Saturday, January 18, 2014

Budget writer puts in $10 million for broadband; looks to be aimed at his district, the nation's poorest

For months, if not years, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold "Hal" Rogers of Eastern Kentucky has talked about the need for better Internet service to boost the economy in his 5th District, which is not only the nation's poorest but has lost 6,000 jobs in coal, its only big industry, in the last two years. In writing the federal budget that Congress passed this week, Rogers did something about that, though exactly how he did it remains unclear.

Rep. Rogers, left, and Gov. Beshear at
Pikeville meeting (Herald-Leader photo)
Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports, "As part of a $12 million budget increase for the Appalachian Regional Commission, Congress directed $10 million to broadband development in distressed counties affected by reductions in coal jobs, according to Earl F. Gohl, federal co-chair of the agency." There is no such reference in the bill's language for the ARC's $80.3 million budget, and Gohl's chief of staff, Guy Land, didn't reply to an email Saturday seeking comment. Appropriations Committee spokeswoman Jennifer Hing said in an email that the money "is part of the ARC" budget.

"The budget language does not specify Eastern Kentucky," Estep writes, "but it appears the region will be first in line for the money. Eastern Kentucky is home to the highest concentration of distressed counties in the multi-state ARC, and has lost a greater percentage of its coal jobs than any region of the country the last two years."

Rogers, a Republican, delivered the broadband money in the same week that Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear said he would include four-laning of the Mountain Parkway in Eastern Kentucky in the road plan he would submit to the legislature. Beshear talked about his hope to do that, and Rogers talked about broadband, at a huge gathering to solicit ideas for Shaping Our Appalachian Region, an initiative they started. The Rural Policy Research Institute sifted through those ideas and issued a report Friday calling for "a new guiding organization to organize the work." Beshear and Rogers said they would get to work on that soon. (Read more)

Friday, January 17, 2014

Tobacco use is linked to diseases that might surprise you; smoking rates remain high in rural U.S.

Smoking cigarettes poses even more health risks than previously thought, according to acting Surgeon General Dr. Boris D. Lushniak. In a report issued Friday, he "concluded that cigarette smoking — long known to cause lung cancer and heart disease — also causes diabetes, colorectal and liver cancers, erectile dysfunction and ectopic pregnancy," reports Sabrina Tavernise of The New York Times. (AP photo by Julio Cortez)

"The other health problems the report names are vision loss, tuberculosis, rheumatoid arthritis, impaired immune function and cleft palates in children of women who smoke," Tavernise notes. "Smoking has been known to be associated with these illnesses, but the report was the first time the federal government concluded that smoking causes them. The report is not legally binding, but is broadly held as a standard for scientific evidence among researchers and policy makers." To read the full report, click here.

The rate of U.S. smokers among adults 18 and older dropped from 24.7 percent in 1997 to 18 percent in 2012, according to the National Health Interview Survey by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC lists the median percent of adult smokers in the U.S. in a 2012 report at 21.2 percent. But numbers are much higher in states with large rural populations, led by Kentucky at 29 percent and West Virginia at 28.6 percent. Other states with high numbers are: Arkansas, 27 percent; Oklahoma, 26.1 percent; Mississippi, 26 percent; Louisiana, 25.7 percent; Indiana, 25.6 percent; Ohio, 25.1 percent; Missouri, 25 percent; and Alabama, 24.3 percent. For an interactive map click here.

Public split over huge metal mine proposed in Minn.

The first public meeting to discuss a proposed $650 million open-pit copper mine in northeastern Minnesota was standing room only on Thursday, with an estimated 1,500 people attending to voice their opinions for and against, John Myers reports for the Duluth News Tribune. The meeting, the first of three, lasted for five hours, and "the audience appeared roughly split evenly, with half saying the science is sound and the project is ready to go ahead but half saying that too many questions loom unanswered." (Minneapolis Star Tribune photo by Jeff Wheeler)

The PolyMet Mining Corp. project, which "would produce nickel, gold, platinum, palladium and other valuable minerals ... would create about 300 jobs for about 20 years with the possibility of another 60 jobs if a secondary processing plant is built in the future," Myers writes. "Critics say the threat of acidic mine runoff, along with sulfate and heavy metal water pollution, is too great. They say the project could require water treatment for centuries after the mine is played out, spoiling local waters and leaving taxpayers to pay for the cleanup."

Supporters "say the new jobs will help bolster the eastern Iron Range, where jobs have been scarce since the LTV taconite [iron ore] plant shuttered in 2001, putting 1,100 people out of work. They say the new kind of mining will help diversify the Range economy, spur spinoff jobs across the region and pump millions of dollars of taxes and royalties into local, state and federal coffers." (Read more) (Mining Truth graphic)
At issue was a "Department of Natural Resources forecast — a dense, 2,200-page environmental impact statement released in December that took five years and cost PolyMet about $22 million — of the project’s effect on northeastern Minnesota," Josephine Marcotty reports for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "That analysis, together with public comments, will lay the foundation for decisions by the DNR next year on whether to grant PolyMet the permits that would allow the project to proceed."

Environmentalists fear risks of mining the area, Marcotty writes. "Unlike taconite, which has long been mined on the Iron Range, the precious metals of hard-rock mining are found in ore that contains sulfites. When exposed to air and water, sulfites can create acid drainage that leaches heavy metals and mercury from rock. The acidity can destroy aquatic life." Advocates argue that "only 30 percent of the ore that PolyMet would mine is high in sulfide and that there is reliable technology to prevent acid generation and protect the region’s natural assets." The public comment period continues through March 13, with hearings on Jan. 22 and Jan. 28. (Read more)

Charlotte Observer examines arguments for and against faster poultry processing lines

In October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed faster poultry processing lines, a move that critics argue could cause animals to be inhumanely killed, injure more workers and weaken safety measures, flaws in which were blamed for a salmonella outbreak last year. In a story for the Charlotte Observer, Renee Schoof takes a look at how the proposal could affect North Carolina, where poultry is a $13 billion industry. (Observer photo by John Simmons)

Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), who has already received $14,000 from the industry in her re-election bid, supports the changes, which "would replace most federal inspectors on poultry processing lines with company workers who would watch for defects as chicken and turkey carcasses zip through," Schoof writes. "The move would mean more control over the inspection process for companies, enabling them to increase profits by processing birds faster. Hagan argued that the rule change would reduce the number of food-borne illnesses and save taxpayers money." A test program that uses plant employees for most of the quality control processes has been used in the state since 1999, and is currently used in 19 chicken and five turkey plants.

