to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in 29 states."

"EPA had released the information, which sometimes included names of family members as well as GPS coordinates for farms, in response to Freedom of Information Act requests from the Pew Charitable Trusts and two environmental groups, Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council," Heller writes. "The groups were looking to assess the agency's implementation of the Clean Water Act, which calls for permits for CAFOs."

"At the time, the NRDC said little information was known about CAFOs, despite the threats from animal waste that they can pose to waterways," Heller writes. The groups said "more disclosure would 'provide a greater understanding of what is known about industrial livestock facilities and help identify ways that safeguards against CAFO pollution can be improved to protect human health and the environment.'"

Farm groups cited invasion of privacy concerns for not wanting to release information, Heller writes. Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said in a statement: "Farm families usually live on the farm and releasing this type of information was a clear violation of their personal privacy. The information could easily be used to encourage harassment or even violence against farmers and ranchers."

NPR tests Trump's budget cuts with his rural supporters, a story that can be done many places

Chase County, Kansas
(Kansas Historical Society map)
President Trump's proposed budget cuts would eliminate or slash many programs that help rural areas, such as Chase County, Kansas, where more than $2.7 million in federal grants helped build a $6 million water treatment system that serves about 500 homes and businesses in Strong City and Cottonwood, Frank Morris reports for NPR. The water treatment system replaced an unstable 40-year-old water treatment plant located inside Strong City's abandoned high school.

Those are the kind of grants that would be eliminated by Trump's budget cuts, Morris writes. But in Chase County, where Trump earned more than 71 percent of the vote, "quite a few people actually embrace those cuts," Morris writes. Trump supporter Jim Fritch told Morris, "They've got to make cuts somewhere. Somebody's going to get cut, somebody's going to bleed a little bit. That's just a fact of life, but to get things back into balance." Jim Fink agrees, telling Morris, "If you ask me would I rather see the money go for our water plant, or to possibly try to control our borders and the security of our nation, the security of our nation is more important to me."

The NPR story is an example of how similar stories can be written about just about any rural area that would be impacted by cuts, especially areas where Trump was largely popular. Morris notes, "If passed as-is, the budget would kill programs that train workers, back small town startups and help pay for roads, sewers and broadband in some of the nation's poorest counties."

Bill Minor, 'conscience of Mississippi,' dies at 94; covered the state and civil rights for 70 years

Bill Minor in 1956
Bill Minor, known as the “the conscience of Mississippi" and for being a "champion for the little guy" during his seven decades of community journalism, died on Tuesday at 94, Jerry Mitchell reports for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson. After returning from World War II, Minor "worked for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans and began covering Mississippi in 1947."

"Minor began working out of an office in the state Capitol along with other reporters," Mitchell writes. "Unlike some of those reporters, he wasn’t content to rewrite press releases that came from politicians. Instead, he did his own reporting, exposing the dark deeds he witnessed to the light, which hardly made him popular beneath the Capitol dome. Some of the politicians he wrote about, including state Sen. Bill Burgin, went to prison."

Minor covered the trial of the white men accused of killing Emmett Till, an African American teenager who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, Mitchell writes. They were acquitted by a white jury, but later confessed to the murder. "In the years that followed, Minor covered the burgeoning civil rights movement" and was a mentor for many young reporters, including Pulitzer Prize winners Hank Klibanoff, David Halberstam and Jack Nelson. Halberstam told The Clarion-Ledger before his 2007 death, "People who are saying there aren't any heroes anymore just aren't looking in the right places. [Bill Minor is] an example of real conscience and integrity.”

Minor chose to stay in Mississippi but worked as a stringer for The New York Times. Claude Sitton, who covered the civil rights movement for the Times, once said of Roberts, “No Southern newspaperman has done more for civil rights and civil liberties than Bill Minor. Gene Roberts, who succeeded Sitton as the Times’s chief correspondent in the South, told the Times, “It would be hard to overestimate Bill’s importance to journalism and to keeping the country abreast of what was going on in Mississippi. When you had to barrel quickly into Mississippi, your first stop would be Bill Minor.”

Interior to restart coal leasing, ending Obama ban

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed an order Wednesday to restart coal leasing in the U.S. in response to President Trump's executive order this week "tasking him with taking 'all steps necessary and appropriate' to end the three-year ban on new coal leasing imposed by President Obama in January 2016," Dylan Brown reports for Greenwire.

Zinke "also declared that an Obama-ordered review of the federal coal program is dead," Brown writes. "But Zinke will re-establish a federal advisory committee made up of states, tribes and other advocacy groups to study whether Americans are getting a fair return on coal as well as oil and natural gas."

