Saturday, June 14, 2014

Interactive database gives some idea of partisanship and effectiveness of state legislators in 35 states

How partisan are your state legislators? How effective are they at attracting co-sponsors for their bills and passing them into law? If you live in one of the 35 states analyzed in new interactive charts by the Sunlight Foundation, you can get at least something of an idea. The charts are "a pretty good visualization of the increasing partisanship in state capitals," Niraj Chokshi of The Washington Post writes on the paper's GovBeat blog. Here's a screen grab of the Illinois House chart:
Each legislator is represented by a circle, and is plotted along a liberal-conservative spectrum from left to right. The vertical axis shows each legislator’s success at passing bills. To minimize the influence of what developer Thom Neale calls “theatrical bills” — the kind with little substance that serve as political messaging — he "assigned greater weight to bills that were subsequently signed by the governor into law," Chokshi reports. "The measure isn’t foolproof. Some state legislative staffers pushed back on his weighting system, and measuring impact is difficult. But, again, it shows relative effectiveness rates for each legislator." The size of each circle reflects how often colleagues so-sponsor a legislator's bills." In the interactive version, hover any circle for more information about each legislator.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Fodor's Travel lists its top 10 American small towns

Fodor's Travel has released its list of the 10 best small towns in America. "This year, we've focused on destinations with populations under 30,000 that have a vibrancy of their own and year-round appeal," Michael Connelly and Abbey Chase write for the travel guide. "Our list is made up of detour-worthy towns all over the U.S. that have strong cultural offerings or great outdoor adventures in addition to standout dining and lodging options. For your next small-town getaway, head to any of these 10 remarkable spots." (Dreamstime photo by Janaina Jones: Telluride, Colo.)

Fodor's doesn't give numerical rankings to the top 10 small towns but presents them in this order: Telluride, Colo.; Beaufort, S.C.; Marfa, Tex.; Paia, Hawaii; Calistoga, Calif.; Port Townsend, Wash. (see previous post); Stockbridge, Mass.; Cooperstown, N.Y.; Ashland, Ore.; and Bardstown, Ky. (Read more)

Should high-poverty communities tell students to flee, or try harder to recruit employers?

Should rural students in high-poverty areas be encouraged to migrate to urban areas in order to make the most of their lives, or should rural areas make a concerted effort to keep students local by recruiting employers? Those questions are up for debate in separate articles on the blog Young Education Professionals, as noted in an editorial by Maureen Downey of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

"There are 384 counties in the U.S. that are 'persistently poor,' meaning they’ve had high poverty rates for at least 30 years, and 83 percent of those are non-metro areas," writes Matt Richmond, a research analyst in Washington D.C. "They are former coal towns in Appalachia, farming communities with few farmers, a rust belt that has slowly . . .  rusted. What, exactly, is the mechanism by which schools are transforming students’ job prospects, given these environments?" (YEP graphic)

Richmond argues that in areas that don't have any jobs, school is a waste of time: "Algebra II, as useful as it is . . . doesn’t make an entrepreneur. Nor is it sufficiently impressive to convince IBM they should build a microprocessor plant in the middle of nowhere. Without outside money feeding back into the regional economy, there will be fewer jobs—with lower wages—across the board. This is why unemployment is so intractable in poor, disconnected areas."

Richmond continues, "The goal of experts (who, almost invariably, live in urban areas) focuses much more on the benefits of sending kids away to college. Rural 'brain drain' is a double-edged sword in that it provides kids opportunities they’d never have at home, yet exports the one thing areas can’t afford to lose: skills and talent. But even if we ignore the negative impact and focus on the positive, this isn’t much of a grand plan for students, either. Any plan to increase opportunity for students needs to focus on building industry first and foremost, because without it the long-term prospects for success are dramatically lower."  (Read more)

Andrew Rowe, who grew up in Washington's Olympic Peninsula (see next post) but attended college in the East and now lives in Washington, D.C., said in a comment on the article that students need to get out of poor, rural areas. "Why do I live in one Washington and not the other?" he writes. "The hard truth is that there are very few reasons for people to build 21st-century jobs, like electronics manufacturing, in rural areas because they are remote and lack flexible infrastructure, investment and tax bases. As in other rural areas, older workers with experience logging or working in pulp mills where I grew up have skills not easily transferable to other more modern jobs."

Rowe adds, "Working to improve the economies of these corners of the country is a worthwhile goal. But for the sake of rural children, we should never assume that rural redevelopment efforts will bring large-scale employment and should drive education policies. The realistic assumption for the large bulk of the children in these areas should, instead, be that economic opportunities are better found elsewhere, and our education policies should follow." (Read more)

Maps show where U.S. gets various types of energy

With all the discussions about the Obama administration's plan to cut carbon-dioxide emissions by 30 percent by 2030, talk of a "war on coal" and heated debates between those who support and oppose the plan, it might be a good time to look at exactly where America gets its energy. The Washington Post provides 11 maps that show how different sources—thermal, nuclear, hydroelectric, wind and solar power—are used in the U.S., along with maps of transmission lines, the shifting of coal production from Appalachia to the West and locations of oil wells, pipelines and shale oil and gas wells.

