Saturday, July 20, 2013

House bill would allow USPS to limit Sat. mail to packages, let newspapers use mailboxes that day

A House committee is set Wednesday to consider a bill, written by its chairman, that would grant the U.S. Postal Service its wish to limit Saturday mail delivery to packages. The bill appears likely to pass the full House, but last year the Senate passed a bill that would extend full Saturday delivery for two years. The Postal Regulatory Commission has recommended that USPS not cut Saturday mail without doing a better study of its effect on rural areas.

The National Newspaper Association, which has been a strong advocate of Saturday delivery, lobbied for and won an alternative measure in California Rep. Darrell Issa's bill, which would allow newspaper carriers to put papers in mailboxes on Saturdays. They can already do that on Sundays. NNA's members are primarily weekly newspapers, which depend on mail delivery, but also include small dailies, many of which have switched to mail delivery in recent years.

NNA said in a news release that the bill was "a welcome step toward new legislation" that could prevent "disruption in the mail and the threat of substantial postage rate increases. “This bill is a stronger piece of legislation than the one marked up in the House last Congress,” NNA Postal Committee Chairman Max Heath said. “There are still some major concerns that our Postal Committee will be raising after we examine the bill more closely,” he said.

The release noted, "NNA has long expressed concern about the effect upon weekend newspapers if Saturday delivery ends. In addition, it has objected to the Postal Service’s direct interference in the local advertising marketplace and is a party in a federal court proceeding challenging discounted rates offered by USPS to Valassis Inc." NNA President Merle Baranczyk of the Salida (Colo.) Mountain-Mail, said Issa recognizes that such agreements can disrupt the marketplace, but “I think we will have more work ahead of us in this area before we arrive at rules we consider fair.”

The newspaper-in-mailbox provision could leave the lobbying for Saturday mail mainly up to letter-carrier unions, which are "fiercely opposed" to the idea, Sean Reilly reports for Federal Times. They have had an ally in Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the top Democrat on the Government Reform and Oversight Committee, but Cummings said Friday "he is encouraged by Issa’s willingness to include provisions from his bill." (Read more)

Friday, July 19, 2013

Minn., Ore. and Tex. weeklies, Wyo., Calif. dailies, top National Newspaper Association contest

Two dailies, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, the Antelope Valley Press of Palmdale, Calif., and three twice-weeklies, the Hutchinson (Minn.) Leader, the News-Register of McMinnville, Ore., and the Wise County Messenger of Decatur, Tex., were the big winners in the annual Better Newspaper Contest of the National Newspaper Association, an organization for weekly and small daily newspapers.

The Tribune Eagle won nine first-place awards, for weekend edition, special edition or section (Frontier Days), sports section or page, headlines, education or literacy story, performing-arts story, feature story, feature photograph and sports photo. The paper also won a second place for business story, two thirds (photo essay and use of photos) and four honorable mentions for a total of 47 points on a scale of 4-3-2-1 point scale.

The Antelope Valley Press earned three first places (review, photo essay, sports feature or series), three seconds, seven thirds and four mentions for 42 points. NNA does not use such a scale to calculate an overall award; its contest categories use varying circulation classes, which can make such an award imprecise.

Both newspapers were once rural, and still serve rural readers, but are now in metropolitan or urbanized areas. The Tribune Eagle is published in the state capital of Cheyenne, population 60,000. Its circulation is 16,500 weekdays and 18,500 on Sundays. The Antelope Valley Press serves areas of Kern and Los Angeles counties, and has a circulation of 17,836 on weekdays and 21,668 on Sundays. The Sioux City (Iowa) Journal, in a city of 83,000 and with a circulation of about 40,000, won three firsts, five seconds a third and a mention for 30 points.

Among non-daily newspapers that entered NNA's annual competition, three racked up 26 points on the unofficial 4-3-2-1 scale.

The Wise County Messenger, with a circulation of 5,939, won first prizes for local news coverage and community service, the latter for "America's Costliest War," a series that Bob Buckel began this way: "In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared War on Drugs. In the 41 years since then, the United States has arrested and imprisoned millions of citizens, spent hundreds of billions of dollars and lost thousands of lives in a war that, by almost any measure, has been lost." The Messenger won five second-place awards (breaking news, special section, feature, use of photos, sports photo) and two thirds (special edition or section and humorous column).

The News-Register, circulation 10,921, won two firsts (editorial page, sports story), four seconds (editorial, website, health story and sports story), and three thirds (editorial serious column and education story).

The Hutchinson Leader, circulation 5,167, won one first place (breaking news story), four seconds (local news coverage, education story, headlines and typography), three thirds (editorial, feature and weekend edition) and four honorable mentions (two for health stories).

For a full list of the winners by category, click here. For a list by newspaper, go here. The winners will be recognized at a Saturday reception during NNA’s 127th annual Convention & Trade Show at the Arizona Grand Resort in Phoenix Sept. 12-15. Go to for information on the convention and NNA. 

Foreign firms invest heavily in small-town America

The economies of some small towns are making a big economic comeback, courtesy of foreign investors. Kentucky is one state whose small towns have relied heavily on business from outside the U.S. State Cabinet for Economic Development statistics show "Foreign companies made 30 percent of the investments announced in 2011 and 35 percent in 2012, and were responsible for 23 percent and 24 percent of the state’s job growth the past two years, with 2013 looking just as good," Mark Green writes in The Lane Report, a business magazine based in Lexington. (Lexington Herald-Leader photo by Charles Bertram: Toyota plant)

Kentucky isn't the only state soaring in foreign investments. "For the first time since 2001, the U.S. knocked China out of first place in an annual survey of executives rating favorable places for foreign direct investment," James Hagerty reports for The Wall Street Journal. A Chinese company agreed in May agreed to pay $4.7 billion for U.S. pork producer Smithfield Foods Inc., an Indian company announced plans to pay about $2.22 billion for Ohio's Cooper Tire and Rubber Co., while Toyota said it would invest $200 million to expand parts plants in Alabama, Missouri and Tennessee. (Read more)

"Kentucky is home currently to about 425 foreign-owned companies from 30 nations, employing more than 80,000 people," Green reports. "There are 156 Japanese-owned companies employing 37,000-plus and 178 European-owned companies that employ more than 26,000. The state has nearly 100 more foreign-owned operations in 2013 than it did in 2003." Over the past three years, foreign-owned firms have grown 12 percent, compared to the state's overall growth rate of 6 percent.

