Friday, March 15, 2013

Census data on rural population gets into the news

Many local news media are picking up on the Census Bureau report we noted yesterday showing that more than a third of U.S. counties, mostly rural, are losing population.

In Nebraska 64 of 93 counties experienced a decline of population, reports Brent Martin of Nebraska Radio Network. Forty-two counties experienced more deaths than births in 2012. While rural Nebraska keeps shrinking, urban Nebraska is growing, he writes.

Oregon has seen similar results, reports Elliot Njus of The Oregonian. The Portland metro area population grew 1.3 percent from 2011 and 2.9 percent since the 2010 census. Njus writes that five rural counties of each lost more than 1 percent of population and all recorded more deaths than births, and more people moving out than moving in.

Michael H. O'Donnell of the Idaho State Journal reports that over 5,600 more people moved out of the state's 33 rural counties than moved in. He writes that 28 of them experienced net domestic outmigration.

The Census Bureau report is available on the agency website.

Tourists in Miss. can sleep in plantation shacks

Photo: P.F. Edwards, Garden & Gun
Entrepreneurs in Clarksdale, Miss., have found a way to market rural poverty with the Shack Up Inn, a collection of authentic sharecropper shacks, Tracy Thompson writes in her book, The New Mind of the South.

In a book excerpt in the Daily Yonder, Thompson says the inn is on "the site of the old Hopson Plantation a few miles outside of town, retrofitted with some modern necessities like indoor plumbing, heat and air conditioning, and then rented to tourists traveling down Highway 61 on the Mississippi Blues Trail."

The Shack Up Inn website says that visitors can "immerse yourself in the living history you will find at Hopson. Virtually unchanged from when it was a working plantation, you will find authentic sharecropper shacks, the original cotton gin and seed houses and other outbuildings. You will glimpse plantation life, as it existed only a few short years ago. In addition, you will find one of the first mechanized cotton pickers."

The inn is a hit with the musical and literary set, but there have been few African American visitors, writes Thompson. More than 40 percent of Clarksdale residents lived below the poverty level in 2007-11, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report. The population is 79 percent black.

Virginia farmers exploring hops as new crop

Gannett News Service photo
When rural communities in Virginia and West Virginia held a forum on regional innovation recently, one of the main topics was a new product that is growing in interest in Virginia: hops, reports Andrew Sharbel of the Loudoun Times-Mirror in Leesburg.

Sharbel writes that according to Kellie Boles, agricultural development officer for the Loudoun County Department of Economic Development, there are few hops growers on the East Coast. Most hops are raised in the Pacific Northwest. Boles said she thinks hops could be the key to fulfilling the county's rural economic development plan.

For more on production of hops, an essential ingredient in beer, here's a study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Washington produces 79 percent of the U.S. crop.

Candidate for governor in Maine says 108 towns in the state are ‘basically insolvent’

Maine gubernatorial candidate Steve Woods unveiled an economic strategy that could result in the closure of more than 100 small towns and redirect their state dollars — and potentially their residents — toward more urban centers, reports Seth Koenig of the Bangor Daily News. Woods contends the state’s “underlying problem” can be summed up as “more than 100 Maine communities that cost hundreds of millions of dollars a year to sustain while making very little contribution to the wealth and capacity of our state," writes Koenig.

Woods (BDN photo)
The study by Woods was developed using data culled from thousands of pages of statewide municipal budgets going back at least a decade. “If your expenses continue to exceed your revenues, you become insolvent," Woods said. "You can delay that by taking on debt, and you can mask it by seeking out more in grants and other subsidies. But I’ve found that there are 108 towns which — by no fault of the leaders there and by no fault of the people who have lived there, sometimes for generations — are basically insolvent.”

Woods is running as a Democrat; he ran as an independent for the U.S. Senate last year, getting 1.48 percent of the vote in a race won by Gov. Angus King, also an independent. He is chairman of the council in the Town of Yarmouth. In New England, all places are in a town. Under Woods' proposal, towns would be consolidated. Maine recently consolidated many of its small school districts.

In an editorial titled "Bridging the Rural-Urban Divide," the Daily News writes "The solution, though, lies not in talking about getting rid of rural communities, but building on the opportunities those communities provide. The solution lies also in recognizing that one statewide approach to economic development is unfair, as each region, whether urban or rural, has different strengths."

