Friday, December 27, 2013

Social Security to tighten leash on disability judges, as their generosity threatens to sink program

Following scandals and highly questionable activity in its disability program, including some widely publicized cases in Central Appalachia and Puerto Rico, the Social Security Administration will give itself "more latitude to crack down on judges who are awarding disability benefits outside the norm," Damian Paletta reports for The Wall Street Journal. The problem may be more prevalent in rural areas; the rural disability-benefits rate is 80 percent higher than the national rate.

The rules governing the judges are being rewritten so that they will no longer have "complete individual independence," and will clarify that they are "subject to the supervision and management" of other officials in the agency, Paletta reports. "In 2011, The Wall Street Journal reported a widespread disparity in the probability that certain judges would award benefits" to people who appealed initial denials, with many awarding benefits to 90 percent of claimants and others denying more than 80 percent of their cases. The tried to crack down on such "outliers," but said the "judicial independence" rule kept it from intervening, "even if a judge paid benefits in more than 95 percent of the cases."

Paletta notes, "The Social Security Disability Insurance program, funded by payroll taxes, pays monthly benefits—often until someone receives retirement benefits in their 60s—for people who can no longer work because of physical or mental health problems. During the recent economic downturn, the program grew quickly and now has close to 11 million beneficiaries. It has grown so fast, in fact, that it is projected to exhaust the reserves in its trust fund by 2016, which could force all beneficiaries to see an immediate cut in their payments."
Can you believe they misspelled "calendar"?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Most counties served by U.S. insurance exchange, many of them rural, lack affordable plan for 40-year-olds who just miss qualifying for subsidies

"More than half of the counties in 34 states using the federal health-insurance exchange lack even a bronze plan that's affordable — by the government's own definition — for 40-year-old couples who make just a little too much for financial assistance," report Jayne O'Donnell and Paul Overberg of USA Today. "Many of these counties are in rural, less populous areas that already had limited choice and pricey plans . . . More than a third don't offer an affordable plan in the four tiers of coverage known as bronze, silver, gold or platinum for people buying individual plans who are 50 or older and ineligible for subsidies."

The newspaper said it "looked at whether premiums for the least expensive plan in any of the metal levels was more than 8 percent of household income. That's similar to the affordability test used by the federal government to determine whether premiums are so expensive consumers aren't required to buy plans under the Affordable Care Act. The number of people who earn close to the subsidy cutoff and are priced out of affordable coverage may be a small slice of the estimated 4.4 million people buying their own insurance and ineligible for subsidies. But the analysis clearly shows how the sticker shock hitting many in the middle class, including the self-employed and early retirees, isn't just a perception problem. The lack of counties with affordable plans means many middle-class people will either opt out of insurance or pay too much to buy it." (Read more)

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Pipeline plan hits snag in Ky., concerned about karst-topography safety and use of eminent domain

The oil and gas boom has also cause a boom in pipeline construction, as sources and markets shift and sometimes trade places. Many Kentucky residents are refusing big money to lease right-of-way to the proposed Bluegrass Pipeline, which would repurpose a gas line from Louisiana and extend it with legs to Pennsylvania and West Virginia to carry up to 16.8 million gallons of natural-gas liquids per day to Louisiana refineries. They are also fighting tooth and nail to keep the developers from invoking eminent domain to use their land, Natasha Khan reports for Public Source, a nonprofit, investigative news service based in Pennsylvania. (Williams Companies map: Proposed Bluegrass Pipeline)
"Pipeline officials assure Kentuckians the Bluegrass Pipeline will be constructed and maintained safely. It will bring jobs to the region, add millions in local tax revenues and contribute to America’s energy independence, they said," Khan writes. Chuck Taylor, a hydrogeologist with the Kentucky Geological Survey, echoed those words, saying "if the developers design the proper safeguards, the pipeline can be built and maintained safely."

The story did not explore how much that would cost and what the companies’ plans are in that regard, but said "A pipeline of this size is complicated, said Richard Kuprewicz, president of Accufacts, a pipeline consulting firm." Plus, the route runs through karst topography, which is prone to formation of caves, sinkholes and underground channels. Ralph Ewers, a Kentucky hydrogeologist who specializes in karst issues, said "Because the rock is porous, karst can affect the stability of the pipeline. If a leak occurs in the porous rock, there’s the possibility of groundwater contamination because of the vast underground streams in Kentucky karst." Kuprewicz told Khan, “You’ve got to be nuts to put a large diameter HVL in a karst terrain. You can have the best, strongest pipe in the world, but you put it in a bad route, it could snap the pipeline.”

Despite the opposition, pipeline developers have "signed more than 50 percent of the easements needed in Kentucky as of early December and are more than 40 percent complete along the entire route," according to Scott Carney, a spokesman for the Bluegrass Pipeline. (Read more) The company claims it can condemn land to gain access to the route it wants, but many Kentucky officials disagree; for a story on that, from Marcus Green of WDRB-TV in Louisville, click here.

5 years after TVA disaster, still no new coal-ash rules; EPA has until Sunday to fix a schedule

UPDATE, Jan. 2: As EPA, industry representatives and environmental groups negotiated a settlement, a federal judge extended the deadline to Jan. 29.

The Environmental Protection Agency, not known for making quick decisions, is on the clock, having until Sunday to come up with a deadline for new rules on disposal of coal ash from power plants. The deadline comes less than a week after the fifth anniversary of the Tennessee Valley Authority coal-ash disaster in Kingston and Harriman, Tenn., that "destroyed three homes, damaged dozens of others, and poured into two tributaries of the Tennessee River," requiring "a $1 billion cleanup, with $200 million more to go," James Bruggers reports for the The Courier-Journal of Louisville. That bill will cost the 9 million residents of the TVA service area, which includes Tennessee and parts of Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia, 69 cents per month per person through 2024, Bruggers reports.

Even after the worst coal-ash disaster on record, EPA has done little to change its rules, Bruggers writes. "After the Kingston disaster, newly appointed EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who has since left her post, promised the nation’s first federal regulations to ensure environmentally safe and structurally sound coal-burning waste storage. But, so far, the EPA has failed to enact a single regulation — even as the agency has documented an increasing number of ash sites that have polluted the environment." The number of sites where groundwater or surface water has been contaminated by coal ash has grown from 50 in 2000 to more than 130 today, according to EPA.

EPA rules would put into place a consistent set of rules to replace inconsistent ones, Bruggers writes. "What has been in place to regulate coal-ash ponds is a hodgepodge of state regulations. Some are more protective than others, but often they fail to require even basic protections such as ash-pond liners to protect groundwater. And without federal rules, utilities were under no obligation to follow the EPA’s safety inspection recommendations."

