Friday, September 26, 2014

Some fear U.S. lacks enough organic farmers to keep up with rising demand from consumers

Organic products are growing so quickly in popularity that some fear the agricultural industry lacks enough producers to meet the growing demand of consumers, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. Currently 18,000 certified organic operators live in the U.S. and 25,000 worldwide.

Laura Batcha, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, said "sales of organic food and non-food products in the U.S. grew by almost 12 percent last year, with similar growth expected this year," Agri-Pulse writes. "Total sales, she said, have topped $35 billion, up from $3 billion back in 2002. But she said the industry is running into a serious problem attracting new suppliers, especially in dairy, where the growth rate was about 8 percent."

Anne Alonzo, administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's marketing service, said there are plenty of funding opportunities for organic farmers, Agri-Pulse writes. "Alonzo pointed to the work the agency is doing to implement provisions of the new Farm Bill, including laying the groundwork for the establishment of an organic check-off program that, in a first, would be spread across all organic commodities. She also described a USDA program that provides farmers transitioning to organic with up to $750 a year to help pay for certification costs." She said, “The money is there for you—take advantage of it." Agri-Pulse is subscription only, but a free trial is available by clicking here.

U.S. Forest Service reverses stance on photos, says proposed rules wouldn't apply to news media

U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said on Thursday that proposed rules to charge for photographing and filming on National Forest System lands do not apply to the news media, Rob Davis reports for The Oregonian. Tidwell did not address why Forest Service officials told the media on Tuesday that the rules did apply to them.

Tidwell said in a statement: "The U.S. Forest Service remains committed to the First Amendment. To be clear, provisions in the draft directive do not apply to news gathering or activities." The agency's news release also said "the maximum $1,500 permit fees reported by The Oregonian and widely cited by other publications were 'erroneous and refers to a different proposed directive,'" but didn't specify the nature of the other directive, Davis writes.

The Forest Service also has extended the public comment period for the proposed rules to Dec. 3, to allow more input on its photography rules, Davis writes. "A host of bipartisan lawmakers said the proposal should instead be scrapped." (Read more)

Strip mining sand for hydraulic fracturing poses health and safety risks, environmental groups say

Strip mining for sand used in hydraulic fracturing operations could pose risks to water, air, public health and property values, says a report by the Civil Society Institute, the Environmental Working Group and Midwest Environmental Advocates. The study said that nearly every step of the process of getting sand—by blasting chunks off the region's rolling hillsides and washing away the other soil and rock—poses problems for surrounding communities, Neela Banerjee reports for the Los Angeles Times.

The study was mostly conducted in Wisconsin and Minnesota, where there are 164 working mines and related facilities, with 20 more on the drawing board, said Grant Smith, one of the authors, Banerjee writes. About 58,000 people live within a half-mile of these facilities. (Times photo by Chris Walker: Sand used in fracking operations in Wisconsin)

Researchers said "washing the sand to separate it from debris uses prodigious amounts of water, often more than the municipal water systems in the counties where mines are located," Banerjee writes. "Mining operators use a chemical, polyacrylamide, to get the debris to clump and separate from the sand. The chemical can break down into acrylamide, a carcinogen, that can enter water sources from wastewater ponds at mine sites, the report said. It remains unclear whether states where sand mining occurs monitor for the formation of acrylamide and its possible migration to water sources."

"Silica dust released from blasting and picked up by the wind from piles of washed sand could pose health risks to nearby residents, the report said," she writes. "Fine airborne particles can irritate people’s lungs and heighten the risk of respiratory ailments. Until now, scientists and regulators have focused on the threat of silica dust at workplaces such as mines and fracking sites. Little research has been done into the presence of silica dust in communities near mines." (Read more)

Jobs returning to rural Indiana, but state lacks enough skilled workers to fill openings

Jobs are steadily returning to rural Indiana, but there won't be enough skilled workers to fill the positions, says a study by the Rural Urban Entrepreneurship Development Institute at Indiana State University. The main reason is that qualified workers migrated to areas where jobs were available or switched career paths.