Big Tenn. paper mill idles its last newsprint machine

Resolute Forest Products is shutting down its last newsprint machine in Calhoun, Tenn., after decades of shedding forest lands and mill jobs in response to the shrinking size and circulation of the newspapers that buy newsprint, reports Dave Flessner for the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Flessner writes that "indefinite idling" of the newsprint machines will cost another 150 mill jobs, cutting the remaining staff at the Calhoun plant below 500 by the end of the month. The Calhoun mill produced 215,000 metric tons per year and supplied newsprint for dozens of newspapers in the Southeast, including the Times Free Press. A plant in Augusta, Ga., will pick up its newsprint customers.

The plant was once owned by the old Bowater Corp. David Davis of the Cleveland Daily Banner writes that in 1954 the mill had 750 employees who produced 180,000 tons of newsprint and market pulp annually. In 2004, it had 900 employees who produced 990,000 tons. The company paid $89 million annually in wages and salaries.

In 2010 151 newspapers closed and 152 in 2011, reports Katrina M. Mendolera of inVocus, a media news center. But the main reason for declining newsprint sales is the shrinking size of newspapers, both in number of pages and page dimensions. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Senators attempting to stave off cuts in rural air control, furloughs and closures in meatpacking

Some proposed amendments to the bill to keep the government running would keep rural air-traffic control towers open and avoid furloughs of meat inspectors (and thus temporary plant closures), but "There is a fear that if too many accommodations are made by the Senate, it risks a blowup with the House and exactly the sort of shutdown fight both parties want to avoid on March 27 when funding runs out," David Rogers reports for Politico. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the list of 100 amendments to the continuing resolution needs to be substantially reduced to get a vote on the bill Monday.

Blunt, Pryor (Bill Clark, Getty Images)
Republicans have been most prominent in seeking relief. Sen. Jerry Moran wants to shift $50 million to protect contract air-traffic control towers important to rural states like his own Kansas," Rogers writes. "And with major meatpacking houses in both states, Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas has teamed with his Republican neighbor, Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, to try to add $55 million to the current Senate bill to shore up the Food Safety and Inspection Service." They would get $30 million of the money by deferring maintenance on Agriculture Department buildings, and $25 million "from a new grant program favored by the White House to help schools buy equipment for school breakfast programs."

Rogers gives details on the FSIS budget and mentions two other rural issues: "The House adds significantly more than the Senate for wildland fire management in the Interior Department and Forest Service. The Senate does more than the House for the Indian Health Service. (Read more)

Methadone series wins community journalism prize

Brandon Stahl, right, has won the 2012 Scripps Howard Foundation award for community journalism for his series "Methadone: A Costly Fix" in the Duluth News Tribune, which prompted calls for reform in the treatment of drug addiction in Minnesota. Stahl, now a reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

News Tribune Editor Robin Washington said the series exposed outrages and prompted change, "with one of the quickest responses by authorities I’ve seen in decades as an editor." The award carries a $10,000 prize. For the opening story in the series, click here. For the foundation's list of winners and links for each of their entries, go here.

In 36 percent of counties, many if not most rural, more people are dying than are being born

The Associated Press reports, with an atypically overheated verb: "A record number of U.S. counties, more than one in three, are now dying off, hit by an aging population and weakened local economies that are spurring young adults to seek jobs and build families elsewhere. New 2012 census estimates released Thursday highlight the population shifts as the U.S. encounters its most sluggish growth levels since the Great Depression."

From July 2011 through June 2012, deaths exceeded births in 36 percent of counties (1,135 of 3,143), a sizeable jump from the 28 percent reporting "natural decrease" in 2009, the Bureau of the Census reported. Maine, the most rural state, joined West Virginia as states in that category. Slicing up population by county lines shows the data through a rural lens, since most counties are rural but only 16 percent of the population is. The story doesn't say whether most of these counties are rural, but they probably are. It says "Roughly 46 percent of rural counties just beyond the edge of metropolitan areas experienced natural decrease, compared to 17 percent of urban counties."

“These counties are in a pretty steep downward spiral,” Kenneth Johnson, a senior demographer and sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire, told AP. “The young people leave and the older adults stay in place and age. Unless something dramatic changes — for instance, new development such as a meatpacking plant to attract young Hispanics — these areas are likely to have more and more natural decrease.”