Zinke also scrapped the department's programmatic environmental impact statement studying the federal coal program, Brown writes. The document, which was released a few days before Trump's inauguration and was panned by industry and welcomed by environmentalists, "said royalty rates should be raised to generate more revenue and mitigate coal's climate impacts." Zinke called the report "costly and unnecessary." He also said a decision hasn't been made about whether royalties need to be raised." (Read more)

Many coal jobs have been replaced by automation

Self-driving Caterpillar truck 
President Trump's promise to bring back coal jobs can't be fulfilled largely because automation has replaced many jobs, Hiroko Tabuchi reports for The New York Times. "In 1980, the industry employed about 242,000 people. By 2015, that figure had plunged 60 percent, to fewer than 100,000, even as coal production edged up 8 percent. Helped by automation, worker productivity more than tripled over the same period, according to data from the federal Energy Information Administration and the Brookings Institution."

While cheaper natural gas and Obama-administration regulations are blamed for a decline in coal jobs, another reason is "a shift from underground coal mines to surface mines—which involves opening mountains with controlled explosions, then using automated heavy machinery to mine the coal," Tabuchi writes.

A study by the International Institute for Sustainable Development and the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment "predicted that automation was likely to replace 40 to 80 percent of workers at mines," Tabuchi writes. Corrie Scott, a Caterpillar spokeswoman, told Tabuchi that "automation makes mines more 'safe, efficient and productive." She said, “While mines would not need as many drivers, they will need more people who use and understand the latest technology.”

Nicolas Maennling, senior economics and policy researcher at Columbia University and an author of the automation study, told Tabuchi, “However way you spin it, gas and renewables are going to continue to replace coal. And in order to stay competitive, coal will have to increase automation. What Mr. Trump does will make little difference.”

Oregon board refuses weekly's request for public records about release of a murder suspect

A memorial for the man killed in a crash
with the suspect. (Photo by Les Zaitz)
After a murder suspect confessed to feigning insanity for 20 years to avoid a prison cell, the Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board is "defying a state order that it release public records to the Malheur Enterprise and intends to sue the weekly newspaper to keep the records secret," the Enterprise reports. "The state board wants to keep confidential certain records it used in deciding last December to discharge from state custody Anthony W. Montwheeler, 49."

Since 1996, Montwheeler has been under the Security Review Board's jurisdiction after being found guilty but insane in an earlier kidnapping case, the Enterprise reports. The board released him "after learning in December that he had been faking his mental illness for 20 years. The Enterprise sought access to 15 of the 227 documents admitted as exhibits. The records included recent risk assessments of Montwheeler by state hospital officials. Under the Oregon Public Records Law, government records generally are open to the public. Exceptions allow agencies to keep some records confidential."

Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has ordered the board to turn over the records sought by the Enterprise, but Security Review Board Executive Director Juliet Britton said in a Feb. 6 letter to the newspaper that "state and federal law prohibited the agency from releasing the documents. She also said that disclosing two documents would 'be an unreasonable invasion of a private citizen’s personal privacy'."

The day Montwheeler was released, state psychologist Brian Hartman warned the state board what might happen, co-owner Les Zaitz reports for the weekly. Hartman testified in December, “His risk of violence would be high and it would be most likely to target his intimate partner or other family member." Hartman was right. Three weeks after his release, "police say Montwheeler kidnapped and killed his ex-wife and then killed a Vale man and injured his wife in a collision as he was eluding police."

"Montwheeler now sits in the Malheur County Jail, charged with aggravated murder, assault, and kidnapping. He may face the death penalty. He declined an interview," Zaitz reports.


EPA drops proposed ban on Lorsban, agricultural pesticide linked to developmental delays

New Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt on Wednesday refused to ban a pesticide widely used in agriculture that the agency had previously sought to ban, Brady Dennis reports for The Washington Post. Chlorpyrifos, also known as Lorsban, "has been used by farmers for more than a half-century to kill pests on crops including broccoli, strawberries and citrus. EPA banned its spraying indoors to combat household bugs more than a decade ago. But only in recent years did the agency seek to ban its use in agriculture, after mounting scientific evidence that prenatal exposure can pose risks to fetal brain and nervous system development."

Supporters of a ban wrote in a letter to the agency earlier this year, “With each year of delay in canceling food tolerances and agricultural and other uses of chlorpyrifos, more children are unnecessarily at elevated risk for problems in learning, social skills, motor function, and other developmental domains. We strongly urge EPA to finalize its assessment and cancel all remaining uses of chlorpyrifos as expeditiously as possible.”

