Friday, March 06, 2020

Education Department reverses rural school funding cuts

"Facing a bipartisan backlash led by Republican lawmakers, the Trump administration is backing off a bookkeeping change that would have drastically cut federal funds for rural schools — at least for a year," Erica L. Green reports for The New York Times.

Hundreds of school districts received significantly less federal funding this year after the Education Department changed how it distributed funds for a program that helps schools with many impoverished students. During a program review of the Rural and Low-Income School Program, the department found that schools had been receiving funding based on the number of students who qualify for free or discounted meals instead of based on census-based poverty data, as the law requires, Green reports.

A Republican-led bipartisan coalition of lawmakers protested the change, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos "determined that she had the authority to allow the use of alternative data for an additional year," Green reports. "The department has also proposed language for Congress to permanently change the data source in the law."

FEMA flood maps need updating, but increased payouts could price low-income rural residents out of some areas

Stream miles not assessed in Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps, by county (FEMA map; click on it to enlarge)
"The federal government must spend up to $12 billion to improve the nation’s flood maps and should do more to steer development out of flood-prone areas, according to two recent studies that warn about increasing flood damage from climate change," Thomas Frank reports for Energy & Environment News.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's National Flood Insurance Program creates and maintains maps meant to show which areas are prone to flooding, and also provides more than 96 percent of flood insurance nationwide. The maps help communities plan key infrastructure and shape public and private land use. They also inform insurance coverage: insurers require people who live in high-risk areas to buy flood insurance, Frank reports. Since homes in low-risk areas are not required to buy flood insurance, residents in increasingly flood-prone areas—many poor and rural—can't afford to rebuild after their homes are damaged or destroyed.

The maps are badly out of date, according to a recent study by the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank. One big reason: FEMA does not factor in global warming, which brings with it rising sea levels and increasingly frequent and powerful hurricanes, Frank reports.

The maps are incomplete, too, according to a recent report from the Association of State Floodplain Managers. Only a third of the nation's rivers and streams—1.1 million miles—and 46% of the nation's shoreline have flood-hazard information available. Mapping the remaining 2.3 million miles, most of which are in rural areas, and updating the current maps could cost anywhere from $3.2 billion to $11.8 billion. Maintaining and updating the maps would cost an estimated $107 million to $480 million annually, the report says.

The expense is worth it, according to the ASFM report. Since the NFIP was created in 1969, the nation has spent $10.6 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars on flood hazard mapping, preventing an estimated $22 billion in flood damages. Annual flood damages are increasing: they averaged $4 billion in the 1980's, but about $17 billion between 2010 and 2018 (that figure is somewhat skewed by the 2017 hurricane season, which had three of the top five costliest hurricanes on record).

The damages are likely under-reported, and don't include indirect losses from business closures, lost tax revenue, and the public health and mental health costs that often hit socially vulnerable communities harder, the report says.

There's another issue: NFIP must increasingly pay out for flood damages, so the program's costs are increasing, and FEMA may make it more like a private insurer, Jie Jenny Zou reports for Vox. That could spike insurance premiums and make it unaffordable for many to live in flood-prone areas.

Rural, lower-income residents in flood-prone areas could be in a peculiar bind: If FEMA updates flood maps to reflect the true risk, then such residents would be more likely to have flood insurance. But if NFIP rates become too high, they might not be able to afford to live there in the first place.

Law professor suggests loosening some federal regulations to keep rural residents from feeling oppressed

Glenn Harlan Reynolds
Secession isn't a new notion in the United States, but it seems to be getting more popular, University of Tennessee law professorGlenn Harlan Reynolds writes for the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon.

Increasingly, some primarily rural sections of states have tried to create their own states. Some states have been inviting them, as was the case when the governor of West Virginia and evangelical icon Jerry Falwell Jr. recently urged conservative Virginia counties to join West Virginia.

"The reason it’s gathering steam is the same reason why most secession movements, including the American break with Great Britain in 1776, gain steam: the belief that the people who want to leave are being treated badly and callously by rulers over whom they have little or no influence," Reynolds writes. "It’s not just 'taxation without representation,' but also, 'regulation without representation.' And a general sense of being held in contempt."

Such a thing could be done, and has before: West Virginia was formed as a free state from Virginia, a slave state, during the Civil War. But there are easier ways to bridge the rural-urban divide and protect the rural minority, Reynolds writes. He advocates loosening federal regulations on hot-button issues like firearms and the environment and preventing states from strengthening such regulations so rural minorities don't feel oppressed. "That wouldn’t eliminate all the friction, but it would help. And it’s cheaper than a civil war," Reynolds writes.

Former rural health policy chief explains why hospitals inflate charges, and how rural hospitals fit into the picture

Hospital bills are increasingly in the spotlight this election season, as Democratic primary candidates hash out the best way to improve the nation's health-care system. One of the chief complaints is that some of the poorest end up with huge hospital bills. It's a complicated subject, but retired physician Wayne Myers offers a guide to the basic principles at work in our health care system in a piece for The Daily Yonder. Myers headed the federal Office of Rural Health Policy from 1998 to 2000 and is a former president of the National Rural Health Association.

