Friday, May 17, 2013

Corruption more likely at isolated state capitals, which get less scrutiny from public and journalists

State capitals located in more remote or rural areas tend to be more corrupt than ones that are less isolated from the rest of the state, or the country, according to a recently released study using data from 1976 to 2002, reports Brad Plumer for The Washington Post.

Remote areas often receive less newspaper and media coverage, and because the state houses are isolated, voters might not be as aware as other areas what's going on, which leads to smaller voter turnouts, reports Plumer. (Read more) The report can be read here. The study plotted federal convictions of public officials for corruption against a distance factor:

Political ads enrich TV stations, which do little political reporting and fatten themselves for sale

Atlantic Wire graphic shows advertising
buys for the past three presidential elections;
Television Bureau of Advertising chart below
shows political ad spending on local stations.
Every election season it's impossible to watch television without being bombarded with commercials from candidates or interest groups, and TV stations cash in. But a recent report finds that smaller-market stations do very little reporting on elections.

Swimming in the record-breaking revenues of the 2012 elections, smaller companies "primarily used the political windfall to clean themselves up to be acquired," Carl Salas, of Moody's Investor Services, which issued a report on the phenomenon. "The revenues from political advertising really improved companies’ balance sheets, and they’re using that to dress them up to be sold.”

And it's unlikely that the large corporations buying those small stations are any more interested in local news content than about stuffing their pockets, reports Sasha Chavkin for the Columbia Journalism Review.

Mergers and acquisitions among pure-play TV firms — those devoted entirely to television and not owned by major networks — will likely range from $3.5 billion to more than $6 billion in 2013-2014, reports Chavkin.

In 2008 the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog, studied ads and news coverage about the U.S. Senate race on the TV stations in Lexington, Ky. We found that ads costing about $3 million consumed 115 hours of broadcast time on the four stations, which devoted only 3 hours and 50 minutes of air time to news coverage of the race, almost all of it superficial, usually with fewer issue details than the ads. For a report on the study, click here.

No Lexington station analyzed the ads for accuracy. The Moody's report on the 2012 elections concluded that "although many stations were producing valuable fact check segments that scrutinized the ads themselves, there was scant evidence that they were using any of the ad revenues to pay for additional political or investigative reporting," reports Chavkin.

Chavkin asked how consolidation affects the quality of local news. Advocates claim there's an increase in local programming, but detractors call that a myth, citing a new trend called shared-service agreements, where stations in the same market agree to share information, including broadcasting entire segments from other stations. In some cases, one station's newsroom does news programming for two stations. The end result, some say, is lesser quality in local news, Chavkin reports.

Safety-net hospitals in states that don't expand Medicaid won't lose funding in 2014 or 2015

Safety-net hospitals, which rely on Medicaid to fund care for low-income, uninsured or vulnerable populations, won't lose federal funds if their states choose not to expand Medicaid, for at least two years, Christine Vestal reports for Stateline.

Funds will be cut $500 million in 2014 and $600 million in 2015, but those funds will be allocated evenly among states, reports Vestal. The Department of Health and Human Services said it is undecided if states that don’t expand Medicaid will be docked in 2017 and 2018 when will reach an estimated $5.6 billion. (Read more)

The graphic by Stateline uses 2010 information from the National Association of Public Hospitals Health Systems, the Bureau of the Census and the Kaiser Family Foundation. Click on the image for a larger version.

Researchers urge government to find ways to encourage or help rural Americans get to college

It's no secret that a higher percentage of urban dwellers have the means to attend college and earn degrees than do their rural counterparts, but two higher-education researchers in a rural state argue that rural Americans have an untapped wealth of knowledge just waiting to be tapped into, if only someone can find a way to help them take the leap to the next level. (Daily Yonder map; click on it for larger version)

Only 31 percent of rural adults aged 18 to 24 were enrolled in college in 2009, compared to more than 40 percent in urban and suburban areas, and only 17 percent of rural residents 25 and older had a college degree, Sarah Beasley and Neal Holly both of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission write for The Chronicle of Higher Education. They say the statistics aren't as alarming as the fact that policymakers aren't making a concerted effort to narrow the gap, and find ways to encourage, or help rural residents get educated.

"Rural students have lower college aspirations and are less likely to attend college than their urban and suburban counterparts, perhaps because, research shows, they are more likely to live in areas with no post-secondary institution, have little access to college information, and have parents who did not attend college," Beasley and Holly write. "Unlike students in more populated areas, rural students must often face the dilemma of choosing between going to college (and leaving their families) or staying in their communities."

(Daily Yonder table) Rural high schools are also facing cutbacks, have a larger percentage of students poverty than most urban schools, and some rural students face a lack of resources, such as the inability to get Internet in some rural areas, the researchers write. They say it also doesn't help that rural areas are often left out of national higher-education conversations. They call not simply for more federal spending in rural areas, but the same support that urban areas get when it comes to encouraging kids to go to college. (Read more)

Frackers on federal land will have to disclose chemicals, but not if they are trade secrets

Companies using hydraulic fracturing to drill for oil and gas on federal land will be required to publicly announce all chemicals used in their drilling methods, according to a proposed new rule announced Thursday by the Department of the Interior.