In 2015, EPA proposed banning the insecticide, Dennis writes. A federal judge had given EPA until Friday to decide whether to go ahead with the ban. In denying it Pruitt said: “We need to provide regulatory certainty to the thousands of American farms that rely on chlorpyrifos, while still protecting human health and the environment. By reversing the previous administration’s steps to ban one of the most widely used pesticides in the world, we are returning to using sound science in decision-making—rather than predetermined results.”

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Annual County Health Rankings are released; can be a great starting point for local coverage

Alabama counties ranked by health factors
The University of Wisconsin's Population Health Institute has released its annual County Health Rankings. Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the rankings are a good resource for assessing a county's overall health status and for comparing counties within the same state. Counties are ranked within each state based on quality of life, length of life, health factors, clinical care, social and economic factors and physical environment.

This year's rankings found that rural counties by far had the highest rates of premature deaths, continuing if not accelerating a recent trend. Nearly one-fifth of rural counties have experienced worsening premature death rates over the past decade, while nearly all large urban areas have seen declines. One reason for the higher rates in rural areas could be an increase in drug use. Drug-overdose deaths have increased 79 percent overall since 2002, but are highest in rural counties, especially Appalachia, the study found.

Rural areas generally rank poorly in adult obesity, adult smoking, teen births, uninsured, preventable hospital stays, childhood poverty, injury deaths and college education. Favorable rankings for rural areas included the lowest amount of violent crime and shortest commutes to work.

Some places have seen big declines in their health status. For example, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania (Wikipedia map), an Appalachian coal community, dropped over the past year from 26th to 40th in health behaviors and from 20th to 34th in physical environment. (The state has 67 counties.) One key may have been physical inactivity, with 28 percent of adults reporting living inactive lifestyles, the sixth worst total in the state, Mark Guydish reports for the Times Leader in Wilkes-Barre.

Dr. Tina George, a local family practice doctor who thinks the county's poverty and excessive drinking levels were under-reported for the rankings, "said part of the problem is simply the physical environment of municipalities built before urban design was a thing," Guydish writes. She told him, “We don’t have cities like they do out west, where communities were planned and laid out to be walkable, to have places for exercise, to have food markets. We didn’t have the advantages of making a community that promotes a healthy lifestyle."

In Iowa, rural Black Hawk County was ranked 85th of 99 counties in health, its lowest spot since the rankings were started in 2010, Christina Crippes reports for The Courier in Cedar Valley. The county ranked low for obesity, lack of physical activity, high rate of sexually transmitted diseases and a rise in violent crime.

Despite Trump's promises, market conditions that favor gas keep working against coal

While President Trump on Tuesday promised to "put our miners back to work" and Vice President Mike Pence declared "the war on coal is over," market prices that favor natural gas won't help revitalize coal, Naureen Malik and Tim Loh report for Bloomberg News. For example, "at least six gas-fired plants are planned in the Ohio River valley over the next four years. That’s enough to supply more than 4 million homes and topple coal as the state’s main source of electricity. That’s what makes it so hard for Trump to bring back mining jobs in states like Ohio where the coal vote helped put him in the White House."

In 2016 "coal’s share of power generation in the state fell to about 58 percent, from 86 percent in 2006," reports Bloomberg. John Bartlett, who helps manage about $2.5 billion of energy and utility stocks at W.H. Reaves & Co. Inc. in Jersey City, "estimates that by 2021, gas-fired stations in Ohio will be able to produce 20.4 gigawatts—almost double their current capacity—while coal will hold steady at 15.4 gigawatts." (Bloomberg graphic: Six new gas-fired plants are planned in Ohio)
"Competition from gas was one reason that AES Corp.’s Dayton Power & Light announced in November it will shut two coal plants in Adams County on the Ohio River. With a combined capacity of 3,000 megawatts, they’ve operated for 40 years and employ hundreds of people," Blomberg reports. About 250 miles east, in the heart of shale country near the Pennsylvania border, in Wellsville, Ohio, a gas-fired plant is being considered, putting two coal-fired plants in the area owned by FirstEnergy Corp. at risk.
Toby Shea, senior credit officer at Moody’s Investors Service Inc., "said that coal closures in places like Ohio will have a 'rippling effect' across markets, pushing already-low electricity prices even lower," reports Bloomberg. "It could turn the world’s single biggest competitive power market—the one operated by PJM Interconnection LLC across 13 states from the mid-Atlantic to the Midwest—into a 'distressed market' where generators struggle to turn a profit."

"Historically, gas prices have been volatile," Bloomberg reports. "The risk is that by the time they swing up again, other producers—nuclear, as well as coal—could have been driven out of business."

North Dakota Senate passes bill to reduce spill reporting by oil and gas industry

The North Dakota Senate passed a bill Monday that would reduce reporting of oil-industry spills, Amy Dalrymple reports for the Fargo Forum. Under the bill, which House leaders say they expect to pass, "The oil industry will no longer have to report spills of oil, produced water or natural-gas liquids that are less than 10 barrels, or 420 gallons, if the spills stay on the well site or facility location."