Coal remains the top source of energy, providing 37 percent of the nation's electricity, Brad Plumer writes for the Post. But coal has fallen out of favor in recent years, with electric utilities retiring 145 generators, with an average age of 55 years old, between 2010 to 2012. (Map: U.S. coal plants)

Natural gas is on the rise, providing 30 percent of electricity, Plumer writes. "Natural gas plants tend to be smaller, easier to build and emit fewer conventional pollutants than coal plants—so they're more widespread. In 2012, there were 1,714 natural gas plants providing about 30 percent of the nation's power." (U.S. gas power plants)
"Nuclear reactors have begun closing in recent years, but there are still 62 nuclear power plants in operation containing 100 reactors," Plumer writes. "Those reactors provide 19 percent of the nation's electricity—without emitting any heat-trapping greenhouse gases." (U.S. nuclear plants)
In 2012, 7 percent of U.S. electricity came from 1,426 hydroelectric plants, Plumer writes. Wind power has increased from 1 percent of the total in 2008 to 4.1 percent in 2013. Solar power accounted for 0.11 percent of electricity in 2012. Meanwhile, the U.S. produces about 60 percent of the oil it needs, but getting it where it needs to go is a different matter. Several pipeline projects are hold amid protests from residents who don't want the oil running through their neighborhoods. (Read more)

Feds create small program to promote local food

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack introduced a new federal assistance program this week called "Local Foods, Local Places." The Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Transportation, the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Delta Regional Authority are investing a total of $650,000 to help local communities "create more livable places by promoting local foods," according to a White House release.

The goal is to "boost economic opportunities for local farmers and businesses and foster entrepreneurship," improve access to healthy local food, "revitalize downtowns, main street districts and traditional neighborhoods by supporting farmers’ markets, food hubs, community gardens, community kitchens and other kinds of local food enterprises and by providing people with affordable choices for accessing those amenities, such as walking, biking or taking transit," the release says.

Vilsack said in a USDA release, "Buying locally is one of the best things a community can do to grow its economy. Partnerships like Local Food, Local Places help rural leaders develop strategies for promoting farm products grown by people right in their own communities. The demand for local food is growing rapidly nationwide, creating more opportunities for American farmers and ranchers and growing the entire country's rural economy." (Read more)

All communities are eligible to apply, but those given particular attention include areas served by the Appalachian and Delta agencies, as well as federal Promise Zones and USDA StrikeForce counties. Application letters are due by July 15. (Read more)

Maine's rural nursing homes face an uncertain future

Maine, the state with the largest percentage of rural population, is also one of the country's neediest when it comes to funds for nursing homes. Of the state's 7,000 nursing-home residents, 56 percent have been diagnosed with dementia, and the state ranks fourth in the U.S. "in the number of nursing home residents who need help with tasks of daily living, such as bathing, grooming and eating," Jackie Farwell reports for the Bangor Daily News.

"Maine nursing homes also must meet some of the most stringent staffing ratios of any state, Farwell writes. "Despite the challenges, Maine’s facilities boast one of the lowest rates in the nation of deficiencies, such as mistreating patients or high infection rates, which is a reflection of nursing home quality. Without adequate funding, however, Maine seniors and their families will suffer, experts say."

MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, foots the bill for nearly 70 percent of the state's nursing home residents—above the national average of 63 percent, Farwell writes. "At some homes, particularly in poor rural areas, the program covers nearly every resident, stretching bottom lines even further." (Daily News graphic)

Medicare, which only pays a fraction of nursing home costs, has underfunded the state's nursing homes "for the last several years, reimbursing them based on their costs from 2005," Farwell reports. "The payment structure hasn’t changed since 2008, except for a 1.5 percent raise in 2012." A 52-bed nursing home in Calais closed two years, leaving 100 people without jobs, and two more nursing homes are on the brink of closure, according to independent Gov. Paul LePage.

Rick Erb, president and CEO of the Maine Health Care Association, said "The MaineCare funding crunch is affecting some families in ways they may not realize." As a result, Farwell writes, nursing homes underfunded by the state often shift the cost burden to patients with private insurance, which averages about $80 more per day than MaineCare.

Officials hope help is on the way. "The new legislation promises to give Maine nursing homes $4 million in additional state Medicaid funds in the fiscal year beginning July 1," Farwell notes. "Another $5 million is due to follow in the subsequent two years. The federal government would kick in its matching share to the tune of more than $24 million over the next three years." (Read more)

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Americans would pay more to curb climate change; Democrats much more willing than Republicans

Americans as a whole are willing to shell out more money in energy costs if it helps combat climate change by reducing air pollution from carbon dioxide emissions. But a wide gap exists between Democrats and Republicans who would agree to higher taxes, who think proposed rules to lower carbon dioxide will make a difference in health and who support a candidate who favors taking action on climate change, according to the Bloomberg National Poll, Lisa Lerer reports for Bloomberg Businessweek.

The poll of 1,005 adults found that 62 percent of Americans would pay more for energy to combat climate change, compared to 33 percent who said they wouldn't pay the costs, Lerer writes. Numbers vary widely among political parties, with 82 percent of Democrats saying they would be willing to pay higher bills, while 60 percent of independents and 46 percent of Republicans would agree to higher costs. The poll's margin of error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. (Bloomberg graphic: Answers to respondent's willingness to pay more for energy costs to curb climate change)

A clear majority of Democrats—70 percent—said they would support a candidate who calls for taking action on climate change, while 51 percent of independents said they would support such a candidate, and only 28 percent of Republicans, Lerer writes. But 53 percent of respondents "doubt the president’s assertion that a reduction of soot and smog will lead to substantial health benefits." A high number of Republicans—73 percent—said the new standards, which call for a 30 percent reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions by 2030 from existing power plants based on emission levels from 2005, "won’t reduce the number of cases of asthma and other respiratory diseases." A majority of independents, 60 percent, agreed, while only 30 percent of Democrats said yes.