The automotive industry has invested heavily in Kentucky. "Since January 2010, more than 200 domestic and foreign motor-vehicle-related projects have been announced in Kentucky, representing more than 14,400 new jobs and nearly $3.5 billion in new investment, more than one-third of all new investment announced," Green reports. "Kentucky produced more than 1 million light vehicles in 2012, its most in five years, ranking the state fourth in vehicles made. So far in 2013, Kentucky ranks third in light vehicle production – on a per capita basis, the state ranks first." (Read more)

Some small towns, hungry for jobs, are willing to risk being sites of chemical and fertilizer plants

Some small-town officials say they are willing to risk allowing the opening a fertilizer plant -- like the one that exploded in West, Tex., killing 15 people -- if it means the plant revitalizes the local economy and provides much-needed jobs, David Mercer and Ramit Plushnick-Masti report for The Associated Press. "Booming demand for corn and newly abundant supplies of natural gas" are leading corporations to make proposals to build billion dollar plants in small towns, promising "thousands of jobs during construction and hundreds of full-time spots once they're up and running," (AP photo by Tony Gutierrez: The remains of the fertilizer plant in West)

One example is Cronus Chemicals, which wants to build a $1.2 billion plant to manufacture nitrogen-based fertilizer in the 4,500-population town of Tuscola, Ill., which already has a large chemical plant near the proposed fertilizer site. Cronus said it would hire about 2,000 construction workers and 150 permanent employees, making it one of the largest local employers. At least 800,000 Americans in the U.S. already live within a mile of fertilizer storage sites that house potentially explosive ammonium nitrate. The plant in West housed 2,400 tons of the chemical.

Experts say it's the perfect time to bring fertilizer production back to the U.S., AP reports. Proposed plant sites are in Indiana, Iowa, Illinois and North Dakota, while existing factories in Iowa, Louisiana and Oklahoma could be expanded. Most of the proposed sites are near chemical facilities, "which were drawn by the same rail lines and other industrial infrastructure that are attractive to the fertilizer industry." (Read more)

Colorado town may ban drones, reward shootdowns

A small Colorado town about 50 miles east of Denver doesn't want unmanned flying vehicles above its skies. The town board of Deer Trail, population 500, will consider at its Aug. 6 meeting an ordinance allowing residents to obtain drone hunting licenses, Amanda Kost reports for KMGH-TV in Denver. Local resident Phillip Steel, who drafted the ordinance, despite never having seen a drone in the area, told Kost, "We do not want drones in town. They fly in town, they get shot down." (7News photo by Amanda Kost: Deer Trail Mayor Franks Fields displays drone-hunting technique)

"Even though it's against the law to destroy federal property, Steel's proposed ordinance outlines weapons, ammunition, rules of engagement, techniques, and bounties for drone hunting," Kost reports. The ordinates states: "The Town of Deer Trail shall issue a reward of $100 to any shooter who presents a valid hunting license and the following identifiable parts of an unmanned aerial vehicle whose markings and configuration are consistent with those used on any similar craft known to be owned or operated by the United States federal government."

Weapons allowed under the ordinance would consist of "any shotgun, 12 gauge or smaller, having a barrel length of 18 inches or greater," Kost reports "Drone hunting licenses would be issued without a background investigation, and on an anonymous basis. Applicants would have to be at least 21 years old and be able to, 'read and understand English.'" One-year licenses could be obtained for $25. City officials said they hope the novelty of the license helps boost the local economy. (Read more)

Federal study done with company OK finds fracking chemicals didn't contaminate aquifers at one site

"A landmark federal study on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, shows no evidence that chemicals from the natural gas drilling process moved up to contaminate drinking water aquifers at a western Pennsylvania drilling site," Kevin Begos reports for The Associated Press. "Researchers found that the chemical-laced fluids used to free gas trapped deep below the surface stayed thousands of feet below the shallower areas that supply drinking water." It was the first time a drilling company had allowed government scientists to conduct such an experiment.

Researchers monitored the site for a year, using drilling fluids tagged with markers that were injected more than 8,000 feet below the surface, but were not detected in a monitoring zone 3,000 feet higher, Begos reports. "That means the potentially dangerous substances stayed about a mile away from drinking water supplies."

During the study "eight new Marcellus Shale horizontal wells were monitored seismically and one was injected with four different man-made tracers at different stages of the fracking process, which involves setting off small explosions to break the rock apart," Begos reports. "The scientists also monitored a separate series of older gas wells that are about 3,000 feet above the Marcellus to see if the fracking fluid reached up to them." Most gas wells are more than a mile underground, while drinking water aquifers are usually 500 to 1,000 feet below the surface. (Read more)

Pa. Supreme Court keeps rural health centers open

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued an injunction Wednesday, blocking the closure of nearly half the state's 60 rural health centers. Republican Gov. Tom Corbett had planned to eliminate 26 to 27 nursing positions by consolidating the centers, a move that could save the state $3.4 million. The nurses' union filed a lawsuit "saying the administration did not have the authority to close the centers; the union cited a state law that said approval from the Legislature is needed for such closures," Kate Giammarise reports for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (Photo by Noelker and Hull architecture: Keystone Rural Health Center in Chambersburg)

Health centers in Carbon, Beaver, and Mifflin counties had already been closed, and 18 nurses were laid off, Amy Worden reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer. The state Department of Health said "it instituted the closures to try to revamp health access in rural areas by putting nurses on the road and delivering services through health fairs and other events rather than brick-and-mortar clinics," Worden reports. "The ruling would require the state to re-open health care centers that provide testing for communicable diseases and other services, and reinstate the nurses positions, pending appeal." (Read more)

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Stabenow, Senate set path to final talks on Farm Bill

The final path to a new farm law was set today, as Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, left, and Republican allies on her Senate Agriculture Committee persuaded GOP budget hawks to agree to her parliamentary maneuver to set up a Farm Bill conference with the House.