Most of the worst states are in the South. Texas ranked first in most coal-burning waste in 2012, followed by Kentucky. Earthjustice, a not-for-profit law firm based in San Francisco, issued a report called State of Failure, saying: "Only three states require composite liners for all new coal ash ponds; only five states require composite liners for all new coal-ash landfills; only two states require groundwater monitoring of all coal-ash ponds; only four states require groundwater monitoring of all coal ash landfills; only six states prohibit siting of coal-ash ponds into the water table; and only 17 states require regulatory inspections of the structural integrity of coal-ash ponds."

The report singled out 12 states as posing the most risk, because they produce 50 percent of the annual coal ash, 70.6 millions tons of a year at 217 coal-fired plants, and dispose of their waste in 350 coal ash ponds. The report picked Alabama as the worst state, followed by Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. (Read more)

"The EPA proposed two possible rules in 2010, one that would treat the waste as hazardous, and another that would consider it solid waste, with less stringent requirements," Bruggers writes. But still, three years later, no rules are in place. Lisa Evans, a Boston attorney with Earthjustice, told Bruggers, “Kingston was a watershed event that should have brought quick federal controls on the disposal of this waste. Instead, it brought on widespread paralysis at the EPA and within the administration. It’s as if Hurricane Katrina happened, and they didn’t fix the levees.” (Read more)

Invasive carp could swim with barges through Chicago canal into Great Lakes, research shows

The plan to keep invasive Asian carp out of Lake Michigan may have a major hole in it. Researchers have found that fish can get  through "the electric barrier on the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal that is considered the last line of defense to stop an Asian carp invasion," Dan Egan reports for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A report "by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reveals that fish can be transported across the electrified swath of canal when they get trapped in the wake of a barge." Officials say there is no evidence that Asian carp have broken the barrier, or are near it, but scientists have said that if they get into the Great Lakes, they could severely damage the region's $7 billion annual fishing industry. (Journal photo: the barrier is located near the arch)

Cameras found that "entire schools of fish, not believed to be Asian carp, were recorded swimming through the barrier 61 percent of the time" when a barge came through, Egan writes. The report states: "Initial findings indicate that vessel-induced residual flows can trap fish and transport them beyond the electrical barriers, and that certain barge configurations may impact barrier electric field strength. Additionally, the preliminary (sonar camera) findings identified the potential for small fish (between 2-4 inches in length) to pass the barrier array in large groups, or schools." Still, researchers say it's not yet time to panic: "The closest adult Asian carp found in the Illinois River are about 55 miles from Lake Michigan, and no small Asian carp have been observed closer than 131 miles from Lake Michigan."

Despite those claims, "Water samples taken at the barrier site and in stretches of canal on the Lake Michigan side of the barrier have regularly tested positive for Asian carp DNA during the past four years," Egan writes. "Advocates want the canal physically plugged to stop Asian carp and other unwanted species from swimming freely between the Great Lakes and Mississippi basin." (Read more)

High deductibles and little free time mean Wisconsin dairy farmers rely on home visits for health care

Federal health reform was designed to make sure every American has a chance to get affordable health insurance. But for some farmers with high deductibles, and with much work to be done around the farm, the long trip to the doctor seems like a waste of time and money. That's why some farmers in Wisconsin are bypassing doctor visits and opting to stick with the Rural Health Initiative, which "sends a nurse to farms to check farmers’ blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels and screen them for health risks," The Associated Press reports. "Farmers with signs of serious problems are referred to a doctor or clinic." (AP photo by M.L. Johnson: Nurse Dawn Dingeldein checks the blood pressure of dairy farmer Jay Vomastic)

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 36 percent of U.S. dairy farmers lacked health insurance in 2011, compared to 9 percent of all farmers, the AP writes. Wisconsin dairy farmer Jay Vomastic told the AP, “I would say most farmers, in general, if it’s not a lost limb or something crushed, they’re probably not going to go to the doctor. If you’ve got a virus, it’s going to wear off.”

Most dairy farms in Shawano County, in the central part of the state, "are generations-old and small enough to be run by a family, perhaps with one or two workers," AP reports. "Farmers can easily spend eight hours or more on their feet, but increased mechanization has made them less active than previous generations. Add to that a diet traditionally heavy in milk, cheese and beef, which presents cholesterol and other risks. The initiative started in 2004 after health care workers and residents realized many farmers received no medical care until they turned up in emergency rooms. The tight-knit community, where farmers are active in schools, local government and state politics, formed a focus group."

That led a group of farmers' wives to start the initiative. Rhonda Strebel, the nurse who launched the program and now serves as its executive director, told the AP, “The vet comes to the farm. The milk man picks up delivery at the farm. The feed comes to the farm. Why should we make them change that?” (Read more)

Oregon rural lawmakers push for small rural businesses to get same tax treatment as Nike

Gov. John Kitzhaber
Oregon lawmakers are pushing for a measure that would give small rural businesses similar tax structures to the ones afforded state power Nike, Lauren Dake reports for The Bulletin in Bend. Last year Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber "called lawmakers back to the Capitol for a one-day special session to approve a deal assuring Nike its corporate income-tax structure won’t change for 30 years." The law cements a key element in the tax code, the "single sales factor," which affects companies that have large amounts of sales outside the state. "As long as Nike creates 500 new jobs and invests $150 million in the state, its corporate taxes will continue to be based only on sales that happen within Oregon for the next three decades." Intel recently got a similar deal.

Rural lawmakers want small businesses in their regions to get the same treatment, Dake writes. Rep. Greg Smith (R-Heppner) told Dake, "One or two districts in the state of Oregon got special consideration while other parts of the state that could have benefited from like legislation were excluded. You still have legislators saying, ‘why not us? why not our small businesses?’”

Rep. Mike McLane (R-Powell Butte), told Dake, “The plight of rural Oregon has not gone unnoticed … and while we have momentum and interest from those in the Portland businesses (groups) we need to strike." McLane explained how he felt the move could be changed to fit small rural businesses: “Instead of $150 million and 500 jobs, how about $5 million and 50 jobs. We would scale it back but still create incentives for people to locate and expand.” (Read more)

Monday, December 23, 2013

Interactive tools provide updated census data for counties and states

The Census Bureau on Friday updated its QuickFacts tool with the latest results of the American Community Survey data from 2008-2012. The tool allows users to click on any state, county, or city, and get statistics on population, education, housing, veterans, income, farming, geography, and other areas of interest.

Another new option is the Census Explorer, which has state and county data on total population; percent of population 65 and older; foreign-born population percentage; percent of the population with a high school degree or higher; percent with a bachelor’s degree or higher; labor force participation rate; home ownership rate; and median household income

The agency's website also has an interactive map that provides state and county numbers on business patterns, industries, population, race, ethnicity, age/sex, and housing status. There is also a population finder that has a 2010 demographic profile of every state and county. (Census Bureau graphic: Census Explorer statistics on high school graduation rates by state.)