Also, 46 percent of respondents said climate change is a major threat, while 27 percent called it a minor threat, Lerer writes. When it comes to trusting scientists about climate change, 48 percent said "they 'trust' warnings from scientists about the problem, while 43 percent say scientists 'manipulate their findings for political reasons.'” (Read more)

What can be done about rising income inequality?

Income inequality is a widespread problem. The two U.S. jurisdictions with the worst inequality are Manhattan and a rural Native American reservation in North Dakota, which President Obama will visit on Friday. Six of 10 of the most unequal counties are in the South, and so are 18 of the top 25, Jake Grovum writes for Stateline. To see an interactive version of the county-by-county map of income equality below, click here.

Inequality affects different places in different ways, and one issue that seems to be nationwide is a decline in economic mobility. A report last year by the Pew Charitable Trusts said 43 percent of Americans who grew up in the bottom of the income scale stay there as adults, and almost 75 percent never reach the middle.

Also the issue has become more of a concern for the general public. A Pew Research Center survey showed that 65 percent of Americans think inequality is growing. While 90 percent of Democrats participating in the poll though there was "a lot" or "some" actions the government could take to solve the inequality problem, 50 percent of Republicans said there was "not much" or "nothing" the government could do about it.

"Our economic divide has become so stark, inequality is so off the historical wall, it's almost forced itself on the country's attention," said Sam Pizzigati of the Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal think tank. "It's become so stark that it can't be ignored anymore."

This problem has served as the impetus for many state proposals this year, Grovum reports. Some people worry that the measures focus too much on regulating executive pay and will not directly help those who need it. "Inequality has distracted attention from the bottom, where it needs to be," said Alan Reynolds, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute.

Two California Senate Democrats proposed "tying the state's corporate income tax to CEO-worker pay equity, setting up a sliding scale whereby a company's tax bill would decrease if the gap between executive and worker pay was smaller," Grovum writes. The measure would've decreased the corporate tax rate for companies in which the CEO makes less than 100 times what the media worker makes at the company. Though the bill failed its first floor vote, its two authors are trying to keep it alive.

This year, minimum-wage increases are a popular idea among Democrats for addressing inequality. Though Seattle plans to increase minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2017 and other states will increase their rates, "Obama's call for Congress to do the same has gone nowhere," Grovum reports. In some places, Democrats and Republicans have both supported wage increase, and even some Republican-leaning states like Arkansas, Alaska and South Dakota have increase on their fall ballots.

The economy is slowly recovering from the Great Recession, and lawmakers in some states have cut back on the safety net because of concerns that if the government is too helpful, workers may not as quickly re-enter the workforce. "Creating good jobs, they say, is the best way to address inequality," Grovum writes.

"Rather than focusing on inequality, it's how do we actually help the poor and help individuals in need?" asked Rachel Sheffield of the conservative Heritage Foundation. "If we look at our policies from our welfare system they don't promote that, they don't promote work and self-sufficiency. Our welfare system has failed to do that." Some states have decided not to continue waivers from the federal government to allow their citizens to receive food stamps without meeting particular work requirements. "The moves were cast as welfare reform to push people back into the workforce," Grovum writes.

Michigan House passes bill making it harder to purchase ingredients to manufacture meth

Michigan lawmakers are taking steps to make it more difficult for illegal drug manufacturers to purchase over-the-counter drugs used to make methamphetamine, a problem that mostly affects the state's rural areas, Emma Fidel reports for The Associated Press. The House last week passed 105-3 a bill to create a meth offender database that "requires Michigan State Police to report meth convictions to a national database that tracks real-time pharmacy sales of ephedrine or pseudoephedrine," the main ingredient in meth.

Under the law, "An alert is generated if someone buys more than 3.6 grams in a day or more than 9 grams in 30 days," Fidel writes. "With the new act in place, the system would also alert a pharmacist if a person trying to buy the drugs has had a meth-related conviction in the past 10 years. People with records could only buy the medicine with a prescription."

Michigan is one of 29 states that use the database to track ephedrine or pseudoephedrine sales. But if the bill passes the Senate and is signed into law by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, Michigan would become the sixth state, along with Kentucky, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Alabama and Illinois, to have stop-sale measures in place for people with meth convictions, Fidel writes.

The House bill "also makes it a felony punishable by up to five years in prison or a $5,000 fine to buy or possess any ephedrine or pseudoephedrine knowing that it will be used to make meth," Fidel writes. "It makes soliciting people to buy those drugs—smurfing—up to a 10-year felony or a $10,000 fine." (Read more)

'Culturally disconnected' rural voters favored Cantor; metro voters ousted the majority leader

While some initial reports said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's stunning loss in the Virginia primary resulted from rural voters turning their back on the candidate, final tallies show that rural voters actually favored him, while urban ones were more responsible for ousting him, Tim Marema and Bill Bishop report for the Daily Yonder. Cantor received more non-metro votes than challenger David Brat, edging him 2,276 to 2,091 in those regions, but it was in metro areas where Brat made his big move, capturing 34,019 votes to Cantor's 26,662.

"Out of 65,000 votes cast in the primary, only about 4,400 came from nonmetropolitan counties (Louisa and Orange). The rest came from counties in metropolitan statistical areas," the writers say. "But of those 4,400 nonmetro votes, Cantor won 52 percent versus Brat’s 48 percent. That’s right. The man who allegedly lost because his district was redrawn to include more rural voters actually won the vote in the most rural counties in his district. That doesn't add up."

"The general consensus is that Brat’s surprising victory in a low-turnout race shows that politically hard-core voters didn’t like Cantor’s stand on immigration reform, and they thought he wasn’t hard enough on President Obama, Time reports," the Yonder says. "If that’s the case, then voters in suburban and urban counties were more upset about Cantor’s behavior on those issues than voters in rural counties were."