"In a single stroke, the Stabenow motion served to call up and amend the House farm bill—approved last week—with the Senate’s fuller version that includes a nutrition title funding food stamps and local food banks around the country," David Rogers reports for Politico. "This is important because the House Republican leadership had jettisoned the same nutrition title last week to win back the votes of conservatives for the farm bill. By doing what she did, Stabenow establishes the nutrition programs as a qualified subject for the House and Senate conference."

Rogers adds, "Mindful of this, Republicans in the House are expected to slow walk the process of appointing conferees to give them more time to reach agreement on how to approach the food stamp issue. . . . "It’s very likely that no formal conference will begin before the August recess." However, Stabenow suggested that most of the negotiations would be informal, and those talks have already begun. (Read more)

Lawmakers find some common ground on reforming Postal Service, but not on Saturday mail

Darrel Issa
The Republican chairman and top Democrat on the House committee writing a postal-reform bill are finding some common ground but are still at loggerheads over the Postal Service's wish to limit Saturday mail delivery to packages.

Rep. Darrell Issa of California, "said Wednesday that he’ll strike language to force labor unions to open existing contracts and eliminate no-layoff rules," Lisa Rein reports for The Washington Post. Issa and Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, also agreed to repeal a law that forces the service to pay future health-care costs for retirees in advance, a change that should reduce expenses for current and future retiree benefits "by between $2 billion and $5 billion, from $8.5 billion, committee aides said."

Elijah Cummings
Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe also wants to eliminating Saturday delivery of letters and magazines. That "would save $2 billion a year, but the move is opposed by unions, many lawmakers representing rural districts, and some private mailers," Rein reports. "Issa is calling for five-day delivery and a halt to curbside mail delivery in favor of clustered boxes on street corners, a change he says could save at least $4 billion annually. . . . Cummings, who introduced his own bill Wednesday, opposes both changes because they would cost jobs." (Read more)

Donahoe told the committee, “We need a bridge that gets us all the way to the other side. Half measures are about as useful as half a bridge. We need legislation that, together with our planned changes, confidently enables at least $20 billion in savings by 2016. If not, we go over the edge.” (Read more)

Senators of both parties say rural hospitals struggle to adopt electronic health records

"Members of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee suggest that Farzad Mostashari, national coordinator for Health Information Technology, has little or no idea of the challenges rural health-care providers face as they grapple with meaningful-use requirements" for electronic health records John Commins reports for Health Leaders Media. Meaningful use of EHRs is required for the hospitals to get federal financial incentives and, soon, avoid penalties" from Medicare and Medicaid.

While hospitals are moving to update technology, rural hospitals are lagging behind. When Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) raised concerns Wednesday that the disparities between rural and urban hospitals will continue to grow, Mostashari said the EHR system is being implemented faster than expected. "We set a goal of getting 1,000 critical access hospitals to meaningful use by 2014," he said. "We are going to revise that goal to get 1,000 critical access hospitals to meaningful use by the end of this year." Critical access hospitals are, by definition, in rural areas.

A report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation says that from 2010-12, the number of rural hospitals with electronic health records rose from 9.8 percent to 33.5 percent, while urban hospitals rose from 17 percent to 47.7 percent.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) suggested that Mostashari and other federal bureaucrats have little or no idea of the challenges that rural providers face, Commins writes. Roberts said, "My concern is I don't think we are getting the word west of {U.S.] Highway 81 in Kansas," Roberts said. "If we could just pause and make sure that most of the rural providers know what is going on."

Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) urged Mostashari to "get out … of your offices and out to rural America. See it. Smell it and taste it, and know what it is. It is one thing to conceptualize it. It is something else to experience it." (Read more)

Senate panel votes to save program that provides grants to hire community police officers

A committee in the Democrat-led Senate voted $394 million to save a program that hires community police officers and other safety personnel, responding to last week's decision by the Republican-led House to zero out the program for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, Ted Gest reports for The Crime Report. President Obama has pushed for the program's continuation as part of his response to last year's school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

Community Oriented Policing Services, which is part of the U.S. Department of Justice, "advances the practice of community policing in America’s state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies," the agency says on its website. "COPS does its work principally by sharing information and making grants to police departments around the United States." The Senate committee's plan, likely to be adopted by the whole Senate, would pay about 1,400 police officers nationwide,

The Senate plan would use $150 million for school safety personnel, conduct school safety assessments, and fill gaps in school safety plans, Gest reports. "The House panel would provide $75 million; the final figure is likely to be a compromise between the two numbers." (Read more)

COPS has been successful in many communities. In 2009 the Merrillville Police Department in northwest Indiana received $600,000 through the grant to hire three police officers for three years, Chas Reilly reports for the The Times of Northwest Indiana. The police department, which has to take on the salaries after the grant ends, has applied for a grant to hire two more officers for three years.

Another community, Powell, Wyo., with a population of around 6,000, has applied for a grant to hire another officer to keep the department fully staffed, C.J. Baker reports for the Powell Tribune. Police Chief Roy Eckerdt told Baker, “Without that position, we can staff, yes — as long as nobody takes a vacation, nobody gets sick and nobody goes to a [training] school." (Read more)

Philanthropy can solidify rural communities by bringing people of different backgrounds together

Nonprofit Quarterly has a story by Max Rose about how philanthropy can bridge economic, social and cultural gaps, bringing people of differing backgrounds together to form a common bond. "In rural communities and small towns, philanthropy can take stands, create coalitions, and break down racial barriers that other institutions avoid. Philanthropy plays the role of professor, listener, pulse reader, dream interpreter, and community organizer." (Birmingham News photo by Bernard Troncale: More than half of children in some Black Belt counties in Alabama live in poverty)

Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam told Rose that social capital comes in two forms, bonding and bridging, Rose writes. "Bonding social capital defines the networks that exist among similar types of people, while bridging social capital characterizes networks between different types of people. The two "occupy a critical crossroads in the community, harnessing mainstream resources and connecting them to grassroots concerns." And that doesn't necessarily mean big sums of money, Rose notes.