As we have reported here, here and most recently here, the Census Bureau says more counties, urban and rural, would have lost population if not for immigration. "The growing attention on immigrants is coming mostly from areas of the Midwest and Northeast, which are seeing many of their residents leave after years of staying put during the downturn," AP reports. "With a slowly improving U.S. economy, young adults are now back on the move, departing traditional big cities to test the job market mostly in the South and West, which had sustained the biggest hits in the housing bust." (Read more)

Ohio judges seal many misdemeanor records of small-town college students, court records show

Are college students getting away with not having to face public scrutiny for misdemeanor crimes? Over the past five years and last year, 40 percent of misdemeanor cases in the county that is home to Miami University in Ohio were sealed by Judge Rob Lyons, left, reports Sheila McLaughlin of the Cincinnati Enquirer. (Enquirer photo by Tony Tribble)

McLaughlin reports that in 2012, nearly 32 percent of cases were sealed in the county that is home to Ohio University, 22 percent in the one that's home to Kent State University, almost 17 percent in the one where Bowling Green State University is located, but only 3.5 percent in the larger, more urban county that is home to the University of Dayton.

Christo Lassiter, a law professor at the University of Cincinnati, questions whether students in towns dominated by a college are getting preferential treatment. “To some extent, Miami students have a pipeline. You find out what works and you do it. They’ve figured it out. It could be just the pipeline, or it could be the fact that these people do have the money to go to a lawyer.”

Lyons, on the bench for 14 years, said in a sworn deposition that he routinely seals cases for Miami students: “You’ve got kids with indiscretions that want their records sealed before they start applying for graduate school or go to the job market.”

Bat-killing syndrome spreads to its 22nd state

A fungus that has killed millions of bats since it was first observed in 2006 has now reached 22 states, after bats in South Carolina and Georgia tested positive for the deadly fungus. Bat populations that contract white-nose syndrome -- named because the fungus manifests as a fuzzy white patch on bats’ noses, wings and other hairless parts of their body -- have a mortality rate of 70 to 100 percent, writes John R. Platt writes for Scientific American.

We reported in September about conservationists who built an artificial cave in Tennessee in an effort to save bats. At that time more than 5.7 million bats had died from the fungus. (Photo: A little brown bat showing symptoms of white-nose syndrome in Greeley Mine, Vermont, in March 2009 by Marvin Moriarty, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Bats have an important role in regulating insect populations, a function that is vital to successful agriculture. A recent study found that the loss of North American bats could lead to agricultural losses of more than $3.7 billion per year, writes Platt.

The National Wildlife Health Center says bats affected by white-nose syndrome often display abnormal behaviors in their hibernation sites, such as movement toward the mouth of caves and daytime flights during winter. These abnormal behaviors may contribute to the untimely consumption of stored fat reserves causing emaciation.

Syndrome spread shown by recent years in warmer colors (Click map for larger image)

Information-technology jobs growing in rural areas

Large corporations looking to outsource their information technology or software development services increasingly pass over India and the Philippines to find help in places like Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa, Barbara Soderlin of the Omaha World-Herald notes in reporting the latest example of the concept, known as "rural sourcing."

Rural Sourcing Inc.,which provides information technology services, has grown an average of 150 percent annually over the last four years by developing software and supporting clients' technology at centers in Jonesboro, Ark., and Augusta, Ga., reports Dinah Wisenberg Brin of CNBC. Monty Hamilton, chief executive since 2009, sees a surge of interest in the U.S. as a destination point for IT outsourcing, she writes. RSI is one of several American companies offering outsourced software development services in small U.S. cities or rural areas.

Soderlin writes that on Wednesday Minneapolis-based rural sourcing firm Eagle Creek Software Services announced it would open a $10 million information-technology center in Vermillion, S.D. and will employ 200 IT consultants. Eagle Creek has pledged to add 1,000 jobs in South Dakota in the next three to five years, reports Dave Dreeszen of the Sioux City Journal. State and local officials said the initiative will provide students with the skills to compete for high-paying jobs in the world's growing technology sector.