Dr. Wayne Myers
Essentially, Myers explains, there are three kinds of patients: those without insurance, those covered by Medicaid or Medicare, and those with private insurance. Because hospitals end up eating a little of the cost of care for Medicaid and Medicare patients, and a lot or all of the cost of care for uninsured patients, they charge privately insured patients more to make up the difference, Myers writes. One notorious recent example is an emergency room trip that ended with a Band-Aid applied to a toddler's finger, and a $629 bill for her parents.

Such anecdotes are prime fodder for outrage, and hospitals frequently write them off once a reporter starts digging around (as Sarah Kliff did in an investigation of high emergency room fees) But hospitals keep doing it because, if the cost of care for uninsured or under-insured patients isn't covered, "the hospital[s] will go broke and close. Rural hospital closures are relatively uncommon in states that have expanded their Medicaid programs, because some payment is better than no payment," Myers writes. There's more to it; read the whole thing here.

Quick hits: spring arriving earlier; proposed Wisconsin power line controversial; farmers discuss future concerns

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

Spring is arriving earlier and earlier, and that's not always a good thing. Read more here.

A proposed power line in Wisconsin is attracting considerable controversy. Proponents say it helps advance renewable energy, but detractors say it would be an eyesore in beautiful rural areas and cost too much. Read more here.

The University of Minnesota has launched an initiative to help rural students feel more connected. Read more here.

Three farmers talk about their biggest concerns for the future. Read more here.

Appalachia needs a Marshall Plan, writes the editorial board of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Read more here.

Why rural Americans are vulnerable to the coronavirus. Read more here.

Thursday, March 05, 2020

Heads up: Sunshine Week is March 15-21

It's time for newsrooms to start planning for Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of government transparency and journalism's role in it. This year Sunshine Week is March 15-21. If your newsroom hasn't planned any coverage yet, not to worry: the website has plenty of ideas and a bank of free-for-use stories and visuals from major publications.

The annual observance, led by the News Leaders Association and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, is well worth the effort, especially in a major election year. Public trust in the news media is low, and it's important to remind readers of the role that the independent press plays in keeping the government accountable.

New study links poor internet connections with lower grades and SAT scores for students in rural Michigan

A slow internet connection or limited access from home can put rural students behind academically, according to a newly published study from Michigan State University.

Researchers found that students in rural Michigan with no home internet access and those who depend on a cell phone for their only access had grade-point averages about half a point lower, on average, than those with fast access. Such students were also less likely to say they were planning to attend college. Students with greater home internet access tended to have better overall technology skills, and that was correlated with a higher SAT score.

The gaps existed even after the researchers controlled for income, race, ethnicity, and parental education. Though the sample size was limited to nearly 3,300 teens in 15 school districts, the results are likely applicable elsewhere in the U.S.

State and local governments have great power in fighting coronavirus, including allowing news media to do their jobs

"Local and state public health officials wield extraordinary powers in emergency situations such as the current coronavirus outbreak," Michael Ollove and Alex Brown report for Stateline. "They can close schools and private businesses. They can restrict or shut down mass transit systems. They can cancel concerts, sporting events and political rallies. They can call up the National Guard. They can suspend medical licensing laws and protect doctors from liability claims. And they can quarantine or isolate people who might infect others."

Laws on emergency powers vary, but most give states and municipalities wide latitude to respond to health threats such as the coronavirus variant dubbed covid-19. That generally includes the right to declare a state of emergency, which serves both practical and psychological functions. Governments can slow the spread of disease by restricting movement or quarantining the sick without having to deal with red tape. And declaring a state of emergency may reassure members of the public who are anxious to know that officials are responding, Ollove and Brown report.

Under emergency-declaration laws, authorities can also redirect health care workers to where they're most needed and help hospitals deal with the onslaught of patients. "For instance, they can decide which hospitals should have isolation wards," Ollove and Brown report. "They can order or request hospitals to release patients with lesser health needs to make room for those infected with the virus. They can take properties to create emergency medical centers if hospital space runs out. And they can transfer equipment and supplies from one hospital to another, based on the needs of the moment."

Local health officials also play a critical role in informing the public. Clear, factual information to the public can slow the spread of disease, reduce panic, and kill rumors, Ollove and Brown write.

It is important to allow the news media to do its job during an infectious disease threat. During the Spanish flu epidemic, governments all over the world forbade, discouraged, or threatened newspapers from reporting on the extent of the disease for fear that it would cause panic, Gillian Brockell reports for The Washington Post. But attempts to control information backfired and resulted in many more lives lost, said historian John M. Barry, who wrote a book about the Spanish flu epidemic.