One example is in the Black Belt of Alabama, where more than half the children live in poverty. Known as the birthplace of the Civil Rights movement, the region consists of 19 counties mostly in the southern and southwestern part of the state, where public schools are mostly black and private schools are mostly white, Rose writes. But a program called 100 Lenses is bridging the racial gap by giving cameras to 100 students from various backgrounds to photograph their communities. The students, many of whom never interact with children of other races, then spend a week together at the University of Alabama. (UA photo: The 100 Lenses project)

James Joseph, chair emeritus of the board at Manpower Development Corp., which says it helps organizations and communities close the gaps that separate people from opportunity, told Rose that a program like 100 Lenses "uses social capital to increase trust, bringing together black and white students who would not normally interact" and it "uses moral capital, suggesting that a healthy and functioning society is one with interracial community and leadership."

The Danville Regional Foundation was created in response to the closing of mills in Danville, Va., that employed 14,000. The foundations and community leaders "face the challenge of reversing a culture that stems from the mills, where hierarchy reigned and education did not matter," Rose writes. Community leaders have challenged the town to "change the conversation from a hierarchal, top-down approach to one that values wide civic engagement and young and diverse leadership." (Danville Register and Bee photo by Julian Henderson from the Daily Yonder: Demolition in 2008 of a Danville textile mill)

Joseph told Rose, “Foundations can help our nation focus on the macro-ethics of our aggregate existence, the public values that build community.” Rose writes that "doing that involves challenging racial prejudice and inequity, or suggesting the need for broader leadership. Foundation leadership can lower the social risk of tackling sensitive issues by helping policy makers and the public face difficult issues and imagine progress. Exerting moral capital requires philanthropic courage, but done wisely, the returns on investment can and will move society forward." (Read more)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors gives annual awards for public service, editorials

The International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors concluded its annual conference Saturday night by handing out its awards for editorial writing and its top honor, the Eugene Cervi Award, for a career of outstanding public service through community journalism.

Bill Schanen
This year's Cervi Award went to William F. Schanen III, who "has worked for the Ozaukee Press in Port Washington, Wis., for nearly 50 years — including 42 as publisher," reports the latest ISWNE newsletter. "When his father, Bill Schanen Jr., died suddenly in 1971, Bill III was 28 years old and left to somehow keep alive a newspaper that was on the very edge of having to fold because of an advertiser boycott. Schanen never gave an inch on the principles that led them to fight the boycott and, in fact, made the Press a stronger voice than ever in fighting for press freedom and freedom of information, while also making the paper a vital, influential, successful weekly."

Schanen and editor William IV continue a strong family tradition. William Jr., who founded the paper in 1940, won the 1970 Elijah Lovejoy Award for courage in journalism. "Few have elevated the standards and appreciation for the community press more than the Schanens," wrote Bill Haupt, former editor and publisher of the Lodi Enterprise and former presdient of ISWNE and the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

The ISWNE conference was held in the Green Bay area, and its other big winner was also from Wisconsin. The Golden Quill contest for editorials was won for a second time by Peter Weinschenk, editor of The Record-Review, a rural weekly in Marathon County for 32 years. He also won the Golden Quill in 2011, and was among the Golden Dozen's 11 runners-up in 2010 and 2012. "To say he’s on a roll would be an understatement," the newsletter says.

Weinschenk's winning editorial mocked the county's spending on things "to hip up the county a notch and lure young, highly educated professionals to this area. Our Balmain slim fit jeans are snugging up just below our waist just talking about it. . . . Look at other counties. What do they spend their tax money on? Well, all the normal dumb stuff. Road salt. Squad cars. Bed pans. Army surplus jackets and Led Zeppelin t-shirts for the undercover drug agent. In other words, boring."

Peter Weinschenk
Weinschenk's explanatory piece about his editorial began, "I have always been a smart ass. . . . I am overjoyed that my talents as a wisenheimer have finally received not just national, but international recognition." He added, "I don’t write an editorial until I am certain that a unit of government is hopelessly lost in the swamp. . . . County board members dropped six figures in tax money in a silly attempt to replace a closed major paper mill and insulated window manufacturer with companies in pursuit of latte-sipping, skateboard-riding Ph.D.’s looking for the next indie rock fest."

Other winners in the Golden Dozen were George Brown of the Ponoka News in Alberta; Andrew Broman of the Independent Review in Litchfield, Minn.; Paul MacNeill of The Eastern Graphic in Montague, P.E.I.; Tim Waltner of the Freeman Courier in South Dakota; Roger Harnack of the Omak-Okanogan County Chronicle in Washington; Steve Ranson of the Lahontan Valley News in Fallon, Nev.; M. Dickey Drysdale of The Herald of Randolph, Vt.; Brian Wilson of The Star News in Medford, Wis.; Marcia Martinek of the Herald Democrat in Leadville, Colo.; and Cary Hines and Elliott Freireich for separate editorials in the West Valley View in Avondale, Ariz.

ISWNE's 2014 conference will be held in Durango, Colo. For more information on the organization see

Immigration laws in Ga., Ala. mostly unenforced but farmers say more workers are legal

While lawmakers continue to debate federal immigration reform, which passed the Senate and is expected to die a slow death in the House, state immigration laws passed in 2011 in Georgia and Alabama have had little affect on the number of illegal immigrants in those states, Kate Brumback reports for The Associated Press: "There are still concerns over enforcement and lingering fears among immigrants, but in many ways it appears that people have gone on with life much as it was before the laws were enacted."

"Farmers say many of the foreign workers have returned because the laws are not heavily enforced and it once again seems safe to be here," Brumback reports. There is still concern for safety, which has forced some illegal immigrants to remain in hiding, or stay away from jobs, but "Farmers say they are filling labor shortages not with returning immigrants but with workers hired through a program that grants temporary legal visas." (AP photo: Guest worker Vegelio Sausera harvests onions in a field in Lyons. Ga.)

"Immediately after the laws were passed, farmers in both states complained that foreign workers who lived there had left and that the itinerant migrants who generally came through were staying away," proving that Americans aren't interesting in working farming jobs, Brumback reports. "American workers weren't stepping forward to perform the back-breaking work immigrants had done for years, and crops were rotting in the fields because of a lack of laborers, they said."