"We’d temper this conclusion by saying county-level voting tallies are a pretty rough approximation of rural and urban political differences at the level of congressional districts. And, again, the number of nonmetro votes was small—only about 7 percent of the total," Bishop and Marema write. "But if rural voters were really categorically 'culturally disconnected' from Eric Cantor, you’d expect it to show up in the non-metro county vote. It didn’t." (Read more)

Food suppliers say increasingly lower limits on sodium in school meals will be hard to achieve

The lunch wars are just heating up. Some schools have asked to opt out of the National School Lunch Program, saying students are refusing to purchase healthy foods in favor of fatty, sugary alternatives, which forces schools to throw out large amounts of food, mostly fruits and vegetables. A House committee responded by approving a bill that would allow some schools to opt out of the program if they are losing money on it. First Lady Michelle Obama, a strong supporter of school-lunch nutrition rules, called that "unacceptable." (Meatingplace photo: Lunch waste at a school in Winona. Minn.) 

Now, food manufactures are making their voices heard, saying the rules, as well as proposed new healthier standards proposed over the next decade, are too difficult to achieve, Lisa Keefe reports for Meatingplace, a magazine for the meat industry. Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, told Keefe, "We're hearing both from our members and from the food companies that naturally occurring sodium in meat and milk and other foods are going to make meeting the new standards very, very difficult."

New rules that go into effect this summer, call for lunch sodium limits to range from 1,230 milligrams for early elementary school to 1,420 milligrams for high-school students, goals most school districts have already reached. But future guidelines call for those numbers to decrease during the 2017-18 school year again again during the 2022-23 school year, down to 640 milligrams of sodium for elementary schools and 740 for high schools by 2022.

Therein lies the problem. Suppliers call those numbers impracticable. Jim Clough, president of Cincinnati-based AdvancePierre Foods, said most schools rely on prepared frozen and shelf-stable items that won't meet the sodium rules. He told Keefe, "The schools would have to go to all scratch cooking, and they don't have the funding, labor, training or equipment to do that."

Or, perhaps the industry will adapt by producing foods with less sodium. And tastes may evolve; the General Accounting Office reports that high school students are more likely to throw out vegetables, while elementary students are more likely to eat them, Keefe notes. That means by 2022, most children might be accustomed to eating the healthier foods. Meatingplace is subscription-only but can be accessed by clicking here.

Scientists hope to test bacterial pesticide in Wisconsin lake to see if it kills invasive species

Next month scientists hope to test a bacterial pesticide in a Wisconsin lake to see if it can kill zebra mussels, one of the many invasive species threatening the Great Lakes, Lee Bergquist reports for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. The experiment would be the first of its kind in a public lake. If successful, the pesticide could be used to control the spread of zebra mussels, as well as quagga mussels, another invasive species reported in the Great Lakes. The experiment is still awaiting approval from state officials. (Sentinel graphic)

"The pair of tiny, sharp-shelled species devour plankton, disrupting ecosystems. They proliferate in areas by the tens of thousands and push out native species, clog water intake systems and play a role in spurring algae blooms," Bergquist writes. "On inland waters, worries run the gamut—from the potential for declining land values to the loss of native mussel populations. On the Great Lakes, the invasive mussels threaten a multibillion-dollar recreational sport fishing industry while fouling beaches by spurring weed growth that rots on shore." (Read more)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

As U.S. highway fund runs low, and Sat. mail deal looks doubtful, states look for ways to pay for roads

The Highway Trust Fund is running out of money, and no immediate solution is in sight; the Senate seems unlikely to accept House Republican leaders' idea to end Saturday mail (except for packages) and use the savings to replenish the fund. So states are delaying construction projects or finding innovative ways to raise money for basic road maintenance and for repairing damaged or dangerous roads, Jon Kamp and Kristina Peterson report for The Wall Street Journal. Payments to states could end "as soon as August unless Congress agrees on a solution. Fuel taxes feed the fund, but they haven't budged in two decades, making revenue from them susceptible to inflation and more efficient cars even as U.S. infrastructure worsens."

Some states are preparing for an end to funds by asking residents to make up the difference by passing fuel-tax increases, the Journal reports. In Missouri "the state's Republican-led Legislature recently passed a resolution to ask voters for a sales-tax increase to raise at least $5.4 billion over 10 years for projects such as widening Interstate 70, which links St. Louis and Kansas City. A rise in the sales tax is considered more politically viable than a gas-tax boost." (WSJ graphic)

But some rural residents don't welcome that solution, especially because they doubt that higher taxes will benefit roads in their areas, the Journal reports. "Blake Hurst, a Missouri farmer who heads an agriculture trade group, is looking to see how many rural projects are proposed before he decides whether to support a tax increase. Ever-larger equipment like his combines leave little space for passing traffic." He told the Journal, "We're interested in maintaining that ability to get our stuff to market."

"In the absence of congressional action, the balance in the fund's highway account will fall to $2 billion by Sept. 30 and its mass-transit account to $1 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That would force the Transportation Department to start delaying payments to states as soon as August to keep the balances above zero, as required by law," the Journal reports. "Meanwhile, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx sounded another alarm Tuesday," saying, "We find ourselves this summer with a highway trust fund that will become insolvent by August—700,000 jobs around our country potentially at risk." (Read more)

SNAP (food stamps) had 79,000 fewer recipients in March; participation declined for fifth straight month

After 13 straight years of increased participation, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps, is seeing a drops in the number of recipients. March marked the fifth month in a row that participation has declined; it's now "down about 1.7 million from the record of 47.8 million in December 2012," Christopher Doering reports for The Des Moines Register.