Indiana, which has a larger share of manufacturing jobs than any other state, lost 25 percent of its total manufacturing jobs during the Great Recession, writes Dave Taylor for Indiana State. "The total number of jobs in Indiana's 72 predominantly rural counties is expected to return to pre-recession levels by the end of 2015 and then steadily increase by 10,000 per year during the next decade. But the study says adults in their prime working years are expected to continue to leave rural counties, reducing the size of a talented and experienced labor force."

Robert Guell, professor of economics at Indiana State, said, "There is likely to be somewhat of a mismatch between the skill levels of the employees and the jobs that are available. A mismatch occurs when the ability of the workers who are available to do the work is different than the work that is available."

Taylor writes, "Many low-skilled jobs that had sustained Indiana for years have disappeared and are not expected to return, the report said, and workers especially hard hit by the bursting of the housing bubble—in such fields as construction, finance and real estate—may need to adjust their career aspirations." (Read more)

Local official suggests potholes as a way to slow down speeders on rural Vermont roads

In an attempt to find ways to curb speeding on dangerous roads in rural Vermont, one town official suggested a solution that is not going over well with residents—potholes. Westford (Wikipedia map) Selectboard Member Alex Weinhagen sent out a survey asking if potholes should be used as a speed deterrent, with 70 percent of respondents shooting down the idea, Lynn Monty reports for the Burlington Free Press.

Weinhagen told Monty, “More law enforcement, signage, speed carts, speed bumps and putting off pothole repair are all ideas that small Vermont towns toss around. The idea is not that far out there. Some people are willing to deal with rougher roads if it would deter drivers.

Westford does not have a police department, which is one of the reasons many fear that drivers ignored posted speed limits, Monty writes. Construction has also forced many drivers off main roads, increasing traffic on back roads. (Read more)

CDC gives Extension at 6 universities $4.2 million to fight obesity in counties where it's very high

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has awarded the Cooperative Extension Service at six land-grant universities $4.2 million to combat obesity in counties with obesity rates of 40 percent or more. This is the first time the CDC has funded an Extension program.

The work will focus on reducing chronic disease rates, advocating healthier lifestyles, reducing of health disparities and supervising health-care spending. "These strategies will improve physical activity and nutrition, reduce obesity and prevent and control diabetes, heart disease and stroke," according to the CDC website.

For the current fiscal year Auburn University received $791,222, the University of Kentucky received $629,004, South Dakota State University received $588,456, the University of Tennessee received $987,774, Texas A&M University received $783,000 and West Virginia University received $427,419. (Read moreHere is the CDC's list of counties with over 40 percent obese adults.

The universities will intervene through extension and outreach services at the county level. For example, at Kentucky, "Researchers and extension personnel in UK's College of Agriculture, Food and Environment and College of Public Health will work in six Kentucky counties that have obesity rates higher than 40 percent ... Logan, Clinton, Lewis, Martin, Letcher and Elliott," Katie Pratt reports for UKAgNews.

Obesity is a major problem, especially among young people, African Americans, Hispanics and Alaskan Native and Native Americans. Rates of youth obesity are higher in low-income and rural communities. (Read more)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

FAA to allow Hollywood to use drones, opening the door for legalized commercial drone use

The path to legalizing commercial drone operations could wind its way through Hollywood. The Federal Aviation Administration is expected today to make an announcement to "permit Hollywood filmmakers to operate drones on movie sets, according to current and former U.S. officials," Craig Whitlock reports for The Washington Post. (Associated Press photo by Jae C. Hong)

"Prior to this week, the FAA had granted permits to only two companies to fly drones—both in remote parts of Alaska under highly restrictive conditions," Whitlock writes. "The decision to allow several movie-making companies to use drones is the first time that businesses will be able to operate the aircraft in populated areas."

Film industry officials "have applied for permission to fly the drones not just in Hollywood but anywhere in the country as long as they meet certain safety conditions," Whitlock writes. "Flights would 'occur over private or controlled-access property,' and drones would stay at least 100 feet away from people not part of the production crews, according to the applications. Paperwork filed with the FAA also states that the camera-bearing drones would weigh less than 55 pounds. They would fly no faster than 57 mph and no higher than 400 feet to ensure that they do not interfere with other aircraft." (Read more)

Forest Service wants to charge media to film or photograph on National Forest System lands

The U.S. Forest Service has proposed charging media for still photography and commercial filming on National Forest System lands. The proposal is currently under a public comment period that ends on Nov. 3.