Illegal immigrants who feared being arrested or deported began returning to work in Georgia after "courts began blocking significant elements of the law and some loopholes became apparent," while in Alabama, thousands of employers "have been ignoring a provision in the state's immigration law that requires them to register with the federal E-Verify system, a program to electronically verify workers' legal status." (Read more)

Natural-gas fractionalization plant in W.Va. reflects gas boom, but where will products go?

A $500 million natural-gas processing plant in Wheeling W.Va., "is the first of a rush of new gas processing and fractionation projects springing up around the Marcellus and Utica shale formations on either side of the Ohio River," and "will split methane pipeline gas from heavier hydrocarbons to create a daily 39,000-barrel stream of ethane, propane and other gas liquids," Peter Behr reports for Environment and Energy News. (Photo by Blue Racer Midstream: The company's plant in Wheeling)

Jack Lafield, chairman and CEO of Blue Racer Midstream told Behr that his firm's plant is the largest in the region. With an expected increase in production of natural-gas liquids in the area, Wells Fargo analysts estimated the region could produce 950 million barrels a day by 2018, up from 210 million from last year.

When completed, the plant is expected to employ 40 to 45 people at jobs paying $20 to $30 an hour. That's good news for an area where coal and manufacturing are declining, but elsewhere there is concern among some about where the gas products will go.

Mark Chung, manager of natural-gas liquids analysis for Bentek Energy in Evergreen, Colo., said most of the pipelines that would move the gas are already saturated with supply, Behr writes. Chung told Behr, "Ethane is growing at a tremendous pace, and demand isn't materializing fast enough to soak up. Nobody wants to recover ethane right now." Three new pipelines from the region are being planned, and residents along the proposed route in Kentucky are expressing concern about safety.

"Raymond James & Associates projected last month that long-term investment in markets for natural gas -- ethylene crackers, coal generating plant retirements, ammonia plants, liquefied natural-gas exports and gas shipments to Mexico -- should drive U.S. gas demand higher in the coming decade. But the year-to-year growth they forecast does not accelerate until 2016," Behr reports. (Read more)

State audit says North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center is misusing funds

UPDATE, August 2: Valeria Lee, chairwoman of the board of directors, resigned Wednesday, two weeks after Gov. Pat McCrory called for her to go. Lee had been head of the board since 2009.  

UPDATE, July 18: Hall resigned today, saying “It is the right decision for the organization and the rural communities we serve.” Gov. Pat McCrory had asked him and the board chair to quit, and has stopped the flow of money to the center.

Controversy continues to cloud the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center. A state audit report released Wednesday says the center "has failed to provide proper oversight of millions in state money and pays its longtime president an 'unreasonable' salary of $221,000," Raleigh News & Observer

Billy Ray Hall
Auditors said "more than $58.8 million in grant funds spent in the fiscal year 2012 were not used on their intended purposes," and that the center has "put nearly a quarter million dollars into a special account to pay president Billy Ray Hall a severance when he leaves the agency," that "is above and beyond regular retirement account contributions that he also has received," Curliss reports.

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In June, we noted the News & Observer's two-part series saying the center is controlled by politicians, has claimed to create jobs that don't exist, and has spent millions of taxpayer dollars to support big businesses. The center responded to the accusations, saying the stories were inaccurate. Our story, the News and Observer's stories, and the center's responses to us can be viewed here.

Hall responded to the recent claims in a statement to the News & Observer, saying auditors had “identified opportunities for us to strengthen the way we monitor the performance of those who receive grants and we are currently making improvements to address those issues," and the center is committed to “being a good steward of state funds.” (Read more) Republicans who recently took over state government are trying to reduce the center's funding; the audit was done by the office of State Auditor Beth Wood, a Democrat.

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Life expectancy declines in some rural areas

Rural counties had the biggest declines of life expectancy, and the shortest life spans, from 1985 to 2010, according to a study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Overall, the report found that life expectancy in the U.S. rose from 75.2 to 78.2 years, but some rural counties were well below those numbers. The report also found that while more Americans are living longer, they are also living longer with disabilities related to poor diet, physical inactivity, smoking, drinking, high blood pressure, and other health issues. (The chart is by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, but the Daily Yonder added yellow to highlight non-metro counties)

Nine of the 10 counties with the biggest declines in life expectancy for females were rural, while only three of the top 10 for biggest increases in life expectancy were rural, Tim Marema and Shawn Poynter report for the Daily Yonder. Seven of 10 counties that had the biggest decline for men were rural, while no rural county cracked the top 10 for biggest increase of life expectancy for males.

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Fayette County, Alabama, had the worst decline of any U.S. county, with life expectancy for women dropping by 3.47 years, while Perry County, Kentucky, which was 10th with a drop of 2.57 years, had the lowest overall life expectancy for women, at 72.65 years, reports the Yonder. Leslie and Clay counties, just to the west of Perry, and five counties in Oklahoma -- Harmon, Beckham, Seminole, Murray and Garvin -- also made the list of 10 worst counties for female expectancy. Gunnison and Pitkin counties in Colorado tied for fifth with the biggest increase of life expectancy for women, at 6.28 years, with women in those counties living to an average age of 84.33 years. Beaufort County, S.C. was 10th with an increase of 6.02 years.The counties are popular with retirees. Gunnison and Pitkin tied for second highest life expectancy among men, at 81.65 years.

Floyd County, Kentucky, had the worst drop in life expectancy for males, at 1.49 years, while McDowell County, West Virginia, had the lowest average life expectancy at 63.9 years, the Yonder reports. Also making the bottom 10 were Wyoming County, W. Va., along with Bolivar County, Mississippi, Perry County, Alabama, Cherokee County, Kansas, and Grundy County, Tennessee. No rural counties made the top 10 for increases in life expectancy. (Read more)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Oil and gas spills are common, but fines are rare

Oil and gas spills by drillers and well operators are common, 16 per day, but fines against them are rare. More than 6,000 spills were reported at onshore oil and gas sites in 2012, an increase of 17 percent from 2010, and the number must be higher, since not all spills are required to be reported.