"For example, in Philadelphia, local officials were planning the largest parade in the city’s history. Just before the scheduled event, about 300 returning soldiers started spreading the virus in the city," Brockell reports. Many doctors told reporters that the parade shouldn't happen, and reporters wrote the stories, but editors wouldn't print them, Barry told Brockell. The parade was held, and Spanish flu hit the city two days later. City officials closed schools and banned public gatherings, but claimed that it wasn't a public health measure and that there was no need for alarm. Philadelphia ended up being one of the hardest hit areas in the nation, with more than 12,500 dead.

Barry spoke to Stateline reporters too, and through the anecdote about Philadelphia emphasized that local officials shouldn't minimize or dismiss credible threats of infectious disease.

Perdue says farmers shouldn't expect more trade aid, but top House Ag Committee Republican says it may be needed

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told members of the House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday that the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn't expect to provide another round of bailout payments for farmers hurt by the Trump administration's trade war with China. But Mike Conaway, R-Texas, the ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee, said more might be necessary, Mike Dorning reports for Bloomberg. "Unless something gives here very soon," another round of trade aid will be "absolutely vital to the survival of our producers," Conway said.

Perdue's testimony "comes after President Trump suggested last month on Twitter that payouts could continue as farmers wait for trade deals to reap benefits," Andrea Noble reports for Route Fifty. "The agriculture secretary said he would advise against such subsidies, and he did not believe the president would issue any additional payments unless recently inked agreements fail to boost agriculture exports as intended." Perdue said that Trump would support more payments if necessary, but said farmers shouldn't expect more.

The federal government has paid farmers $28 billion in trade aid since 2018, but Perdue has repeatedly said that no more aid should be necessary this year, even as his agency's economists remain concerned that China will not be able to uphold its end of the recently signed Phase I trade deal. "The USDA projected this month that China will purchase about $14 billion in agricultural exports in 2020 from U.S. farmers—far short of the $40 billion in goods China has committed to purchase," Noble reports.

House Agriculture Committee chair Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said Trump's talk of a third trade aid package "makes me wonder what’s going on with these trade deals," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture.

Record-dry February in California raises wildfire risk; could worsen well access for small farmers and rural residents

California just had its driest February on record, part of a climate change-related dry spell that will likely exacerbate chronic overuse of groundwater by agriculture, increase the risk of wildfires, and make life harder for small farmers and rural residents who use wells.

About 90 percent of California's annual precipitation usually falls between Oct. 1 and April 30, and about half of the annual precipitation is in December, January and February. This year's record-dry February followed a drier-than-average January and fall, Kendra Pierre-Louis and Nadja Popovich report for The New York Times. There was a decent amount of snow in December, but the state would need record-breaking rain and snow in March and April to make up the deficit.

Latest Drought Monitor map outlines dominant impacts; S means
short-term impacts; L means long-term; yellow areas are abnormally
dry; tan areas have moderate drought; orange have severe drought.
Rain isn't everything: The snowpack in the Sierra Nevada provides up to 30% of the state's drinking water and 75% of its agricultural water. As of March 1, the state's total snowpack was 44% of normal, and in the southern southern Sierras it was only 40%, Pierre-Louis and Popovich report. Many parts of Oregon, Washington state and Nevada are also seeing abnormally dry conditions.

Decreasing precipitation means farmers have to rely more on irrigation, and that's drying up some of the streams and rivers in the western U.S. Large farming operations are taking the lion's share of the groundwater, Susie Cagle reports for The Guardian. Meanwhile, smaller farmers and rural residents must dig ever deeper to hit water and their wells are increasingly going dry, Cagle reports. That problem will get worse if global warming continues unchecked, according to a study in Nature.

Lack of precipitation isn't the only problem in California. It's been warmer than average too, which dries out soil and increases wildfire risk. Between Jan. 1 and March 1, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire, responded to 381 reports of wildfires. That's about 35% higher than average, Pierre-Louis and Popovich report.

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

Government watchdog identifies improper USDA spending on crop insurance payouts, food stamps and school meals

The U.S. Department of Agriculture improperly spent $6.7 billion in 2019, according to the Government Accountability Office's annual report to Congress on improper federal spending. That's more than last year, but still a small part of the $175 billion in improper spending the GAO identified across the government, Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture.

The largest share of improper payments, more than $4 billion, went to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. School meals added just over $1.5 billion to the total. Improper payouts and funding for crop insurance programs made up about $1 billion more.

USDA improperly paid about $42.5 million in crop-disaster assistance, GAO said. Though the total amount was low compared to other improper expenditures, crop-disaster assistance had the highest rate of improper payments as a percentage of a program's total outlay, McCrimmon reports.

Rural hospitals and governments are vulnerable to ransomware and hackers, but can easily protect themselves

Small-town governments and agencies are increasingly getting hit with cyberattacks in which hackers get into their computer systems, encrypt data and demand a ransom to unlock it. Rural governments often have older systems and less tech-savvy workers, so hackers see them as easier targets, and rural hospitals and clinics are considered highly vulnerable, Brian Tumulty reports for The Bond Buyer. Click here for a cybersecurity toolkit for rural hospitals and clinics.