An Atlanta-based firm, Xpanxion Technologies, now employs six in Loup City, Neb., 85 in Kearney, Neb. and 25 in Ames, Iowa, and has plans to open a Kansas office, Soderlin reports. The Rural Futures Institute, launched last fall by University of Nebraska President J.B. Milliken, earlier this year awarded a $125,000 grant to a group to build on the successes and strategies of rural sourcing to recruit University of Nebraska alumni back to the state in high-tech and other professional fields.

Ohio drivers may soon be able to put the pedal a bit more to the metal on rural highways

Speed limits may be going up on rural highways in Ohio. Senators signed off on a proposal to increase the speed limit to 70 m.p.h. on rural interstate highways. The measure was added to a highway funding bill, reports Tom Breckenridge of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

The higher speed limit would apply to interstate freeways outside of urban areas, such as parts of Interstates 75, 70 and 71, writes Laura A. Bischoff of the Dayton Daily News. The limit on outerbelts in urban areas would be 65 and the speed limit would be 55 on interstates deemed congested by the state Department of Transportation.

Thirty-four states have raised limits to 70 or higher on some roads since 1995, writes Bischoff. We reported in 2011 that Kansas has raised speed limits to 75 on some roads. Texas has speed limits of 85 on certain roads and Utah has some with 80, according to the National Motorists Association.

Ohio lawmakers have pushed for the higher limits for years, but the idea faces opposition from environmental groups that say higher speeds reduce fuel efficiency and insurance groups that say it’ll increase danger on the roadways, reports Bischoff. A map from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows maximum posted daytime speed limits on rural interstates.

Plan would strengthen Freedom of Information Act

Democratic and Republican leaders of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee unveiled a new proposal to reform the Freedom of Information Act this week.

John McArdle of Environment & Energy Daily reports that the proposal includes a review and expansion of the online portal that allows the public to make FOIA requests; a requirement for agencies to put online all releasable information requested three or more times; a streamlining of the FOIA dispute-resolution process, with more specific timelines; and increased independence for the Office of Government Information Services, which would report directly to Congress without review by other agencies.

McArdle writes that the discussion draft would expand on the principle that, when in doubt, openness should prevail. Instead of requiring the public to justify the release of information, the burden on agencies to demonstrate why information should be withheld. When you lose the public's trust, you lose the ability to lead," said. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), who is also a co-chairman of the Transparency Caucus in Congress.

The proposal comes during Sunshine Week, the annual observance to promote dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. We wrote about the importance of Sunshine Week and said people should speak out on the topic during this important time.

Illinois expands effort to reduce highway accidents involving farm machinery

Mississippi State University photo
Illinois hopes to cut down the number of rural-road deaths involving farm machinery by simply reminding drivers to slow down on rural roads. The Illinois Farm Bureau, Illinois Department of Transportation and Illinois State Police are using banners on rural roads that read “Caution, Slow Down, Share the Road,” to remind drivers and farmers to look out for each other, writes Karina Gonzalez of The Pantagraph in Bloomington.

Since 2008, 29 Illinois residents have died in highway accidents involving farm machinery, writes Gonzalez. Crashes involving large farm machinery such as tractors and combines are the second leading cause of death on rural roads in the state.

The banner program began last year in several counties in Western Illinois, Gonzalez reports. Counties are responsible for the cost and placement of the 3-by-20 foot banners.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Osteopathic medical schools, becoming common in rural areas, steer graduates to practice there

Dr. Valerie Goodman, an osteopath,
examines Mary Elizabeth Gardner at
Goodman's office in Centreville, Md.
Many osteopathic medical schools are springing up in rural locations, usually to recruit applicants from rural areas and then hope those doctors practice in the region. Osteopathy emphasizes total body health through muscles and bones and de-emphasizes the use of drugs.

Since 2000, the number of U.S. osteopathic schools has increased from 19 to 34, offering about 1,900 new training slots, writes Ankita Rao of Kaiser Health News. In 2011, there were about 74,000 osteopathic physicians, compared with about 29,500 in 1990.

Osteopathic physicians constitute seven percent of all U.S. physicians, but are responsible for 16 percent of patient visits in communities with populations of fewer than 2,500, according to a report from the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine. Eighteen percent of osteopathic medical school graduates, a toital 2,045 doctors, practice in rural areas, according to a 2010 study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. America's population is only 16 percent rural, and only 9 percent of traditional doctors practice in rural areas.

The Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine in Blacksburg, Va., founded in 2003, has 1,100 students. James Wolfe, president of Edward Via, told Rao, "Our philosophy is 'Recruit from, educate in, return to.'"

Founded in 1997, the osteopathic college at the University of Pikeville in far Eastern Kentucky has graduated more than 700 physicians, 62 percent of whom practice in Appalachia, according to from the school. Part of its mission statement is to have a program that "produces graduates who are committed to serving the health care needs of communities in rural Kentucky and other Appalachian regions." The graphic below shows the osteopathic medical schools in the U.S.

Telephone company that failed to serve rural customers agrees to pay $975,000 civil penalty

In February we reported that The Federal Communications Commission said it wants to do something about telephone companies' failure to complete long-distance calls in rural areas. In a notice seeking comment on its proposed rulemaking, the FCC said rural long-distance callers get false busy signals, can't hear each other or simply have long periods of "dead air."

Level 3 Communications said Tuesday that it has agreed to pay $975,000 to the U.S. Treasury as part of a consent decree to resolve a probe by the FCC, reports Hayley Tsukayama of The Washington Post. The company said it will pay an additional $1 million if it fails to meet benchmarks to improve connection rates by 5 percent each quarter.

Tsukayama writes that according to the investigation, the company was not reliably connecting long-distance calls from rural areas, a practice the FCC said is caused when long-distance carriers and intermediate providers use third-party routers to complete the calls at a low cost.

Climate-denial books will soon flood the market

Climate-change-denial books are hitting the bookshelves in large numbers, with nearly 90 percent of the books having ties to conservative think tanks such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Heartland Institute, the Cato Institute, and the Marshall Institute, according to a study by Riley E. Dunlap of Oklahoma State University and Peter J. Jacques of the University of Central Florida.

Dunlap told Cristine Russell of the Columbia Journalism Review that the books help think tanks and others promote conservative causes, raise uncertainty about the threat of man-made greenhouse gas emissions, downplay the need for reducing carbon emissions, and help conservative think tanks in the U.S. spread the seeds of climate denial to other countries, including Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and a number of European nations.

Russell writes that 72 percent of the 108 books had "a verifiable link" to a conservative think tank, and virtually all of them espoused conservative ideology, according to information from Dunlap and Jacques. The books "confer a sense of legitimacy on their authors and provide an effective tool for combating the findings of climate scientists that are published primarily in scholarly, peer-reviewed journals. Regardless of whether or not they have scientific credentials, the authors, in turn, are often treated as 'climate experts' who may be interviewed on television and radio and quoted by sympathetic columnists, bloggers, and conservative politicians."

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Telephone companies' lobbying to be free of state rules prompts much concern among rural customers

Many states have deregulated land-line service, allowing them to drop the service, and more states are being lobbied hard top join the list. Some rural customers fear they will be left with substandard service. We have reported on the long-running debate; this is an update.

For example, a bill in Kansas would relieve phone companies of having to follow state rules protecting consumers from fraud and abusive billing practices, reports Dion Lefler of The Kansas City Star. It would also relieve AT&T of having to provide phone service to poor people on Lifeline subsidies or difficult-to-serve rural customers.

Read more here:

Read more here: provide phone service to poor people on Lifeline subsidies or difficult-to-serve rural customers, writes Dion Lefler of The Kansas City Star.

A bill in Kentucky would allow telephone companies to stop offering land-line service to new customers in unprofitable parts of the state, especially in rural areas, reports Jack Brammer of the Lexington Herald-Leader. The bill would also allow companies to drop land-line services if there were comparable telephone services — such as cellular service — in an area. 

Kentucky House Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark even went so far as to say AT&T was using automated phone calls to threaten lawmakers who vote against the bill. AT&T denied making automated calls.

The bill has provoked much ire in rural areas, and stories from AT&T customers about poor wireless service. Michael Caudill of Whitesburg, Ky., wrote: "We went to a local AT&T wireless store to replace my wife's cell phone. The clerk suggested we try their wireless receiver system for our home phone. Of course, it was supposed to be fantastic and give a 60 percent savings. It took 10 minutes to switch our land line to the wireless system, but when it proved to be unsuitable for us, it took over two weeks to reactivate our land line, and almost three months to straighten out the bill." (Read more)

You're a lot more likely to die on a rural road

Rural drivers are more likely to be killed on the road than drivers in suburban or urban areas. In 2010 only 19 percent of the U.S. population lived in rural areas, but 55 percent of traffic fatalities occurred in those areas, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Reasons for the higher numbers include safety issues on rural roads, low rates of seat belt use among rural people, a high percentage of deaths caused by drunk drivers, and a high number of fatal accidents involving speed, writes Daniel C. Vock for Stateline.