"There are no national figures on oil and gas spills or enforcement," Mike Soraghan reports for Environment and Energy News. "But where state records are available, they show agencies pursue fines against oil and gas producers in only a small minority of spill cases."

Soraghan bases that on a sampling of reports from Colorado and Pennsylvania, one of 10 states required to report to FracFocus. He found that more than 20 percent of spills are reported late, and those companies are rarely fined.

"In Texas, the leading producer of oil and gas, regulators sought enforcement for 2 percent of the 55,000 violations identified by drilling inspectors in the last fiscal year," Soraghan reports. Pennsylvania officials levied fines against 13 percent of cases where inspectors found violations, Wyoming only pursed fines in 10 of 204 recorded spills, while New Mexico hasn't issued a fine in years.

The problem, some say, is that states don't make any attempt to take a hard stance against violators. "Most state oil and gas agencies are charged with promoting drilling in the state, in addition to regulating it," Soraghan writes. "Inspectors and the people who oversee them often come from the oil and gas industry. It's not considered a conflict of interest. It's often a job requirement."

National environmental groups want changes, and are "pushing Congress to give the Environmental Protection Agency more authority to regulate the nation's drilling boom instead of leaving regulation to the states," Soraghan writes. "But under President Obama, EPA has frequently retreated from big drilling enforcement cases." (Read more)

Revival of valuable chestnut trees moves on 2 tracks

"The salvation of the American chestnut tree may rest in the hands of two groups with two very different approaches" to overcoming the chestnut blight fungus that wiped out almost all the huge, valuable streets in North America in the middle of the 20th Century, Greenwire reports, picking up a story by Michael Wines in The New York Times.

In the most widely reported approach, the American Chestnut Foundation is planting thousands of hybrid trees (1/16 Chinese chestnut) on reclaimed mine sites in Pennsylvania "to see whether the trees can survive in the wild, where predators lurk and other trees compete for nutrients and light." Researchers also fear that the hybrid trees may lose their resistance to the blight as they mature.

The other approach is being conducted by scientists at the State University of New York-Syracuse, who have created a tree genetically "modified with a gene from wheat that enables it to produce a blight-fighting enzyme," Greenwire reports. (Times photo by Heather Ainsworth: Charles A. Maynard of SUNY-Syracuse's College of Environmental Science and Forestry walks among genetically modified seedlings)

The hybrid trees resist the oxalic acid produced by the fungus by "building a wall around the fungus before it can secrete enough acid to encircle the tree," while the genetically modified trees have a wheat gene that "manufactures an enzyme that renders oxalic acid harmless, stopping the fungus before it can kill," Wines writes.

Both groups are encouraged by the progress of the trees. Where trees have been planted, 14,000 potentially blight-resistant chestnut seedlings are sprouting with thousands of other hardwoods, Wines reports. William A. Powell, professor and forest biotechnologist at SUNY-Syrcause, told Wines that once the genetically modified trees are approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to be planted in a controlled field, it will take about two years for them to be prime and regulated, and petitions could be filed to lift federal restrictions on where they could be planted. They hope to begin planting the trees in a controlled field by the fall. (Read more)

Perhaps coincidentally, Natasha Haverty of North Country Public Radio has a nice story on a couple in Russell, N.Y., who planted two chestnut seedlings 28 years ago and have watched them reach a height of 60 feet. Todd and Nancy Alessi aren't part of the organized effort to overcome the blight, "but from their trees, Todd's been able to sprout hundreds of seedlings and he's giving them away to friends and neighbors, and if those fare as well, more people may get to witness the spectacle of a fully-grown thriving chestnut in their lifetime, a look at the world as it used to be," Haverty reports.

Young, poorly educated rural women are more likely than urban counterparts to get their tubes tied

Young, poorly educated rural women "have a high prevalence of sterilization," says a study by the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, which found that more rural women in their 20s and 30s choose to get their Fallopian tubes tied than women of the same age living in urban areas.

The study of 4,685 women aged 20-34 used information from the National Survey of Family Growth from 2006-10 by the Centers for Disease Control. All participants were sexually active and had no fertility problems, but did not want to become pregnant at the time of the survey.

Nearly 23 percent of rural women said they were sterilized, compared to 12.7 percent of urban women. "Education level was found to be a significant effect modifier of the relationship between location of residence and sterilization," the study says, and "Rural women without a high-school degree were more likely to have undergone sterilization compared with urban and rural women with greater than a high school education."

"More than 55 percent of rural women who hadn't finished high school had been sterilized, compared to 26 percent of urban women without a high school degree," Generva Pittman writes for Reuters. "However, a similar proportion of rural and urban women with more than a high school education reported tubal ligation - between seven and nine percent. General geographic differences held up when the researchers accounted for women's age and race, whether they were married and how many kids they had. Making less money and not having private insurance were also tied to a higher likelihood of sterilization." (Read more)

The study has not been published in print, but is available online via Obstetrics & Gynecology, a subscription-only site. The objectives, methods, results, and conclusions of the study are available to read for free by clicking here.

Heat and drought have greatly reduced food and water for livestock and wild horses in West

A heat wave and persistent drought across much of the West have significantly reduced food and water supplies for livestock and wild horses, which often share the same food sources, says the Bureau of Land Management.

"As drought conditions continue, wild horses, livestock, and wildlife that rely on rangeland forage and water will face extremely challenging conditions that may leave them in very poor condition," the BLM said. "We are taking action to address these situations as quickly and as effectively as we can, but our options are increasingly limited by conditions on the land." (Reno-Gazette Journal photo by Marilyn Newton: A wild horse breaks free from a roundup outside Reno)

Temperatures have reached 100 degrees in Nevada, 10 degrees higher than normal, and several states had record-setting heat during June and early July, Doug Stanglin reports for USA Today. Albuquerque hit 105, the highest temperature since 1994, Susan Montoya Bryan reports for The Associated Press. The BLM said 93 percent of rangelands and pastures in New Mexico are in poor or very poor conditions. The number is 59 percent in Colorado, 35 percent in Wyoming, and 17 percent in Utah. "In Montana, ranchers are being asked to limit their cows and sheep to 70 percent of their allotted forage," Phil Taylor reports for Environment & Energy News. "In Nevada, where more than 60 percent of the state is experiencing severe or extreme drought, BLM is hauling thousands of gallons of water daily to wild horse herds."