Under current rules, chicken processing lines are limited to a maximum of 140 birds per minute; the proposed maximum is 175 birds per minute. "The proposed rule contains no requirement that company inspectors be trained. The USDA would offer training guidance, but plant operators would be free to decide how to train their quality-control inspectors. A single federal inspector would be stationed at the end of the line for final checks. Others would be reassigned to different duties within the plant. Some would lose their jobs. The USDA estimated that the new rule would allow 6 percent more chickens and turkeys to be processed without adding workers, leading to economic benefits of $260 million, or 3 cents per bird."

Schoof writes, "Worker advocates say allowing the lines to move any faster would exacerbate the already serious problem of hand, wrist and other injuries caused by repetitive motions. And food-safety groups say that the federal government has yet to prove that the new inspection system would reduce the bacteria responsible for most food-borne illnesses." Basilio Castro, "who worked at the Case Farms chicken plant in Morganton in 2004 and 2005, experienced throbbing in his hands, shoulder and back from making thousands of cuts in the plant all day." He said in an interview, “It wouldn’t let you sleep.” (Read more)

Read more here:

Charges dropped against driver with Google Glass; confusion remains about legality of device on road

Cecilia Abadie
Is it illegal to wear Google Glass while driving? That remains up in the air. But score one for the technological crowd, after a charge against a California driver for wearing the device while driving was thrown out Thursday, because there wasn't enough evidence to prove it was turned on while she was driving, Heather Kelly reports for CNN. Cecelia Abadie, a Google Glass tester, said the device was off, but was still issued a ticket for using it.

"Google Glass wearers in California can still be pulled over and cited for wearing the head-mounted displays while driving," Kelly writes. "Whether they get a warning or a ticket will be up to the individual officer. Getting a charges dismissed will then be up to individual traffic court judges." Despite the win, Abadie's attorney told Kelly, "It doesn't necessarily answer the question everybody wanted: Is it legal to drive down the road wearing Google Glass while it's operating?"

Some say yes, citing California vehicle code 27602, "which prohibits operating a video-display in front of the driver's head rest where it can distract the driver. The law was originally drafted to keep people from watching TV while driving," Kelly writes. But others aren't so sure. California Highway Patrol Public Affairs Officer Jake Sanchez told Kelly, "Anything that distracts you from driving is something that were concerned about," but he noted, "There is no law that specifically says Google Glass is illegal. Each officer has to take each case on a case-by-case basis." (Read more)

USDA adds parts of Ky., La., Tenn., W.Va. to areas that get extra oomph in seeking federal aid

Parts of Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia are being added to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "StrikeForce" program aimed at increasing economic opportunity in rural areas with persistent poverty, bringing the total to parts of 16 states. It gives extra weight to applications for federal assistance from the areas.

"There are 703 counties that have been persistently poor counties, with high poverty rates for extended periods of time. Of those, 537 are located in rural America," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the Lexington Herald-Leader. "It is fairly obvious to me that there is a significant rural component to the poverty America is dealing with."

Vilsack wrote about it on the Huffington Post Politics blog, saying, "Rural America faces a unique set of challenges when it comes to combating poverty in our towns and communities. Too often, rural people and places are hard to reach or otherwise underserved -- but not forgotten."

In Kentucky, 73 of the state's 120 counties will be included, approximately one-third in the depressed Central Appalachian coalfield. "The effort will work in tandem with the federal 'Promise Zones' designation announced last week by President Barack Obama for eight southeastern Kentucky counties" and four other poverty-stricken areas, Janet Patton reports for the newspaper.

It will also complement Shaping Our Appalachian Region, the initiative of Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and 5th District U.S. Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers, R-Somerset, which is "aimed at diversifying and revitalizing Eastern Kentucky's battered economy," Patton reports.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Study: Community newspapers promote sense of belonging, leading to fewer drug-related arrests

Areas with a community newspaper typically have fewer drug-related arrests, according to a study published in the winter issue of Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.

"Community newspapers function to foster a perception of close-knit cohesive communities," and the greater their penetration into a market, the more civic engagement a community has, the researchers write. Civic engagement leads to a sense of belonging, which results in fewer drug-related arrests, they found.

"Community newspapers promote civic engagement by highlighting the characters and activities of local residents and institutions, fostering affective attachment to community, presenting information that helps participate in community events and activities, and cultivating common values in pursuit of social goods," the researchers write. "Communities with such information resources tend to develop voluntary participation."

The study examined a nationally representative sample of 389 counties in 24 states, chosen at random to represent the nation's four main regions. It used information from the federal Uniform Crime Reporting Program. The authors are Masahiro Yamamoto of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and Weina Ran of Washington State University. To read their full report, click here. A subscription may be required.

Vilsack says Farm Bill coming by end of month

University of Ky. photo by Stephen Patton
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Thursday that he believes Congress will pass a Farm Bill by the end of the month.

"I'm confident we're now at a point that we've raised the expectation level so high that there's no going back. They've got to get some answers," Vilsack said in an interview with The Rural Blog after speaking at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.

The biggest sticking points are the dairy provisions in both the House and Senate versions of the bill, which House Speaker John Boehner has called "Soviet style." House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas has said he is crafting compromise language. UPDATE: For possible provisions, from David Rogers of Politico, click here.

Asked if he thinks Lucas will come up with language that will satisfy Boehner, Vilsack answered crisply, "Yes." He added that the issues are difficult, but indicated that Department of Agriculture staffers are working with Lucas to draft the language. "I'm just confident in the whole process," he said. As Vilsack visited Kentucky, the Senate cleared a procedural path for considering the conference committee version of the bill as early as Monday.

Another reason the Farm Bill will pass, Vilsack said, is that it must pass, for many reasons. He said that without a new bill, cotton farmers will face trouble from Brazil on the trade-protection, and he will be forced to follow permanent law on dairy price supports, creating a "milk mess," a term this interviewer used first in the conversation.

Earlier this week, speaking to the American Farm Bureau Federation, Vilsack said the mess could be avoided by allowing USDA's Commodity Credit Corp. to buy excess dairy products to stabilize markets, as it can do with other commodities. (Read more)

Volunteer firefighters, other emergency responders won't count as full-time under Obamacare

Volunteer fire departments that feared federal health reform could significantly harm their ability to provide services in rural communities need no longer worry. After hearing complaints from officials in towns that said they couldn't afford insurance coverage for volunteer firefighters and emergency responders working 30 hours a week, and lacked the body count to increase the staff to accommodate lost hours, the Treasury Department announced that volunteer fire departments and emergency responders won't be counted as full-time employees, and their departments will be exempt from providing coverage, Alanna Durkin reports for The Associated Press.