American Automobile Association safety chief Jacob Nelson told Vock that people drive faster in rural areas, crashes are more deadly. there are fewer people to call for help after an accident, and help is likely to be farther away."The hospitals are also often farther away and may not have the capacity to handle severe traumas," Nelson said. "All of that makes it less likely that crash victims will get the medical care they need as crucial minutes tick by. Drivers in rural areas also tend to be older and they are more likely to have been drinking, adds Nelson. Finally, fewer police officers spread out across rural areas are less likely to catch drivers for driving drunk, speeding or not wearing a seat belt."

The Transportation Department report says 96 percent of traffic deaths in Maine (the most rural state in population) and 94 percent in Montana happened in rural areas. Numbers were also high in South Dakota (91%), North Dakota (89%), Wyoming (86%), Nebraska (84%), Kansas (80%), Mississippi (79%), Arkansas (79%), Idaho (79%), Iowa (78%), Vermont (76%), South Carolina (76%), New Mexico (76%), Kentucky (73%) and West Virginia (72%).

Feds let Ark. expand Medicaid with private insurance; Fla., rejecting public option, may follow

Arkansas has turned heads nationally with its preliminary plan to expand Medicaid using the private insurance market, showing that the Obama administration is willing to give states more flexibility than expected in expanding the program.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has agreed to a proposal by Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe to reject the Medicaid expansion but use federal money to buy private health insurance for the 200,000 people who would have been covered under ordinary expansion, reports Sandhya Somashekhar of The Washington Post.

States that have come down on either sides of the Medicaid-expansion issue may reconsider their decision in light of the Arkansas proposal, said Sara Rosenbaum, a health law professor at George Washington University. "If Arkansas is allowed to do this, I expect it to spread like wildfire," Rosenbaum told the Post.

The first place could be Florida, where a state Senate committee rejected Republican Gov. Rick Scott's expansion plan and proposed a privatization plan like that in Arkansas. Last week, a House committee voted to reject any expansion of the program. Scott "made it clear he was not going to lobby the Legislature on Medicaid," preferring to emphasize other issues, The New York Times' Lizette Alvarez reports. For coverage from the Tampa Bay Times and The Miami Herald, click here.

A more flexibile arrangement could be a game changer because it makes expansion more appealing, especially for states where expanding Medicaid has been politically unpopular and polarizing. in Arkansas, which has a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature, officials say that from an ideological standpoint, using private insurance appeals to lawmakers from both parties, reports Somashekhar.  She reports that even Democratic-led states might prefer this arrangement because it gets rid of some bureaucratic hurdles.

However, there are questions about cost. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that private insurance plans cost $3,000 more per person than Medicaid, reports Somashekhar. On the other hand, Arkansas officials say the move could ultimately save money in administrative charges along with other cost-control measures.

Although the Arkansas proposal is not concrete, it provides proof that the Department for Health and Human Services encourages innovative, state-based approaches to promote expansion. Many states may develop a new route best suited to their specific needs, without having to leave federal money on the table. (Read more)

Monday, March 11, 2013

House Republicans give USPS green light for 6-day delivery, pooh-poohing language they passed

Republicans in the House contend that the U.S. Postal Service can proceed with its plan to deliver only packages on Saturdays even if Congress passes legislation that keeps decades-old language saying “Six-day delivery and rural delivery of mail shall continue, at not less than the 1983 level.”

“USPS has the authority to implement the modified Saturday delivery plan under current law and retains that authority if this provision were to be continued in its current form,” Ali Ahmad, a spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told Russell Berman and Bernie Becker of The Hill. He called the language "vague" and said USPS would not be eliminating a service day but “altering what products are delivered on that day.”