"Under rules being finalized in November, a reporter who met a biologist, wildlife advocate or whistleblower alleging neglect in any of the nation's 100 million acres of wilderness would first need special approval to shoot photos or videos even on an iPhone," Rob Davis reports for The Oregonian. "Permits cost up to $1,500, says Forest Service spokesman Larry Chambers, and reporters who don't get a permit could face fines up to $1,000."

The proposed rules are drawing criticism from First Amendment advocates, who "say the rules ignore press freedoms and are so vague they'd allow the Forest Service to grant permits only to favored reporters shooting videos for positive stories," Davis writes. Gregg Leslie, legal defense director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Alexandria, Va., told Davis, "It's pretty clearly unconstitutional. They would have to show an important need to justify these limits, and they just can't." (Read more)

EPA's proposed water rules could be new campaigning topic of contention

Several issues are already weighing heavily on upcoming elections, including candidate's stances on gun control and the Farm Bill. A new issue gaining steam is the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed water rules, which are mostly unpopular among Republicans and the agricultural industry, with the GOP-led House voting to block the rules. Many fear the rules will expand EPA's jurisdiction. The agency denies that claim. (Bemidji photo by Zach Kayser: Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson speaking Monday at a fundraiser) 

But some campaigning Democrats are also beginning to publicly speak out against the rules. Farm Policy has highlighted a Minnesota Democratic candidate who used a fundraising event to express his opposition to the proposed rules.

Rep. Collin Peterson told supporters he is against the rules, Zach Kayser reports for The Bemidji Pioneer. Peterson said, “I’m on two bills to get rid of it. I sent a letter over to . . . the EPA telling them to withdraw the rule, and I voted to get rid of it just the other day.” He said while the rule has good intentions, it is confusing. He said, "The EPA, I think their heart is in the right place, but they don’t know what they’re doing." (Read more)

Interactive, county-level map shows Depression-era photos taken throughout the U.S

An interactive web-based county-level map created by team from Yale University allows users to view Depression-era photos taken in each available county by federally paid photographers. (A man uses enormous asbestos mittens to handle hot magnesium ingots at Basic Magnesium’s plant in the southern Nevada desert in 1943.)

"The initiative was a public-relations move to bolster support for programs under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s contentious Farm Security Administration, which sought to help those hardest hit by the Great Depression," Sarah Tory reports for High Country News. "When it was over, some 175,000 photographs were transferred to the Library of Congress and eventually placed online, but they remained hard for the wider public to access." To view the map click here

New Jersey is underfunding poor rural schools, denying kids access to preschool, complaint says

New Jersey's rural schools are vastly underfunded, says a complaint lawyers filed against the Gov. Chris Christie administration, John Mooney reports for NJ Spotlight. The complaint says that 16 schools in high poverty mostly rural areas are being underfunded by $18 million, "and about 2,000 eligible schoolchildren are being denied access to mandated preschool." 

The complaint keeps "alive a nearly 20-year-old claim as to whether the state has provided adequate resources to poor, rural districts," Mooney writes. "The complaint claims that the state has failed to adequately fund the School Funding Reform Act, violating a 2008 state appellate court ruling to provide the needed resources to these districts, including for mandated preschool." (Townmapsusa map: Officials in Hammonton, N.J. say the district is underfunded and understaffed)

Critics say the School Funding Reform Act hasn't "been funded since its first year under former Gov. Jon Corzine, and after steep cuts by Christie in 2010, three-quarters of all districts still have not returned to prior levels in funding," Mooney writes. The most extreme example might be in Hammonton, where Superintendent C. Dan Blachford said the district is under adequacy by $11,919,928 and is short 51 teachers and 12 administrators. (Read more)

Federal judge restores endangered species status for Wyoming wolves

Two years after Wyoming wolves were taken off the endangered species list, they are back under protected status. A federal judge on Tuesday restored endangered status for the wolves, saying the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service "accepted a state commitment to maintain the wolf population without requiring adequate safeguards," Michael Wines reports for The New York Times. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)

"The state’s wolf-management plan declared the wolf a trophy-game animal, allowing seasonal hunting in some areas and labeled it a predator that could be shot in four-fifths of the state," Wines writes. Judge Amy Berman Jackson "said that the state’s management plan was inadequate and unenforceable and that federal officials were 'arbitrary and capricious' in accepting it. Her ruling requires that the wolves remain under federal protection until Wyoming officials devise an enforceable proposal to maintain their numbers."