Amish selling land rights to oil and natural gas companies, then relocating with cash and tax break

In the oil and gas boom, many landowners have been cashing on selling drilling rights, and the Amish are no exception, even if that is disruptive, Ernest Scheyder reports for Reuters. Some Amish "are sitting on prime drilling land in eastern Ohio, but many say the rapid development is encroaching on their pastoral way of life. Already this year, several oil trucks have been involved in fatal collisions with Amish horse-drawn buggies in the region's narrow and winding roads. So, many Amish are cashing out to escape the noise as their bucolic landscape of lush green hills becomes dotted with oil storage tanks." (Scheyder photo: A Flatiron executive talks with Amish members in Deersville, Ohio)

Residents like Eli Byler are being paid large sums to sell their rights, allowing them to hit the road, Scheyder writes. Flatiron Energy Partners "is paying Byler $221,195 cash, an amount that will be tax-free thanks to an arcane part of the U.S. tax code, if Byler follows through on plans to relocate his family to Pennsylvania." One of the benefits is Section 1031 of code, which says "landowners can use cash they receive for selling their oil and natural gas minerals to buy another piece of property, tax free." The section counts mineral rights as property. Since the beginning of 2013, the number of companies buying Ohio royalty interests has risen from two to 10.

"Byler's deal is part of a larger wave of companies like Flatiron paying cash up front for oil and natural gas royalty interests, deals these companies hope will provide their clients - typically family trusts and other wealth funds - guaranteed income for decades in the form of royalty checks," Scheyder writes. "At least 35 other Amish families plan to sell their royalty rights and make an exodus from the Buckeye State to parts of Pennsylvania or New York state with little or no energy development, said Byler, who plans to sell the full 53.3 acres he owns on the surface, including his homestead, in a separate deal." (Read more)

Demand for corn threatening milkweed, and thus the monarch butterfly, which lives off the plant

Scientists and conservationists in the Great Plains are leading a crusade to save milkweed, and in turn, the monarch butterfly, which lives solely on the plant, Michael Wines reports for The New York Times. While there are many theories for the demise of the two, the main concern is that a rising demand for corn is destroying the land where milkweed thrives. (Pentagraph photo by Steve Smedley: Monarch feeds on milkweed)

In the summer of 2010, the University of Northern Iowa counted 176 monarchs in its 100 acres of prairie grass and flowers, but this year, counted only 11, Wines writes: "The decline has no single cause. Drought and bad weather have decimated the monarch during some recent migrations. Illegal logging of its winter home in Mexico has been a constant threat. Some studies conclude that pesticides and fungicides contribute not just to the monarchs’ woes, but to population declines among bees, other butterflies and pollinators in general."

The greatest threat, though, "is its dwindling habitat in the Midwest and the Great Plains, the vast expanse over which monarchs fly, breed new generations and die during migrations every spring and autumn," Wines writes. And this is due in large part to a rising demand in corn. "Since 2007, farmers nationwide have taken more than 17,500 square miles of land out of federal conservation reserves," a federal program that pays growers to leave land fallow for wildlife and soil conservation. "Iowa has lost a quarter of its reserve land; Kansas, nearly 30 percent; South Dakota, half."

"A study published in February in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences analyzed land use in five states — Iowa, Minnesota, the Dakotas and Nebraska — in the broad arc of farmland where corn and soybeans are intensively planted," Wines writes. "Over the five years from 2006 to 2011, the study concluded, 5 percent to 30 percent of the grasslands were converted to corn and soybean fields, a rate it said was 'comparable to deforestation rates in Brazil, Malaysia and Indonesia.'”

Some groups are pushing for federal legislation to save monarch habitats, Wines writes. Others want to education or encourage businesses to work safely around the butterflies, or provide habitats for them. But Laura Jackson, a University of Northern Iowa biologist and director of its Tallgrass Prairie Center, worries that people will forget about the butterflies. She told Wines, “Monarchs are just like other iconic species. Once people stop being accustomed to seeing them, they stop caring and they forget. Support drops like a ratchet.” (Read more)

FDA to re-write food safety rules to appease farmers, who say the new laws are too costly

Nearly a year after the federal government proposed new food safety rules that would put more responsibility on farmers to prevent food-borne illnesses before they begin, the Food and Drug Administration said it will revise the rules "after farmers complained the rules could hurt business," costing large farms as much as $30,000 a year, Mary Clare Jalonick reports for The Associated Press. "Many of the concerns the FDA heard from farmers were about new regulations for testing irrigation water."

"The rules proposed in January would require farmers to take new precautions against contamination, making sure workers’ hands are washed, irrigation water is clean and that animals stay out of fields, among other precautions," Jalonick writes. "Food manufacturers would also have to submit food safety plans to the government to show they are keeping their operations clean." Farmers complained that they would need to purchase new equipment, and would be responsible for more paperwork and record keeping.

FDA Commisssioner Michael Taylor said in a blog post on the agency's website: "Because of the input we received from farmers and the concerns they expressed about the impact of these rules on their lives and livelihood, we realized that significant changes must be made, while ensuring that the proposed rules remain consistent with our food safety goals."

Supporters of the proposed changes "have said the new laws are needed after several high-profile, foodborne illness outbreaks in peanuts, spinach, eggs, cantaloupe and other foods," Jalonick writes. "While many farmers and food manufacturers already follow good food safety practices, the law would aim to ensure that all of them do. There are an estimated 3,000 deaths a year from foodborne illness." (Read more)

Small-town daily cashing in on book detailing bizarre and mundane calls from police blotter

In an era where many newspapers are struggling to stay afloat, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle has found a way to bring in some extra cash, while providing a few chuckles. The Montana paper has turned some of the silly and ridiculous calls to the local police into a book that has caught fire, having sold 11,000 copies in three printings, while bringing in more than $100,000 to the newspaper through the first two printings, Carolina Porter reports for The Wall Street Journal.

We Don't Make This Stuff Up: The Very Best of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle Police Reports was mostly compiled by crime reporter Whitney Bermes, whose job is to take the roughly 200 daily police reports and find 20 for the paper, Porter writes. Bermes told Porter, "The title of this book is spot on. I couldn't make this stuff up if I wanted to. I wish I was half as creative as the people who call the police on a daily basis."

Some examples: "A man reported that someone got into his unlocked car and turned the lights on, draining the battery; a woman had questions about a man who wanted to trade a gun for a puppy; a caller wanted to know how to get his mother to stop harassing him."