Workers at a hydraulic fracturing operation
in Rifle, Colo. (Photo: Brennan Linsley, AP)
The rules disappoint environmentalists who note that companies are only required to submit a list of chemicals after a well has already been fractured and can withhold them if they are considered trade secrets, report Neela Banerjee and Wes Venteicher of the Los Angeles Times. Plus, the proposed rules also don't "call for baseline monitoring of nearby air or water before fracking and after."

Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the Times, "These rules protect industry, not people. They are riddled with gaping holes that endanger clean, safe drinking water supplies for millions of Americans," reports the Times. But Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance said, "States have been successfully regulating fracking for decades, including on federal lands, with no incident of contamination that would necessitate redundant federal regulation." (Read more)

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Farmland prices fall in parts of Midwest, Southeast; price rises in Central Plains slow down

The rise of agricultural land prices in the U.S. farm belt slowed considerably or even reversed in the first quarter of the year. Non-irrigated farmland in the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City's region was up 3.4 percent, much less than the 7.7 percent recorded in the first quarter of 2012. The  St. Louis bank reported that land values in parts of the Midwest and Southeast regions fell an average of 2.3 percent from 2012 to 2013.

Even though numbers are down, they had been at record levels over the past year, rising a total of 19.3 percent, but signs of a slowdown are emerging, reports Mark Peters for The Wall Street Journal: "The benchmark corn contract has fallen more than 20 percent from records set last summer as federal forecasters predict a record corn crop this autumn," and farmers' costs are increasing.

Nathan Kauffman, an economist with the Kansas City bank, said it will take a few quarters to determine whether the first quarter's "modest" slowdown marks a fundamental shift in the farmland market or a short-term ebb, reports Peters. We wrote about the rising price of farmland and the fear of a crash here. (Wall Street Journal graphic)

Appeals court says New York towns can ban fracking

New York towns' bans on hydraulic fracturing have been upheld by an appeals court, which ruled that Dryden and Middlefield can use zoning laws to ban gas drilling, reports Chris Dolmetsch and David McLaughlin for Bloomberg. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images photo: Anti-fracking protesters in New York City)

The court said "The state law seeks to protect the right of the general public, not just the owners of oil and gas properties, a goal which is realized when individual municipalities can determine whether drilling activities are appropriate for their respective communities," reports Bloomberg.

Fracking has been banned in more than 50 towns in New York, and dozens more are considering bans, according to Karen Edelstein, a geographic information systems consultant in Ithaca, Bloomberg reports.

School drops graduation prayer when some students protest; weekly offers strong reporting, commentary

UPDATE, May 26: The class president gave a prayer at the ceremony, The Advocate-Messenger of nearby Danville reports. UPDATE, July 5: Kleppinger reports that a lawyer for the conservative Liberty Institute contacted the school board offering advice and warning that they needed a prayer policy, but the board decided to keep its current approach and rely on its own attorney.

For the first time in memory Lincoln County High School in Central Kentucky will not have a planned prayer as part of its graduation ceremony, after a six students, some who called themselves atheists, protested the move. That prompted a long, well-written story by Editor Ben Kleppinger for the local weekly paper, The Interior Journal, published by Schurz Communications. The school allows a planned prayer at graduation as long as the senior class votes unanimously in favor of it. (Kleppinger photo: Christian students gather for a morning prayer at the school.)

Students can still pray at graduation, but it can't be a scheduled part of the ceremony, Kleppinger reported. Principal Tom Godbey said, “I’ve tried to educate the students on the fact that the school will not remove a person’s constitutional right. It doesn’t matter if it’s the majority or the minority, we’re going to protect the rights of everyone.” (Read more)

Ben Kleppinger
In a column, Kleppinger noted that he is a Christian and said Christians should remember their roots. "Christianity did not form as a religion of the majority. It began with a small handful of rogues who did everything wrong by the world’s standards," he wrote. "The real power behind Christianity is not the rule of the majority; it is the quiet secret that passionate believers can change the world without being accepted."