"The reporting exemption only applies to oil wells and facilities constructed after Sept. 1, 2000, under the version approved by the Senate," Dalrymple writes. "The bill does not eliminate the requirement to clean up all spills. Department of Mineral Resources rules that took effect on Sept. 1, 2000, require well sites to be constructed with dikes that are 'sufficiently impermeable' to provide emergency containment in the event of a spill."

Advocates of the bill, which passed 31-14, say "North Dakota has more stringent spill reporting requirements than the federal government and most other oil-producing states, which can make it appear that North Dakota has more spills than other states," Dalrymple writes. Critics of the bill argue that it's good that North Dakota's rules are more transparent than other states and it would hurt landowners to reduce reporting of spills. (Energywire map: reported oil spills from 2011-14)

Illinois study predicts climate change will cut number of farm field work days by mid-century

Climate change is reducing the time farmers have for field work, says a study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign published in the academic journal PLOS One. (U of I graphic: Drought risk odds)
In a previous study, the researchers "developed models that reliably translated past climate data into field working days for Illinois," Lauren Quinn reports for U of I. For the new study "they coupled those models with climate-change scenarios to forecast field working days into the future. The group ran the models for nine crop districts in Illinois for two time periods, mid-century (2046 to 2065) and late-century (2080 to 2099), using three climate scenarios ranging from mild to extreme. The models suggest that the typical planting window for corn will no longer be workable; April and May will be far too wet to work the fields in most parts of Illinois."

Adam Davis, an ecologist for U of I and U.S. Department of Agriculture, told Quinn, “We’re predicting warmer and wetter springs, and drier, hotter summers. The season fragments, and we start to see an early-early season, so that March starts looking like a good target for planting in the future. In the past, March has been the bleeding edge; nobody in their right mind would have planted then. But we’ve already seen the trend for early planting. It’s going to keep trending in that direction for summer annuals.”

"Drought periods will intensify in mid- to late summer under all the climate scenarios," Davis said. "If farmers decide to plant later to avoid the wet period in April and May, they’re going to run into drought," which will thwart the development of corn kernels at a critical time. "That second planting window is probably pretty risky. It will come down to whether crop insurers will move planting dates earlier in the spring. They’re going to need enough years of empirical evidence that this early window exists before they are likely to make that change."

Kansas legislature votes to expand Medicaid, but governor may issue a veto and make it stick

The Kansas Senate on Tuesday passed a bill to expand Medicaid expansion in the state, Hunter Woodall reports for The Kansas City Star. By a vote of 25-14 the Senate passed "a bill that would expand coverage of KanCare, the state’s privatized Medicaid program, to roughly 150,000 people in the state," most of them rural residents. The bill now goes to the desk of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback, who is against expansion, but "has not said whether he will veto the legislation."

Lawmakers already are preparing for a possible veto override, Woodall writes. "Brownback will have 10 days from the time he gets the bill to decide whether to veto it, sign it or let it become law without his signature. If Brownback does veto the bill, it will take 84 votes in the House and 27 votes in the Senate to override his veto."

"The bill was supported by a majority of Republicans in the Senate, though by a narrow margin," Woodall writes. "Sixteen Senate Republicans voted for the bill, while 14 voted it down. Many conservative Republicans strongly opposed the legislation, though that opposition wasn’t enough to defeat the bill. Expansion proponents will need to flip at least two of the 14 conservatives in the Senate to a yes vote to override a veto. That may be a tough task, as conservative lawmakers were already saying after the vote that they would not be flipped and were hopeful the Senate, or even the House, could defeat a veto-override effort."

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Trump reversing Obama's course on climate to help coal, contrary to public and expert opinion

UPDATE: In an afternoon speech at EPA headquarters, Trump said, "We will put our miners back to work . . . My administration is putting an end to the war on coal." Referring to regulations, he said, "We're going to have safety; we're going to have clean water and we're going to have clean air, but so many of them were unnecessary." He said the nation would "continue to expand energy production."

President Trump is taking "the most significant step yet in obliterating his predecessor’s environmental record," today "instructing federal regulators to rewrite key rules curbing U.S. carbon emissions," Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report for The Washington Post. The executive order also lifts a moratorium on federal coal leasing and removes the requirement for federal officials to consider the impact of climate change when making decisions.