But it's more than a gimmick. The town has been thriving on the police calls. The Chronicle started a Facebook page, where people can post and discuss police reports, as well as purchasing T-shirts, Porter writes. Local businesses have also benefited from the book. Ryan Cassavaugh, owner of Cactus Records, bough 144 copies to sell for Christmas, while Country Bookshelf owner Ariana Paliobagis said she sells 1,000 copies a month. (Read more)

Organizations use Promise Neighborhood grants to improve education in distressed communities

Berea College, the Delta Health Alliance, and Renewal Unlimited Inc. have been awarded Promise Neighborhood grants, which go "to colleges, universities, or non-profits that serve as lead agencies in partnership with school districts and other community-based organizations in distressed communities," reports Rural Policy Matters, a publication of the Rural School and Community Trust.

For the past 15 years Berea College, just outside the East Kentucky Coalfield, "has implemented federal pre-K–12 education grants in the region" through Berea Promise Neighborhood, RPM reports. "Berea has expanded its college and career-readiness programs and built on its family engagement experience as the basis for expanded academic work with schools. It has formalized partnerships, set up its data system, built out its work into elementary schools and implemented early childhood partnerships, and piloted a variety of programs, in health, wellness, safety, and arts and culture." (Berea College map: Promise Neighborhood serves nine counties and 10 school districts in Eastern Kentucky)

The program was designed "to increase academic performance and college readiness;
to increase high school graduation rates and college-going rates; and to build and enrich a college-going culture in the schools and communities we serve," according to the college. Last month Berea hosted the Rural Education Summit, which "addressed issues surrounding rural poverty and the need for rural-centric responses" and "offered tours to sites in rural Kentucky to see the Berea Promise Neighborhood in action," Rural Policy Matters reports.

Delta Health Alliance, based in Indianola, Miss. left, "has extensive experience providing health interventions and education in the Mississippi Delta," Rural Policy Matters reports. Vice President for External Affairs John Davis told RPM, “Delta Health Alliance has a strong track record reducing infant mortality and low birth weight with health care, home visitations, and other work with expectant and new mothers. It starts with getting them here healthy.”

The alliance also "expanded pre-birth through five supports and led efforts to have Indianola certified as an Excel by 5 community—meaning it has achieved standards and provides supports to reach the goal that all children are ready to learn in school at age five," RPM reports. "It also formalized partnerships  and began working directly with the Indianola school district and other partners to establish and expand after school programs."

Renewal Unlimited Inc. has pre-school programs, family resource centers and other family and education programs in a five-county region of central Wisconsin including Adams County (Wikipedia map), which, "with a population of about 20,000, retains an agricultural economic base, supplemented with light manufacturing," Rural Policy Matters reports. To read the entire article in RPM's December issue, click here.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Growers of grain sorghum and some other specialty crops wonder about impact of new Farm Bill

There are still some uncertainties about the new Farm Bill that Congress is expected to pass when it returns to business next month, but there is one certainty above all others: It will eliminate direct payments to farmers and make subsidized crop insurance their main safety net. But there is great uncertainty about how that will affect grain sorghum, "the red-headed step child at the end of the farm bill table — all grown up and well, almost cool — and other specialty crops, reports David Rogers of Politico. (Photo of Texas sorghum by The Associated Press)

Sorghum, also called milo, is "as old as ancient Egypt, as modern as gluten-free diets," Rogers notes. "It will never be as pretty as corn, but pheasants on the Great Plains love it for habitat. And in an age of climate change, it’s the grain that endures through drought and heat." So its future seems bright, but Rogers says the crop is "a window into the survival politics of small crops trying to hold on amid the dominance of corn" in American agriculture and farm policy.

"Target prices set in the House farm bill give sorghum a 25 cents-per-bushel differential over corn," expansion of which in the last decade has reduced sorghum plantings, Rogers writes. "But with cotton transitioning out of the commodity title and into a new revenue insurance program, sorghum worries about its future as a rotation crop in the South. And to hear growers tell it, the very scrappy nature of the plant works against it in terms of generating good yield numbers for its own crop insurance protection. Precious water resources like the Ogallala aquifer beneath the Great Plains would almost certainly be better protected with more sorghum and less irrigated corn. But those environmental concerns don’t add points for the bookkeepers at the Risk Management Agency, which oversees the federally subsidized crop insurance program."

“We pay a price for being a tough guy,” Tim Lust, chief executive officer of the National Sorghum Producers in Lubbock, Texas, told Rogers. “It’s an industry, and if you lose too many acres, you lose the capital investment that goes with that.”

Rogers suggests that producers of sorghum, barley lentils and other small grains need a lobbying alliance with those who raise fruits, vegetables, nuts and nursery stock. "Each camp still looks down its nose at the other," he writes. "But with the rise of the organic movement and greater emphasis on locally grown produce, specialty crops are an important political asset in competing for votes in a House with fewer and fewer rural districts." (Read more)

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Kentucky congressman and lobbyist wife, animal lovers, push for more specific ban on horse soring

The congressman representing a rural Western Kentucky district "is leading the charge" on legislation to tighten the rules against mistreatment of show horses, in harness with his wife, "a paid lobbyist for the Humane Society Legislative Fund," John Bresnahan and Anna Palmer of Politico report. "The pair’s efforts have included sessions in which they have jointly lobbied lawmakers and aides to support the legislation, according to sources who have met with the couple."

Associated Press photo
Republican Rep. Ed Whitfield "hasn’t been shy about mentioning the connection with his wife’s employer, even noting in statements on the House floor that the Humane Society — among other organizations — supports his legislative initiatives," Politico reports. "It’s uncommon for a lawmaker to work so closely with a lobbyist on legislation, especially with a spouse who is paid to lobby on the issue. The Whitfields have caught the ire of opponents of the legislation who allege their activity is inappropriate, since the congressman’s wife, Connie Harriman-Whitfield, has worked as a registered lobbyist for the fund since 2011."

Whitfield told Politico, “I don’t view that as an ethics violation because it’s an issue that I’ve been involved in since I’ve been in Congress and this is a practice that must be and should be stopped. There’s a big difference in my mind of getting financial gain for some financial institution, to trying to prevent cruelty to animals.” He said he has a 62 percent rating on the Humane Society's latest scorecard.

Whitfield's legislation would require the Department of Agriculture to more specifically ban soring, the use of irritants, chains or other devices to alter the gait of Tennessee walking horses. Earlier, Whitfield successfully pushed for a ban on USDA inspection of horse slaughter plants, putting them out of business. Congress repealed the ban in 2011, and two horse slaughterhouses plan to open soon, having cleared almost all legal obstacles.

Whitfield's wife "is credited with playing a major role in instituting the U.S. and worldwide ban on the elephant ivory trade" as an assistant interior secretary under President George H.W. Bush, Politico reports. Originally from California, she married Whitfield in 1990 when he was a Democrat and a Washington lobbyist for Jacksonville-based CSX Corp. He was elected as a Republican from Kentucky's First District in 1994. They were featured in a 2010 Washington Post story about dogs on Capitol Hill, including this photo in his office:

Friday, December 20, 2013

Farm Bill said to cut food stamps relatively little; payment limits, insurance-conservation link at risk

Congress has gone home for the holidays, but details about the Farm Bill keep leaking out as negotiators approach agreement on a compromise between the House and Senate versions.