He opined, "Your religion is not under attack just because your local school system is caring about the needs and desires of atheists, along with all students. You don’t need to fight anyone over anything related to prayer at graduation, because even if no one prays up front, you — and everyone else — can still pray before, during and after the ceremony without consequence. . . . American Christians are among the least persecuted Christians in the world. I think it’s time we acknowledged that and stopped pretending our religion is somehow being snuffed out every time someone with a differing viewpoint wants to feel accepted or normal." (Read more)

Study finds unemployed North Carolina workers don't want farm jobs, or don't last through season

Much has been written about immigration reforms to allow aliens who are experienced farm and agriculture workers to have an easier time staying in the U.S., and move one step closer to gaining citizenship. Much has also been written about Americans claiming bias when it comes to farm jobs, saying Mexicans get all the work. Several lawsuits have even been filed by U.S. workers who said they were discriminated against in favor of Mexicans.
A study in North Carolina looked at unemployed workers referred to jobs through the North Carolina Growers Association, which between 1998 and 2011 hired 97 percent of referred applicants, reports Dylan Matthews for The Washington Post. Of the 130,000 unemployed in the state, the number who asked to be referred to the NCGA in 2011 was 268. Of those 268 applicants, 245 (91 percent) were hired, but only 163 of the 245 (66 percent) showed up to work, and only seven lasted through the growing season. (Click on charts for larger versions)
In 2001, the NCGA needed 6,500 total workers, reports Matthews. Because so few U.S. workers wanted the jobs, most of the jobs went to Mexicans holding H-2A agriculture visas. About 90 percent of the Mexicans were still working five months later, compared to fewer than 10 percent of U.S.-born workers. (Read more)

Charleston's county easily leads W.Va. in meth-lab busts, much more than population would suggest

The West Virginia county that lies near the center of the state and contains its capital has become the state's hub of methamphetamine labs. Kanawha County, with a mix of rural and urban population that is the state's largest, has had 113 meth-lab seizures this year, almost 100 more than the next highest county, with 14, reports Eric Eyre of The Charleston Gazette. (WOWK-TV image: Scene from a meth-lab bust this week in Kanawha County.)

Ten percent of the state lives in the Kanawha County, but 54 percent of this year's meth lab seizures were in the county, notes Eyre. Most of the busts were in the small towns of Clendenin (population 1,200), Elkview (1,200), St. Albans (11,000) and Sissonville (4,000). (Read more)

Oceana, W.Va., residents admit town has a drug problem, but say documentary went overboard

OxyContin has created a nightmare of problems in Oceana, a town of 1,400 in southern West Virginia, but residents say a new documentary called "Oxyana" is misleading in its depiction of the town and its people, reports Dave Boucher for the Charleston Daily Mail. (Photo: A drug is heated in the film.)

Local resident D.J. Morgan told Boucher, "I think that throughout the history of West Virginia, outsiders have always came in and mis-characterized our residents for stories in newspapers that were sold across the country for nothing more than a dog and pony show, and I think that is exactly what [filmmaker Sean Dunne] has created."

Whatever the opinions, the fact is that drugs are a concern in Wyoming County, which has 41,000 residents and 65 drug-related deaths since 2011, 80 percent of them from overdoses, the Wyoming county sheriff's office told Boucher.

In response to the film, Oceana officials have organized a meeting to allow residents to voice their frustrations about it, and for the town "to be honest with ourselves and realize there is a drug problem here and we need to take our town back and our county back," Morgan told Boucher. (Read more)

Kansas may be the only state to close criminal records, even to the accused or victims

Kansas residents who want to see records of criminal cases, even those pertaining to themselves, must fight the system in a state where legislators have decided to keep such records closed, and made it a misdemeanor for police or prosecutors to release records without a judge’s order, reports Karen Dillon for the Kansas City Star. (Beverly Stewart looks at photos of her daughter Susan Stuckey, who was shot to death by police in her home. Star photo by Tammy Ljungblad)

Ken Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, told Dillon, “I know of no other states where these records can be closed forever." Law enforcement officials say the records are closed "to protect the rights of the accused and to keep publicity from tainting a jury," reports Dillon. "In addition, the records may contain the name of a confidential informant or investigation techniques such as wiretapping that police want to keep secret."

But that doesn't explain why one couple needed to file a lawsuit to find out why their home was raided by police, only being told after public protest that it was because they visited a hydroponics store and field tests on leaves from their trash tested positive for drugs, though the test turned out to be incorrect and was actually false, reports Dillon. Or the grieving mother who wanted to know why her unarmed, mentally ill daughter was shot dead in her home by riot squads after she called 911. The city has spent $30,000 defending the case, and the district attorney called the shooting justified.

The Star interviewed three state legislators who didn't even know how restrictive the law is regarding criminal records, reports Dillon. Rep. John Rubin said records should be open “unless law enforcement can provide a justifiable reason to keep records closed or sealed to protect an ongoing investigation for prosecution. I’m surprised that is not the principle we are operating from in the state of Kansas.” (Read more)

Read more here:

Conference to look at past, present and future of newspapers

Some of the most respected names in Kentucky journalism are gathering for a one-day conference to examine the past, present and future of the newspaper industry, and the role journalists have played in helping to shape the state, the nation and the world. The Center for the Written Word at the Cardome Center in Georgetown, Ky., is hosting the event Wednesday, May 22.

John Carroll
The keynote speaker will be John Carroll, former editor of the Los Angeles Times, the Lexington Herald-Leader, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, who was at the helm of those papers when they won a combined 14 Pulitzer Prizes. Carroll will discuss why newspapers matter.