The current number of recipients stands at 46.1 million, the lowest number since August 2011, Doering writes. "USDA data showed the average amount received per person in March was $125.29, and each household collected about $256.96." As part of the Farm Bill passed in January, the Republican House cut the program by $8.6 billion over the next decade, largely by tightening eligibility rules for people who qualify for federal heating assistance.

The program increased by 2.2 percent, or one million new recipients, in 2013, but that was the smallest growth since 2007. It lost 79,476 recipients in March, "with the current total declining 3.41 percent on a year-over-year basis," reports the blog Paper Economy. Even though the total number of participants is down, it still represents 18.69 percent of the U.S. population. (Read more) (Paper Economy graphic)

NPR investigation into grain-bin deaths and greatly reduced fines wins an Edward R. Murrow Award

An investigation by NPR's Howard Berkes and Jim Morris into grain-bin deaths and the resulting OSHA fines, which are routinely reduced greatly from the recommended amounts, received an Edward R. Murrow Award for investigative reporting. The story found that fines "in 179 grain entrapment deaths since 1984 were cut nearly 60 percent. The five largest fines on record, which ranged from $530,000 to $1.6 million, were cut from 50 to 97 percent."

The 98 awards, which were given in 13 categories for "outstanding work produced by radio, television and online news organizations around the world," will be presented on Oct. 6 in New York City, according to a press release from the Radio Television Digital News Association, which received more than 4,000 entries, the most ever for the contest. For the full list of winners, click here.

Writer objects to N.C. town's change from moment of silence to Christian prayer at official meetings

Mark Jamison
When the Supreme Court ruled last month that public agencies don't violate the Constitution by opening meetings with a Christian prayer that respects other faiths, the justices in the 5-4 majority may not have considered the realities of small towns, where "leaders should think twice before assuming everyone is the same when it comes to religion—or lack thereof," retired United Parcel Service employee Mark Jamison writes for the Daily Yonder.

Jamison reports that the small town of Dillsboro, N.C., has used the ruling to change the opening of its meetings from a moment of silence to a Christian prayer, with mayor Mike Fitzgerald defending the decision by declaring that everyone in Dillsboro is Baptist, Jamison writes. But the town has two churches, one that's Baptist, the other that's non-denominational, and some of the 232 residents might not be Christians at all, Jamison notes.

Fitzgerald told The Sylva Herald that the prayer was about seeking wisdom, not conversions. He said, “We’re not trying to make anybody a Christian. We are just going to ask for a blessing on the town’s decisions.”

But if "he is not trying to make anybody a Christian, then there’s no reason that he and like-minded board members couldn’t gather quietly before their meeting and ask for specific religious guidance," Jamison writes. "Fitzgerald’s actions seem designed to demonstrate a particular prejudice, not simply toward a Christian preference but even a denominational one with his presumption that, 'We ain’t got nothing but Baptists in town.' Mayor Fitzgerald’s decision to open town council meeting with prayer seems quick and lacking thought or insight." (Read more)

Is strategic rural philanthropy really outdated?

Less than a year ago Nonprofit Quarterly published an article saying philanthropy can solidify rural communities by bridging economic, social and cultural gaps to bring people together. But is strategic philanthropy in rural America outdated? William Schambra, director of the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal at the Hudson Institute, examines the issue basing his information on a study published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, which is behind a paywall.

"The more foundations embrace strategic philanthropy, the clearer its limitations become," the study report says. "As practiced today, strategic philanthropy assumes that outcomes arise from a linear chain of causation that can be predicted, attributed and repeated, even though we know that social change is often unpredictable, multifaceted and idiosyncratic. It locks funders into a rigid multi-year agenda although the probability and desirability of achieving any given outcome waxes and wanes over time. Rigorous evaluations attempt to isolate the impact of solitary interventions without effective models of dissemination. And the forced simplicity of logic models often misleads funders to overlook the complex dynamics and interpersonal relationships among numerous nonprofit, for-profit and government actors that determine real world events."

The authors "were probably not considering the incredulous reaction of nonprofit CEOs when they wrote such a scathing indictment of the past two decades of foundation practice," Schambra writes. "But it’s a view that must be taken into account, for the true damage from this deeply flawed approach must ultimately be borne by frontline nonprofits, who were so often compelled to adopt it by their funders."

Schambra concludes, "Far down in the trenches, strategic philanthropy in its earlier crude, rigid, cause/effect form is only now consolidating its hold. It’s all the cruder and more rigid, of course, because it’s so often applied by program officers who themselves were only hastily drilled in the fundamentals at a couple of regional association workshops. They cannot be counted on to keep up with the subtler and more nuanced versions of strategy preached by the leading theorists in the latest issue of SSIR. So just as 'old' strategic philanthropy is finally penetrating to the outermost reaches of civil society, this vast, shambling theoretical framework has suddenly been shaken at its core by the apostasy of some of its leading practitioners, writing the lead article in strategic philanthropy’s flagship journal." (Read more)

W.Va. pseudoephedrine sales fall; reasons debated

Sales of over-the-counter drugs used in the production of methamphetamine have dropped significantly in drug-ravaged West Virginia. While some people believe that a system that tracks pseudoephedrine purchases and the move by some major chains to stop selling drugs used to make meth explain the decline in sales, some officials say users are turning to dealers from out of state to continue purchasing meth, Eric Eyre reports for The Charleston Gazette. (Gazette graphic)

Sales of decongestants with pseudoephedrine have dropped 30 percent in West Virginia in 2014, and the biggest drop is 60 percent in Kanawha County, which last year accounted for nearly one-fourth of all pseudoephedrine sales and more than 50 percent of all meth lab busts in the state. "Kanawha County law enforcement officers have attributed the drop to an increase in the local availability of meth manufactured in Mexico," Eyre writes. "Also, some Kanawha pharmacies are now selling only tamper-resistant pseudoephedrine products, such as Nexafed and Zephrex-D, which can’t easily be converted to meth." A pair of West Virginia counties south of Kanawha have been the focus of documentaries about the meth crisis.