Lake County, Fla. in Columbia
County (Wikipedia map)
State and local governments suffered at least 113 successful ransomware attacks in 2019, notes Jenni Bergal of internet technology publication GCN. One was Lake City, Fla., pop. 12,046. Hackers locked the city's computers for several weeks last June and demanded $750,000 in bitcoin. The city tried to recover the data, but failed. Its insurance company negotiated with the hackers and got the ransom down to $470,000, Bergal reports. The city had a $10,000 deductible on its insurance policy.

Small governments, hospitals and utilities can easily improve their cybersecurity, Andrea Noble reports for Route Fifty: "Cybersecurity experts shared tips on how local governments could apply the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s cybersecurity framework to their networks on Friday at a panel discussion at the National Association of Counties legislative conference in Washington, D.C."

The NIST framework is a voluntary guide for businesses, organizations and governments to better protect infrastructure and manage cybersecurity risks. It includes easy-to-implement tenets such as using secure passwords and training staff to look out for possible phishing schemes, Noble reports.

Top 20 rural hospitals in the nation for 2020 announced

The National Rural Health Association has announced the top 20 rural community hospitals for 2020. The rankings were based on a recently released top 100 rural hospitals list from Chartis Center for Rural Health, part of health-care analytics consultancy The Chartis Group.

The 20 top hospitals were evaluated based on Chartis's Hospital Strength Index, which considers eight categories: inpatient market share, outpatient market share, quality, outcomes, patient perspective, cost, charge, and financial efficiency, according to the press release.

The list was notable in that most of the hospitals were in the west. Only five of the 20 were east of the Mississippi River: Aurora Medical Center-Manitowoc County in Two Rivers, Wis.; Community Hospitals and Wellness Centers in Bryan, Ohio; Major Health Partners in Shelbyville, Ind.; Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center in Jasper, Ind.; and University of Maryland Shore Medical Center at Easton in Easton, Md. South Dakota had the most hospitals on the list with five, followed by Utah with three. Click here for the entire list.

Interior employee inserts misleading language about climate change into scientific reports about agriculture and more

Longtime Interior Department official Indur Goklany inserted misleading and sometimes debunked language about climate change into the agency's scientific reports, according to documents reviewed by The New York Times.

"The misleading language appears in at least nine reports, including environmental studies and impact statements on major watersheds in the American West that could be used to justify allocating increasingly scarce water to farmers at the expense of wildlife conservation and fisheries," Hiroko Tabuchi reports.

In early 2017, near the beginning of the Trump administration, Goklany was promoted to the office of the deputy secretary responsible for reviewing the agency's climate policies. "The Interior Department’s scientific work is the basis for critical decisions about water and mineral rights affecting millions of Americans and hundreds of millions of acres of land," Tabuchi notes.

Goklany pushed department scientists to change the wording in studies to cast doubt on the scientific consensus regarding global warming. "He also instructed department scientists to add that rising carbon dioxide — the main force driving global warming — is beneficial because it 'may increase plant water-use efficiency' and 'lengthen the agricultural growing season'," Tabuchi reports. "Both assertions misrepresent the scientific consensus that, overall, climate change will result in severe disruptions to global agriculture and significant reductions in crop yields."

The Interior Department emails, which span 2017-2019, "provide the latest evidence of the Trump administration’s widespread attacks on government scientific work," Tabuchi reports.

Farm Policy News roundup explores 2020 ag projections

Past and forecast meat imports to China (USDA chart)
American farmers are hoping for improved fortunes in 2020, thanks to the Phase I trade deal between the U.S. and China. But African swine fever, the coronavirus, and trade agreement loopholes that could favor Brazilian soybeans have muddied the waters.

Keith Good of the University of Illinois' Farm Policy News has an excellent—and extensive—roundup of how those issues could affect agriculture in 2020, including plenty of charts and links to reputable sources.

Current projections say meat imports to China will increase in 2020, and will eclipse soybeans as America's largest export to China. Though China is buying more U.S. soybeans, other marketers have scaled back on American soybean purchases. Forcing sales to China will likely cost the U.S. open sales to the rest of the world, according to a recent report from Agricultural Policy Review, a publication of Iowa State University's Center for Agricultural and Rural Development.

Unique decade-old deal aims to help coal town in Washington state plan for and deal with plant's closure

Centralia, Washington, in Lewis County.
(Wikipedia map)
Later this year, the coal plant that has provided jobs for decades in a rural Washington state town will begin the years-long process of shutting down. But Centralia, a town of 16,336 halfway between Seattle and Portland, is better-prepared than many coal towns that lose their plants.

"A one-of-a-kind deal struck by lawmakers, environmentalists, local leaders and the power plant owner — Canada-based TransAlta — in 2011 gave Centralia more than a decade to prepare for the plant closure. It requires TransAlta to provide $55 million for economic development, support for displaced workers, energy technology and energy efficiency," Alex Brown and Sophie Quinton report for Stateline. "The money is given out via grants overseen by a board comprised of company and local leaders. It’s one of the largest investments to date to help a coal community adjust, but its proponents acknowledge that it won’t make the transition painless."