Mark Mazur, assistant treasury secretary for tax policy, wrote on the department's website: "The forthcoming final regulations relating to employer shared responsibility generally will not require volunteer hours of bona fide volunteer firefighters and volunteer emergency medical personnel at governmental or tax-exempt organizations to be counted when determining full-time employees (or full-time equivalents). These final regulations, which we expect to issue shortly, are intended to provide timely guidance for the volunteer emergency responder community.  We think this guidance strikes the appropriate balance in the treatment provided to traditional full-time emergency responder employees, bona fide volunteers, and to our Nation’s first responder units, many of which rely heavily on volunteers." (Read more)

UPDATE, Feb. 11: The Treasury Department has issued the regulations.

Train trips to offer glimpses into Central Appalachian culture, history; states hope it boosts tourism

21st Century steam train (Tennessee Valley Railroad)
Eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia have been hit hard in with the loss of coal jobs, high rates of unemployment and poverty, and a economy that has continued to struggle despite numerous attempts to find means of improvement. Officials in all three states hope to boost the economy by offering visitors a glimpse into the history and culture of the region during a a two-day journey on a train trip through the three states, Russ Cassady reports for the Appalachian News-Express in Pikeville, Ky.

The trip, which is scheduled to leave from Grundy, Va., on April 12 and reach in Devon, W.Va., on April 13, is part of the Tennessee Valley Railroad's 21st Century Steam Program spring excursion schedule. Nine trips are scheduled, beginning March 29 with a day trip from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Attalla, Ala., and ending June 7 with a trip from Chattanooga to Stearns, Ky.

The Grundy-to-Devon itinerary will have two trips each day, allowing a total of 2,000 people to ride, Cassady writes. Charles Carlton, director of energy and community development in Pike County, Kentucky, "said there are several points of interest for potential visitors — including the connection to the Hatfield and McCoy feud, an opportunity to see coal mining and also the historic nature of the passenger rail trip, which at one time was common in the area," Cassady writes. "Riders will also get to see another angle of Clintwood Elkhorn’s preparation plant, giving an insight into the coal mining industry" and they "will get to pass through two tunnels, and will also cross the Tug and Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River as it travels through the three states."

Pike County Judge-Executive Wayne T. Rutherford "said the possible benefits to the area are tremendous and that each community that is connected to the trip has a chance to capitalize," Cassady writes. "Hotels in all three counties, officials said, are working to provide packages to visitors who come in for the rail excursion."

Pike County Tourism Director Tony Tackett told Cassady: "Our big goal is a two-night package. If they’re here on Friday evening to catch the train on Saturday morning, then have activities later Saturday afternoon and evening, then, of course, Sunday — Hatfield and McCoy tours . . . crafts out in your hotel lobbies, people selling their wares, getting that Appalachian feel. They know us, but they don’t know us. Every community needs to be displaying your arts and your crafts and your Appalachian culture, whether it’s music in the foyer of the Hilton Garden Inn early that evening . . . you’ve got to cater to these people because we need them again.” Tickets have not yet gone on sale. (Read more)

EPA says Alaska's planned Pebble Mine would destroy thousands of acres of wetlands, harm salmon

After a three-year study the Environmental Protection Agency released a report on the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska's Bristol Bay watershed, saying the large gold-and-copper mine "poses significant risks to the region's thriving sockeye salmon runs and its people," Lisa Demer reports for the Anchorage Daily News. The EPA said "just building the mine would destroy between 24 to 94 miles of salmon-supporting streams and 1,300 to 5,350 acres of wetlands, ponds and lakes, depending on the mine's size." (Pebble Science map: the planned mine site)
In October 2011 residents in the region voted to ban large-scale resource extraction that included mining for gold and copper. State officials sued to invalidate the vote. EPA continued to study the area, extending the public comment period to June 30, 2013, with some arguing the mine was the only decent source of income in the area. Overall, there was 1.1 million public comments on the issue, Demer writes.

Dennis McLerran, administrator for EPA's Seattle-based Region 10, told Demer, "There are clear losses of habitat from the mine footprint and from the mining activities themselves. The lost habitat means 'significant risks to fish and wildlife and the cultures that are there'." Northern Dynasty Minerals, the developer, "says the region's mineral deposit is among the largest and richest in the world, with the potential to produce more than 80 billion pounds of copper and 107 million ounces of gold over three decades."

"The political and environmental fights over the proposed mine have raged for years and have led to lawsuits and a series of ballot measures, including one approved for the August primary election that, if voters approve, would give the Legislature final say over any large mine in the Bristol Bay region," Demer writes. "Some multinational jewelers have said they won't use minerals mined from Pebble. Environmental activists, including actor Robert Redford, oppose it. Pension-fund managers from California and New York City are pressuring a Northern Dynasty shareholder, Rio Tinto, to drop the project, too." (Read more)

Read more here:

Common Core debate resounds from prominent Beltway foe to a rural editor who sees its benefits

The Common Core State Standards, an education initiative adopted on a state-by-state basis, were designed to guide what students learn in each year of school across the nation. The standards focus on English and math and require students to master less information more thoroughly. From its inception, the movement had both enthusiastic proponents and wary opposers, and the debate continues today, some attributing never-before-seen academic success to the standards even as a leading conservative voice decries them as way to more government control.

Kentucky was the first state to adopt the standards several years ago. Todd County, a very rural county on the Tennessee border, has seen major improvements in student success and positive transitions in spite of the government's cutting funding. School officials and teachers knew it would be difficult, but knew "at some point the stricter standards would pay off for Todd County, a county that has seen youth poverty on a rampant rise and budget woes for nearly a decade as the local economy has struggled," Editor-Publisher Ryan Craig writes for the weekly Todd County Standard.

Most notably, Todd County High School, which had previously struggled, was in the top 9 percent of all schools in the latest statewide tests. Craig suggests that the standards were a key factor in the success, in spite of the apparently increased difficulty of the Common Core tests. The teachers in the county worked hard to learn the new material and planned ways to help the students catch up, he reports. Now elementary school students cannot as easily make the Principal's List as a result of higher criteria, and in the high school, students are taking more college level courses.

However, state budget cuts are making it difficult to move forward. "If we continue to receive cuts, we will have to look at raising additional local taxes to continue to have current programs and teaching staff," Makka Wheeler, the schools' finance officer, told the Standard. "We need stability of state and federal revenues; however, we have had seven years of cuts." That was the point of Craig's front-page column, which was headlined, "We can't let funding stop education momentum."