About 270 wolves lived outside Yellowstone when endangered status was removed, Wines writes. In the first year after protection was lifted, about 62 were killed by trophy hunters, and an unknown number were shot or trapped in areas where the wolves were labeled as predators, said Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity. Now an estimated 306 wolves live in the region. (Read more)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

USDA to establish Rural Child Poverty Nutrition Center; goal is to reduce child food insecurity

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced this week that up to $2.5 million in grant money is available to establish the Rural Child Poverty Nutrition Center to create child nutrition programs in up to 30 rural communities. In 2012 one out of four rural children lived in poverty, and 21.2 percent of rural households with children were food insecure, says the USDA.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a press release: "Children living in persistently-poor, rural areas tend to experience worse outcomes in terms of nutrition, activity and obesity. The Rural Child Poverty Nutrition Center would facilitate innovative strategies to support a healthier next generation in rural America."

The release said: "The center will develop, administer and evaluate a series of sub-grants to improve services in these communities. The center will also organize several conferences to exchange lessons learned and develop a report on best practices. The rural communities will use their funds to target child food insecurity through greater coordination of the nutrition programs. For example, communities could use their funds to identify strategies to increase community involvement or to apply more effective uses of technology and digital media to improve program coordination." (Read more)

Crews say trains leaving stations with hazardous materials that are not mentioned on cargo list

Railroad union members in Minnesota say BNSF Railway trains are hauling hazardous waste materials that are not listed on the train's cargo list, which violates federal regulations and puts communities at risk because emergency personnel responding to an accident would not be fully informed of the dangers involved, Dan Gunderson reports for Minnesota Public Radio. At least 18 times over the past three years trains left Minneapolis with hazardous cargo not listed on the manifest, train crews said in complaints filed with the Federal Railroad Administration.

"In one case, a train traveled more than 20 miles through the western suburbs with six carloads of anhydrous ammonia, a toxic corrosive gas used as a farm fertilizer, before the train crew knew the chemical was on the train, a complaint said," Gunderson writes. "In another, a complaint said a train traveled about 90 miles west to Willmar before its cargo list was corrected to show an extra car of ammonia." (MPR map)

Dave Christianson, senior rail planner for the  Minnesota Department of Transportation calls the train manifest "the Bible" for first responders, Gunderson writes. He told Gunderson that an inaccurate manifest "basically nullifies any preparation that has ever been done to protect the public and to respond to a catastrophic incident. That document is the key to how emergency responders react to the accident." (Read more)

In rural Pennsylvania heroin is easier and cheaper for youth to get than alcohol, report says

In rural Pennsylvania it's easier and cheaper for young people to get heroin than alcohol, says a bipartisan report released Tuesday by The Center for Rural Pennsylvania. State Senator Gene Yaw, the Republican chairman of the center, "said a small packet of heroin costs between $5 and $10 and delivers a high lasting four to five hours," David Dekok reports for Reuters.

The report said Cambria County in central Pennsylvania has a heroin overdose death rate equal to that of Philadelphia, at 22.6 deaths per 100,000 population, Dekok writes. Philadelphia has a population of 1.5 million, compared to 141,000 in Cambria County.

About 80 percent of the state's heroin users first became addicted to OxyContin or Vicodin, says the report, David Wenner reports for PennLive. "It said nearly 3,000 Pennsylvania residents have died over the past five years because of abuse of heroin or other opioids." The overdose rate has increased 470 percent over the past two decades, from 2.7 deaths per every thousand people to 15.4 deaths, says the report. (The Center for Rural Pennsylvania graphic)

Kaiser web briefing for journalists to focus on coverage of Ebola outbreak; event is Sept. 30

The Kaiser Family Foundation is hosting a web briefing for journalists to discuss the global response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The one-hour event will begin at 3 p.m. ET on Sept. 30. Topics will include: How has the United States contributed? What will the response be in the coming weeks and months? What key lessons can be learned from this outbreak, and what can be learned by comparing the outbreak to other large-scale disasters?