Registration begins at 1 p.m., followed by a panel at 2 p.m. discussing John Bradford, who started Kentucky's first newspaper, the Kentucky Gazette, and the evolution of journalism in the state since then. A 4 p.m. panel will discuss the future of newspapers. That will be followed by the unveiling of an exhibit on Bradford, then cocktails, dinner, and the address by Carroll.

Panels are free to attend. There is a $50 fee for the dinner and reception. To register contact Debbie Hoskins at 859-583-1716 or, or call Center for the Written Word at Cardome, 502-863-1575, ext. 10, or email (Read more)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

House agriculture panel votes to let USDA create promotion program for organic farm products

The House Agriculture Committee voted 29-17 Wednesday night to allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish a promotion program for organic agricultural products, to be funded with a "checkoff" fee paid by organic producers if a super-majority of them approve it in a referendum.

Committee Chairman Frank Lucas of Oklahoma opposed the amendment to the House farm bill, but several of his fellow Republicans, from Northern and Western states, voted with Democrats to pass it. Lucas said he wasn't comfortable with the idea because the program would not be for a specific commodity, unlike other checkoff programs, but for a group of products. Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, argued likewise: "Organic is a brand. Checkoffs shouldn't promote brands."

Lucas asked, "How do I promote my organic pork without disparaging non-organic pork?" The amendment's sponsor, Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., right, said another law forbids disparagement of agricultural products, and urged his colleagues to "Get over our old biases."

Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., said the Organic Trade Association is using its website to attack traditional agriculture, which is not responding in kind. Schrader replied, "That a private trade group. This is about fairness in agriculture and trying to get us on the same boat."

The OTA won organic products an exemption from checkoff programs in 2002 and is promoting the organic checkoff, but not all organic-farming groups agree and the creation of such a program would be complicated and time-consuming, reported Anita Zimmerman of The Country Today.

The panel also passed an amendment by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., to make it a crime to bring a child to an animal fight.

In other action on the bill, the committee defeated amendments by Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., to add $50 million for water and sewer projects to reduce a $3.2 billion backlog; and to guarantee $4 million for the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program. Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, top Democrat on the committee, opposed the latter measure, agreeing with Republicans that the Appropriations Committee would likely keep the money from being spent. It lost 20-25; the water-sewer measure failed 22-23.

Senate farm bill heads to the floor; House version moving through key committee votes

The Senate Agriculture Committee cleared a new five-year farm bill Tuesday by a speedy 15-5 vote, but heated floor debates are expected over issues such as jobs, crop insurance, food stamps, disaster relief, rural development and the legalization of hemp, an issue not now in the bill but pushed by Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul, both of Kentucky, with state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer, the state's other statewide elected Republican.

McConnell was the only Republican from the South to vote against the bill in committee, reports David Rogers of Politico. Also voting no were Democrat Kristen Gillibrand of New York and Republicans Pat Roberts of Kansas, Mike Johanns of Nebraska and John Thune of South Dakota.

“This is not a reform bill,” said Roberts, right. “This is a rear-view mirror bill.” He said target prices set for rice and peanuts are “essentially guaranteeing that a farmer profits if yields are average or above average.” (Read more)

The bill calls for the elimination of more than 100 programs, in some cases consolidating programs to save money while still providing needs, reports Bob Meyer of Brownfield. "By closing loopholes, cracking down on abuse and improving program integrity, the bill reduces the deficit without cutting standard benefits or removing any needy family from the program."

The bill should save taxpayers money "while providing farmers with a responsible risk management system that only helps farmers when they experience substantial losses due to events beyond their control," Meyer reports.

The House Agriculture Committee is marking up its own bill today. "The House debate is the more pivotal, especially after the tortured history of the last Congress," Rogers reports. "Chairman Frank Lucas, left, appeared firmly in control and signaled he would work into the night in order to complete committee action. But the Oklahoma Republican must navigate a narrow path between food stamp cuts that have angered Democrats and the bill’s commodity title, which often defies his own GOP leadership. Two votes Wednesday highlighted these tensions, which will surely spill over into House floor debate slated next month."

By 26-20, a narrower margin than last year, the panel endorsed "a new dairy program strongly opposed by Speaker John Boehner," and by 27-17 it backed Lucas's plan to cut $20.5 billion from food stamps and other nutrition programs over the next decade. "Nearly two million beneficiaries could be dropped from the food stamp rolls as a result of the program changes, which would reinstate a $2,000 federal asset test that not been adjusted for inflation since it was first imposed in the 1980s," Rogers reports. The second page of his story has a good, short summary of the dairy issue.

UPDATE, 11:43 p.m.: The House committee approved the bill 36-10.

Clinton tells Delta allies good policy needed for rural growth; easier to avoid partisanship at local level

Former President Bill Clinton said he has high hopes for continued economic progress in the area served by the Delta Regional Authority, which he helped create during his presidency, reports the website for the Mississippi Delta Grassroots Caucus, a private support group for the federal agency region.