The bill "is likely to cut the food-stamp program by $8 billion over a decade, a key Democratic senator said on Thursday, an amount that is a fraction of the cuts demanded by many Republican lawmakers," Reuters reports. "While conservatives want stricter eligibility rules that would disqualify up to 4 million recipients and save $40 billion over 10 years, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat, said the expected $8 billion in savings would be generated by . . . by setting a higher threshold of government assistance to pay utility bills, a program that can trigger food-stamp aid."

Kristina Peterson of The Wall Street Journal reports, "A household would have to receive at least $20 in annual payments through a federal energy assistance program to qualify for a utility allowance which, when deducted from a household's income, can result in a larger food-stamp benefit. Some states currently give food-stamp recipients a nominal 'heat and eat' payment of $1 or another token sum to help households leverage larger food-stamp benefits."

The Senate bill called for food-stamp cuts of $4 billion over the next 10 years. What remains unclear about food stamps, officially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is whether there will be any other language to limit eligibility. "A Republican aide has said that tighter work requirements were imperative if spending cuts were $10 billion or less," Reuters reports.

On farm subsidies, conflict between the South and Midwest continue. "Southern interests are fighting to remove the caps on payments to farmers that were championed by Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D," reports Denise Ross of The Daily Republic in Mitchell.  "Johnson said he worked with other senators to craft language that placed a hard cap on direct payments to farmers and would 'ensure that only individuals actually engaged in the operations of a farm are able to receive payments.'"

South Dakota's other senator, Republican John Thune, "said a provision linking crop-insurance subsidies to participation in conservation programs is under siege. Both spoke to reporters Wednesday during separate conference calls." (Read more)

Pa. Supreme Court OKs anti-drilling local zoning

Local governments in Pennsylvania have the right to zone out drilling operations, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday. The 4-2 decision was a major victory for opponents of horizontal hydrsulic fracturing of the Marcellus Shale and other deep rock strata opened for development by fracking.

The court also sent back to the next lower court "for review and disposition challenges by a physician to the Act 13 provisions that would have prevented doctors from telling patients about health impacts related to shale gas development, and a constitutional challenge that the law benefits a single industry," Don Hopey reports for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Key senator suggests letting USPS cut Sat. mail if volume or revenue dips to a certain level

Sen. Tom Carper
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chair of the Senate committee that oversees the U.S. Postal Service, says the service doesn't need to end Saturday delivery of first-class mail to save money, but needs to work harder to increase profits, Angela Greiling Keane reports for The Washington Post. Carper told Keane, “I’m attracted to the idea of a volume trigger that will incentivize postal employees to work harder, sell harder and incentivize mailers to mail more." The trigger would allow USPS to cut Saturday service if volume or revenue fall below a certain level.

USPS spokesperson David Partenheimer told the Post that the agency was open to Carper's idea: “This is a very interesting and creative solution that Chairman Carper’s developed, and could be part of a comprehensive legislative package to resolve our financial situation.” The service has proposed ending Saturday delivery except for packages, on which it makes a profit.

Postal unions aren't thrilled with either idea. Jeanette Dwyer, president of the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association, told Keane, “Bottom line is, you ought to be talking about how to increase your business. The Postal Service was never intended to be a business that made huge money. It was intended to be a service to the American public. That’s why it was created.” (Read more)

N.M. attorney general files last-ditch lawsuit to keep horse slaughterhouse from opening

In a last-ditch effort to stop a horse slaughterhouse from opening in New Mexico, state attorney general Gary King announced Thursday he's suing Roswell-based Valley Meat Co., "saying the plant's horse meat could constitute an adulterated product, which is prohibited" in the state, reports KRQE in Albuquerque. King told the station, "I believe that the operation of this plant in New Mexico is antithetical to the way that we do business in New Mexico. I think that we don't eat horses in New Mexico."

Gary King
King claims Valley Meat has a poor record of compliance with environmental and safety laws, and said, "We believe that horses not being raised as food animals in New Mexico are subject to having a lot of various drugs in their bodies that are not allowed for human consumption." A federal judge rejected similar arguments, and Valley Meat owner Rick De Los Santos, who said he plans to open on Jan. 1, said "The attorney general doesn't have any proof that this meat could be contaminated."

Last week a federal court lifted an emergency stay on Valley Meat and plants in Missouri and Iowa, paving the way for the companies to begin processing horse meat for export. The Missouri plant expects to get a "federal permit within a week and the state permit should follow soon after," and is expected to begin operations in the next few weeks, Deirdre Shesgreen reports for the News-Leader in Springfield, Mo. The Iowa plant has switched to beef, but is struggling against more established competition and might ride the horse again, so to speak. (Read more)

Chesapeake subsidiary agrees to $3.2 million fine for fracking operations that polluted W.Va. water

Chesapeake Appalachia, a subsidiary of Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy Corp., "will pay a civil penalty of $3.2 million for clean-water violations in West Virginia," one of the largest penalties handed out for violations of the Clean Water Act, according to the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency, Tory Parrish reports for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "Most of the discharges subject to the consent decree are related to the construction of fracking facilities, but none of them involved actual fracking, said Donna Heron, spokeswoman for the EPA's Mid-Atlantic region."

"In addition to the penalty, Chesapeake Appalachia will spend an estimated $6.5 million to restore 27 sites the federal government and West Virginia allege were damaged by unauthorized discharges of fill material into streams and wetlands, the federal agencies said," Parrish writes. "The consent decree is subject to a 30-day public-comment period and court approval."

Chesapeake said in a statement: “Chesapeake Appalachia LLC has reached a key milestone in the settlement process to resolve federal and state claims relating to surface construction activities that occurred in West Virginia prior to November 2010. The company is fully committed to regulatory compliance and is working with the Environmental Protection Agency, Army Corps of Engineers and West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to restore the impacted sites.” (Read more)

Tax revenue in more than 2/3 of states has yet to reach level seen just before Great Recession

Tax revenue in more than two-thirds of the states had not recovered from the Great Recession by the first quarter of this year, with total tax collections 1.6 percent below the record set just before teh recession began, according to a study by The Pew Charitable Trusts. "For every $1 states collected at their 2008 revenue peak, they took in the equivalent of 98.4 cents in the first quarter of 2013. It means most states had less purchasing power from their tax dollars while simultaneously coping with a sharp drop in federal stimulus aid, still-high unemployment, and rising demand for costly services such as Medicaid and education."