NPLEx, which has been used in the state since January 2013, "was designed to block illegal purchases when people try to buy more than 7.2 grams of pseudoephedrine a month, or 48 grams a year—about 20 boxes," Eyre writes. "However, NPLEx data show that the system is blocking fewer purchases in West Virginia this year. The number of blocked pseudoephedrine purchases has dropped 40 percent statewide and 85 percent in Kanawha County—a decline that’s outpacing the decrease in sales." Dr. Dan Foster, who heads a Kanawha County task force that’s investigating the meth lab problem, told Eyre, “It would certainly be a stretch to assume this means NPLEx is working.”

The state Senate passed a bill earlier this year "that would have required people to get a doctor’s prescription before they could buy pseudoephedrine," Eyre writes. "The House of Delegates gutted the bill, and the legislation died the last night of the session after the House missed a deadline to file a proposed compromise agreement." Mississippi and Oregon are the only states that have passed prescription laws, and pseudoephedrine sales in those states are reportedly down 80 percent since the laws went into effect. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has a meth bill that has been sitting on his desk for two months. (Read more)

Hopes of immigration reform this year are dashed as GOP floor leader loses in a historic primary

Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va.
The historic defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor by an anti-immigration candidate in a Republican primary Tuesday dashed hopes for any kind of immigration reform bill this year.

"It pretty much ends the chance of immigration reform getting done this year (and maybe the rest of the Obama presidency)," Mark Murray writes on "First Read" for NBC News. "As we’ve constantly written, immigration continues to be the issue that tears the Republican Party apart. And that was especially true in Virginia, where Cantor’s victorious opponent, Dave Brat, blasted the No. 2 House Republican for supporting a 'Dream Act'-like proposal to provide a path to citizenship for children who were brought to the United States illegally."

Though Cantor had helped block broader immigration reforms from coming to the House floor, many observers expected him to broker some sort of deal, perhaps starting with agriculture issues, after he won renomination. Now, after a primary turnout that was larger than expected (some Democrats crossed over but were not decisive), Republicans are unlikely to deal with the issue this year—or even later. "The news media’s focus on immigration is likely to deter Republicans from supporting comprehensive immigration reform," Nate Cohn of The New York Times writes in "The Upshot" blog. "It could even discourage Republican presidential candidates in 2016 when the party will need to broaden its appeal to Hispanic voters in states like Florida."

Cantor could still run as a write-in candidate, but that is unlikely; two close associates say he won't, and "He lost the primary to challenger David A. Brat by more than 7,000 votes, with Brat receiving 55.55 percent of the votes and Cantor 44.45 percent," Laura Vozzella and David A. Fahrenthold report for The Washington Post. "Historians said that no House leader of Cantor’s rank had ever been defeated in a primary." (Read more) For a detailed look at the latest regional polling on immigration, from the Post, click here.

The Democratic nominee against Brat, an economist, is his fellow Randolph Macon College professor, Jack Trammell, a sociologist and historian who has written 21 books. The college issued a news release about the faceoff, and WTVR in Richmond profiled them, noting that Trammell has a higher rating on

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Common Core education standards, fueled by Gates money, are encountering some buyers' remorse

The Common Core State Standards, which outline what children at each grade level should learn, have been accepted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, but in recent weeks South Carolina and Oklahoma followed Indiana in dropping the Common Core and others may follow as the debates about the standards and the level of federal involvement continue. Though the movement came from the states, it was adopted by the Obama administration, and Tea Party groups began to oppose the standards, saying the federal government was intruding into an area where states should rule.

How did the movement so quickly gain 45 states and D.C.? In 2008, Gene Wilhoit, executive director of a national group of chief state school officers, and David Coleman, a proponent of the standards movement, persuaded Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates to fund their dream of transforming education. "The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation didn't just bankroll the development of what became known as the Common Core State Standards," Lyndsey Layton writes for The Washington Post. "With more than $200 million, the foundation also built political support across the country, persuading state governments to make systemic and costly changes."

Gates provided money to big teacher unions like the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association and to business organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and to policy groups on both the right and the left. Gates' money helped influence policy makers and civic leaders, and President Obama supported the idea, Layton reports. States were responding to "a common belief system supported by widespread investments," a former Gates employee, who wanted to remain anonymous, told Layton. Kentucky adopted the standards before the last draft was even made public.

The transition happened quickly and seamlessly at first, but last summer the opposition picked up, Layton writes. Some teacher groups are saying the Common Core will popularize technology and data, benefiting Microsoft—which Gates said is not true. "These are not political things," he said. "These are where people are trying to apply expertise to say, 'Is this a way of making education better?' Some people may not believe that. Education can change. We can do better."

"While the Gates Foundation created the burst of momentum behind the Common Core, the Obama administration picked up the cause and helped push states to act quickly," Layton notes. Education Secretary Arne Duncan financially rewarded states that adopted the standards. The agency created Race to the Top, a $4.3 billion contest whose rules said states that accepted high standards would be more likely to win. Though states were allowed to create "college and career ready" standards, most of them simply signed onto the Common Core so they'd have a better chance of winning, Layton writes.