“There is never going to be enough government money to take a poor region of America out of the dumps all by itself,” Clinton said this month at a caucus meeting. “You’ve got to have private-sector growth. In order to have private-sector growth, you’ve got to have good government policy. You have to have government and the private sector, and increasingly all these great foundations working together.”

The closer to the grass roots, the less national politics complicates things, Clinton said: “All of the debate in Washington tends to be about what I would call macro-economic policy. But real life is lived in what the economists would call microeconomic policy. The more you go to the micro, the more jobs you’re going to create and the more bipartisan cooperation you’re going to have, because there is no other Republican or Democratic way to locate a plan, to start up an agricultural project,” and to do all the other range of economic development activities, the caucus website reports.

In wake of Boston bombing, immigration bill now includes stricter monitoring of foreign students

In response to the Boston Marathon bombing, the Senate panel looking at the proposed immigration bill voted unanimously Tuesday "to tighten the monitoring requirements of foreign students," requiring the Department of Homeland Security "to transfer all student visa information to border control agents at the nation’s 329 ports of entry," Ed O'Keefe and David Nakamura report for The Washington Post. (CNN photo: Azamat Tazhayakov, left, an alleged accomplice of suspected bomber Dzohkhar Tsarnaev, right, was in the country on an expired student visa)

The measure was proposed by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), after it was found that one of the alleged accomplices of the accused bombers was in the U.S. on an expired student visa, and was allowed entry into the country, because U.S. Customs officials didn't know the visa was expired, reports O'Keefe and Nakamura. The hope is that the proposal will "prevent lapses in information-sharing about foreign students when their immigration status changes while they are in the United States."

Grassley, who has been the leading critic of the immigration bill, also submitted a proposal requiring businesses to hire Americans before "seeking out high-skilled immigrant workers, and a plan forcing companies dependent on such workers to continue counting them as part of immigrant worker quotas even if the worker is seeking permanent legal status," reports O'Keefe and Nakamura. The committee rejected that proposal. (Read more)

The bill includes a new "blue card" program that would allow experienced farm and agriculture workers who are in the country illegally the opportunity to move closer to obtaining a green card and legal residency, more quickly than most other workers. U.S. workers have also claimed racial bias, saying Mexican immigrants are getting all the jobs.

Is Obama administration's pro-wind policy keeping it from fining wind farms for killing birds?

Is the Obama administration biased in levying fines for deaths of protected birds? Some say that while oil and power companies have been heavily fined or prosecuted for such violations, a blind eye has been turned when the deaths happen as a result of flying into industrial-sized turbines on wind farms, reports Dina Cappiello for The Associated Press. (Cappiello photo: A golden eagle flies over a wind turbine in Converse County, Wyoming)

More than 573,000 birds are killed each year by wind farms, including 83,000 hawks, falcons and eagles, according to the Wildlife Society Bulletin, reports Cappiello. In Converse County in eastern Wyoming, nearly 50 golden eagles have died on wind farms since 2009. No one has been fined or prosecuted for any of the deaths.

That has some crying favoritism. In 2009 Exxon Mobil was fined $600,000 for killing 85 birds in five states including Wyoming, Cappiello nptes. Many think the reason no one is fined or prosecuted is because "wind power, a pollution-free energy intended to ease global warming, is a cornerstone of President Obama's energy plan. His administration has championed a $1 billion-a-year tax break to the industry that has nearly doubled the amount of wind power in his first term." 

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) said, "We obviously don't want to see indiscriminate killing of birds from any sort of energy production, yet the administration's ridiculous inconsistencies begs questioning and clarity -- clarity on why wind-energy producers are let off the hook." (Read more)

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Mergers of rural and Catholic hospitals lead to doctrinal denial of some services, and to complaints

The increased consolidation of hospitals often involves those owned by the Roman Catholic Church, and that has caused controversies about the imposition of church doctrine on the new partnerships, including many in rural areas. Some say the Catholic-based hospitals are forcing their religious beliefs on patients and denying treatments, such as tubal ligations, abortions or the right to die, which is legal in Washington state, where the battle is coming to a head in several areas.

The American Civil Liberties Union has joined the fight in rural northwestern Washington, saying the financial agreement between United General Hospital in Sedro-Wooley, and the PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center violates the state's constitution by restricting access to some medical services, reports Gina Cole for the Skagit Valley Herald, on Puget Sound. (Map from The Seattle Times shows Washington hospitals with proposed or existing religious affiliations; click on image for larger version)

A letter from the ACLU says patients "have the right to expect that a tax-supported health care facility will not deny them basic, lawful and medically proven health services on the grounds that such services conflict with religious doctrine. We urge the hospital to ensure that residents protect patients’ right to access health care services without religious influence,” reports Cole. (Read more)
If pending and possible proposals are completed, hospitals and clinics in as many as 10 Washington counties could be run by Catholic affiliates, reports Carol Ostrom for The Seattle Times."Those medical centers account for nearly half the hospital beds statewide." (Read more)

With many rural hospitals struggling to provide care for patients, "Catholic hospital leaders said that changes in the medical and economic landscape could threaten service to millions of Americans in rural and suburban areas who might have no choices at all if their local hospital closed or shrank," reports Kirk Johnson for The New York Times. "The issue is not availability of abortion or consult to the dying, they say, which will still be available in secular institutions not that far away, but access to care at all." (Read more)

Some scientists say CO2 levels put the world in a new geological epoch: human-caused Anthropocene

As carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hits a level not seen in millions of years, a new climate-change report says the world could lose many of its plants and animals by 2080.