Some states, though, have made strong recoveries, according to the study. "North Dakota’s tax revenue was 100 percent above its highest point during the recession, thanks to an oil boom that sent severance and sales taxes soaring." But in 13 states, "Tax revenue remained down 10 percent or more from their peak, in today’s dollars." Those states were Alaska, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, South Carolina, Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, and New Jersey; most have large percentages of rural populations. (Read more)
(Pew graphic: Changes in tax revenue from peak quarter in 2008 to first quarter in 2013)

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Studies find USDA has 'serious weakness' in poultry inspection measures, needs recall authority

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's meat inspection process is seriously flawed , according to the Pew Charitable Trusts and Consumer Reports, Kimberly Kindy and Brady Dennis report for The Washington Post. At least 523 people have been reported as having been sickened with salmonella because of tainted chicken linked to Foster Farms. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that since many cases go unreported, "as many as 15,000 people could have been sickened by the contaminated meat." (CDC map: The agency says the official number of people infected with salmonella is 389, in 23 states and Puerto Rico)
The Pew study said the salmonella outbreak shows "serious weaknesses" in USDA's "oversight of poultry plants" and "criticized the government’s failure to push more aggressively for recalls of contaminated meat," the Post reports. Sandra Eskin, director of Pew’s Food Safety Campaign, told the Post, “When more than 500 people get sick from a food-borne illness outbreak, that means the system we have in place wasn’t working to protect public health. This many people should not be getting sick.”

The study "includes sharp criticisms of the response by the (USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service) to the outbreaks, which it called 'insufficient to protect public health'," the Post reports. "In both cases, the department never asked Foster Farms to recall or stop shipping potentially contaminated chicken. The study also faults the department for failing to issue a public-health alert for the first outbreak, which lasted from June 2012 to April 2013. An alert was issued for the second outbreak, which began this March."

The Consumer Reports study, funded by Pew, "suggested that those lapses have contributed to the prevalence of potentially harmful bacteria that lurk in store-bought chicken," the Post writes. "The magazine independently tested more than 300 raw chicken breasts purchased from stores across the country and found that every major brand contained 'worrisome amounts' of pathogens such as salmonella and E.coli, including some strains resistant to treatment with antibiotics."

They found that "more than half the chicken breasts it tested were tainted with fecal contaminants, which can cause problems such as urinary tract infections in humans," the Post notes. "Half the samples contained at least one multidrug-resistant bacterium. In addition, researchers found no significant difference in the presence of troublesome bacteria between conventional chicken breasts and those labeled 'organic' or 'no antibiotics'."

Both studies "called for USDA to be more aggressive in pushing for recalls and alerting the public to potential outbreaks," the Post reports. "The groups said Congress should pass legislation to give the USDA mandatory recall authority. Currently, the department can put pressure on companies to recall products but, unlike the Food and Drug Administration, cannot force recalls." (Read more)

Texas researchers suggest link between drilling and earthquakes; state officials not quick to agree

While the debate about a possible link between drilling and earthquakes has become heated in states that have seen an increase in seismic activity, the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees oil and gas in the state, says on its website that "staff has not identified a significant correlation between faulting and injection" of waste from drilling operations, which has increased with the advent of horizontal hydraulic fracturing, Mike Soraghan reports for Environment & Energy News.

Texas has had four earthquakes in the past week, 21 this month, and 37 total in 2013, according to Earthquake Track. Adjoining Oklahoma has also had a rash of quakes. After North Texas had more than 20 in November, residents called for an inquiry into drilling and earthquakes, Eva-Marie Ayala reports for The Dallas Morning News. The state has "more than 50,000 disposal wells in Texas servicing more than 216,000 active drilling wells, according to the Railroad Commission," reports State Impact.

Azle News photo and caption: "NetQuakes seismometers
are bolted to concrete foundations to ensure they are well-
coupled to a structure and accurately record ground motion."
The latest edition of the Azle News, in an area where many of the recent quakes have occurred, shows a seismometer and reports matter-of-factly, "The latest earthquake in the area occurred Saturday evening, Dec. 14, at 10:54 p.m. about a mile south of Springtown. That was just a day ahead of the installation of four NetQuakes instruments provided by the United States Geological Survey in the area."

But an inquiry doesn't appear to be going anywhere, Soraghan writes. George Conley, a commissioner whose district includes Azle, "said he warned his constituents when they sought an investigation." He told Soraghan, "They're not going to say anything negative about the industry. That's their bread and butter. It's going to be very difficult for the Railroad Commission to say it's the oil and gas industry and shut those wells down."

Texas is having the same problem as Oklahoma, where officials are reluctant to admit disposal and injection wells might have anything to do with earthquakes, Soraghan writes. Cliff Frohlich, senior research scientist at the University of Texas' Institute for Geophysics, told Soraghan, "Probably 100 percent of seismologists would agree that it can happen," but Frohlich "said there's far less agreement on whether specific earthquakes are caused by injection. He compares it to smoking and lung cancer. It's accepted that smoking causes cancer, but harder to say what caused cancer in a particular person. So it's much harder to say there's a 'definitive' link to specific quakes in specific places." (Read more)

Can the U.S. learn from Canada's decision to end all door-to-door mail delivery?

While the U.S. Postal Service seeks ways to save money, including its continued push to eliminate Saturday delivery of first class mail, our neighbors to the north have come up with a way to solve their post office's financial difficulties. Within five years, door-to-door mail delivery in Canada will be obsolete, replaced "with community mail boxes in central locations" and Canada Post "will also cut 6,000 to 8,000 jobs in the postal industry, and raise the price of the postage stamp by 22 cents," reports NPR. The delivery change is easier up there than it would be down here; only 5 million of the more than 15 million addresses in Canada get home delivery. (CBC photo: Community mailboxes)

Rosemary Barton of Canadian Broadcasting Corporation told NPR's Jeremy Hobson, "The thing that is going to make the most savings is stopping this door-to-door delivery. Most people will transition now to those big super mailboxes that you have at the end of a few streets, and they are also going to, as you've said, raise the price of stamps."

As in the U.S., other proposed solutions by Canadian officials included cutting the number of delivery days, Barton said. "This way, they think that they're helping people. You can still get your mail every day. You just won't get it at your door." (Radio Canada International graphic: Mail delivery in Canada)
The move, though, is not popular among postal employees and their union, Barton said. "They've got 15,000 workers set to retire in the next five years. . . . They are extremely well-paid jobs with big, fat pensions attached. And so the union is already up in arms, because they'd like to keep the positions, obviously, and they say that people should stand up and fight to keep their mail coming to their doors." (Read more)

FBI in New Mexico focusing on corruption in rural and remote areas, where it often goes unreported

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is cracking down on corruption in rural New Mexico towns, with a no-acceptance policy aimed at rooting out any amount of corruption, no matter how small, Patrick Lohmann reports for the Albuquerque Journal. "Officials are tackling what they say is a perception that a certain amount of corruption is acceptable, especially in small towns, so they’re asking rural-community residents to think critically about how money is being spent and contracts awarded by their public officials."