As coal plants in other states increasingly shut down, Centralia's transition will be one to watch. Click here for an interactive map that shows coal plants all over the U.S. that are retired, still operating, or are planned to retire.

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

Small New England newspapers make Editor & Publisher's annual, renamed list of 10 News Publishers That Do it Right

A theater in scenic downtown Keene, N.H., is the headquarters for Radically Rural, which uses several venues nearby.
A New Hampshire newspaper that started a "Radically Rural" symposium and a Vermont alternative weekly known for investigations and deeply reported features are on Editor & Publisher magazine's annual list of "10 News Publishers That Do It Right," formerly "10 Newspapers That Do It Right."

The Keene Sentinel was recognized for establishing, with the local Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship, Radically Rural, a two-day symposium that features expert speeches and panel discussions on several tracks, a networking event, local food and beverages, and live music. "More than 600 people from 26 states attended all parts of Radically Rural in 2019, a significant increase from the first year," Evelyn Mateos reports for E&P. The next one will be Sept. 23-24.

Sentinel President and Chief Operating Officer Terrence Williams told Mateos that sponsorships, ticket sales and ad revenue are split evenly with the Grimes center, which continues a networking event that gave birth to the symposium. The six program tracks last year were arts and culture, entrepreneurship, journalism, land and community, Main Street, and renewable energy.

"With the nearest airport located two hours away, Williams said if people want to attend the summit they have to be committed," Mateos writes, quoting him: “We can’t be one of those things where we only marginally produce something, it has to be contemporary, it has to be seen as—if not cutting edge—then at least on the leading edge of the issues that are affecting each of the tracks.”

Seven Days of Burlington, Vt., which has a large rural audience, made the list for building on a very personal piece of citizen journalism to take an in-depth look at Vermont's opioid epidemic, Mateos reports:

"In October 2018, Seven Days published an obituary for Madelyn Linsenmeir, a young, local mother who had died of causes related to opioid-use disorder. Shortly after it was published, her obit went viral with more than a thousand comments and about 4 million views online—most likely because the obit had been written by Linsenmeir’s own sister, Kate O’Neill," a former Seven Days proofreader. The paper offered her a new job: "spend a year writing about the epidemic that had killed her sister."

“Kate could write about this in a way that our journalists couldn’t,” Publisher Paula Routly said. “She was able to portray her sister with sensitivity and enough specificity and empathy. You could really understand the predicament. That seemed like a unique perspective that none of our reporters had really managed to tap into and that seemed like a very important part of understanding the problem.”

O’Neill’s series, “Hooked: Stories and Solutions from Vermont’s Opioid Crisis," started in January 2019. It examined "how Vermonters became addicted to opioids and how the epidemic drives sexual exploitation," Mateos reports. There were six stories (at about 12,000 words each), which garnered about 100,000 pageviews with an average time spent of six to seven minutes per page. . . . Seven Days created a companion website called All Our Hearts, which launched last September, to find more stories of those lost to opioids. Through the website, families can submit a form describing their loved one, and someone from the paper will follow up to do an interview." More than 50 have posted.

Others on the list of 10 were The Arizona Republic, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Financial Times, Nevada's Greenspun Media Group, Argentina's La Voz del Interior, the Salt Lake Tribune and WKMG-TV of Orlando.

The News-Gazette of Champaign, Ill., earned an honorable mention for inviting more than 300 high-school athletes to its office for its "Faces of the Fall" project. "Students—nominated by their schools and dressed in full uniform—received a News-Gazette business card designed and produced in-house that each participant scanned with their cellphone to connect with the paper on social media," E&P reports. "About 70 students were invited to record radio spots promoting programming on News-Gazette Media’s three stations. Another 150 students went in front of the newsroom’s green screen and created GIFs for social media channels. Professional portraits were also published online and ran in the print edition each day through the season. The entire experience was filmed, and the video made available at news-gazette.com."

Flooding hurting farmers again; could delay planting

Precipitation in January 2020 as a percentage of the average for the 20th century.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration map; click on the image to enlarge it.
American farmers could see planting delays and crop losses for the second year in a row, as ground still saturated from last year's flooding can't absorb heavy recent rains.

"Relentless storms that have marched across the Midwest and into the South this winter have already filled rivers to the brim and are threatening to make farm fields too soggy to plant as spring arrives," Brian Sullivan reports for Bloomberg. "And there isn’t much to suggest an easing ahead. Heavy rains forecast through next week could push waterways higher where the Mississippi and Ohio meet in Illinois, and into northern Mississippi and Arkansas." Farmers in Washington state, North Dakota and Minnesota have been seeing flooding, too.

Because the recently concluded meteorological winter was two to three times as wet as normal in most states, it wouldn't take much more rain to once again cause major problems for farmers, homeowners, businesses and infrastructure, Sullivan reports.