Carbon dioxide levels near the summit of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii were recorded at more than 400 parts per million for the first time since measurements began 55 years ago, and those levels are thought to be the highest since the Pilocene Epoch, between 2.6 to 5.3 million years ago. The rise could be putting us in what some scientists dub the Anthropocene because they agree that increases in ambient temperatures and changes in related processes are directly linked to rising anthropogenic, or human-caused, greenhouse-gas concentrations in the atmosphere.

Robert Kunzig writes for National Geographic News, "Many scientists argue that the CO2 concentration must be stabilized at 450 ppm to avoid the worst impacts of climate change," while some activists argue for a goal of 350 ppm. (Read more)

The American pika is one of many animals that can't
tolerate increased heat brought on by climate change,
scientists say. (
U.S. Geological Survey photo via AP)
While most studies that look at the affects of climate change on plants and animals look at rare species, a study released in the journal Nature Climate Change looked at 50,000 common species of plants and animals, finding that more than 50 percent of the plants and 33 percent of the animals "could lose about 50 percent of their range by 2080 if the world continues its current course of rising greenhouse gas emissions," reports Neela Banerjee for the Los Angeles Times. (Read more)

Report gives state-by-state, county-by-county look at decline of Central Appalachian coal industry

Central Appalachian journalists interested in the coal industry have a helpful new source of updated information abut the decline of the industry in the region and the prospects for its future. The report released today by Downstream Strategies, a consulting firm in Morgantown, W.Va., is a "must read," Charleston Gazette coal reporter Ken Ward Jr. writes on his blog Coal Tattoo.

Southern West Virginia has overtaken Eastern Kentucky
The report assembles data from the Energy Information Administration and other sources to explain the factors at work and the counties that appear to be most vulnerable. EIA estimates that coal production in the region is projected to decline 53 percent through 2040, with 86 percent of the decline occurring by 2020. The complete report, which is an update of a report issued in 2010, can be read here.
Vulnerability of counties to influences on demand for coal, by category

Natural gas is booming in Pennsylvania, but state isn't reaping the rewards

Most states charge natural-gas drilling companies fees or taxes based on how much gas comes out of wells, but not Pennsylvania, which charges an impact fee. That is causing problems in a state where the Marcellus shale gas production has soared, but revenue to local and state governments isn't keeping pace, reports The Associated Press.

The impact fee in 2011 brought in about $204 million, with production about 1 trillion cubic feet of gas, reports AP. In 2012, production doubled to 2 trillion, but the impact fee was $199 million. One billion cubic feet of gas is the energy equivalent of about 180,000 barrels of oil.

"Over 20 or 30 years, that means the current impact fee here may generate $10 billion or $15 billion less than a flat tax on production," Michael Wood, research director for the Pennsylvania Budget & Policy Center, told AP. "That gap is going to get bigger and bigger."

Patrick Henderson, Gov. Tom Corbett's energy executive, told AP oil and gas operators have paid more than $1.7 billion in corporate state taxes since 2007. He said Corbett “was proud to partner with the General Assembly in crafting a fair impact fee intended to encourage development in Pennsylvania.” (Read more) The graphic is by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Controversial 'ag-gag' bill gets rare veto from Tennessee governor; similar bill dies in California

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, who has only vetoed two bills since coming into office in 2011, vetoed the state's controversial "ag-gag" bill Monday, saying he thought it might be unconstitutional, reports Chas Sisk for The Tennessean. The bill would have required recorded images of suspected animal cruelty on livestock farms to be turned over to police within 48 hours. Journalists and animal-welfare groups objected to the bill. (Associated Press photo by Eric Schelzig)

Haslam said, “There’s a sense in which I think that community feels besieged. That being said, there are a lot of people that said this will actually discourage reporting of abuse,” reports Sisk. The governor's office received more than 5,000 phone calls and 16,000 emails on the bill, most of them opposed to it, and an online petition calling for a veto had more than 34,000 signatures. (Read more)

Haslam's decision comes less than a month after a similar bill in California was pulled by Republican author Jim Patterson of Fresno just before it was supposed to be voted on. That law would have required footage to be turned over within 120 hours, reports Melody Gutierrez of the Sacramento Bee. Patterson said, "My intention with this bill was -- and remains to be -- the prevention of animal cruelty," and he said he hopes "we can move forward our goals of a safe food supply, strong agricultural industry, and the humane treatment of livestock." (Read more)

Read more here:

Unanimous high court backs Monsanto over farmer

Agribusiness food giant Monsanto took on Indiana farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman (NPR photo by Dan Charles) in a dispute over a patent to grow genetically modified soybeans. The case went all the way to the top, with the Supreme Court ruling unanimously yesterday that Bowman violated Monsanto's patent.