A study released earlier this year found that state capitals in remote or rural areas tend to be more corrupt, because of their isolation, and lack of media coverage. FBI lawyer Stephan Marshall cited similar reasons for the crackdown in New Mexico, Lohmann writes. "Marshall said the state’s larger metropolitan areas are better protected against public corruption because bureau offices are often located in them, and because news-media outlets in cities are generally more aggressive. Smaller towns are vulnerable to devastating losses and reduction in services, Marshall said, even if the amount of money misspent pales in comparison to corruption in places like Albuquerque or Santa Fe."

The FBI is also asking citizens to be active in reporting corruption, providing a phone number where people can report suspected corruption, Lohmann writes. The FBI also has "a page on its website that lists possible ways officials could be abusing their power, including whether contracts awarded benefit a public official, whether officials’ relatives are getting contracts and if contracts are being awarded without a bidding process." (Read more)

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Reform should make Medicare, Medicaid more interested in prevention, rural health expert says

Dr. Wayne Myers
While some rural areas may not have enough doctors (or those who accept Medicaid patients) to treat new patients generated by federal health reform, the key to healthy living is more education, not more physicians, rural medical expert Dr. Wayne Myers opines in The Rural Monitor. As an example, Myers points to Perry County in Eastern Kentucky. The Appalachian county leads the nation in shortest average life span for women (72.65 years) and is third shortest for men (66.52 years) despite having an abundance of doctors and health facilities. The reason, Myers says, is bad habits that lead to unhealthy lives, something no amount of medical attention can cure.

"In Perry County, as in much of America, medical care is losing to unhealthy behavior," Myers writes. "Clinicians aren’t trained, nor is our clinical system structured, to accomplish changes in long-term cultural behavior, or to respond to the needs of groups of people. Certainly the 15-to-20-minute acute-care visit is a poor situation to try to work with a person on diet, level of activity, his/her addictions. We can’t modify family and social patterns with tools developed to treat strep throat, sprained ankles or breast cancer."

Myers said the solution is education at the local level, with "a lot more health educators, community health nurses and nutrition educators" that are trained within the community. Areas with community colleges can build partnerships with schools to receive training, he suggests. His hope is that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will provide the resources and motivation necessary to bring about changes.

As the law generates enrollees, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ "book of business will shift from old people on Medicare toward younger people on Medicaid," he writes. "When the main business of CMS was Medicare, the rational business strategy was to seek the most economical quality care for those with only a few years to live. As the business shifts toward Medicaid and subsidized private insurance customers, the rational business strategy for CMS shifts toward preventing chronic disease. From an insurer’s point of view, a 70-year-old obese hypertensive diabetic is a self-limited problem. She’ll die soon. A 30-year-old with the same diagnoses will be a very long-term financial drain.  It will be good business for CMS to keep their 'covered lives' healthy."

This, he said, is kind of forward thinking we need to ensure young Americans get healthy. "We need new approaches to keeping people healthy, instead of trying to heal them after they get sick," Myers writes. "Clinicians can’t change the way people live and raise their kids, even if some of the choices the parents make turn out to be pretty dangerous for the kids. These are sensitive life and death issues. We need to tackle them." (Read more)

Federal court lifts emergency stay on two horse slaughter plants, so they could open soon

The on-again, off-again battle to open horse slaughter plants in New Mexico and Missouri appears to have taken a swing in favor of the plant owners, after a federal appeals court late Friday "lifted an emergency stay on the companies’ plans," but it could still be months before a final decision is issued, Jeri Clausing reports for The Associated Press. "The judge said the U.S. Department of Agriculture followed proper procedure in issuing permits" to the three companies."

Blair Dunn, the attorney for plants in Roswell, N.M., and Gallatin, Mo., "said the plants are ready to open, although they could agree to remain shuttered if the plaintiffs agree to post a sufficient bond to cover the companies’ losses should they ultimately prevail," Clausing writes. A third proposed plant in Iowa had already switched to beef, but its owner said the plant was struggling against other established companies, and would make a decision about horse slaughter by early January. (Read more)

We have covered the horse slaughter debate here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Deadly Ariz. fire prompts claims against three governments, one state agency fining another

Prescott Fire Dept. spokesman Wade Ward, left, talks with David
Turbyfill, whose son died. (Times-News photo by Ashley Smith)
Phoenix news outlets dropped their effort to get photos and documents relating to the forest fire that killed Arizona 19 "hotshot" firefighters on June 30, but now the search for answers has resumed. Last week the state Forestry Division released a video and thousands of pages of documents even including text messages and photos taken by other fire crews, Brian Skoloff reports for the Associated Press.

"Additional claims are being filed against the state, Yavapai County and the city of Prescott," the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson reports. Property owners blame negligence for the loss of their homes, Dennis Wagner and Yvonne Wingett Sanchez report for The Arizona Republic. The discussion about this disaster is far from over.

After a "swift and superficial original investigation report and other obfuscation of evidence, the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health has cited the Arizona Forestry Division and fined it $559,000," saying  non-defensible structures were prioritized over firefighters' lives and that supervisors behaved irresponsibly., Billie Stanton writes for the Times-News in Twin Falls, Idaho, reporting that some have begun to suspect there is more to the story.

"The Granite Mountain Hotshots' bodies were moved off the site within 24 hours," Stanton writes. Following the South Canyon Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colo., on July 6, 1994, Missoula smokejumper Wayne Williams insisted the bodies not be moved because if they were, "any opportunity to learn from the event would be lost," Stanton notes. Evidence in such cases includes body locations and conditions, locations of fire shelters, condition of clothing and tools, and the direction of firefighters' steps and travel.

The state closed off the Prescott site. "They were trying to protect the sanctity of that site, of our guys," said Wade Ward, public information officer for the Prescott Fire Department. Stanton writes, "But a closed site yields no answers that could protect the sanctity of other firefighters' futures." Some wildfire professionals think that the hotshots tried to get to a place where they could continue to battle the fire to save Yarnell. "I think they took a calculated risk," said Randy Skelton, deputy fire staff officer on Idaho's Payette National Forest. (Read more)

Rural delivery rooms increasingly induce labor for no medical reason

Births in which labor was induced for no medical reason increased much more at rural hospitals from 2002 to 2010 than at urban hospitals, according to report by researchers at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health published in the latest issue of Medical Care, Larry Hand reports for MedScape.

Researchers examined 6.3 million births in urban areas and 837,772 in rural areas based on information from the National Inpatient Sample, a 20 percent sample of U.S. hospital admissions. In rural hospitals, the share of deliveries in which labor was induced for no medical reason increased from 9.3 percent in 2002 to 16.5 percent in 2010, in the same period, the share at urban hospitals rose from 10.3 percent to 12 percent. Cesarean births at rural hospitals rose to 16.9 percent from 14.3 percent; at urban hospitals, they rose to 17.8 percent.