The 2019 flooding was so bad that last year's crop insurance payout was the highest in history and farm bankruptcies rose 20 percent. "Odds are we won’t have the $20 billion in losses we had last year," Scientific American meteorologist Jeff Masters told Sullivan. "But the odds are we will see multi-billion dollar losses."

Senate OKs $1 billion for rural telecom carriers to replace Huawei gear, but that may not cover full cost of replacement

On Thursday the Senate approved $1 billion to help rural telecommunications carriers replace equipment made by Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE Corp. The House passed a similar bill in December, and President Trump is expected to sign it.

Huawei equipment makes up less than 1 percent of equipment used by U.S. telecom providers, but it's much more popular among rural telecoms because it's cheaper. "If signed, the bill will provide funds for about 40 rural carriers that use Huawei gear, which the U.S. says could be used by Beijing to spy on the communications that flow through its networks," Katy Ferek reports for The Wall Street Journal. "Huawei, the world’s largest maker of telecom equipment and the No. 2 smartphone vendor, has disputed those assertions."

As part of the trade war with China, in May 2019 the Federal Communications Commission banned U.S. telecoms from buying or using equipment from "foreign adversaries," effective 90 days from then. That included Huawei, ZTE and similar Chinese companies, Ferek reports. The move left rural telecoms scrambling to figure out their next move. In July, Trump promised to ease up on the Huawei ban as part of trade negotiations with China, and in August extended the deadline for ditching Huawei tech to mid-November. Then in November, the administration granted exceptions to some rural carriers.

Approving funding could help Trump win rural voters in an election year, Ferek writes. However, $1 billion won't likely cover the full cost rural telecoms will pay to replace the equipment, George Paul reports for Business Insider; he notes that FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks estimated in November that the real cost could be as much as $2 billion

In the meantime, barring American consumers and companies from doing business with Huawei hasn't hurt the tech giant's fortunes. In addition to the telecoms-equipment ban, the Commerce Department mostly forbade American companies from selling Huawei the computer chips it needs for a certain piece of wireless equipment, but Huawei simply expanded its own chip-manufacturing capability and has been selling the equipment without U.S. chips, Ian King reports for Bloomberg. Tim Danks, the U.S.-based Huawei executive responsible for partner relations, told King that Huawei wants to return to using American components, but that the longer the company goes without access to U.S. suppliers, the less likely it is to return to using American chips.

Rural voters more influential in some Super Tuesday states

Rural and urban registered voters in Super Tuesday states (Daily Yonder chart; click on the image to enlarge it).
Maine, the most rural state by population,  is not included in the chart because current totals were not available.
Fourteen states will hold their primaries today, and though rural voters will be underrepresented because of major cities in California and Texas, eight of the states have an above-average number of registered voters in rural areas, Tim Marema and Bill Bishop report for The Daily Yonder.

Maine and Vermont have the highest percentage of rural voters, with about two-thirds of each state's voters living in rural areas. But those states represent only 3.6 million people—5 percent of those eligible to vote today. "Besides Vermont and Maine, Super Tuesday states with above-average numbers of rural voters are Alabama, 24%; Arkansas, 37%; Minnesota, 22%; North Carolina, 22%; Oklahoma, 34%; and Tennessee, 22%," Bishop and Marema note.

Texas has the largest number of rural voters of any Super Tuesday state, with almost 1.9 million. North Carolina comes second with almost 1.5 million, and Oklahoma is third with about 916,000. But rural voters are less likely to make a big impact in Texas than elsewhere, since they make up a much smaller share of overall voters than in North Carolina or Oklahoma. Rural Native Americans could have a big impact in Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Colorado, Maria Givens reports for the Yonder.

Still, Super Tuesday results will largely reflect metropolitan preferences, since half of the nation's 10 largest metro areas will vote today, Marema and Bishop note. But, they write: "That’s not to say rural voters won’t have an impact. It’s the Democratic primary that matters this year, since President Donald Trump faces no serious opposition. In a large Democratic field, smaller margins will matter. And that’s exactly when blocs of voters like the rural electorate could make a difference."

Federal report shows that coal companies' bankruptcies shifted $865 million in disability claims to taxpayers

"A new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office revealed that shoddy government enforcement has allowed coal companies to transfer $865 million of disability liabilities to taxpayers during bankruptcies in recent years," Will Wright reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "The issue revolves around the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which exists to ensure that black lung victims receive workers’ compensation payments if their employer becomes insolvent or otherwise fails to provide those payments."

Some coal companies buy insurance to cover such claims, but other companies post collateral with the federal government to show that they have the means to cover the claims. But the report showed that the collateral is often far short of what's needed. "With several more-recent coal company bankruptcies looming in Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and elsewhere, it is unclear how many millions of dollars of liabilities those companies may soon transfer to taxpayers," Wright reports.