The Trump administration also sees the move as a way to restore thousands of lost coal-mining jobs, which the industry and Republicans blamed on President Obama. "But energy economists say the expected order falls short of both of those goals — in part because the United States already largely relies on domestic sources for the coal and natural gas that fires most of the nation’s power plants," Coral Davenport reports for the New York Times. Robert Stavins, an energy economist at Harvard University, told Davenport, “We don’t import coal. So in terms of the Clean Power Plan, this has nothing to do with so-called energy independence whatsoever.”

Trump's order directs the Environmental Protection Agency to begin rewriting Obama's 2015 Clean Power Plan. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in an interview on ABC Sunday that the order will help the U.S. “be both pro-jobs and pro-environment” and described it as the “energy independence executive order.”

The public does not appear to agree with Trump. According to a Pew Research Center survey, Americans support environmental regulation more than regulation of business. "More Americans continue to say stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost (59%) than to say they cost too many jobs and hurt the economy (34%)," the Times reports. Here's a map showing support, by congressional district, for restricting carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. The map is one of six in the Times that show how Americans think about climate change. (Data from the Yale Program on Climate Communication)
"The order sends an unmistakable signal that just as President Barack Obama sought to weave climate considerations into every aspect of the federal government, Trump is hoping to rip that approach out by its roots," Eilperin and Dennis write for the Post.

"Some of the measures could take years to implement and are unlikely to alter broader economic trends that are shifting the nation’s electricity mix from coal-fired generation to natural gas and renewables," they write. "The order is silent on whether the United States should withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate agreement, under which it has pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions between 26 and 28 percent by 2025 compared to 2005 levels, because the administration remains divided on that question."

McConnell backs $1 billion coalfields plan

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has signed on to legislation to free up $1 billion in reclamation projects in Eastern Kentucky and other struggling coal regions, a measure he was not willing to endorse last year.

"U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican whose district includes the state’s eastern coalfield, introduced a similar proposal in February 2016 as a way of boosting areas where the economy has been riddled by a steep drop in coal jobs, but the measure did not clear the House," Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "The proposal would accelerate the release of $1 billion from the federal abandoned mine land, or AML, fund. The idea is to tie the reclamation of mined sites to projects that could help diversify the economy of Eastern Kentucky."

Kentucky has two coalfields, in the east and west. McConnell said in a press release, “After suffering eight years of job losses in the coalfields, Kentucky families and communities are in need, and this bill would provide additional resources to these regions.”

Estep writes, "Coal companies pay a fee into the AML fund; the $1 billion is part of what the companies have already paid. The fund has an unappropriated balance of $2.4 billion, according to a release from Rogers. In addition, money could be used for a broader range of projects than funding under the regular AML program." Estep continues: "Money from the AML fund is supposed to be disbursed eventually to states anyway, but the [legislation] would speed up the release, funneling $200 million to states annually for five years."

In the past, opposition from Western coal states has blocked the move. This year's legislation has a new feature, Estep notes: "A change which would not mandate citizen engagement or an economic-development purpose in reclaiming high-priority abandoned mine sites. That raises a concern that most of the money could be spent on projects that did not advance economic development," voiced by Eric Dixon of the Appalachian Citizens Law Center. "The bill would encourage projects at high-priority sites to be tied to economic development, but not require it, according to Rogers’ office," Estep reports.

More states look at expanding Medicaid now that the tool for it, Obamacare, remains on the books

The failure of Republicans' "repeal and replace Obamacare" bill, and House Speaker Paul Ryan's forecast that the law will remain on the books for the foreseeable future, has prompted Republicans in states that did not expand Medicaid to take another look at the idea, reports James Hohmann of The Washington Post.

"The bill that was being considered in the House would have phased out the expansion under the 2010 law, which has already grown the Medicaid rolls by more than 11 million people," Hohmann writes. "It could have left states holding the bag over the next couple of years. With Obamacare repeal less likely, opponents of expansion in the states have just lost their best argument." The federal government pays 100 percent of initial expansion costs; the law lowers that to 90 percent by 2020.

The Kansas Senate is about to cast a final vote to expand Medicaid, and while Gov. Sam Brownback has promised a veto, "He’s also expected to soon get appointed to an overseas posting by President Trump. So the legislature might be able to try again soon," Hohmann writes. Or maybe they won't have to. Jonathan Shorman of The Wichita Eagle reports, "The House vote and the initial Senate vote are just shy of the number needed to override a veto."

"In Georgia, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal announced yesterday that his administration is exploring changes to the state’s Medicaid program now that the House bill has gone down," Hohmann reports. "In Virginia, meanwhile, the failure of Congress has emboldened Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe to renew his stalled crusade to expand Medicaid." Bruce Japsen of Forbes magazine says expansion efforts could be revived in North Carolina, Idaho, Nebraska and South Dakota, and The Huffington Post notes that Maine voters will decide the issue in a referendum this fall.