On the other side of the debate are those who says the standards kill creativity, ignore the differing educational needs of students and promote more governmental control. Conservative columnist George Will writes for The Washington Post Writers Group that the debate will continue to heat up as people realize the true nature of the standards. While the Department of Education promotes the standards, the 1979 law creating it "forbids it from exercising 'any direction, supervision or control over the curriculum' or 'program of instruction' of any school system," Will notes. He says that is only the beginning of the pressure that will increase for schools to regulate content, and "Washington is already encouraging the alignment of the GED, SAT and ACT with the Common Core."

The government has bought states' agreement with the standards with the promise of federal funding. Although 45 states and the District of Columbia originally accepted the deal, some are reevaluating the decision, and more will do so. The fact is that "Fifty years of increasing Washington inputs in K-12 education has coincided with disappointing cognitive outputs from schools. Is it imprudent to apply to K-12 education the federal touch that has given us" Will writes.

This negative response to the Common Core highlights three healthy aspects of politics today, Will writes: Communication skills and technologies have mobilized information about the debate, communities' uprising against state capitals and Washington shows an unwillingness to conform to the "public agenda" if it's deemed unhelpful and political dishonesty is and will result in the appropriate consequences.

These two opposing points of view on an important topic may indicate an aspect of the Common Core State Standards debate that is true of many other controversies: the Common Core is neither without flaw nor without advantages. What works for one school or district may not work for another.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

House Appropriations Committee chair includes protections for the coal industry in budget bill

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky.
The $1 trillion budget plan introduced to Congress on Monday by Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) has policy riders that are pro-coal, Washington correspondent James R. Carroll reports for the The Courier-Journal. Rogers and Mikulski chair the appropriations committees; he represents the nation's poorest congressional district, which has seen its coal industry more than decimated by geologic, economic and regulatory factors in the last two years. Her state has a small amount of coal, some of which has been strip mined.

The bill, which the White House has endorsed, includes a provision that bars "any funding for the Army Corps of Engineers that would be used to change how 'fill material' from mountaintop mining and other operations is defined," Carroll reports. Coal interests fear a redefinition by the Corps and the Environmental Protection Agency that would complicate mountaintop mining, which relies on valley fills to dispose of much of the excavated material. UPDATE, Jan. 17: Francis X. Clines of The New York Times editorial page gives details in a blog post titled "Congress Moves Mountains."

The bill would also "prohibit the Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corp. from cutting funding for coal-fired power plants overseas. The Ex-Im Bank last month adopted regulations requiring new coal plants to capture carbon emissions." The bill would also "provide at least $3 million for business development, job training and technical assistance in economically distressed communities dependent on the coal industry."

Rogers issued a statement saying, “The nation’s coal industry has taken a beating from the Obama administration’s war on coal, which has cost thousands of jobs in my district alone. Coal exports are an important and growing aspect of the industry and have a huge benefit to U.S. economic health and job creation. This provision will ensure that these exports aren’t unnecessarily slowed by overregulation, to give U.S. industries a fair shot in the global marketplace.” (Read more)

Affordable Care Act isn't for many of the poor; alternative designed for them is languishing

Federal health reform was designed to make coverage affordable for all, but for many low-income people struggling from paycheck to paycheck, the Affordable Care Act is anything but affordable and is burdening people with one more bill they can't afford, Michael Ollove reports for Stateline. Sireesha Manne, a staff attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, told Ollove, "For those with very low wages trying to raise kids, after paying for housing, electricity, food, transportation and child care, asking people to pay another $50 or $100 a month, that’s just out of reach."

The authors of the act anticipated this, so "The law allows states to create a separate insurance program, called the Basic Health Program, for people who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid and too little to afford insurance on the state exchanges, even with federal aid," Ollove writes. "Under such a plan, the federal government will give the subsidies directly to the states, instead of to individuals and families. The states are supposed to pool the money and then use the financial leverage to push insurers to offer less expensive coverage. A number of states are eager to create such programs, but they can’t until the Obama administration issues the regulations that will govern them."

There's fear the states won't be able to launch the programs until 2016, which means that people not eligible for Medicaid will have to survive on the financial assistance available under the current plans, Ollove writes. Those plans are based on family income and the federal poverty level. "According to the ACA, a family of three whose annual income is at 133 percent of the federal poverty level (an annual income of $24,352), should have to pay no more than 3 percent of their household income in annual premiums, or $731. In that case, the federal government would pay the insurance company the difference between $731 and the actual premium. The percentage an individual or family is expected to pay rises at higher income levels, up to 400 percent of poverty. At that income level, paying up to 9.5 percent of household income on health insurance is considered affordable. So, a family of three making $73,240 would receive a subsidy to cover premium amounts above $6,958."

That still leaves the term "affordable" up for interpretation. Sherry Glied, dean of New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, told Ollove, “What it means for something to be affordable or not affordable is totally debatable. It isn’t like there’s a fixed definition of affordability.” That has Manne predicting "that policymakers will be hearing about legions of Americans who still can’t afford health care—no matter the title of the Affordable Care Act." (Read more)

Law enforcement agencies in Wisconsin, upper Michigan teaming up to stop rural drug activity

Law enforcement officials in northeast Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan are trying to combat a perceived notion among drug dealers that doing business in rural areas is safe and easy. In response, agencies are partnering to become educated about drugs in their regions, and beef up patrols and crack down on drug activity, Nathan Phelps reports for the Green Bay Press-Gazette. (Shawano County Sheriff's Department photo: A deputy carries seized marijuana plants)

"We have intelligence coming out of the Wisconsin state prison system that some of your rural communities are really open markets,"Capt. Tom Tuma of the Shawano County Sheriff’s Department in Wisconsin told Phelps. "Part of that is the perception we don’t have the law enforcement resources that some of the larger jurisdictions do . . . and that’s why you’re seeing these partnerships form between agencies. We’re trying to send a clear message that ‘We’re on to you,’ we’re going to work it aggressively and we’re going to try to deter them from further exploiting the rural areas of central Wisconsin."

The results have been a sharp increase in arrests, Phelps writes. Officials working together in Wisconsin's Marinette County, population 41,000, and Michigan's Menominee County, population 23,000, made 76 drug-related arrests in 2013, up from 50 in 2012. Last year, 39 of those were for heroin, use of which is rising in many places. In Wisconsin, heroin-related arrests rose from 267 in 2008 to 672 in 2012, an increase of 152 percent, and 408 arrests were made in the first six months of 2013, according to information from the state Department of Justice.