Guests are: Steve Monroe, deputy director of the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control; Sophie Delaunay, executive director of Médecins Sans Frontières; Jen Kates, Kaiser Family Foundation vice president and director of global health and HIV policy; and Josh Michaud, Kaiser Family Foundation associate director of global health policy. After a brief introduction, the majority of the session will be question and answer time. For more information or to register click here.

Railway delays affecting not only grain crops but also coal industry

Railway delays have affected grain crops, and some people are blaming it on increased competition from oil and coal shipments, a bumper grain crop, an improved economy that is jacking up the amount of consumer goods and a bad winter. But the coal industry says it has also been the victim of delays, as railroad companies choose to transport more lucrative oil over coal.

About 40 percent of U.S. power is generated from coal-burning plants, and 75 percent of U.S. coal relies on freight railroads to get to power plants, according to Wood Mackenzie, an energy consultancy, Swetha Gopinath and Sweta Singh report for Carrier Management. Without access to railways, some in the coal industry have turned to barges and trucks to transport coal. (Marketplace graphic)

"Transporting by barge, while cheaper than rail, is limited to plants located near rivers," Gopinath and Singh write. "Some companies are using third-party docks for barge deliveries and then trucking coal over to power plants that do not have adequate infrastructure. But trucking is typically used over short distances and is substantially more expensive than barge and rail."

Minnesota Power has idled four coal-powered generators that serve the Duluth area for three months "because the railroad isn’t delivering enough coal," Dan Weissermann reports for Marketplace. "Railroads are crazy busy—carrying oil from North Dakota for one thing—and the delays are driving their customers nuts."

Al Rudeck, vice president of strategy and planning for Minnesota Power, told Weissermann, "This is unprecedented. We’ve never had to shut our units off because we can’t get the coal we need. This year they’ve had a lot of challenges on the rail system, in terms of congestion, weather and a lot of business."

Delays are also significantly impacting supplies being stockpiled, Stephanie Joyce reports for Wyoming Public Media. "With temperatures dropping across the northern United States, power plants would usually be stockpiling coal in preparation for higher electricity demand during the winter months, but this year, that’s proving problematic."

The Comanche power plant outside Pueblo, Colo., which supplies power to communities along the Front Range, including Denver, and consumes hundreds of tons of coal an hour in the process, normally has a coal pile one hundred feet tall, said Xcel Energy fuel supply manager Craig Romer, Joyce writes. But right now, it’s less than a third of that. Romer estimates stockpiles for all of Xcel’s coal-powered plants are at 60 percent of where he would like them to be because competition from the oil industry has meant that coal trains haven’t been making as many deliveries as usual to the plant in recent months. (Read more)

CDC sending staffer to E. Ky. to fight health problems; regional economic effort hears plans

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will place a full-time employee in Eastern Kentucky to help public health departments battle the region's serious, chronic health problems, the area's congressman said Tuesday.

Republican Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden, who spent three days with him in his Fifth Congressional District last month, told him he would assign a senior staffer to the job.

Beshear, Rogers (Melissa Newman photo)
Rogers made the announcement at a meeting of the executive committee of Shaping Our Appalachian Region, the economic-development effort he started with Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear in response to the sharp decline in the region's coal industry. The committee learned that "There were 13,000 fewer people working in a 23-county area in Eastern Kentucky's coalfield in May 2014 than a year earlier. That sobering statistic brought sharp focus to the challenge," reports Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The panel heard reports from chairs of SOAR's working groups, which held "listening sessions" around the region this summer. "The ideas prioritized by the working groups included development of systems to connect small farmers with local and regional markets, and small loans to help farmers; a tax-incentive program tailored to Eastern Kentucky to try to attract jobs; and setting aside money from the coal severance tax for a permanent endowment," Estep writes. "Among other things, the committees also recommended pushing a statewide ban on smoking indoors in public; asking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study poor health in the region and the emerging research on a correlation between mountaintop mining and health problems; creating an economic development organization specific to the region; creating county coalitions to involve young people; promoting a home-weatherization program offered by the Mountain Association for Community and Economic Development; raising the threshold at which the state's prevailing wage law applies to projects; and more funding for tourism marketing."