Hohmann notes "a good story" in The New York Times that notes the number of people on Medicaid is greater than those on Medicare, with which it was created in 1965: “In 2015, the nation spent more than $532 billion on Medicaid, of which about 63 percent was federal money and the rest from the states. … Medicaid now provides medical care to four out of 10 American children. It covers the costs of nearly half of all births in the United States. It pays for the care for two-thirds of people in nursing homes. And it provides for 10 million children and adults with physical or mental disabilities. For states, it accounts for 60 percent of federal funding — meaning that cuts hurt not only poor and middle-class families caring for their children with autism or dying parents, but also bond ratings.”

UPDATE, March 29: The Arkansas Senate voted to extend the state's hybrid Medicaid expansion.

Research suggests wall not needed; immigration slowing due to Mexican demographics

Although the White House's plan to construct a massive wall on the southern border is taking its first steps forward, new research suggests that the influx of low-skilled immigrant workers is dropping. Forces far more powerful than a wall already act to keep immigrants out — an aging population, Anna Swanson writes for The Washington Post.

"In a new paper, economists at the University of California at San Diego argue one of the main factors boosting immigration to the United States from Latin America in recent decades — a growing supply of workers in Latin American countries — has already dried up," Swanson writes.

"The paper looks at changes in economic conditions, border enforcement and demographics in the United States and Latin America to try to isolate the factors that encourage people to migrate," Swanson writes. "It finds a strong relationship between the number of people born in Latin American and Caribbean countries and the percent change in immigrants to the United States between 1980 and 2015."

While the baby boom in the United States ended in the 1960s, "Mexico and other Latin American populations began to see a surge in population during the 1970s and 1980s," Swanson writes. "By the early 1980s, the supply of labor in the United States was beginning to slow as the baby boomers aged, but that same change didn’t occur in Latin America until two decades later."

Researchers Gordon Hanson, Chen Liu and Craig McIntosh found that "during the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, that created a dynamic where low-skilled people in Latin America could do better economically by avoiding tougher competition at home and seeking out work opportunities in the United States," Swanson writes.

Populations among most Latin Americans are aging, just like in the United States. "In 1980, the median age of a Mexican-born person in the United States was around 20. In 2015, it had doubled to 40. By 2040, the researchers predict it could be roughly 70, as the chart below shows," Swanson writes. (Chart from rseearch)
"The researchers argue that aging populations will give low-skilled workers from those countries less motivation to immigrate to the United States, even without a massive border wall, as there will be reduced competition for jobs in their homes," Swanson writes. "They calculate the number of young, low-skilled workers coming into the United States from Latin America will continue to slow in coming decades." (Read more).

W.Va. financial crisis threatens funding for the state's largest news source, public broadcasting

A state financial crisis in West Virginia is posing the greatest threat to its public news media, Catherine Moore reports for Columbia Journalism Review. "A state-level proposal to zero out half of its $10 million budget had West Virginia Public Broadcasting on the defensive this month."

"West Virginia is not a unique case," Moore writes. "Other cash-strapped, low-density rural places like Mississippi and Alaska have seen recent proposals for state-level cuts to public broadcasting too."

With West Virginia being portrayed as Trump Country Ground Zero, and the president's proposed budget includes eliminating funds for the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, you might expect that the rift was ideological. But in West Virginia, "the $4.6 million cut was proposed by Democratic governor Jim Justice—a billionaire coal operator who coincidentally owes $4.4 million in back taxes to the state—and some Republicans in the legislature have been quick to come to the network’s defense," Moore writes.

"Instead of partisan rancor, the debate over public broadcasting here comes back to the state’s underlying financial crisis. West Virginia has seen its coal-tax revenues plummet in recent years, the result of a perfect storm of factors that includes cheap natural gas and competition from western coal reserves. And in a place where it was once taboo for politicians to discuss economic diversification for fear of alienating the coal vote, the legislature has been caught unprepared to fill its yearly $500 million budget hole."

"WVPB is the only television and radio network devoted to in-depth coverage that reaches all 55 counties of this geographically and culturally diverse state," Moore writes. "Some remote areas have no local news coverage to speak of." Maryanne Reed, dean of the Reed College of Media at West Virginia University, told Moore, “If WVPB were to go away, I’m not sure who or what would fill the vacuum."

Tiny N.C. town dissolving; others may follow suit; could be a growing phenomenon around nation

Centerville (Wall Street Journal photo by Valerie Bauerlein)
Some very small towns are giving up their governments, or thinking about it, because they can no longer afford them, Valerie Bauerlein reports for The Wall Street Journal from Centerville, N.C., population 89, which will soon be merely a community, not a municipality.