Now Gates and other Common Core supporters sit in the crossfire of proponents and opponents all debating about and anxiously waiting to see whether the standards will succeed or fail. Gates said, "This is philanthropy. This is trying to make more students have the kind of opportunity I had . . . and it's almost outrageous to say otherwise, in my view." (Read more)

VA audit finds 120,000 veterans wait months for care; long waits especially bad for rural vets

More than 120,000 veterans who tried to schedule an appointment with the Department of Veterans Affairs were told they had to wait a minimum of 90 days to get medical care, while some who requested an appointment never got one, according to an audit by the agency. Statistics for each of the 731 VA facilities are available by clicking here.

The audit found that 57,436 newly enrolled veterans were told they had to wait at least 90 days, while 63,869 veterans who enrolled within the past decade were unsuccessful in scheduling an appointment, Tom Cohen reports for CNN. The VA has acknowledged that long waits resulted in the deaths of 23 veterans.

The longest average wait for specialist care was 145 days at Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System, while the longest average wait for mental-health care was 104 days in Durham, N.C., the audit found.

Long waits are especially bad for rural veterans, whose average age continues to rise. Now about half of all rural veterans are 65 or older. Rural veterans, who on average are 18 years older than urban ones, also suffer from a homeless problem that prevents some veterans from having the means to get to a facility. (Economic Research Service graphic)
"Despite efforts to address some issues in recent years, including reductions in backlogs for benefits and the number of homeless veterans, the long waits have continued for newly enrolled veterans to get initial appointments for care," Cohen writes. "Reasons for the chronic problems include the increasing number of veterans returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a bonus system that rewarded managers for meeting goals regarding access to treatment."

A lack of open appointment slots with approved providers was another reason given for the long wait time, Jamie Fuller reports for The Washington Post. "Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) are working on a bill that would let veterans facing long wait times go to out of network for health care providers. It would also provide about $500 million for the agency to hire additional medical personnel."

Duke Energy, N.C. agree on Dan River cleanup

Duke Energy signed an agreement Monday with environmental and wildlife officials to clean up the February spill that resulted in 39,000 tons of coal ash dumping into the Dan River, Michael Biesecker reports for The Associated Press. Duke, which signed a similar agreement last month with the Environmental Protection Agency, agrees to pay any "reasonable" cost associated with the spill.

"The agreement places no cap on what the company might be required to spend," Biesecker writes. "Duke said in April that it had spent $15 million on containing the spill and the immediate aftermath. But it reiterated in a regulatory filing to investors on Monday that it is unable to predict future costs for the cleanup, new laws passed in the wake of the spill or any environmental fines that might be levied against the company." (Read more)

Read more here:

Rural Oklahoma residents get creative to put food on the table without making long trek to the store

Residents in some communities either have a grocery store that must charge high prices but offers limited options or have no grocery store at all. These people are finding creative ways to get the foods they need without having to overpay or travel long distances. One such example is Leedey, Okla., couple Donita and Lee Blackketter, who raise or grow most of the foods they eat, Jaclyn Cosgrove reports for The Oklahoman. (Wikipedia map: Leedey is in Dewey County. The northwestern corner of the county is considered a food desert; see map below)

"For beef, they slaughter one of the cows they raised on their 360 acres. For vegetables during the summer, they grow a garden," Cosgrove writes. They make the 30-mile trip to the grocery store for any other items they might need, including purchasing frozen vegetables during the winter.

Donita has also learned to get creative in the kitchen, Cosgrove writes. If she lacks an ingredient, she doesn't make the long journey to the store for just one item. Instead, she told Cosgrove, "You go online, and you Google, and you find a substitute.” (Read more)

Retiring 140 coal-fired generators in Midwest and South will do little to cut carbon-dioxide emissions

Retiring 140 coal-fired electricity generators within a decade will have little impact on the Obama administration's proposal to cut carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants 30 percent by 2030 based on emission levels in 2005. The generators, which are mostly small, old units in Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, Alabama and West Virginia, "account for only 4 percent of all CO2 emitted last year by U.S. power plants," Wendy Koch and John Kelly report for USA Today. "In fact, not one ranks among the top 100 units for carbon emissions, and only 12 are among the 475 units that comprise the top 10 percent of emitters, according to a review of 2013 federal data."

That means more coal-fired plants will need to close, Koch and Kelly write. "Yet the nation's biggest coal plants, typically its largest CO2 emitters, are unlikely to be closed anytime soon because 'there just isn't a cost-effective replacement yet,' says Jeffrey Holmstead, a lobbyist for coal-fired power plants at the Bracewell & Giuliani law firm in Washington."

"The top 100 emitters—all coal—account for only 2 percent of generating units but 25 percent of total plant emissions. They are located predominantly in five states. Texas has the most, 19, followed by Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Alabama and Georgia," Koch and Kelly write. "The top 10 percent of emitters, which include 475 generating units that are mostly coal-fired, account for a much bigger share of carbon released from power plants—69 percent." (Read more)

Monday, June 09, 2014

Doctors in ERs say they're busier since Obamacare began; hospitals struggle to handle extra patients

Nearly half of emergency-room doctors say their ERs have seen an increase in patients since health reform went into effect, and 86 percent say they expect the increase to continue, according to a poll by the American College of Emergency Physicians. Of the 1,845 completed surveys, 9 percent said ER visits had increased greatly and 37 percent said they had increased slightly. When asked what they think will happen over the next three years, 41 percent said visits will increase greatly and 45 percent said they will increase slightly. (ACEP graphic)

"Dr. Jay Kaplan, a member of ACEP's board of directors, said he wasn't surprised by the findings given the large influx or Medicaid enrollees and the difficulty in locating primary-care doctors who will see those patients," Paul Demko reports for Modern Healthcare. Kaplan told him, “When people get insurance, they feel like they deserve healthcare. When they deserve health care, and there's nobody else they can see, they come to us.”