Appalachian Regional Commission Federal Co-Chair Earl Gohl said at the meeting that he would give SOAR up to the maximum $750,000 from his discretionary fund to cover up to half of the effort's expected administrative expenses over the next four years.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

States, propane industry urging residents to stock up now, in case of another brutal winter

Last year's brutal winter hit many Americans in the pocketbooks, especially people who depend on propane for heat. Residents living in rural areas and in the Midwestern U.S. who rely on propane spent about 54 percent more last winter than in 2012-13, while those relying on heating oil, largely in the Northeast, paid about 7 percent more, natural gas consumers 10 percent more and electricity consumers 5 percent more. That's why states and the propane industry are asking residents to think ahead this year, just in case another harsh winter is around the corner. ( graphic)

Roy Willis, president and CEO of the Propane Education and Research Council, told the National Association of State Energy Officials: “America makes more than enough propane to meet U.S. demand, yet the transportation challenges we faced last winter stressed many propane providers and customers. The best thing propane customers can do to avoid any weather-related difficulties this winter is fill their tanks now.”

“By filling tanks early, customers and propane retailers, many of whom are small businesses, can better plan for supply needs and work together to ensure that everyone has a comfortable and safe winter," he said. "Because delivery and payment programs vary by company, it’s important that customers have a conversation with their provider to start making plans for winter today.” (Read more)

States are also urging residents to be prepared. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder said, “Last winter was one we’ll all remember. This is especially true for some propane customers who found it challenging to find additional propane as cold temperatures lingered. That’s why now is the time to get an early fill, lock-in prices ahead of the heating season and get on a budget payment plan, if available.” The state website offers tips and resources for being better prepared this winter. (Read more)

Minnesota, which had its coldest winter in 30 years and suffered propane shortages, is also asking residents to fill up early, Nick Gerhardt reports for the Kenyon Leader. To combat the shortage problem, Dave Wager, Propane Operations Manager of Central Valley Coop in Northfield, said "more than 20 million more gallons have been delivered in Minnesota this summer compared to last year."

The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet and the state's propane industry said in addition to filling up tanks early, residents should enroll in automatic propane delivery instead of waiting until they need more, monitor propane tanks and request more when it hits 25 percent instead of when it's almost empty, consider going on budget plans to avoid large winter bills and look into fuel efficiency options. (Read more)

Towns facing cost spikes trying to get out of deal that financed electric generating plant

Cities and towns in Illinois, Kentucky and other states are probably regretting their decision to own part of a power generating plant. High electricity costs have led the complete shake-up of the Paducah Electric Plant Board, including the resignation on Monday of the chairman, who was the last remaining member from the board that originally made the deal. "It's probably the most serious problem for Paducah since the Great Flood" of the Ohio River in 1937, Mayor Gayle Kaler said.

The other Kentucky town in the deal is Princeton. The towns "entered into a contract with Prairie State Energy campus," Mychaela Bruener reports for WPSD-TV in Paducah. "The Prairie State power plant in Southern Illinois provides power to Paducah Power. The Peabody Coal project was supposed to lower electric rates. However, the costs at the Prairie State plants have increased from $1.4 billion to nearly $5 billion during the past decade." That has resulted in skyrocketing monthly bills that are 50 percent higher than what customers with other services are paying.

Last month Joe Marconi, a businessman in Batavia, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, filed a class-action lawsuit in Kane County Circuit Court over the city's investment in the Prairie State Energy Campus, Eric Schelkopf reports for the Kane County Chronicle in St. Charles, Ill.

"In 2005, the Northern Illinois Municipal Power Agency, of which Batavia is a member, agreed to a long-term power contract to purchase electricity from Prairie State," Schelkopf writes. Rate hikes have caused residents this year to "see a 6.5 percent increase in their electric rates, plus a $4-a-month increase to the customer charge. In 2015, residents also will see a 6.5 percent increase in their electric rates." Marconi told Schelkopf, "We filed it because the electric rates in this town are so high. Our main objective is to get Batavia out of the contract they signed with Prairie State. They misled us." (Read more) UPDATE: For an an analysis of the problem by the Institute for Energy Economic and Financial Analysis, click here.