"Centerville isn’t alone," she writes. "Already running on lean budgets that provide for only a handful of public services, many small local governments throughout the U.S. are being pushed to the brink financially as residents move to bigger cities. But municipalities—and their voters—rarely agree to give up their identities."

In North Carolina, at least three other towns are considering dissolution, Bauerlein reports: "One is Fair Bluff, a town of 950 near the South Carolina line, where flooding from last year’s Hurricane Matthew eroded the property-tax base and contaminated one of two water tanks. In Pennsylvania, roughly 100 of the smallest local governments were in crisis and would meet the financial and demographic criteria to be taken under state control, said David Rusk, a Democratic former mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., who studies and consults on consolidation."

“They can’t solve their problems themselves,” Rusk told Bauerlein. “Wealth has left these little cities to such a degree that they’re basically bankrupt.”

In Centerville, where only 12 people voted in the last city election, the government's main service is street lights, Bauerlein reports: "The mayor and council members voted to dissolve the town’s charter and become unincorporated in January, after a measure to raise property taxes failed. A state senator brought a bill last month to repeal the town’s charter.The town will continue to exist as a community, but any local-government services will be provided by the county. Any money left over after the town is unincorporated will be donated to the local volunteer fire department, according to the legislation."

Monday, March 27, 2017

Several slices of rural America are largely ignored

Last year's election sparked newfound fascination in America's rural citizens, the sort of attention that was long overdue. But the spotlight on rural America is only focusing on a slice of non-city folks — those who are white, Mara Tieken writes for The Washington Post. Almost one-fifth of rural residents, nearly 10.3 million people, are people of color.

"Some stories are clear about their scope: Their authors have intentionally chosen a particular geographic and racial population to explore and explain," Teiken writes. "Others are less obvious in their focus, though details — region of the country or photographs — soon make explicit what is merely implied or assumed. Either way, though, a particular racial narrative is being told."
A woman and her young son in Porterville, Calif. (Washington Post photo)
Of the 10 million people of color who live in rural America, "about 40 percent are African American, 35 percent are nonwhite Hispanic, and the remaining 25 percent are Native American, Asian, Pacific Islander or multiracial," Tieken writes. "And this rural America is expected to grow in the coming decades, as rural areas see a rapid increase in Latino immigration."

Rural Americans of color are found from coast to coast, but "they tend to live in different places from rural whites: across the Mississippi Delta and the Deep South; throughout the Rio Grande Valley; on reservations and native lands in the Southwest, Great Plains and Northwest," Tieken writes.

They also have a different history from rural white America: "a history of forced migration, enslavement and conquest. This rural America receives even lower pay and fewer protections for its labor than does rural white America. And, as my own research shows, this rural America attends very different schools than rural white America, schools that receive far less funding and other resources." Tieken writes. "It also appears that these rural Americans vote for different candidates than rural whites. A look at county-level voting and demographic data suggests that this rural America voted for Hillary Clinton."

Tieken warns that defining rural white America as rural America perpetuates an "incomplete and simplistic story" about the many people who live in these areas and what they want and need. She notes, "Ironically, this story — so often told by liberals trying to explain the recent rise in undisguised nativism and xenophobia — serves to re-privilege whiteness. Whiteness is assumed; other races are shoved even further to the margins."

"Interest in rural America is welcome," Tieken writes. "But we need to make sure it is complete and inclusive — and genuine."

Health bill's failure could leave some Republican lawmakers in political jams with rural voters

House Republican leaders' decision to pull down the bill to repeal and replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was a major defeat for President Trump in his first legislative showdown. But the fiasco in Washington is rippling through rural Republican districts back home, "where there are early signs of backlash against these lawmakers, including from constituents who voted Republican last November," Alexander Burns reports for the New York Times.

Republicans went to unusual lengths to support Mr. Trump's ultimately unpopular bill, and now have nothing to show for their trouble, Burns writes: "When they run for re-election next year, they may have to defend their support for a politically explosive bill that many Republicans backed only reluctantly, and that never came close to reaching the president’s desk."

Burns elaborates: "Many voters’ complaints echo the criticism they leveled against the passage of the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare: that it was passed too quickly, with too many back-room deals and too much potential to destabilize the insurance system. Even voters supportive of Mr. Trump said the process had unfolded in a slapdash way, without sufficient attention to explaining the bill to people whom it might affect directly."

Congressman John Faso of New York state, who "negotiated a side deal for his state in exchange for backing Trump's bill," won some harsh reviews, Burns writes. "He had at first hesitated over the health-care proposal, which the Congressional Budget Office projected would lead to 24 million fewer people having health insurance over a decade. But Republican leaders pursuing Mr. Faso shifted the cost of Medicaid programs away from upstate counties like the ones he represents, and he backed the bill days before it fell apart."

