Friday, June 29, 2012

Mostly Republican governors want to opt out of health care law's Medicaid expansion

When the U.S. Supreme Court declared yesterday that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional, it limited the federal government's power to make states expand their Medicaid programs, which will likely impact the implementation of the law in several states, especially those controlled by Republicans.

Medicaid expansion was challenged by 26 states as being "coercive" because it would have allowed the feds to take back all of a state's Medicaid funding if it refused to comply. But the court ruled that the U.S. Government can only take back funding designated specifically for expansion, and not any of a state's existing Medicaid funding. "What Congress can not do is to penalize states that choose not to participate in that new program by taking away their existing Medicaid funding," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority.

States stand to gain a lot by expanding the program, Christine Vestal of Stateline reports, because the federal government pays 100 percent of costs for the first two years, then reduces its funding to 90 percent in 2020. The Congressional Budget Office estimates this would add up to a $20 billion transfer to states over the first 10 years of expansion. But, some states say covering 10 percent of the cost of new beneficiaries would put more strain on their budgets. (Read more)

Most Republican-led states have done little to set up online exchanges which allow residents to compare private health insurance for the best price and serve as a portal for joining Medicaid expansions, The Associated Press reports. State have to tell the federal government in November whether or not they will build exchanges. The federal government will build a common exchange for states that don't build their own.

Wisconsin's Republican Governor Scott Walker denounced the law on Thursday, saying he would not implement any parts of it in Wisconsin before the presidential election. "While the court said it was legal, that doesn't make it right," Walker said. "For us to put time and effort and resources into that doesn't make a lot of sense."

GOP leaders in Mississippi say they don't have the money to expand Medicaid. Emily Wagster of AP reports Mississippi receive a large chunk of federal money for Medicaid because it has a high percentage of low-income residents. Republican Governor Phil Bryant said deep cuts in education and transportation would have to be made to cover the cost of Medicaid for more than 400,000 additional people. He said the state is looking at "some leeway in the decision to not penalize states for not complying with Medicaid requirements."

The question of Medicaid expansion is still up in the air in several other Republican-controlled states, including Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina and Indiana, where governors say they would be hard-pressed to implement it. But Washington Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna, who joined the lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act last year, split with most of the GOP and said Congress shouldn't repeal the law, or any of its provisions, including the individual mandate. McKenna, who's currently running for governor, said he's ready to implement health-insurance exchanges and Medicaid expansion if elected, Jim Brunner of The Seattle Times reports.

Agriculture professor says land-grant schools have lost sight of "people's university" mission

The 150th anniversary of the creation of the Public Land-Grant University System through the Morrill Act is this Tuesday, July 2. Public land-grant universities have made innumerable contributions to the people in states where they exist, establishing a rich heritage that will be celebrated next week in Washington, D.C. with a convocation. The problem, says Auburn University agriculture professor C. Robert Taylor, is that "common people," which land-grant universities were created to help, are "glaringly absent from the invitation list."

"Land Grant universities were intended to be the 'People's Universities,'" Taylor writes for the Daily Yonder, "with a three part mission of teaching, research and service for common people, ordinary people, the working class, the middle class in American society. People like me." He said he thinks land-grant universities are drifting away from their mission of helping and educating "common people," and the celebration in Washington highlights "symptoms of a serious disease organism," one that he hopes isn't "incurable."

Taylor says the U.S. population has shifted from mostly agrarian to mostly urban over 150 years, and he questions whether the needs of people today are the same as then, but ultimately concludes that what matters most for next week's celebration is that none of the "new people" will be represented. It's troubling for him, he writes, because the convocation will feature discussions to help set the agenda for land-grant schools for the next 150 years.

"Truth is," Taylor writes, "that elites in government and business have been increasingly influencing and often subtly setting the agenda -- especially the research agenda -- in land-grant universities for some time." He says cuts in extension funding over the years have caused a decrease in public support for land-grant schools, which was exacerbated by faculty turning inward and only conducting research and writing papers for peers instead of connecting with the public. (Read more)

High court says inmates can be counted in home voting districts, which are mostly urban

States can now count prison inmates at their last known address instead of their prison address for election redistricting purposes, according to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. The decision upholds a districting map the Maryland General Assembly drew last year, David Hill of The Washington Times reports.