Continued heat in northwest Nevada has forced BLM to truck in 25,000 gallons a week to wild horses in four locations, costing taxpayers $5,000 a week, Taylor reports. Some animals aren't drinking the water, which has raised concerns about their health. BLM also plans to install sprinklers at a center for wild horses and burros near Reno. (Read more)

Monday, July 15, 2013

Rush to managed care in Kentucky is a cautionary tale for other states as they expand Medicaid

Since Kentucky's abrupt change to a Medicaid managed-care system in 2011, problems have been widespread among patients and providers, highlighting the dangers for other states, and especially rural ones, about a rushed transition to this model without sufficient preparation or oversight. Such problems could spread as Kentucky and some other states expand Medicaid under Obamacare.

“The Kentucky case is a harbinger of what can happen when states don’t allow enough time and devote sufficient resources to strengthen the Medicaid agency’s oversight capacity and systems — or develop strong contracts and care-monitoring systems from scratch if they haven’t contracted with managed care plans before,” Debra Lipson, a senior researcher at Mathematica Policy Research, told Jenni Bergal of Kaiser Health News, writing for The Washington Post.

Kaden Stone and mother, Angelina Alcott (Photo by Julie Bergal)
Patients in Kentucky's managed-care system complain of being denied treatment or having to drive long distances to find doctor's within their plans network. That issue is a big one in rural areas, such as Darlene VanHoeve in southeastern Kentucky, Bergal writes. VanHoeve has a son who needs treatment for autism at a center an hour away, but managed-care firm WellCare of Kentucky wouldn't pay for these services despite a physician's order, saying the center wasn’t in its network. In Greensburg, 8-year-old Kaden Stone loves playing baseball and riding his bike, but as a result of congenital bowel problems that have required dozens of surgeries and procedures, he needs PediaSure, his mother told Bergal. Yet, managed-care firm Coventry Cares stopped paying for it last fall, saying it was not “medically necessary.”

Hospitals and doctors have continuously voiced complaints about denied or delayed payments from managed care companies. Kentucky health officials admit there have been problems related to the speedy switch to managed care in 2011, writes Bergal, but they insist that claims are now being paid promptly. They also insist that providers meet with managed-care companies to claim outstanding payments and that care quality has improved in the state.

Advocates for the mentally ill argue that the care system for them has deteriorated, saying plans have denied patients' long-standing prescriptions, forcing some community mental health centers to limit or cancel programs, says Bergal. “The whole thing has been a mess,” Sheila Schuster, executive director of the Kentucky Mental Health Coalition, told Bergal. As Medicaid rolls expand, those already in the program could be shut out of some of the key preventive services included in the new health law, says a recent study published in Health Affairs.

States that have phased in managed care more slowly have been more successful, so Kentucky's story is a cautionary tale for other states. “It was a significant challenge,” Michael Murphy, chief executive of Aetna-owned Coventry Cares, told Bergal. “Obviously, we learned a few lessons in Kentucky.”

Blast on Quebec-Maine-N.B. rail line raises worries about much greater rail transport of crude oil

Nearly 234,000 carloads of crude oil were moved by railroad through North America last year, up from 66,000 in 2011 and only 9,500 in 2008. The number is expected to rise again this year, as U.S. and Canadian oil production continues to increase and the debate continues over whether or not President Obama should approve the 875-mile northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline that would go through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.

New concerns about rail transportation have been raised after the July 6 Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, about 10 miles west of Maine, which is believed to have killed about 50 47 people. The number remains uncertain, more than a week after the blast. The train would have gone through Maine on its way to the Atlantic port of Saint John, New Brunswick. (Bloomberg photo: Search teams dig through the rubble in Lac-Megantic, Quebec)

Association of American Railroads spokeswoman Holly Arthur told USA Today, "We have a strong safety record of moving hazardous materials, including crude oil," adding that the Quebec disaster involved a short line — not a major or Class 1 railroad, Wendy Koch reports. Yet, federal data show rail travel has higher rates of serious incidents, injuries and fatalities than pipelines, with 2.08 incidents per billion ton-miles (a ton of weight moved 1 mile), compared with 0.58 for oil pipelines, Diana Furchtgott-Roth reports for The Globe and Mail in Toronto.

Rail transport of crude oil in North America is increasing 17 times faster than oil production because existing pipelines can't handle the production spike, Rebecca Penty and Mike Lee report for Bloomberg. This is especially true in communities new to oil development, "including North Dakota and Utah, which are seeing rising rail shipments of crude due to a scarcity of pipelines" and "trains are passing through more populated areas as the footprint of crude-by-rail expands."

Patti Reilly, a spokesperson for the railroad association, said hazardous materials make up only 1 percent of all rail shipments, Bloomberg reports. Reilly also said the U.S. rail industry and transportation regulators use a computer model to develop routes for oil shipments, considering factors including population density and the ability for communities to respond to accidents.
"The International Energy Agency said recently that although there is more risk of an oil spill from a train than from a pipeline, the total amount spilled from pipelines in the United States is three times greater," The Economist reports.

Whether or not the Keystone pipeline is approved, "There's so much oil being extracted, it won't reduce the hundreds of tank cars rolling through towns like Glasgow, Mont., (population 3,300) every day," CBS News reports. Bruce Petersen, a commissioner of surrounding Valley County, said "Someday this Keystone, I'm sure, is going to spring a leak some place, but anything that's man-made has never been perfect, and people who want a perfect system (are) on the wrong planet, I think."

UPDATE: The disaster hasn't kept Lac-Mégantic’s local weekly newspaper, L’Echo de Frontenac, from publishing, reports Jacques Gallant of The Toronto Star. The paper's website, which is in French, is here. Outside journalists were given a tour of the blast area Tuesday; "the experience was overwhelming," Christopher Curtis of The Gazette in Montréal reports.