Crossing borders hasn't been a problem for rural law enforcers, some of whom have made drug arrests as far away as Chicago and Milwaukee, Phelps writes. Detective Sgt. Gordon Kowaleski of Shawano County told Phelps, “You have to look at it as a regional problem. Then it’s up to the individual agencies to form task forces and working groups and to work together to address it. It’s not a problem that is isolated in Shawano County; it’s all throughout the Wisconsin—including northern Wisconsin.”

Law enforcement and legislators say stopping drug activity in rural areas starts with "community support and diversion programs aimed at getting help to users," Phelps writes. "Teaching the public to look for signs of possible addiction is another tool law enforcement uses to try to get ahead of the problem." Tuma told Phelps, “The big danger in a lot of communities is ignoring it and then one day, three or four years from now, they wake up and have lost total control of their community, and the property crime rate is through the roof. When you wait for that point, it’s too late. Now you’re going to dump millions of dollars into something you should have been addressing all along." (Read more)

Western states eye Farm Bill as way to regain payments for federal land, but bill faces obstacles

House Republicans presented a proposal Tuesday to help save the farm bill by using it "as a lifeline for Western towns and counties surrounded by vast stretches of tax-exempt federal lands," David Rogers reports for Politico. "The Interior Department now distributes about $400 million annually to 1,900 such local governments under a program known as PILT, or payments in lieu of taxes. But PILT’s funding authorization has expired with no clear replacement ahead." All counties with federal land get PILT, but the amounts are much greater in the West, where most federal land lies.

Rep. Rob Bishop
The current Farm Bill draft "is expected to generate in the range of $25 billion in 10-year savings from changes in commodity and nutrition programs," Rogers writes. When officials in Western states found out Monday that they weren't included in the proposed $1.012 trillion budget plan, they came up with a new solution to their problems—the Farm Bill. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) told Rogers, “They are thinking about a commitment to make sure we fund it some way. If the farm bill becomes untenable, then there will be a plan B. So they have a commitment that it will be taken care of.”

Bishop said he "was skeptical that using Farm Bill savings to pay for PILT would get more Western votes that the bill already has," Rogers writes. Bishop told him, “When I look at the roughly 30 Westerners, who are primarily interested in this, most of them voted for [the Farm Bill] anyway. So, I don’t know if you pick up more than a half-dozen votes.” But he said, “I was for a Farm Bill. Now I am even more so.” (Read more)

Prospects for passage of the bill this month have dimmed because of an impasse over dairy programs between most lawmakers and House Speaker John Boehner. Both the House and Senate bills have "a new margin insurance initiative for dairy farmers which would include supply management tools to guard against over production," Rogers noted in a story last week. Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) "has argued that the supply controls are vital to keep down the cost of the insurance program," but Boehner "believes the increased government role amounts to a bridge-too-far in a world of dairy policy which the speaker is already fond of comparing to the former Soviet Union."

"Dairy farmers usually respond to decreasing prices by producing more, resulting in even lower prices. The new program would pay farmers less for losses on milk that's above their normal production," Ana Radelet reports for The Connecticut Mirror. "The current dairy program—the Milk Income Loss Contract program, known as MILC—gives subsidy payments to dairy farmers when prices are low." There are more than 100 dairy farms in Connecticut, and those farmers "received more than $1.5 million from the MILC program in 2012, less than half of what they got in 2009, when milk prices slumped severely. But the MILC program favors smaller farms. Connecticut dairy farmers, while they don’t have huge herds, generally produce too much milk to benefit greatly from the subsidy." (Read more)

There are other obstacles to passing the Farm Bill. Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley's "language to tighten the definition of 'actively engaged' for the purposes of farm-program payments was used as 'one of the selling points in the Senate,' and now "they are having a tough time backing off of it'," in the face of objections from mainly Southern farm interests, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. Agri-Pulse is subscription only, but a free trial is available by clicking here.

Given these and other issues, the "Washington Insider" column of DTN/The Progressive Farmer said "It is becoming ever more likely that another extension of the 2008 farm law will become necessary" by the end of the month, Keith Good reports for Farm Policy.

Huffington Post picks the best main streets in the U.S.; naturally, most could be called rural

Peter Guttman photo: Eureka Springs, Ark.
Main Street is the heart of many rural towns. It's usually the hub of a town's culture, its business center and its history. The Huffington Post has selected its 15 best main streets, and it's no surprise that most of the entries could be called rural: Galena, Ill.; Port Townsend, Wash.; Denton, Tex.; Woodstock, Vt.; Charleston, S.C.; Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; Bath, Maine; Eureka Springs, Ark.; Littleton, N.H.; Paducah, Ky.; Richmond, Ind.; Staunton, Va.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; San Luis Obispo, Calif.; and Key West, Fla. (Read more) 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Appeals court strikes down 'net neutrality' rule that protects rural customers who have limited service

UPDATE, Feb. 20: The FCC says it will rewrite the rules, but Brian Fung of The Washington Post notes that teh agency has "a trump card" to hang over the heads of Internet providers: reclassifying them "as regulated utilities under Title II of the Communications Act. Doing so would entitle the FCC to reinstate all the old rules about traffic blocking and discrimination that were just eliminated by the court."

The nation's most pivotal appeals court has struck down the Obama administration's efforts to enforce "net neutrality," the principle that Internet service providers should not discriminate among types of data they carry.

Today's 2-1 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia "holds tremendous portent for the future of the Internet," writes Brad Chacos of PCWorld. "Net-neutrality advocates fear that without rules in place, big companies like Netflix, Disney, and ESPN could gain advantage over competitors by paying ISPs to provide preferential treatment to their company's data. For example, YouTube might pay extra so that its videos load faster than Hulu's on the ISP's network." However, the court left in place the part of the Federal Communications Commission order that requires ISPs to tell their customers if they discriminate.

But Netflix doesn't want to pay. "The regulations were strongly backed by Internet companies like Google and Netflix, which fear that Internet providers will charge them more for the heavy use of their sites by customers," notes Kate Tummarello of The Hill. "On the winning side of the decision is Verizon, which filed the lawsuit, and other major telecom companies. They argued the rules created a huge regulatory burden while stifling innovation in the marketplace." (Read more)

Net neutrality is a protection for rural customers who lack a selection of broadband providers, Andrea Peterson points out for The Washington Post, in a story that includes this map showing in green the parts of the country that have two or more broadband providers:
An appeal seems likely, perhaps in a petition for rehearing by the full court, which has recently gotten new judges appointed by President Obama under the Senate's new rule barring filibusters against presidential appointments except those to the Supreme Court. The FCC could also try to rewrite the rules to pass muster with the courts, Scott Moritz and Cliff Edwards of Bloomberg News report.