Activists had sued the state claiming the map violated the Constitution because it differed from the U.S. Census Bureau's policy of counting inmates at their prison address. “Critics of the federal policy say it has artificially inflated the populations and voting power of the often-rural districts that contain prisons, while reducing the influence of urban areas where many inmates formerly lived," Hill writes. Critics said prisoners don't use the resources of the prison's district, and should not be counted in those districts as a result. Some argued the map disenfranchised black voters and Republicans.

Maryland is one of four states that counts prisoners at their home addresses. The others are California, Deleware and New York. The ruling is expected to benefit Baltimore most since it has steadily lost residents and legislative seats, Hill reports. But, remote areas of Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore are likely to suffer because they "benefited in redistricting from numbers provided by inmates," Hill writes. (Read more)

Amazon says it will shift 1/6 of its business from USPS if Saturday delivery ends

Rural interests and others who favor continued Saturday mail delivery gained a powerful lobbying ally Wednesday when Amazon testified against the U.S. Postal Service's plan and threatened to move a sixth of its business to other carriers if Congress goes along. The company is one of the USPS's biggest customers.

Amazon Vice President for Global Public Policy Paul Misener said the company's customers have "come to expect Saturday mail delivery," reports Eric Engleman of Puget Sound Business Journal.  "While they may be able to wait until Monday or Tuesday for a bill they don't really want; an advertisement they didn't ask for; or a magazine to which they subscribed long ago; they expect the items they purchased this week to be delivered as soon as possible," Misener said. He added that ending Saturday delivery would be especially hard for Amazon's rural customers, who "simply would not be able to receive parcels on Saturday because there are no delivery alternatives to the USPS."

Five more states get No Child Left Behind waivers

Five additional states have received waivers from the federal government from key parts of the No Child Left Behind Act. They are Virginia, Arkansas, Missouri, South Dakota and Utah, making the total number of states with waivers 24, with 13 more states and Washington, D.C. waiting for approval.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said during a conference call today that "these states have joined in a nationwide movement toward state-led education reform," and that "their plans are the product of bold, forward-thinking state and local leaders who have moved beyond the tired old battle and partisan bickering to roll up their sleeves and start working together." He also said that the leadership displayed in these states has been "simply remarkable," and prove that more leaders are taking a "much more holistic and comprehensive view of college and career readiness" that is moving beyond a test-driven assessment system.

National Endowment for the Arts partners with design group to improve rural communities

The National Endowment for the Arts, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Project for Public Spaces will partner with the Citizens' Institute on Rural Design to "enhance the quality of life and economic viability of rural areas ... through design workshops that gather local leaders together with experts in planning, design and creative placemaking to assist with locally identified issues," according to a press release.

CIRD has hosted more than 60 workshops in all regions of the U.S. since its inception in 1991. It works with communities with fewer than 50,000 people and focusses on downtown revitalization, arts-based development, heritage preservation, land and agricultural conservation, growth management and transportation. The organization will develop guidelines for communities to apply to host a workshop. Application deadlines will be announced this Fall, and selected communities should be announced in January 2013. (Read more)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

If Obama is re-elected, in a sort of referendum on the health-care law, battles likely move to states

The political battle over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will continue in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail, but if President Obama keeps his current lead and is re-elected the battle seems likely to move to the states. Congressional Republicans said they would keep moving to repeal the law, but they do not have the votes to override a presidential veto. That makes the November election a sort of referendum on the law.

While the Supreme Court upheld the law's individual mandate to buy health insurance or pay a penalty, starting in 2014, it struck down a key provision for expanding coverage through the Medicaid program. It said the federal government can't take away states' current Medicaid funding if they refuse to participate in the expansion. That is "a gun to the head," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the 5-4 majority opinion.

The decision means that "A state can refuse to participate in the expansion without losing all of its Medicaid funds," Kevin Russell writes on SCOTUSblog. "Instead the state will have the option of continue the its current, unexpanded plan as is." (Read more)

"The Medicaid provision is projected to add nearly 30 million more people to the insurance program for low-income Americans -- but the court’s decision left states free to opt out of the expansion if they choose," MSNBC's Tom Curry writes. The law requires states in 2014 to cover adults with incomes at or below 133 percent of the federal income threshold definition of poverty, now $14,856 a year for single adults. "Many states now cover adults with children only if their income is considerably lower, and do not cover childless adults at all," Roberts noted.

The chief justice said it is not constitutional to "penalize states that choose not to participate in that new program by taking away their existing Medicaid funding," because the law transforms Medicaid into a more general health program. "The threatened loss of over 10 percent of a state’s overall budget is economic dragooning that leaves the states with no real option but to acquiesce in the Medicaid expansion."