"With approximately 4 million births per year in the United States, a 1-percentage-point difference in the use of a procedure affects 40,000 women and infants annually," the researchers wrote. "Based on our findings, we estimate that differences due to rural or urban location — rather than differences in patient or hospital characteristics — may affect between 24,000 and 200,000 mothers and their babies each year." (Read more)

Researchers suggested that financial concerns may have contributed to the rise in rural areas, reports Connie Hughes for EurekAlert, an online science news service. Researchers wrote, "This analysis indicates that women giving birth in rural and urban hospitals may experience different childbirth-related benefits and risks. Due to Medicaid's important role in financing childbirth care, particularly in rural hospitals, Medicaid payment policy has great potential to inform and catalyze quality improvement in obstetric care." Researchers note that more than half of babies born at rural hospitals are covered by Medicaid. "However, such reforms may 'face different implementation challenges' at rural versus urban hospitals, according to the authors," Hughes writes.

Amid protests from gun advocates, BLM reverses ban on recreational shooting in national monument

In another example of the power gun advocates have over government officials, Emily Guerin reports for High Country News about the failed attempt by managers of the Sonoran Desert National Monument to ban recreational shooting on its 487,000 acres. The Bureau of Land Management reversed the decision after receiving complaints from Washington, D.C.-based hunting and shooting advocates who toured the monument. (Photo: A bullet-ridden sign at the monument)

Former monument manager Rich Hanson banned shooting because of the damage caused by shooters, Guerin writes. "In just one cleanup, he and his staff gathered 12,000 pounds of bullet-riddled oil drums, fast-food garbage and computer monitors. 'Slob shooters,' as Hanson, who retired last spring, calls them, have also harmed the very resources he was sworn to protect – amputating saguaro [cactus] limbs, shattering rock faces and splintering the trunks of palo verde, mesquite and other desert trees. Visitors to monument wilderness areas or the popular Anza National Historic Trail often pass unsightly roadside dumps."  

Wilderness Society attorney Phil Hanceford, who sued the BLM over its reversal in September, told Guerin, "This is not just turning a blind eye to someone else's science. It's looking straight at their own science and completely disregarding their own recommendation." High Country News is subscription only, but can be accessed by clicking here.

After the tour, John Tomke, chair of the Wildlife and Hunting Heritage Council, wrote a letter to BLM Director Robert Abbey, saying: "When then-[Interior] Secretary Bruce Babbitt recommended BLM keep management of the SDNM, it was understood that these special landscapes would remain open to the traditional recreational activities that had taken place for decades. Recreational shooting is one of those traditional activities. Dispersed recreational shooting is a valued recreational activity unto itself and is also a gateway into more formal shooting sports and hunting. Recreational shooting is a critical element in the process of becoming a hunter and shooting sports enthusiast, and given the importance of hunting and recreational shooting in the funding of wildlife conservation in America it is imperative that we do all we can to further recruitment and retention of hunters and recreational shooters." Tomke argued that there aren't enough public shooting areas in the Phoenix area for the number of recreational shooters who live there, better clean-up plans could be instituted, and the monument has enough room for specific shooting-only areas, or re-routing hiking trails to accommodate shooters. (Read more)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Rural school districts dominate second round of federal 'Race to the Top' grants

Three rural school districts or groups, and an Arkansas district that retains much of its recently rural character, were among the five winners in the latest round of "Race to the Top"  grants awarded by the U.S. Department of Education, totaling $120 million.

The winners were a consortium of 18 rural districts in Eastern Kentucky, to get $30 million; a consortium of four in South Carolina, $25 million; and districts in Clarksdale, Miss. ($10 million), Springdale, Ark. ($25.9 million), and Houston, Texas ($30 million). The Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative "narrowly missed winning last time," Education Week reports. Springdale, "near the Tyson Foods headquarters, enrolls 20,500 students, including many English-learners."

"These winners particularly shine a light on the innovative work going on in rural school districts across the country to tailor education for all students and provide school leaders and teachers with key tools that support them in meeting students’ needs," a department news release said. "The grantees were selected from 31 finalists, representing 80 school districts across 21 states. The department received more than 200 applications."

Michele McNeil of Education Week reports the South Carolina group, led by Clarendon County District 2, "wants to increase access to digital devices for students and create individualized learning plans for each student. Springdale plans to expand career academies, require ninth graders to take an online course, and improve its data dashboard. Clarksdale will focus on expanding its ninth- grade academy. And the Kentucky Valley co-op will expand distance learning and better train teachers to use technology." (Read more)

The release said the grants are intended to help personalize and improve student learning, increase student achievement and educator effectiveness, close achievement gaps, and prepare all students for success in college and careers. For more information on Race to the Top from the department, click here. UPDATE, Jan. 5: For a roundup and highlights from Michele McNeil of Education Week, go here.

In year after Newtown massacre, 2/3 of new gun laws eased restrictions or expanded owners' rights

The school massacre in Newtown, Conn., one year ago last weekend, opened up debate about the need for stronger gun-control laws. But in the year since the shooting, "Nearly two-thirds of the new laws ease restrictions and expand the rights of gun owners," reports The New York Times. "Most of those bills were approved in states controlled by Republicans. Those who support stricter regulations won some victories—mostly in states where the legislature and governorship are controlled by Democrats—to increase restrictions on gun use and ownership." (NYT graphic: Gun laws passed since Newtown shooting)
But even in states that put more controls on guns, politicians have faced backlash. Colorado, which passed stricter gun laws earlier this year, has since kicked out two Democratic state senators who supported gun-control in a recall election, and another facing a recall resigned, allowing her party to name a replacement.

Meanwhile, Colorado sheriffs like John Cooke of Weld County (Colorado Springs Gazette photo by Michael Ciaglo) "are refusing to enforce the laws, saying that they are too vague and violate Second Amendment rights," Erica Goode reports for the Times. "Many more say that enforcement will be 'a very low priority,' as several sheriffs put it." In May, 57 of the state's 62 sheriffs in Colorado joined a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of federal gun laws. Police officials in some other states have also said they will refuse to enforce any new gun laws.

Some gun-control supporters have gone to extremes to get their message out. Stop Handgun Violence has a billboard near the heavy traffic area around Fenway Park in Boston that keeps a running daily tally of the number of gun deaths since Newtown, with the number at 32,833 last weekend, Peter Schworm notes for The Boston Globe. But with about half the states weakening gun laws, and an Associated Press poll finding that support for stricter laws has fallen since January, the campaigns don't seem to be working. (Read more) (Globe photo by David L. Ryan)

The Times put together a list of how laws in each state have fared that dealt with gun permits, guns in schools, mental health, background checks, assault weapons, gun access, lost/stolen firearms, nullifying federal law and other laws proposed or passed. For the list, click here.