"Coal companies pay into the fund via a tax on the coal they produce, but the fund also borrows billions of dollars from the U.S. Treasury. In fiscal year 2019, it borrowed about $1.9 billion, according to the GAO report," Wright reports. And when coal companies declare bankruptcy and their collateral doesn't cover its black-lung claims, the cost for those claims is shifted to taxpayers.

The GAO report shows that the Labor Department has failed to take steps to prevent this liability shift over the years. According to the report, "the department declined to use enforcement tools to force the company to post adequate collateral, failed to regularly review the financial condition of the coal companies, and did not factor in the companies’ future benefit liability amounts, Wright reports.

Last week the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protection held a hearing on the GAO findings. Labor Department officials said they have strengthened their policies and will take stronger action against companies that don't post adequate collateral, Wright reports.

Monday, March 02, 2020

Farmers irate after company, maybe using private data, tries to rent the land they farm and sublet it by online auction

Midwestern farmers are furious after a new company tried to rent their farmland out from under them and sublet it through online auctions, possibly using privileged data to target the best farmland, Dan Charles reports for NPR.

Not all farmers own the land they till: about half of Midwest farnland is owned by landlords, and 81 percent aren't farmers, or even local, Charles notes. Many are investors, some foreign.

Still, farmer-landowner contracts can last for decades, and can feel personal. So, many farmers were upset when they heard that Chicago-based company Tillable recently sent thousands of letters to landowners, offering cash up front to rent land that was already being farmed. The venture-capital-backed company wanted to rent the land and then sublet it to the highest bidder online, Charles reports. CEO Corbett Kull told Charles he thinks Tillable can be a farmland version of AirBnB.

But Parker Smith, who grows corn and soybeans outside Champaign, Ill., sees it a different way. "They're reaching out to our landlords, that we have relationships with, to sort of go behind the farmer's back," he told Charles.

The farmers already renting the land are upset for other reasons. Some use equipment that collects data about their operations, and they pay a company called Climate Corp. to manage and interpret that data. But last fall, Tillable and the Climate Corp. announced a partnership, making some farmers suspect that Tillable had used Climate data to target the most productive farmland for cash offers.

A few weeks ago, farmers started sharing suspicions about the partnership on Twitter. Kull denies that Tillable used Climate data, but the hubbub prompted the companies to cancel their partnership. "Kull says this is not a major blow to Tillable's plans to expand. But the controversy could have one lasting effect. Parker Smith says that he never worried about his farm data before, and who might be able to to see it. Now, he and a lot of other farmers probably will," Charles reports.

Republican minorities in Oregon statehouse exploit 2/3 quorum rule to block bills their mostly rural voters dislike

Vox chart
Republican lawmakers in Oregon, who mostly represent rural areas and are a minority on both sides of the statehouse, are refusing to show up to work in order to prevent a bill from passing. It's the fifth time they've done that since May 2019.

The state constitution requires two-thirds of lawmakers in a chamber to be present for a quorum to take action. Democrats have supermajorities in both chambers, but Republicans have been able to stop bills from passing by simply not showing up. 

Last year wasn't the first time Oregon lawmakers used the constitutional loophole to block changes in state law. Democrats and Republicans have both used the tactic a handful of times since 1971, Tracy Loew reports for the Statesman Journal in Salem.

Republicans' first walkout last year was to stop a tax package that contained provisions for gun control and would have revoked religious exemptions for vaccination. They came back after Democrats agreed to drop those measures. The second walkout, in late June, garnered nationwide attention after the Capitol was shut down over threats from militia groups. Many GOP lawmakers fled the state, and when Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, told state troopers to bring them back, one lawmaker told police to "send bachelors and come heavily armed." The Democrats caved again.

This time, the measure at issue would implement a cap-and-trade program in which companies that emit a lot of greenhouse gases would obtain credits for each ton of gas they emit. The bill would also set a cap on emissions in the state, Dirk VaderHart reports for Oregon Public Broadcasting.

House Democrats voted Thursday to subpoena the missing Republicans in an attempt to compel them to come to work, Hillary Borrud reports for The Oregonian. The subpoenas would require them to testify before the House Rules Committee about the reasons for their boycott. 

It's unclear whether the legal maneuver will work. "A lobbyist for Oregon Manufacturers and Commerce, a group staunchly opposed to the greenhouse gas cap-and-trade bill, issued a press release after the committee vote pointing out Oregon’s Constitution protects lawmakers from 'any civil process' as long as the Legislature is in session," Borrud reports.

The walkout means other bills could go unaddressed, including one that would cap insulin costs. It effectively cancels "all progress on all budget and policy bills, raising the specter that lawmakers will end the session next weekend without making fixes to a business tax requested by businesses, allocating millions for homelessness, mental health and foster children or acting on a host of other bipartisan plans," Borrud reports.

Republicans are acting "on behalf of an almost entirely white, rural minority," David Roberts writes in an opinion piece for Vox. "It ought to be getting more national attention, if for no other reason than it perfectly encapsulates larger national political trends."