Liberal justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan joined conservative Roberts in that part of his opinion. The other liberals, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, said the administration does have the right to withhold Medicaid money if a state doesn't follow the new rules, and said this was the first time that the court had ever found "an exercise of Congress’ spending power unconstitutionally coercive." However, Ginsburg wrote in their concurring opinion that a majority of the court (all but Breyer and Kagan) "buys the argument that prospective withholding of funds formerly available exceeds Congress’ spending power. Given that holding, I entirely agree with the chief justice as to the appropriate remedy" — banning the withholding of Medicaid funds, "not, as the joint dissenters would have it, to scrap the expansion altogether."

While polls have never shown that a majority of American adults favored the law, majorities favor its major components, the exception being the individual mandate. Here's a graph from the Kaiser Family Foundation, via a Washington Post blog post that includes other polling data:
Will states that challenged the law as unconstitutional also refuse to expand their Medicaid programs? Not necessarily. Matthew Yglesias of Slate explains the workings of Medicaid: "The more a state spends, the more the federal government kicks in—but you get diminishing returns in terms of how much extra money you can get. So the upshot is that a stingy, conservative state can expand for cheaper at the margin than can a generous liberal state." (Read more)

John Barro of Bloomberg News notes that some reform advocates "worry that states will opt out and low-income people in conservative states will be left without coverage. But I think we will have expanded Medicaid in all 50 states in pretty short order," because the federal government will pay "100 percent of it in the early years, gradually declining to 90 percent. That’s a pretty big carrot. States that refuse to expand Medicaid will be rejecting nearly free federal money. Such a rejection would be tantamount to saying that government health insurance for low-income people is so undesirable that a state is not even willing to pay ten cents on the dollar for it." (Read more)

Stateline notes that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said his state "will not take any action to implement Obamacare," so that could play in his 2014 re-election bid, and the Birmingham Business Journal said "opting out of the Medicaid expansion seems increasingly likely for Alabama." Mary Orndorff, who covers Washington for Alabama's largest newspapers, writes that nearly 1 million people in that state "get their health care through Medicaid and the expansion could increase that by more than 500,000 people. In other words, the state would go from 21 percent of its state population eligible for Medicaid to about 40 percent. . . . Alabama officials had expressed concern that the expansion is something the state cannot afford, estimating that administrative costs alone would rise by $389 million." (Read more)

It's also likely that this year's presidential candidates will continue to spin the truth about the Affordable Care Act to suit their needs, reports The Annenburg Public Policy Center's Both Obama and Romney "wasted little time in taking to the airwaves to rehash plenty we've fast-checked before," the website writes. Obama was quoted as saying workers will be able to keep their current plans, but "at least a few million" won't be able to keep employee-sponsored plans under the new law. He was also caught exaggerating the benefits of the law. Meanwhile, Romney "repeated a number of distortions," including the law would cut Medicare by $500 billion and add trillions to the deficit.

ProPublica has a report on reactions from some states that sued to overturn the law. For a report by Tara Kaprowy of Kentucky Health News, including details on how the law will affect individuals, click here.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Two of every five eligible Native Americans not registered to vote

This week the National Congress of American Indians called the problem of access to voting a “civic emergency” requiring an immediate fix, reports Mark Trahant for the Daily Yonder. “Native people have remained one of the most disenfranchised group of voters in the United States,” said Jefferson Keel, president of NCAI, the nation’s oldest and most representative tribal advocacy organization. “Today as a result, two out of every five eligible American Indian and Alaska Native voters are not registered to vote, in 2008 over 1 million eligible Native voters were unregistered.”

One way Native Americans could be added to the voter rolls, argued Keel, is to have state-based public assistance agencies such as Indian Health Services clinics designated as registration agencies as allowed under the National Voter Registration Act. This basic idea has worked in other places where low-income voters register at public assistance agencies. When that law was applied, tens of thousands of new voters were added in North Carolina, Virginia, Missouri, Ohio and Illinois.

Effort is on to use 'white spaces' of TV channels to bring wireless broadband to rural colleges

A new partnership plans to bring wireless broadband to rural college communities over the unused spectrum between television channels that are known as "white spaces," reports Adam Masmanian of National Journal. It's called AIR.U, short for Advanced Internet Regions. “University communities will be able to significantly expand the coverage and capacity of high speed wireless communities, both on- and off-campus,” said Michael Calabrese of the New America Foundation, which is helping to lead the effort. The plan grew out of an effort led by former FCC official Blair Levin to bring super high-speed broadband to research universities. His project, called Gig.U, had attracted the interest of rural colleges that didn’t qualify to join.