Monsanto's soybeans are resistant to the weed killer Roundup, which Monsanto also manufactures. Bowman bought his first crop from Monsanto, and his second from a grain elevator, then used his own soybeans that were now resistant to Roundup, which the court said was making copies of a patented invention, Richard Wolf recounts for USA Today.

Justices said Monsanto spent hundreds of millions of dollars over more than a decade to perfect its soybeans, something it would not have done if others could so easily replicate them, Wolf reports. Center for Food Safety executive director Andrew Kimbrell argues that "the court's ruling is contrary to logic and to agronomics, because it improperly attributes seeds' reproduction to farmers, rather than nature." (Read more)

We wrote in February that soybeans "farmers grow from these seeds have the same Roundup Ready traits that the original seeds did, but Monsanto has farmers sign an agreement that they will not use the beans for a second planting. Farmers also aren't allowed to sell the beans to others for planting, but they can sell them for feed to grain elevators like the one where Bowman got the beans in question," reports Robert Barnes for The Washington Post.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Southern Ky. paper says guns are a normal way of life for children, but so is teaching safety rules

Rural news media may be far from the debates in Congress, but their readers, listeners and viewers are no less citizens of the country, so when an issue has a high national profile, there is often an opportunity, even an obligation, to report on it from a local point of view.

The Adair County Community Voice in Columbia, Ky., did that recently, with a story that explored the gun culture of rural Southern Kentucky, a week after a 2-year-old child in adjoining Cumberland County was accidentally to death by her 5-year-old brother. (ACCV photo: Harrison Rich, 13, has been shooting competitively since he was 9. “Always treat a gun as if it is loaded,” he said. “And make sure it is always pointed away from people.”)

An Associated Press story about the shooting noted that growing up around guns is a normal way of life in Southern Kentucky. In her story for the Voice, Allison Cross agreed, but said so is learning to use firearms safely. Furthermore, family bonds are often built through exercises such as hunting.

Local resident Terry Partin told Cross, “Just as we take our children to church and we teach them the difference from right or wrong, the parent’s responsibility or the guardian’s responsibility should also include teaching gun safety whether there is a gun in the home or not. Children will come into contact with firearms with or without adult supervision.”

In Kentucky, hunters born after Jan. 1, 1975 are required to complete a hunter education course through the Department of Fish and Wildlife, Cross writes. Children under 12 can hunt without the course if accompanied by an adult. John Harris, a local conservation officer, said of the recent tragedy, “You just don’t hear of many accidents. Most of these fathers in our community do a good job teaching their kids.” (Read more)

Many rural Georgia counties short of lawyers, though profession in the state has a high unemployment rate

Rural areas have struggled to attract lawyers, who often can't afford to pay their student debts on the compensation available in rural communities and who find the lure of urban life much more attractive to a young person just starting their careers.

In Georgia, 81 percent of the state's lawyers work in metropolitan Atlanta, while six of the 159 counties don't have any lawyers, and five have just one. In some cases, the closest attorney is 50 miles away, reports Dan Chapman for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In Clay County, in southwest Georgia, 36 percent of the 3,000 residents live below the poverty line, and no one practices law full-time in the county.

Even as rural towns go wanting for lawyers, a third of the state's 2012 law-school graduates who passed the bar exam haven't found work, and the unemployment rate for lawyers is 11.5 percent, well above the state average. Meanwhile, those in need of legal service often have to turn to free non-profit help, or go without representation. (Read more)

Tornado-devastated town banks on plan that it hopes will serve as model for other rural places

One year after a tornado devastated West Liberty, Ky., the Appalachian foothills town is ready to put the pieces back together with a plan its leaders hope will draw national attention and serve as a model for struggling small towns throughout the country, writes columnist Tom Eblen for the Lexington Herald-Leader. (Herald-Leader photo)

Reconstruction plans call for building more energy-efficient houses and buildings, "including a geothermal loop that many buildings could share to lower their heating and cooling costs," writes Eblen. "The strategic plan also calls for encouraging downtown to be rebuilt with mixed-use structures housing businesses, offices, restaurants and apartments. That would create a more lively downtown with lower rents because of more efficient use of space." (Wikipedia locator map)

Another proposal is free wireless downtown "to attract businesses and people in a region where wi-fi availability is now limited," Eblen writes. Other proposals include eco-tourism, focusing on the area's state parks and outdoors attractions, with an emphasis on encouraging people to start businesses that center around outdoor activities. (Read more)

The West Liberty strategic report can be read here. We wrote about the affects of the tornado on local media here, here and here.