Klobuchar, who touted her track record among rural voters as Minnesota senator, withdraws from presidential race

Klobuchar at the Iowa State Fair. (Reuters photo by Brian Snyder)
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who said her track record with rural voters in Minnesota showed she was the sort of presidential nominee Democrats need, withdrew from the race today.

"Klobuchar’s exit came after she finished in sixth place in Saturday’s South Carolina primary, winning only 3.1% of the vote, and no delegates. Her departure came less than a day after former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg ended his campaign," Amy B. Wang of The Washington Post notes. "Klobuchar finished in third place in the New Hampshire primary, but then a disappointing sixth place in the Nevada caucuses."

From the start, Wang notes, "Klobuchar leaned hard into her Midwestern identity. She repeatedly sold herself as someone who could win over rural and suburban voters in swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where Donald Trump narrowly eked out victories in 2016." Klobuchar
said at a Washington Post Live event last summer, “I have won the congressional districts where Donald Trump won by more than 20 points. And I have not done it by selling out. I’ve done it by going to where people are, by being honest with them.”

USDA names Rural Development deputy undersecretary, but there's still no undersecretary for it and other units

Bette Brand (USDA photo)
On Friday, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced Bette Brand as the new deputy undersecretary for Rural Development programs, following the retirement of D.J. LaVoy.

Brand has been the administrator Rural Development's Rural Business Service since January 2018. Before that, she worked for 35 years for a farm lender and served on various rural-centric non-profit boards in Virginia, according to the Department of Agriculture press release.

Though Brand is an undersecretary in name, in reality she will head the USDA section that oversees rural infrastructure, housing assistance, broadband connectivity, and more. Why? "There’s still no full undersecretary for rural development, more than a year since Congress reinstated the position in the 2018 Farm Bill (after Perdue tried to eliminate it)," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture.

Half of USDA's mission areas are headed by deputy officials, McCrimmon notes: "The department has no undersecretaries for food safety; research, education and economics; and food, nutrition and consumer services. Each area is led by a deputy undersecretary."

Why lead with deputies? Partly because they don't require Senate confirmation, McCrimmon writes. The confirmation process can be slow, and after two undersecretary nominees were stuck in Senate limbo for months, Perdue simply named the nominees to deputy undersecretary roles instead. That's in keeping with President Trump's preference for naming acting cabinet members as a way of getting around the Senate confirmation process.

However, "Senate inaction isn’t the only hangup," McCrimmon reports. "The White House didn’t get around to picking someone to lead the [Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services] branch until December 2019, and there’s still no nominee for rural development undersecretary."

Coronavirus pandemic could hurt rural hospitals' access to supplies, financial stability

Rural hospitals are starting to feel the effects of the coronavirus, and it could get a lot worse. "They sit furthest from international airports and urban hubs where outbreaks are more likely, but they are at the tail end of supply chains for vital medical goods such as protective masks and gowns," Christopher Rowland reports for The Washington Post. "In addition to preparing for victims and the demands of protecting health-care workers from infection, fragile hospital networks also are readying for disruptions to the bottom line. If the spreading coronavirus puts heavy demand on health systems, billable work that keeps revenue flowing on a weekly basis to hospitals small and large will be curtailed, executives said." That could devastate rural hospitals, many of which are already operating on thin margins or in the red.

The American Hospital Association asked Congress earlier this week to pass emergency funding, between $4 billion and $8.5 billion, to help hospitals deal with anticipated costs. "In the event of widespread sickness, costs would soar for isolation rooms for infected patients, equipment, and training," Rowland reports. "Rural facilities, far from medical warehouses, are feeling the effects first as the health systems has begun rationing certain supplies. The likelihood of a coronavirus victim showing up in the emergency room remains low in these places but the possibility of economic ripple effects are real."

New data shows sub-broadband average internet speeds in two-thirds of counties; map shows county-level data

Every U.S. county's average internet speed. National Association of Counties map; click the image to enlarge it.
Newly released data shows that far fewer rural Americans have access to broadband internet than the Federal Communications Commission's map indicates.

The FCC gets its data from internet service providers who have an incentive to overstate their rural coverage in order to access federal funds. The map also considers a census block as "covered" if one household has broadband access. Using that data and methodology, the FCC estimates that 21 million Americans, or 6.5 percent of the population, lack broadband access, Andrea Noble reports for Route Fifty.

"New data, crowdsourced from an app that tests internet connectivity speeds, found that 65% of counties across the United States are averaging connection speeds slower than the FCC’s definition of broadband," Noble reports. "The findings were released Monday in a report by the National Association of Counties, which launched the mobile app last year to help fill in the gaps in the FCC’s connectivity data."

The app created a map of internet speed data. Using data from over 99,000 speed tests in 2,391 counties across the U.S., NACO found that many areas, especially rural ones, were averaging speeds slower than 25 megabits per second, which is the FCC's threshold for broadband. "According to the report, 77% of small counties, 51% of medium-sized counties and 19% of large counties were averaging connections at speeds slower than 25 mbps," Noble reports.