Rural communities are seen as ideal for the use of white spaces for wireless broadband Internet connectivity, often called Super Wi-Fi, because they tend to have fewer licensed TV stations, and therefore more vacant spectrum in the white spaces. Further, the low frequency range of Super Wi-Fi means that a single base station can cover a radius of about 6 miles with high-speed broadband, according to Apurva Mody, Chair of the White Space Alliance.

The Federal Communications Commission authorized the use of unlicensed white space spectrum for broadband services and other applications, in September 2010. AIR.U hopes to have the first pilot networks up and running in the first quarter of 2013.

Trash-cams spotting rural dumpers; one stream is known for fly fishing and abandoned recliners

A man is caught dumping trash at an illegal site
by a hidden camera purchased by the
Juneau Parks and Recreation Department
It's not a new problem but it's an ugly one. And tranquil, open, lush rural landscapes take the biggest hit when people think they've got nowhere else to put their trash. In Southeast Alaska, law enforcement has had just about enough. So they installed hidden cameras on roads with the most popular dumpsites, reports Kyle Hopkins of the Anchorage Daily News. One of those roads, Hopkins writes, "winds through an area north of Juneau known for world-class fly fishing and abandoned recliners." Bob Dilley, lead community services officer for the Juneau Police Department, explained that officers "get tired of digging through piles hoping to find a scrap of paper with somebody's name on it." Post-trash-cams: A five-arrest spring.

Illegally dumping more than a square foot of litter is a minor offense in the Southeast Alaska city and borough, punishable by a $200 fine. Hopkins, whose story is a primer on how to do this kind of community reporting, writes: "The people cited so far look like any cross section of Alaskans. Guys in ball caps and hoodies driving big pickups. A man in a Land Rover. An SUV full of young women. The Daily News, through a public records request, obtained footage involving all the closed littering cases originating between April 9 and May 15. All five people shown in the footage had paid their fines as of June 12, according to the Juneau Police Department. Littering falls under Anchorage public-nuisance laws with fines ranging from $50 to $300 for a first offense and $200 to $600 for a second offense."

Other towns and counties around the country began experimenting with litter cams earlier this year, at about the same time as Juneau, Hopkins finds. The Delaware Natural Resources Department has used hidden cameras to catch litterers since 2009. County supervisors of Henry County, Va., population 54,000, voted this year to approve $5,000 for the purchase of game cameras to catch people illegally dumping trash.,saying the detritus is bad for tourism, bad for business. Meanwhile, notes Hopkins, the trend is growing. Lorain County, Ohio, sheriffs recently bought solar-powered litter cameras. And local news reports indicate that litterers better be on the lookout for trash cams in Stephenville, Newfoundland, and in the Municipal District of Foothills in southern Alberta.

Is a Farm Bill fight brewing in the House over conservation's link to crop insurance?

Looks like not everybody is happy with Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who last week got an amendment attached to the Senate version of the Farm Bill which linked federal crop insurance to conservation compliance. Groups such as the Environmental Working Group hailed the Georgia lawmaker at the time on the unlikely win which surprised even Senate insiders. Commodity-group leaders and members of the crop-insurance industry seemed stunned by the 52-47 vote, Agri-Pulse reports this morning. Already work has begun to overturn the move when the Farm Bill gets marked up in the House next month. ( photo)

The National Corn Growers Association is very disappointed to see passage of Senator Saxby Chambliss’ conservation compliance for crop insurance amendment in the 2012 Farm Bill,” said NCGA President Garry Niemeyer. “Our members feel this addition to the farm bill would have a negative impact toward America¹s farmers.” Agri-Pulse explains: If the provision is included in the final bill, producers who participate in most federal agricultural programs or the crop insurance program will be required to implement soil conservation plans on highly erodible cropland and refrain from draining wetlands for agricultural production.

Ferd Hoefner, with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, expects the House to allow the linkage to continue in its version of the bill. “The vast majority of producers have played by this set of rules for a long time." Even former National Resource Conservation Service Chief Bruce Knight, who previously worked as a lobbyist for NCGA, told Agri-Pulse that he thinks there will likely be little impact on 98 percent of America's farms, suggesting that "those who want to drain wetlands in the Northern Plains and perhaps some vineyards on steep hills in the Western U.S. could face the most significant changes if this provision makes its way into the final bill."