The ruling set off alarm bells in the advertising industry. Tim Peterson of Advertising Age reports that it "heightened fears of a doomsday scenario; with the FCC's hands tied, the egalitarian web could become a fiefdom controlled, mediated and priced by the nation's biggest broadband providers. Broadband providers don't want rising bandwidth costs weighing down their profit margins and they're looking for someone else to stick with the bill. That someone else may be an advertiser. The most discussed scenarios would see these broadband providers essentially taxing websites by slowing their page-load speeds unless they cut those providers a check every month. That could spur more media companies to adopt subscription models and others increasing their subscription rates. For example, people who watch a lot of data-heavy Netflix videos could pay higher subscription fees than someone who browses lighter fare. In lieu of websites being packaged like cable-TV bundles, people could pay a la carte fees to visit a site or watch a video." (Read more)

UPDATE, Jan. 19: The decision has ominous implications for journalism and news-media freedom, John Stearns of Free Press, which supports net neutrality, writes on PBS Media Shift.

Study says '16 and Pregnant' reality TV show is responsible for 5.7% decline in births to teens

The MTV show "16 and Pregnant" has been highly criticized, not only for featuring pregnant teens, but because some of the cast members have since been arrested, gotten into trouble with drugs and alcohol, and one was featured in a sex tape. But, a study by researchers at the University of Maryland and Wellesley College for the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the show has actually helped lower the national rate of teen pregnancies, which are significantly higher in rural areas than urban ones. (MTV photo)

The rate of teen births dropped an average of 2.5 percent per year from 1991 to 2008, but from 2009, when the show premiered, to 2012, teen pregnancy has dropped 7.5 percent per year, according to the study. But it remains high. In 2012, more than 29 out of every 1,000 girls in the U.S. between the ages of 15 to 19 got pregnant, a rate higher than in any other developed country. In 2010, the rate was 33 per 1,000 girls, and in rural areas, 43 per 1,000, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy.

Part of the study focused on social-media trends "to see whether locations with higher search activity and tweets about '16 and Pregnant' showed higher levels of searches and tweets about birth control and abortion," Jacque Wilson reports for CNN. "They did. The researchers also looked to see whether high viewership in certain areas corresponded with a bigger drop in teen births. It did."

Melissa Kearney, one of the study authors, told Wilson, "Shows that make it clear how hard it can be . . . affect girls who might not care otherwise. You see she's fighting with her boyfriend on a daily basis. She's gaining weight. Her friends are partying without her." That's why the researchers credit the show for helping lower the teen pregnancy rate, because it highlights "the difficulties of raising a child at such a young age and have concluded from this coincident timing that the show is at least partially responsible for the recent decrease in teen childbearing rates," according to the study.

"Our estimates imply that these shows led to a 5.7 percent reduction in teen births that would have been conceived between June 2009, when the show began, and the end of 2010. This can explain around one-third of the total decline in teen births over that period," the researchers write. "Data limitations preclude us from conducting separate analyses of pregnancies and abortions, but we note that teen abortion rates also fell over this period. This suggests that the show's impact is attributable to a reduction in pregnancy rather than greater use of abortion." To read the study click here.

Economists ask: Instead of rules to slash antibiotic use in livestock, how about a tax or user fee?

Estimated annual use, by weight, of antibiotics in U.S.
The Food and Drug Administration said last month it wants to phase out the use of most antibiotics used on livestock for purposes of enhancing growth or improving feed efficiency. A study by a pair of Canadian economists published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests another alternative: "A simple tax or 'user fee' on antibiotics used by the livestock industry would be a far more effective way to prevent overuse of these drugs," Brad Plumer reports for The Washington Post. (NEJM graphic)

Researchers "argue that a simple user fee on antibiotics makes more sense," Plumer writes. The study report says: "Every use of antibiotics increases selective pressure, thus undermining the value for other users. In effect, each antibiotic can have only a limited amount of use, so it is appropriate to charge a fee, just as logging companies pay 'stumpage' fees and oil companies pay royalties (A perfect fee would be calibrated to the extent of antibiotic resistance caused by each use; a practical fee, which is what we propose, would be based on the volume of antibiotics used.)"

The authors say a user fee "would be relatively easy to administer, since it could be imposed at the manufacturing or importing stage," and "would deter low-value uses of antibiotics." They say it also "would generate revenues that could help to pay for rewards to companies that successfully develop new antibiotics, or to subsidize antibiotic-research investments, or to support antimicrobial stewardship and education programs."

They argue, "The benefits to human health would be substantial. By reducing the volume of antibiotics, a user fee would mitigate the pressure of selection and diminish the prevalence of resistant pathogens. In addition, it could support the introduction of new drugs. According to our calculations above, a 1 percent reduction in the usefulness of existing antibiotics could impose costs of $600 billion to $3 trillion in lost human health. It is vital to protect this essential resource."

They also suggest that "an even better approach would be an international treaty to recognize the fragility of our common antibiotic resources and to impose user fees to be collected by national governments," according to the study. "A treaty would level the playing field for agricultural producers while mitigating the disastrous overuse of antibiotics. Such a treaty would also have a chance of attaining international compliance, since governments would be motivated to collect the revenues. By contrast, a ban, which disadvantages local producers while providing no revenues to government, would be much less attractive to enforce." To read the study, click here.

Agriculture Secretary Vilsack offers way to resolve dairy issue threatening Farm Bill

"Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack suggested Monday one option for helping resolve the dairy conflict in the Farm Bill would be to allow USDA to buy some excess milk to stabilize prices for producers," Chris Clayton reports for DTN The Progressive Farmer. "The Farm Bill has been held up because of problems over a dairy-supply management provision that Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, opposes. In talking about dairy issues, Vilsack said in a press conference after his speech to the American Farm Bureau Federation that dairy producers need a system that helps producers realize when they are producing too much milk for the market." (Clayton photo)

"Maybe we need to look for ways to get the processors out of that mix and figure out some other way to send that signal," Vilsack said, noting that USDA's Commodity Credit Corp. can buy other commodities' surpluses to stabilize markets. "He added that the conflict over dairy provisions shouldn't overshadow all the other good aspects of the Farm Bill," Clayton reports.