77 percent of respondents
said their ER is not prepared
for an increase in patients
But some hospitals say many patients are going to the ER for ailments that are not emergencies, Laura Ungar reports for The Courier-Journal. Lewis Perkins, vice president of patient care and chief nursing officer at Louisville's Norton Hospital, said the emergency room is seeing 100 more patients per month, an increase of 12 percent. "We're seeing patients who probably should be seen at our (immediate-care centers)," he told Ungar. "And we're seeing this across the system."

ER visits at the University of Louisville Hospital are up 18 percent, while Dr. Ryan Stanton of Lexington, president of the Kentucky chapter of the ER physicians' group, said ER services are up 7.5 percent in that city. He told Ungar, "It's a perfect storm here. We've given people an ATM card in a town with no ATMs." (Read more)

Phil Galewitz of Kaiser Health News reports that a study in Massachusetts following its Obamacare-like expansion showed an initial surge in ER use followed by a decline over several years. Hospital officials around the country told him that the biggest impact of the expansion of Medicaid is that patients can now go to a primary-care doctor instead of the emergency room for routine care.

Signs of the times: Kansas using turnpike banners to lure out-of-staters to its rural 'opportunity zones'

Kansas really wants people to relocate to its rural areas. Signs that read "Live tax free in Kansas" and "Let Kansas pay your student loans" have been placed on overpasses in clear view of motorists driving the busy Kansas Turnpike between Topeka and Wichita to promote Rural Opportunity Zones that offer income-tax waivers for up to five years and student loan payments up to $15,000 for out-of-staters who move to designated rural counties, Tim Carpenter reports for The Topeka-Capital Journal. (Photo submitted to Capital Journal)

The list of counties participating in the three-year-old program will increase to 77 next month. So far, the program has approved 800 applicants, with 250 more pending. (Read more)

Paper in heart of the Great Plains says rural areas should keep an eye on Internet neutrality fight

Internet neutrality has been a hot topic of late, with some saying it won't create online equality at all, and others saying it will destroy small media entrepreneurs.  But what is it and how does it have to do with rural America?  The McCook Daily Gazette, which covers southwest Nebraska and northwest Kansas, does a good job explaining the issue in a recent editorial.

"The Internet remained a novelty until lower costs, higher capabilities and widespread availability made it almost a given for American households," the Gazette writes. "Along came Netflix, which decided there was a better way to distribute movies than by mailing DVDs, but used up a lot of Internet space in the process. But that was OK under 'net neutrality,' which forced Internet service providers to treat Netflix the same way it treats Facebook posts, tweets and emails from your sister."
"Internet providers say Netflix slows down their networks, which is what causes movies to sometimes lag," the Gazette writes. "With extra fees, they argue, the electronic pipeline could be improved for heavy users like Netflix. Netflix has responded, during slow downloads, by flashing a message 'The Verizon network is crowded right now. Adjusting video for smoother playback.'" Verison and other network operators don't like being blamed.

Net neutrality "could have unintended consequences here in the hinterlands, where customers are relatively few and far between and providing broadband services at all is still an issue in some localities," the Gazette warns. "Some communities have gotten into the act, stringing fiber-optic lines to every home or setting up city-wide, publicly owned 'mesh' networks to provide service for all."

"Like everything involved in delivering a product and service, the cost of providing more bandwidth will be passed on to the consumer," the newspaper concludes. "But with more and more of us depending on fast Internet access in our daily lives, even in Southwest Nebraska and Northwest Kansas, the net neutrality argument bears watching." (Read more)

Dairy farmer preserves rural lifestyle in historic N.Y. area, even as suburbia knocks on the door

Along Interstate 87, which spans 333 miles of New York, drivers speed along, unaware that just a few miles away "73-year-old Tom Hicks (right) is the last man standing. He’s protecting rich agricultural land and preserving a rural a lifestyle that’s all too rare in densely populated, mostly suburban Clifton Park," Paul Post reports for The Saratogian.

Hicks, whose grandfather established the farm in 1902, owns 330 acres and leases another 400. He told Post, "The hard thing in this part of town is finding enough land. Cows take so many acres. There’s not much land around here.” He said his two daughters help on the farm and his wife has a non-farming job to help supplement their income.

Wikipedia Map: Clifton Park is
in the southern part of Saratoga County
The Vischer Ferry Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, was settled in 1735 by Nicholas Vischer "at a time when the Iroquois League claimed the Mohawk Valley. After the Revolutionary War, Vischer’s son, Eldert, opened a rope ferry across the river in 1790, and a tavern and store were located there," Post writes. (Read more)

Free webinar Wed. on well water tests near fracking

The National Ground Water Association will present a free webinar at 1 p.m. EDT Wednesday on testing well water near hydraulic fracturing. Participants "will learn guidelines for conducting baseline testing of your well water before hydraulic fracturing activity begins, and post-hydraulic fracturing water testing," according to a news release. "You also will learn the basics of the hydraulic fracturing process, including chemicals used, and how various states are approaching well water testing in relation to hydraulic fracturing."

The webinar, which will be available online after the presentation, will be presented by Dr. Robert Puls, director of the Oklahoma Water Survey and associate professor in the College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences at the University of Oklahoma. Puls formerly worked for the Environmental Protection Agency at the Ground Water and Ecosystems Restoration Division of the National Risk Management Research Laboratory. For more information or to register click here.