Agri-Pulse is a subscription-only weekly newsletter, but it offers a four-week trial subscription.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Farm workers face 'red tape,' fear of retaliation when reporting harm from pesticide use

Farm workers are constantly at risk from pesticides in fields where they work, and even though the Environmental Protection Agency maintains a "Worker Protection Standard" that's supposed to regulate pesticide use, "no one knows the full scope of the environmental perils in the fields," reports Ronnie Greene of iWatch News. (Associated Press photo by Luis M. Alvarez)

The Government Accountability Office said in 1993 that a "lack of data" about the health effects of pesticides "could lead to a 'significant underestimation of both the frequency and the severity of pesticide illnesses,'" Greene reports. Today, the EPA can "still only guess" about the number of pesticide-related illnesses, mostly because farm workers tend to be illegal immigrants who don't want to speak up. States, which have been given EPA-authority to enforce pesticide regulation, don't receive many complaints, according to federal records. Some state officials think the system is broken, but EPA"red tape" is keeping reforms from happening, Greene reports.

Workers fear the price for speaking up may be too great. In 2010, farm workers were fired on the spot and sent back to Mexico after complaining multiple times about pesticides sprayed near them in a tomato field. A farm worker in Florida became ill in 2009, and discovered the pesticide endosulfan, which has since been banned by the EPA, was sprayed less than 24 hours after she started working. When she went to the doctor, she said she wasn't asked about the pesticide. The crux of the issue, Green reports, is this: "Workers have little voice when it comes to pesticides." (Read more)

High court to decide whether EPA should regulate water runoff from logging like factories

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a federal appeals court ruling on regulation of water runoff from logging roads. The ruling states that logging-road runoff should be regulated the same as water discharges from factories, which changes the practice of treating it like runoff from farm fields. The ruling in Oregon could apply to roads on state, private and national forest land in the jurisdiction of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers most of the West.

Scientists have found that sediment in salmon streams, which has been clogging areas where the fish lay eggs, is coming from industrial logging roads, and is a leading cause of habitat loss, reports Jeff Barnard of The Associated Press. The Northwest Environmental Defense Center in Portland, Ore., brought the case against the state Department of Forestry. The appeals court ruled in 2010 that muddy water from logging roads requires a Clean Water Act permit from the Environmental Protection Agency. The Supreme Court was asked to take up the case from Oregon and 25 other states.

The EPA proposed revised storm-water regulations that would not require logging roads to get the same permits as factories, and regulate them under a less strict system known as "Best Management Practices," in which guidelines for design and maintenance of roads would be set up by the states. The agency has started review of these practices, and plans to issue new rules for logging roads in September. (Read more)

Rural schools still lag in installing online technology

Rural elementary and high schools have long had to be leaders in distance learning and online education to offer some courses, but they still face challenges such as small size and budgets when trying to put technology inside the classroom. States and school districts across the country are trying several initiatives to get more technology into rural classrooms to bridge a gap in rural and urban technological access.

Some states have started programs to provide technology opportunities to rural districts, reports Sarah Butrymowicz of The Hechinger Report. In Maine, every student gets a laptop, and all school districts have to offer Advanced Placement classes in Alabama through distance learning. Some districts, though, can't afford to provide such technology, and have turned to other sources for funding. In Edison, Colo., the school district supplemented its technology programs with a $10,000 grant from the Denver-based Morgridge Family Foundation.

Only 57 percent of rural households had broadband Internet access in 2010, compared to 72 percent in urban areas, Butrymowicz reports, and Alliance for Excellent Education president, and former West Virginia governor, Bob Wise, told Butrymowicz that technology "could be rural schools' saving grace" and turn them into "renewed learning centers." (Read more)

Drought forcing more farmers to irrigate crops

More farmers than ever are irrigating their crops in the wake of crippling drought, increasing demand for water-well drilling and new irrigation equipment, reports P.J. Huffstutter of Reuters. The near-record expectations for farm income -- $92 billion for 2012 -- is also fueling the increase in sales of irrigation equipment, because farmers will lose less yield if they can irrigate their crops. Manufacturers say that a large number of farmers who have never irrigated before are starting now.