Jim Palmatier, 62, told Burns he was disappointed to see his congressman horse-trading over a doomed bill: “He tried to be a little too clever, and he just ended up looking like a fool. There’s no way I’m voting for him next time around.” Many voters in other districts could probably be found to say likewise.

Burns reports, "National Republicans, still reeling from their unexpected defeat, expressed hope that health care might fade as an issue before the congressional elections in 2018. With more than a year and a half until voters next pass judgment on the Republican-controlled Congress, party leaders say they have plenty of time to record victories on issues like a tax code overhaul and infrastructure spending. Mr. Trump and Speaker Paul D. Ryan indicated on Friday that they did not intend to revisit health care in the near future." (Read more)

Eastern Kentucky lawyer pleads guilty to defrauding the Social Security disability system

UPDATE, April 6: U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar ruled on Tuesday that Conn "should pay $31 million in damages and penalties to the federal government and two former Social Security Administration employees who tried to blow the whistle on his fraudulent conduct," Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "The government had sought a total of $31.4 million in the case — $12.2 million in damages and $19.2 million in penalties, based on the maximum penalty of $11,000 for each of the 1,746 fraudulent claims it identified."

A Kentucky lawyer who labeled himself as "Mr. Social Security" pleaded guilty Friday in federal court to stealing from the Social Security Administration and bribing a federal Social Security judge. Prosecutors say Eric C. Conn had "a long-running scheme to defraud the government of nearly $600 million in federal disability payments," Bruce Schreiner reports for The Associated Press. Conn's sentencing is July 14 and he faces up to 12 years in prison.

Eric Conn (Associated Press photo)
"According to the plea, Conn participated in a more than decade-long scheme involving the submission of thousands of falsified medical documents," Schreiner writes. "Those fraudulent submissions resulted in payment of more than $550 million in benefits."

He continues: "Conn also admitted to paying the judge about $10,000 a month over more than six years to award disability benefits in more than 1,700 cases, according to documents filed with the guilty plea. Those payments were based on falsified medical documents, the documents said. Conn admitted that he received more than $5.7 million in representative fees from the SSA based on those fraudulent claims, the documents said."

Conn started his law practice in a trailer in 1993 in his hometown of Stanville, building it to one of the nation's most lucrative disability firms, Schreiner writes. "He became a local celebrity for his over-the-top advertising campaigns. He dispatched crews of 'Conn Hotties' to events and had a 19-foot replica of the Lincoln Memorial [statue] erected in the parking lot of his office."

For years, Conn faced no legal consequences, even after the SSA "cut off disability payments to hundreds of his clients in the impoverished coalfields of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia," Schreiner writes. "Conn’s clients have been fighting the federal government to keep their disability checks."

Ned Pillersdorf, an attorney who is representing hundreds of Conn’s former clients who have sued in seeking damages from Conn, told Schreiner that the plea should help speed up consideration of the lawsuit. “I’ve got to get these people money quick,” Pillersdorf said. “I’ve got 800 people going without, and it’s a real humanitarian crisis. His guilty plea should expedite that process.” But Pillersdorf told Schreiner that Conn’s guilty plea is unlikely to have an impact on those cases. (Read more)

Southwest Va. is the latest rural region to hear talk of secession from its state; 'a thought experiment'

The collapse of Central Appalachia's coal industry, and the state of Virginia's response to resulting problems with school funding, sparked an editorial in The Roanoke Times that began: "Here’s an idea: Should Southwest Virginia secede and form its own state? We don’t mean that seriously, of course. However, let’s explore it as a thought experiment."

The newspaper noted that groups of people in remote and/or rural regions of several other states have suggested secession, and that the school-funding crisis didn't push the state legislature to swing into action. "The only legislator from Southwest Virginia who serves on the House Appropriations Committee . . . came up with a new funding formula. Even then, the handful of legislators who worked out the final version of the budget changed things around so that two of the counties in far Southwest Virginia wound up with exactly zero dollars. Could that be because not a single legislator from Southwest Virginia was in the room when that happened? (Cue the 'Hamilton' musical and song in which Aaron Burr longs to be in 'The Room Where It Happened.') What if we just said 'Sorry, we’re tired of being your afterthought; we’re outta here'?"

The editorial acknowledged that secession would be a bad idea for Southwest Virginia, since the region "is subsidized by the rest of the state. Yes, yes, we think we’re ignored by Richmond and in a lot of ways we are. Still, the fiscal reality is that Northern Virginia really subsidizes the rest of Virginia. If there’s any part of the state that should secede for bottom-line reasons, it’s Northern Virginia. Let’s not encourage that."