Celebrating Mom: North Dakota woman credited with raising 69 children, still at it

Yesterday was Mother's Day, a time of year to celebrate the women who raise children, with many moms often dedicating their lives to rearing two to three kids, the national average in the U.S. But in an amazing story of going above and beyond the spectrum of parenting, one woman in rural North Dakota, Joyce Dumont, is responsible for having cared for 69 children, reports James Hagerty for The Wall Street Journal. (Photo by Hagerty: Dumont and two of her adopted children)

Dumont, 77, a retired nurse and Chippewa tribe member living in a poor rural area in the central part of the state, had six children through childbirth, raised five stepchildren, and adopted 11 kids; the rest were foster children or kids that she took in because they had nowhere else to go, reports Hagerty.

Her strategy for raising children is simple: "All children want is something stable. They want to know that you love them. It doesn't have to be love with big computers and fancy clothes and all of that. Just that you care." She also insisted they make something of themselves. As a result, many of the children have gone on to successful careers in fields such as teaching, nursing, plumbing and business.

Lucille Vivier, who moved into the household when she was 14, and is now an English teacher and poet, said of Dumont, she "saved my life, both physically and spiritually," reports Hagerty. Dumont and her husband Buddy have have at home three adopted children, aged 7 to 10. (Read more)

Coal firm denied permit for Appalachia, Va., mine

Rarely are coal mining companies denied permits, but that was the case in Ison Rock Ridge in Southwest Virginia, where the state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy denied A & G Coal Corp., a subsidiary of Jim Justice's Southern Coal, a permit to operate a surface mine, reports Allie Robinson for the Bristol Herald Courier. (H-C photo: Dorothy Taulbee protests)

The company filed a permit application six years ago for the mine, which would cover more than 1,200 acres, Robinson writes. The permit was approved in 2010, but denied this week after bonds and fees were not paid on time, and violation issues in other states were not resolved. An appeal has been filed.

The mine was has been controversial from the start, writes Robinson. Sam Broach, president of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards and a third-generation miner, said surface mining in the area would destroy homes and waterways under it, as well as the natural habitat of wildlife. (Read more) The mine would run northwest from the town of Appalachia, past the Inman community.

Glenn Gannaway of The Post in Big Stone Gap reports that the Division of Mined Land Reclamation is expected to decide A & G's appeal of the permit denial withing 30 days: "An A & G engineer representing the company told hearing officers that A & G was requesting DMLR to keep the hearing open until the issues are resolved." (Read more; subscription may be required)

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Senate, House farm bills both have sops to the South; meat lobbies crack egg-rule deal

A new draft of the Senate farm bill gives concessions to pork and beef lobbies over proposed rules for housing livestock, and also includes target prices for rice and peanut producers in an attempt to please Southern Republicans, reports David Rogers for Politico. Meanwhile, the House draft includes its own sop to the South (cotton) and a new dairy program that will divide the Republican majority. (AP photo)

The bill would allow the Midwest Corn Belt to keep its costly crop-insurance program, Agricultural Risk Coverage, but with changes that could cut billions from the 10-year budget score calculated by the Congressional Budget Office, reports Rogers. The standard index will be changed from a five-month average market price to the 12-month average, reducing the cost to the government based on a typical marketing year. It will also "push ARC payments into the next fiscal year since the average 12-month marketing price for corn, for example, won’t be known until past Sept 30."

Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., wanted to include new egg-production standards agreed on by animal-welfare groups and United Egg Producers that "would require larger, enriched cages with perches, nesting boxes and improved manure systems," reports Amy Mayer for KCUR in Kansas City. Beef and pork lobbies, fearing the next steps might be new rules for housing cattle and hogs, fought the idea, and it was taken out of the Senate bill, Rogers reports.

Soon after the Senate bill was unveiled, House Republicans rolled out their draft measure. It includes "a major rewrite of commodity programs," including a "milk supply management program that has been harshly criticized in the past by Speaker John Boehner." The bill also includes a two-year phaseout of cotton producers' direct payments, which both bills would eliminate for other crops, Rogers notes.

The main financial difference in the bills is the House's proposed $20.5 billion savings by tightening eligibility rules for food stamps, nearly 25 percent more than last year's bill (which did not pass) and much more than the $4 billion mark of the Senate bill. Erik Wasson of The Hill reports that concern centers on the rule that allows people getting federal heating assistance to also receive food stamps.

UPDATE, May 13: "The atmosphere on Capitol Hill for the farm bill suddenly seems to be full speed ahead," unlike last year, Jerry Hagstrom reports for National Journal. "The reason the bills are moving seems to be that each chamber has gotten tired of the farm bill hanging on and has something more interesting to move on to." Hagstrom theorizes that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wants to get it over with "since exit polls showed that President Obama’s election percentage in rural America went from 50 percent in 2008 to 41 percent in 2012," and "House Republicans want to move on to the periodic reauthorization of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission," so it can "restrict the CFTC’s ability to finalize some of the regulations the agency has proposed" under the Dodd-Frank financial-reform law. (Read more)