Huffstutter writes that "as the trend grows, the implications will spread." Small shifts in the amount of acres irrigated could mitigate yield losses, which could throw off production outcome forecasts based on weather conditions. It could also intensify friction "over water use as expanding populations, bumper crops, ethanol production and the boom in fracking consume ever-larger volumes of the country's finite water supply," Huffstutter writes. The amount needed for dryland crop irrigation is small, but environmentalists say farmers tapping into the country's water supply could have environmental consequences. (Read more)

Farmers and fairs should work together to keep, enhance agricultural elements, experts say

Small-farm experts said during a workshop in California that fairs need to return to their agricultural roots, Tim Hearden of Capital Press reports. University of California's Small Farm Program director Penny Leff and California Department of Food and Agriculture official Diana Poluszak said during a workshop at the Shasta District Fair that regional fairs were centered around agriculture for more than 100 years, and that entertainment has only been the focus for the last 30 years.

Both said the state's "fiscally strapped fairs could help themselves by doing more to highlight their region's specialty crops." The story of fairs facing financial hardship could be true in other parts of the country where local and regional fairs once were a showcase of the region's agriculture. Leff and Poluszak planned the workshop, and others like it, to get ideas about how farmers can better market their products at local fairgrounds, and how both could help promote each other. (Read more)

Monday, June 25, 2012

Growers of cranberries, which need sugar for sales, fear possible exclusion from schools

The federal government is expected to propose new nutrition standards soon that worry cranberry growers from Massachusetts to Wisconsin and into Canada. The effort, urged on by first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative, is the Department of Agriculture's likely new guidelines for what can be sold in school vending machines, stores and cafeteria lines. Sugar is the target, writes Larry Bivins of USA Today, and sweetened beverages like cranberry juice cocktail could be deemed unhealthy because the berry is not popular without some sort of sweetener added. That would be unfortunate and unfair, cranberry industry officials say, because the tart, deep-red fruit is loaded with nutrients and health benefits. But for consumers to avail themselves of those benefits, cranberries must be palatable. "Cranberries can be sweetened with anything," said Linda Prehn, a cranberry grower in Tomah, Wis., citing apple juice as an example. (Associated Press photo of Massachusetts cranberry worker Miguel Sandel)

Prehn, chairman of United Cranberry Growers Cooperative, a collective of 85 growers in Massachusetts, Oregon and Wisconsin in the U.S. and the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Quebec, was among cranberry honchos attending the recent inaugural meeting of the Congressional Cranberry Caucus on Capitol Hill. Prehn and others are hoping the bipartisan caucus led by Reps. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., and Bill Keating, D-Mass., and Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Scott Brown, R-Mass., can help persuade agriculture officials to make an exception for cranberry products in its nutrition standards for added-sugar products.

"Given the beneficial and scientifically proven health properties of cranberries, we believe there is a need to establish clear standards that recognize cranberries as a part of a healthy diet," the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The lawmakers sent a similar letter to the first lady, pointing out cranberries "contribute to whole body health, particularly urinary-tract health and the potential to fight cancer and other diseases." At stake is exclusion from an estimated $2.3 billion school vending-machine business and an image that could have a negative impact on the marketing of cranberry products worldwide, particularly cranberry juice cocktail, industry officials say.

Supreme Court to issue decision on health law Thu.; Poynter's Al Tompkins offers guide to covering it

The Rural Blog is designed mainly for rural journalists, most of whom are interested mainly in local issues. But every now and then a national issue is so broad and deep that it affects everyone, and calls for localized coverage everywhere. That is the case with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on the federal health-reform law, which is to be released at 10 a.m. EDT Thursday.

As he so often has, Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute anticipates an opportunity for coverage and provides advance help for doing it. Tompkins is a broadcaster by trade, but he's also a policy wonk and offers a rundown of the issues that almost any journalist would find helpful. "The public has said that journalists spend too much time covering the politics of the story and not enough time and space covering what the health care plan does and how it affects them, Tompkins writes. "Let’s fix that."

First, he points us to "an easy-to use tool" from The Washington Post that shows how the law affects you. Then he runs down the three big issues in the case (the individual mandate to buy health insurance, the various reforms in health insurance, and the expansion of Medicaid); Republicans' main objections to the law; what might happen under various scenarios; and fact-checking by PolitiFact, a service of the Tampa Bay Times, which is owned by the Poynter Institute. We also like and the Post's Fact Checker column.

"The decision will immediately be a national story, a legal story, a political story, a business story, a health care story and a local story," Tompkins writes. "Let’s make sure you are ready to cover it."