Despite Boehner's intransigence, Vilsack said at the press conference: "I am more optimistic we are going to have a Farm Bill now. We are strongly encouraging the members of the conference committee and specifically the leadership to find the will and the way to get it done." (Read more)

Japanese company to buy Beam for $13.6 billion

Bourbon has a long tradition in rural America, with some of the most well known brands coming out of small towns in Kentucky. But the next time you grab a bottle of your favorite bourbon off the store shelf, you could be putting money into the pockets of a Japanese company. On Monday, Suntory of Japan announced a $13.6 billion deal to buy Beam Inc., which produces several brands of liquor, including Jim Beam and Maker's Mark, Bruce Schreiner reports for The Associated Press.

Officials say the only change in the product will be the name of the owner, Schreiner writes. Chuck Cowdery, an American whiskey writer, told Schreiner, "Ultimately, what the consumer should be interested in is the product. There's absolutely no reason that the product should change. So the consumer really doesn't have anything to be concerned about."

The move could actually help sales, Schreiner writes. "Kentucky, which claims it produces 95 percent of the world's bourbon, has shared in the prosperity. As demand worldwide has spiked, the state's bourbon production has risen more than 120 percent since 1999 to more than 1 million barrels in 2012, according to the Kentucky Distillers' Association. Also, more than 2.5 million visitors toured the major distilleries along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in the past five years, the group said." (Read more)

Suntory, which was Japan's first distillery in 1923, "has since grown into a sprawling conglomerate that spans fitness clubs, Subway restaurants, fresh flowers and golf ranges," Michael De La Merced and David Gelles write for The New York Times. "Buying Beam will bring Suntory’s total annual revenue to $4.3 billion and bolster the Japanese company’s presence in the United States market." (Read more)

Bills would allow counties labeled non-rural by new regulator of banks to petition for rural status

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) introduced legislation Tuesday that "would give rural counties in Kentucky a voice when the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB, has incorrectly labeled them as 'non-rural'," McConnell said in a speech.

"My bill would allow counties that have been improperly designated as ‘non-rural’ to petition the CFPB with additional local information to reconsider their status in order to ensure that rural communities, such as those in Eastern Kentucky, have the access to credit they need to grow their economy," McConnell said. Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.) introduced the same legislation in the House. (Read more)

The CFPB announced in May it was delaying for at least two years its redefinition of "rural counties" to "study whether the definitions of 'rural' or 'under-served' should be adjusted and to work with small creditors to transition to other types of products, such as adjustable-rate mortgages,” Stephen Koff reported for the The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Rural newspapers need to dig deeper to provide readers with complete coverage of Obamacare

Federal health reform is a national policy, but it has a major impact on people at the local level, especially in rural areas. So, how can rural newsrooms with limited resources provide their readers with fair and balanced information? Deron Lee examines the question in a story for Columbia Journalism Review. "As implementation of the Affordable Care Act moves along, the law has far-reaching and sometimes unique implications for rural communities—yet few rural newsrooms seem ready or able to cover the story in all its complexity," Lee writes.

Lee notes that Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog, and University of Kentucky student Justin Richter "recently conducted a content analysis of ACA coverage in Appalachian Kentucky, 'one of the unhealthiest and poorest regions of the country.' They found that newspapers there 'gave their readers limited information' about the law in the two months leading up to the launch of the online insurance exchanges on Oct. 1, and coverage 'was dominated by opinions of public officials, largely those opposed to the law,'” Lee writes. Cross told Lee, “Opinion almost outran news ... and almost one-fourth of the coverage consisted of the opinions of Mitch McConnell,” the state's senior senator and Senate Republican leader, with news sources using his guest columns, or basing stories on his views of the health law.

Lee, who's based in Kansas City, found similar trends in the Midwest, where smaller communities would reveal "a surplus of opinion, often in the form of guest editorials and video news releases from politicians, and a dearth of unbiased, explanatory reporting on the law and its effects," he writes. Mike Shields, managing editor of the nonprofit Kansas Health Institute news service, told Lee, “I would say that health policy issues in general, particularly the ACA … have been very unevenly covered in Kansas.”

Cristina Janney, who has written about the law for Kansas’ McPherson Sentinel, told Lee, “I started with my local sources, went to my local hospital administrators, and then I branched out from there.” Now that the law has fully taken effect she said “it should be easier for a reporter to go out and find someone in their own back yard, so to speak. ... If you’re a reporter in Hays, Kansas, you don’t necessarily need to find an expert in Bethesda, Maryland.”

"To tackle the story from another perspective, Cross notes, a reporter might start with insurance agents," Lee writes. "Still, with an issue as complex and far-reaching as the ACA, it is essential to, in Cross’s words, 'take the time to learn about it.' That means knowing where to look for help and whom to ask."  There are plenty of sources in which to do that, including Kaiser Health News, which has published several stories and conducted a series of webinars for journalists on how to cover the act. Plus, many states have health sites, such as Georgia Health News, Health News Florida, Reporting on Health (California), and Cross's Kentucky Health News, that provide stories that can be picked up for free.

The important thing, Cross says, is finding the information somehow and providing it to readers. He told Lee, “I used to be a rural newspaper manager. I know what papers go through. I know how tough it is. I just want them to raise their sights a bit. From time to time, there are really big issues they need to tackle, and if there ever was one, it’s the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.” (Read more)

Only about 10 percent of Wis. political contributions come from rural areas, one-third of the state

Here's a study that is easy to replicate in your state as log as it has a searchable database of political contributions: In Wisconsin, nearly 90 percent of the $94.4 million in contributions of $100 or more over the past 10 years have come from five urban and suburban areas, according to a report by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
A third of the state's population lives in the rural areas outside the five contributing areas, which are heavily dominated by Republican contributions, reports Chris Hubbuch of the LaCrosse Tribune, which produced an interactive map with the WDC data and Tableau mapping software. “Most of the money is coming from urban and suburban zip codes. That goes a long way to explaining why neither party has much of a rural agenda,” a WDC spokesperson told Hubbuch. “The bottom line is politicians are not talking about rural issues because they can’t raise money talking about rural issues.”