State 'stand your ground' laws make it difficult to prove someone wasn't acting in self-defense

While George Zimmerman's defense never specifically mentioned Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law in his trial for shooting unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, jurors were instructed before deliberating to consider the law, "which eliminated a citizen’s 'duty to retreat' before using lethal force in the face of a deadly threat," David Ovalle writes for the Miami Herald. “Under the law, the defense has no burden to prove anything. Only prosecutors must prove a case, beyond a reasonable doubt. And under the stand-your-ground law, that meant they had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman was not acting in self-defense."

Legal analysts say the prosecution never came close to proving its case, and as a result, Zimmerman was found not-guilty, Ovalle writes. Jude M. Faccidomo, former president of Miami’s Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the jury clearly believed in the right to self-defense: “Especially when cases are so gray, like this one was, self-defense really resonates because people can associate with being afraid.” (Read more)

At least 22 states have stand your ground laws, "with varying degrees of requirements for when citizens may use deadly force to protect themselves," Maggie Clark writes for Stateline. "Before these new laws were put in place beginning in 2005, people who felt threatened outside their home were required to flee from an attacker before they were allowed to use force to defend themselves." Florida's law "allows people to defend themselves with force if they feel threatened in their home, business, car, or a place where they 'have a legal right to be.'" Zimmerman wasn't initially charged with a crime, because police couldn't disprove his self-defense claim, and he was only arrested once the case drew national attention. Florida Sen. Dwight Bullard, a Democrat, said stand your ground “does a disservice to Floridians because it’s so vague." (Read more)

Many states have enacted stand your ground laws, and 16 states -- Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah -- have the laws on the books, according to FindLaw. For a list of each of the states' laws click here.

UPDATE, July 16: Attorney General Eric Holder condemned "stand your ground" laws in a speech to the NAACP, saying they “sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods . . . allowing – and perhaps encouraging – violent situations to escalate in public.” For a report from The Washington Post, click here.

Grants should help rural veterans get transportation to medical facilities

Veterans living in rural areas should have an easier time finding transportation for their health-care needs. The Department of Veterans Affairs announced Wednesday it is accepting applications for grants up to $50,000 "to help state veterans service agencies and veterans service organizations operate or contract for transportation services to transport veterans to VA medical centers and other facilities that provide VA care," a news release said. (VA photo: A veteran is assisted into a van at the Salt Lake City VA Medical Center)

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki said in the release, “VA wants to be sure that all veterans, including those who live in rural and remote areas, can receive the health care they have earned through service to our country. State veterans agencies and VSOs will now be able to employ innovative approaches to transportation services for veterans in our highly rural areas.  The end results will include better service and better health care for veterans.” (Read more)

Several areas are in need of the grants, such as western North Dakota. Lou Lombardi, a local veterans service officer, said "In some of the areas, it is bad and they don’t have any access at all," Jennifer Johnson and Austin Ashlock report for The Forum in Fargo. (Read more)

Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) said, "All over New Mexico, I have been hearing about the challenges facing rural veterans in receiving timely, quality VA health services," reports Karl Wehmhoener for NBC4 in Amarillo. Udall said the grant "supports new ways to improve access to veteran care that will hopefully enhance transportation options, reduce wait times to receive treatment and cut down on unnecessary expenses." (Read more)

Forest Service helps make baseball safer by reducing number of shattered bats

Major League Baseball games are safer than ever, thanks to the U.S. Forest Service. In response to baseball's concern that too many broken bats were putting players and fans at risk, sometimes injuring them, the service and MLB began working together in 2008 to design bats that were less likely to break, Scott Streater reports for Environment & Energy News. MLB reports there are now half as many shattered bats.

By July 25 in the 2008 season, MLB had 257 broken bats in 260 games, Jack Curry reported then for The New York Times. All 30 teams were told to save their broken bats so they could be analyzed. (Getty photo by Chris McGrath: David Wright of the New York Mets, shatters his bat during the 2008 All-Star Game)

The key, the Forest Service said, is getting a more consistent slope of grain, which makes the wood grain straighter and less likely to break, Streater reports. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, "The U.S. Forest Products Laboratory has once again demonstrated that we can improve uses for wood products across our nation in practical ways -- making advancements that can improve quality of life and grow our economy."

Wood experts examined every broken bat in every MLB game during a three month period in 2008, and studied video of every broken bat from 2009, Streater reports. They found "that lighter, low-density maple-wood bats that have been popular with players since the late 1990s shatter into multiple pieces much more easily than bats made of white ash or high-density maple. The research has already led MLB to adopt rules restricting wood density, as well as changes to wood-drying techniques during manufacturing -- all of which has resulted in a dramatic decrease in the number of shattered bats, according to the service." (Read more)

Researchers say political sway of farmers in key districts means more than political donations

House Republicans passed a farm bill that doesn't include food stamps — a program that typically makes up the bulk of these bills — but does include crop insurance and commodity supports that will cost taxpayers about $195 billion over 10 years, and adds "a new shallow loss income entitlement program, tossing in new protections for sugar production and ensuring that price supports for crops don’t sunset in 2018," Brad Plumer writes for The Washington Post. "Why are lawmakers so willing to vote for farm subsidies — even lawmakers who usually oppose government spending? After all, only a small fraction of the U.S. population even farms anymore."

Here's a possible answer: A research paper that is still a work in progress by Duke University economist Marc Bellemare and political scientist Nicholas Carnes says that farmers and farm owners have disproportionate political sway in key districts, Plumer writes. The paper looks which lawmakers were former farmers, how many farm owners and managers were in lawmakers’ districts, and at farm-and-food PAC's' campaign contributions -- which are turning out to be less influential than many might expect.

"One explanation that almost always explains support for agricultural protection is the electoral pressure a legislator faces, i.e., the proportion of her constituents who are farm owners or farm managers,” the paper says, adding that "Lawmakers with high levels of poverty in their districts are actually less likely to favor farm subsidies. This suggests that the traditional set-up of farm bills — where food stamps are included to create an urban-rural alliance — has in fact made it much easier for the previous farm bills to pass."

Other things, like lobbying or a politician’s farm background, can also matter, but they have a weaker effect, Plumer writes. "The average number of direct agricultural constituents in a House district was only about 1 or 2 percent, but those voters care a lot about farm policy. And most other voters don’t care much about farm policy at all — and are unaware of the costs of agricultural subsidies." (Read more)