Midwest law schools counseling students to 'go rural' in search of jobs, where they're needed most

Kay Oskvig, second-year University of Iowa student in
Garner, where she clerks. (WSJ photo by Jenn Ackerman)
In parts of the rural Midwest, small towns are itching for lawyers, writes Ashby Jones of The Wall Street Journal. "The job market is good for lawyers in the western and more rural parts of Nebraska, in towns like Ogallala and Scottsbluff," said Susan Poser, dean of the law school at the University of Nebraska. "We're trying to make students more aware of those opportunities," she said. Last year, the University of Nebraska's law school created a special program of study for its students focused on practicing solo or in small firms after they graduate. The University of Kansas law school a few months ago launched a "rural and solo practice program," which teaches students the basics of each.

The rural areas' biggest selling point is jobs. As of February, the employment rate for students who graduated in 2011 was about 86 percent, the lowest for a class since 1994, according to the National Association for Law Placement. In many ways these law schools are following the lead of the medical profession, reports Jones, which has long encouraged students to practice in rural settings with doctor shortages, and often subsidized them to do so: "The surfeit of lawyers in the rural Midwest largely boils down to demographics: Educated young people raised in the region are fleeing for the cultural and financial opportunities of larger cities, both in their own states and farther afield."

"Twenty years ago, Chadron had 10 lawyers; Alliance had a dozen," said Scottsbluff lawyer Howard Olsen, a former president of the Nebraska Bar Association. "Now, they each just have two or three." Olsen said that clients in rural Nebraska who used to find a lawyer across the street may now drive "50, 60, sometimes 100 miles" to find one. In small towns, lawyers' annual pay tends to start in the low-to-mid-five figures, but advantages can twinkle in the eye of the beholder. "The cost of living, the pace of living and the variety of practice, to name a few," said Marianne B. Culhane, dean of the law school at Creighton University in Omaha. "Plus, no long commutes." (Read more)

Floridians worry about their springs, as algae bloom and cattle operation seeks 13 million gallons a day

Florida's freshwater springs and rivers, especially those in the central and northern parts of the state, have seen a sharp drop-off in flows and a steady rise in algae over the last decade, reports Lizette Alvarez of The New York Times. The declines have alarmed Florida environmentalists, spurring them to launch a broad campaign to bring attention to the problem and spur Gov. Rick Scott to act. Scott's office received a letter last week but has yet to respond. (Photo by Sarah Beth Glicksteen)

The culprits, according to environmentalists, "are a recent drought in north-central Florida and decades of pumping groundwater out of the aquifer to meet the demands of Florida’s population boom, its sprinklers and its agricultural industry," Alvarez writes. "To what degree the overconsumption of groundwater is to blame for the changes is being batted back and forth between environmentalists and the state’s water keepers. But, for the first time, a state with so much rain — the vast majority of it uncaptured — is beginning to seriously fret about water."

Bob Graham, a former Democratic governor and senator who assembled the Florida Conservation Coalition last year to help safeguard the state’s water, said, “We have learned that we can degrade our water supplies to the point that water becomes a limitation on the quality of life in Florida. We don’t think that is necessary. But we think it is possible, if not probable, unless there are strong policies and enforcement at the state and local level for sound water practices.”

Alvarez notes that recent attention on Silver Springs, one of the sites now under scrutiny, is the result of an application for a permit from the St. Johns River Water Management District to use 13 million gallons of water a day, about the same amount used by the city of Ocala. (The original request was for 25 million gallons.) The permit is being sought by Frank Stronach, a Canadian auto parts magnate and horse breeder who is building Adena Springs Ranch, a 25,000-acre cattle operation and slaughterhouse that will produce organic, grass-fed beef.  Stronach’s ranch is expected to provide about 150 jobs in the slaughterhouse.

Wal-Mart's 'green wheat' efforts have potential to transform U.S. agriculture, some crops' sustainability

The commercial behemoth Wal-Mart Stores might be looking to transform, yet again, the marketplace. It might be starting this time with American wheat, reports Michael Hirtzer of Reuters.  "As part of efforts to reduce its carbon footprint and burnish its image as an environmentally responsible company, the huge retailer is sending senior employees into the fields for the first time ever, looking for ways to help farmers reduce their use of carbon-intensive fertilizer or improve logistics, writes Hirtzer. "We don't have a lot of visibility in the supply chain, so we started in the field," says Robert Kaplan, a Wal-Mart sustainability manager. "I hadn't seen a wheat field before and I wanted to find out how we go from a green crop in the fields to flour on our shelves."