Hubbuch writes, "Between 2003 and 2012, Republicans raised about 60 percent of the money from Wisconsin’s largest donors, according to the report. Only 29 of the state’s zip codes — most near Madison, Milwaukee and Kenosha — were predominantly blue, while 132 were red. In La Crosse County, where Democrats have lately prevailed in balloting, the GOP out-raised Democrats — by as much as 84 percent — in four zip codes. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign report found the GOP enjoyed a three-to-one advantage when it comes to the nearly $29 million in out-of-state donations." (Read more)

New Mexico trying to alleviate rural doctor shortage by increasing number of nurse practitioners

The shortage of rural doctors, and an expected increase in the number of newly insured residents through federal health reform, is worrying many states. One is New Mexico, which is one of the largest states by area, but not by population, and has many small, isolated towns. A report by the state Legislative Finance Committee found that New Mexico "needs an additional 219 primary care physicians to keep up with its population," and "there’s a shortage of more than 280 nurse practitioners," Colleen Heild reports for the Albuquerque Journal. (Journal photo by Roberto E. Rosales: Shirley Knackstedt is a nurse practitioner at a clinic 75 miles from the nearest emergency room)

The report stated: "The availability of both nurse practitioners and physician assistants practicing in urban areas of New Mexico is about twice that of rural areas." And with health reform kicking in, the state expects an estimated 160,000 new Medicaid recipients, and thousands of uninsured people will become insured, Heild writes.

In response, the state is hoping to increase its number of nurse practitioners, with the LFC "recommending more than $5 million in new money to increase nursing capacity at the associate’s, bachelor’s and graduate [degree] levels," Heild writes. Republican Gov. Susana Martinez has initiated a health workforce spending proposal "for additional nurse practitioners to be trained at the University of New Mexico College of Nursing" in an attempt to increase the number of graduates each year from 16 to 40, "with most of the funding helping to increase salaries to attract qualified instructors. Martinez is also asking the Legislature for funding to help recruit nurse practitioners from other states." (Read more)

Colorado legislators are latest to form rural caucus

Rep. Tim Dore
Following in other states' footsteps, rural lawmakers in Colorado are forming a bipartisan caucus "to advance the interests of Coloradans who live outside the Front Range," where most of the state's population lives, Kurtis Lee reports for The Denver Post. The rural caucus was formed by Sen. Mary Hodge (D-Brighton) and Rep. Tim Dore (R-Elizabeth). Dore told the Post, “As the state representative with the largest House district in land area, I understand issues facing my district and rural Colorado. Most state legislators reside in the Denver metro area and are not focused on rural issues. By creating a Rural Caucus, we will be uniting legislators across the state to stand together on issues unique to rural Colorado.”

Sen. Mary Hodge
Hodge, who lives in an outer suburb of Denver, noted that she grew up on a farm in Yuma County, on the Nebraska border, "and some of my family still farms and ranches in Yuma County. The entire eastern part of Senate District 25 is rural. I’m thrilled that those constituents will have a place where their ideas, solutions, and thoughts can be discussed.”

"The formation of the caucus comes at time when Republicans have assailed Democrats as waging a so-called 'war on rural Colorado,' after the 2013 passage of gun-control bills and a electricity mandate on rural electric co-ops," which depend on coal, Lee writes. "The caucus, says Dore, hopes to help find consensus on legislation such as a bill that would lower the renewable mandate from 20 percent to 15 percent." (Read more)

In November, five of 11 Republican-heavy rural counties that had secession on their ballots voted to secede. Also, Two Democratic state senators who backed state gun-control laws were defeated in recall elections, and another senator resigned before a recall election could be held.

Chicago leaders protest plan to separate Great Lakes from Miss. R. system to keep out Asian carp

A group of business leaders and politicians organized by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) gathered Sunday to protest one of the proposals in a report by the Army Corps of Engineers to keep invasive Asian carp out of Lake Michigan, saying one of the eight proposals would cause serious damage to their livelihood and pose public safety concerns, Kim Geiger reports for the Chicago Tribune. The $18 billion, 25-year proposal at the heart of the controversy "would involve physically cutting off Lake Michigan from the Mississippi River through what’s known as hydrologic separation — the use of physical barriers to block aquatic connections between basins." If the carp get into Lake Michigan, they could damage the Great Lakes' $7 billion annual fishing industry. (Tribune photo by Nancy Stone: Sen. Mark Kirk)

Michael Borgstrom, president of Wendella Sightseeing, a Chicago tour-boat firm, said the proposal would damage his business. He told Geiger, “Hydrologic separation, in my opinion, is an irrational, costly and irreversible response to something that has been and continues to be successfully managed by federal, state and local agencies.”

Others, like Del Wilkins, a vice president at New Orleans-based Canal Barge Company, said closing the waterway would increase traffic on highways and railroads. “Imagine another 25 million tons that are put into rail and truck trafficking,” he said. “If we think we have headaches today, we would have big headaches tomorrow.”

Instead, Kirk would raise the voltage at electric barriers that have been built to keep the carp out. Fish have breached the barriers, but no carp have been found to have done so. He said a Coast Guard official told him the voltage is low because "boat passengers could be shocked if they touch the wall near a barrier," Geiger reports. "That problem could be solved with proper signage, Kirk said." (Read more)

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Your local legislative election could be influenced by money and strategies of national organizations

Elections for seats in a state legislature — especially House seats, which have smaller districts than Senate seats — are often essentially local elections, based in large measure on personal knowledge of the candidates. The more that state issues and outside money become involved, the more likely the election results are to follow state and national trends. In the last few years, a flood of national money has nationalized these local elections and created more single-party control of state legislatures and governments, The New York Times reports in the first of a series of articles on one-party states.

Writer Nicholas Confessore's object examples are three states: "Alabama’s transformation was the product, in part, of a sophisticated political apparatus designed to channel political money from around the country into states where conditions were ripe for Republican takeover. In 2010, the effort achieved striking success, moving a dozen states to sole Republican control, including presidential swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. In 2012, a resurgent Democratic version — financed chiefly by labor unions and wealthy liberal donors rather than corporations — began to catch up, spearheading Democratic takeovers in Minnesota and Colorado. Their combined work has helped remake the nation’s political landscape. Republicans or Democrats control both the legislature and the governor’s office in 36 states, the most in 60 years." (NYT graphic; click on it to enlarge; for interactive version, click here)
Confessore acknowledges the influence of many other factors, but reports that "The strategic deployment of campaign cash has helped consultants and donors accelerate or arrest states’ natural drift toward one party or the other, defying national election trends or voter registration advantages." He quotes Republican strategist Ed Gillespie: “People who want to see policies enacted, and see things tried, are moving their activity to the states, and away from Washington. There is a sense that you can get things done.” That includes redistricting, which has probably allowed Republicans to ensure GOP control of the U.S. House through 2022.

Almost every state has legislative elections this year. If your state has a legislature where a switch in party control is more that theoretically possible, the elections in your legislative districts could be targets for outside money, strategies and tactics. Confessore's article explains in detail how that works. Read the story.