“The interpretation by the House GOP could set up a showdown with Senate Democratic leaders, who have argued that the legislative language prohibits the cash-strapped agency from limiting letter delivery to five days a week,” the reporters write. It could also set up a court fight, but The Hill notes that USPS "could simply forgo the roughly $100 million in appropriated federal funds" that gives Congress the power to tell it what to do.

The issue could also be addressed in "a broad overhaul of postal operations," the reporters note. Last year the Senate passed a postal reform bill but Issa's committee never acted on it. However, he and Senate negotiators "came close to finishing off a postal deal at the end of last year," The Hill reports.

Fracking in Pa. raises concerns about 'revolving door' regulators and environmental impacts

A recent report found that many of Pennsylvania's policymakers, regulators and enforcement workers have come from the oil and gas industry they oversee, or they leave state jobs for industry jobs, writes Don Hopey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The report by the Public Accountability Initiative found that the last four governors and 45 current or state officials had ties to the gas industry.

The report questions the impacts of such a "revolving door" on public policy decisions, writes Hopey. "There's a concern about people in state government providing favors to industries that might hire them, in effect helping to feather the nest they land in," said Jeff Schmidt, executive director of the Sierra Club in Pennsylvania. Schmidt also has concerns about former industry executives coming to government and being in positions to weaken or reduce enforcement. The phenomenon is present in many states and to some extent in the federal government.

The natural-gas boom and the hydraulic fracturing that has enabled it have brought prosperity and conflict to rural Pennsylvania. In the town of Dimock, the Linde Corp. has seen its workforce nearly triple over the past five years as it switched from constructing buildings to laying miles of gas pipelines connecting hundreds of wells drilled in the rolling rural terrain in Susquehanna County, writes

Some local residents aren't so happy about the company. Matt and Tammy Manning say that more than a year ago, the water coming out of their household well turned dark gray, Wheeler writes. Tests by the state found dangerous levels of methane in it, and regulators are investigating the cause. The couple must buy bottled water to drink, while a gas company that drilled in the area furnishes non-potable water for showers and washing clothes. Homeowners in other Pennsylvania communities also have complained that their wells were fouled and their health endangered. The allegations — disputed by the industry and only rarely upheld by state authorities — have caused bitter divides, pitting neighbors and even family members against one another.

Roadside diner: Roadkill bill is on the legislative menu in Montana

UPDATE, March 21: The Senate passed the bill. The bill now goes to Governor Steve Bullock, a Democrat, who has not yet indicated whether he will sign it, reports Dan Boyce of Reuters.

Montana residents may soon be able to find their dinner on the side of the road, legally. The state is considering a bill that would allow people to eat roadkill. The bill passed the House 95 to 3 and is awaiting action in the Senate’s Fish and Game Committee.

In 2011 about 6,568 animals died after colliding with a vehicle on Montana roads, including 6,069 deer, 171 elk, 63 antelope, 33 black bears, six mountain lions and two grizzly bears, writes Jennifer Oldham of Bloomberg.

"Roadkill carries health risks," Lawrence Goodridge, associate professor of food safety at Colorado State University, told Oldham. "For those who handle it, they include exposure to bacteria or infectious diseases, and those who eat it may be exposed to food-borne illnesses if the meat isn’t cooked properly at the right temperature. Personally, I would not support any such legislation."

Coincidence? The head of the panel that sets Montana's hunting regulations was cited for illegally salvaging a deer hit by his car in late 2011. (Read more)

Rural Kansas school districts have difficulty attracting candidates for board seats

Rural school districts in Kansas are struggling to fill school board seats and with declining enrollment, schools are closing or being consolidated, according to a story by Andra Bryan Stefanoni in the Joplin Globe, published near the conjunction of Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

She notes one school district has three openings for its upcoming board elections, and only one person has filed to run. The district, which has 694 students spread out across 326 square miles, has an average property valuation of $28,000 — the lowest in the state. The district’s cash reserves are $300,000 to $500,000 in a given year, at a time when other districts measure their reserves in the millions.

Two years ago, the board combined students from three schools to form a centralized junior high. The district lost nine students, which at $7,900 per student translated into a loss of more than $71,000. Four teachers also lost their jobs.

Finding people to fill board seats has been another problem. In 2001, there were 51 seats for which no candidates filed. The number rose to 54 in 2003, 59 in 2005, 72 in 2007,  and in 2011, there were 62 positions for which no one filed. (Read more)