This May, Hirtzler writes, Kaplan and a colleague were the first Wal-Mart employees ever to attend the annual crop tour across Kansas, the nation's No. 1 winter-wheat state. "The tour has been a rite of passage for traders, analysts, academics and buyers for the past half-century. The aim is simple: Use Wal-Mart's commercial muscle to get its Great Value-branded flour and wheat products from field to shelf more efficiently, using less carbon. In the process, however, Wal-Mart may end up initiating transformative changes in the way U.S. farmers grow wheat, lowering costs and improving yields for a crop that has failed to keep pace with the dramatic improvements in sustainability of other commodities such as corn and cotton."

The point is won, of course, with leverage and the net is an environmental wallop. "As it continues to buy more and more wheat to support its in-house brand, Wal-Mart believes it can use its muscle to bring changes to the agricultural landscape by getting farmers to adopt more progressive techniques and labeling the flour they sell as a sustainable product. In 2010, Wal-Mart's store brands had a 4.4 percent share of the $14.35 billion U.S. packaged and industrial bread market, up from a 3.7 percent market share in 2006, according to research firm Euromonitor International." (Read more)

Author says coal industry in southern W. Va. is 'Godzilla . . . thrashing around before death'

 Denise Giardina
A West Virginia author who wrote a fictional retelling of West Virginia's mine wars believes that "coal is dying," reports Lori Kersey of The Charleston Gazette. "It's clear it's dying," Denise Giardina said Sunday. "Probably not in my lifetime, but it's dying. And Southern West Virginia is dying. And it's not going to come back. Those mountains are not going to come back." Giardina's comments came during the final installment of the 2012 Little Lecture Series by the West Virginia Humanities Council.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Giardina's award-winning novel, Storming Heaven, which tells the story of life in the state's southern coalfield and the events leading up to and culminating with the Battle of Blair Mountain, between unionists and coal forces backed by federal troops and air support.

Her novel and a sequel, The Unquiet Earth, were fictional, she said, but based on truth. Their point, said the author, was simple: "The coal company giveth and the coal company taketh away." In her lecture Sunday, Giardina described the coal industry today "as Godzilla suffering a wound and thrashing around before death. . . .What do we have left?" she asked. "We have a community that's ravished by drugs, where there are no jobs."

As local governments picked up more of school tab, gap between poor and rich districts widened

The Great Recession has changed state formulas for funding education, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's annual Public Education Finances report released last week. According to Ben Wieder, reporting in Stateline, the news service of the Pew Center for the States: For the first time in 16 years, local governments picked up a higher share of the education bill than the states, while the federal government picked up more than 10 percent of the tab. Data was from the 2009-10 school year. State funding did decrease by 6.5 percent from the previous year, according to the bureau, the biggest decrease since reporting began in 1977. That drop was accompanied by an unprecedented increase in federal funding, largely stimulus dollars, that in many cases propped up state spending. Taken together, this means that education funding across the country increased by a half percent, while per-pupil funding increased by 1.1 percent.

Michael Griffith, senior school finance analyst at the Education Commission of the States, says local funding wasn't hurt early by the recession, but it declined as lower property assessments translated into lower local property tax collections. That decline came as state budgets were starting to recover, compensating for some of the losses in local revenue. Griffith expects that the next couple of census reports will show a fuller picture of the impact of the recession, particularly numbers for the past school year, in which federal stimulus dollars expired, Wieder writes. Declining state revenues increased the distance between the haves and the have-nots, Griffith says, because wealthier districts in many parts of the country were better able to make up for fewer state dollars.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Ala. agencies can circumvent open meeting law via serial meetings with less than quorum, court rules

The Alabama Supreme Court ruled narrowly this month that public agencies could circumvent the state open-meetings law by holding a series of meetings with less than a quorum of members -- a familiar ploy that can be hard to prevent and discover, even when state law forbids it, as the Kentucky New Era of Hopkinsville wrote today.

In a lawsuit against the Montgomery Public Schools, the Alabama high court voted 5-4 to uphold a lower court ruling. "The court ruled that although the Board of Education formed three special committees covered by the Open Meetings Act, no meeting of the committee occurred because what they discussed was going to be voted upon later by the entire Board and not the committee," reports the June issue of AlaPressa, the newsletter of the Alabama Press Association. For a PDF of the court's decision, click here.