Wisconsin voter ID law hurts rural voters and Democrats, liberal group contends

A Wisconsin law that went into effect on Sept. 12 requiring residents to obtain an ID card before voting is stirring controversy in the Badger State. One Wisconsin Institute, a liberal group that on Monday filed a brief with a federal appeals court, said rural residents will have a difficult time getting cards in time because many rural DMV offices are only open part-time, Leah Linscheid reports for Channel 3000 in Madison. The group also said the law favors Republicans, because more voters who are expected to lean Democrat will have a harder time getting cards.

The law was signed in 2011 by Republican Gov. Scott Walker—who is in the middle of a tightly contested race—"and opponents brought four lawsuits challenging it," Patrick Marley reports for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "It was in effect for one low-turnout primary in February 2012 but then blocked by a series of rulings by state and federal judges." The law was reinstated earlier this month by a three-member panel of judges—all of whom were appointed by Republican presidents—on the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. (University of Wisconsin-Madison graphic)

Scot Ross, executive director for One Wisconsin Institute, told Linscheid, "There are a couple places where people may only be able to have one or two chances before the election to be able to get the IDs they need to be able to participate in our democracy." DMV directors countered that offices are required to be open at least 20 hours per week, giving residents plenty of time to get cards.

One Wisconsin Institute estimates that 300,000 Wisconsin voters lack the type of photo ID that will be required to vote, reports The Associated Press. Some also fear that minorities and college students will have trouble getting get IDs, Autumn Linsmeier reports for The Badger Herald at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Appeals court Judge Frank Easterbook, who voted in favor of voter ID cards, wrote that an estimated 4.5 percent of African Americans—many of whom are expected to vote Democrat—will be unable to get IDs. Many college students also might not have the proper identification on hand to obtain a voter ID.

A Wisconsin driver's license or ID card is required to receive a voter ID card, says the state Department of Transportation. For those without a driver's license, "ID card applicants must be U.S. Citizens, at least 17 years of age and indicate that the ID card is required free of charge for the purposes of voting; and ID card applicants must claim that documents required to prove U.S. Citizenship, name and date of birth and/or legal name change are unavailable and require a fee to a government agency to obtain." 

Rockefeller Fund, which was founded on oil, looking to rid itself of fossil-fuel investments

"The Rockefellers, whose family fortune sprung from oil, said Monday that their fund is working on a plan to divest itself of fossil-fuel interests," Michael Calia reports for The Wall Street Journal. "By the end of this year, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund will reduce its investment in coal and tar sands to less than 1 percent of its total portfolio."

The Rockefellers also plan to divest itself of holdings "as quickly as is prudent over the next few years," Calia writes. "In uncertain and volatile markets, these financial goals are not easy to achieve," the $860 million fund said on its website. "Therefore, our divestment from fossil fuels, which is now under way, will be accomplished through a careful process of evaluating our exposure and a phased approach that proceeds as quickly as is prudent."

The fund was set up in 1940 but since 2010 "has sought to diversify its holdings to include investments in more sustainable energy initiatives and other, similar kinds of development," Calia writes. "That year, it said, the fund's board of trustees approved a commitment of as much as 10 percent of its endowment to investments that match the goals of its sustainable development program." (Read more)

EPA will not appeal federal ruling in Clean Water Act case against West Virginia farmer

The Environmental Protection Agency's decision "not to appeal a key federal ruling in favor of West Virginia farmer Lois Alt highlights the cynicism that drives the agency's water agenda, the American Farm Bureau said," reports Wisconsin Ag Connection. "The U.S. Court for the Northern District of West Virginia earlier ruled against EPA and in favor of farmer Lois Alt in October 2013. The court rejected EPA's contention that the Clean Water Act regulates ordinary stormwater runoff from the farmyard (non-production areas) at large livestock or poultry farms."

"Since no federal court had ever addressed the question of stormwater runoff from farms such as Alt's, the lower court's ruling carries implications for tens of thousands of poultry and livestock farms nationwide," Wisconsin Ag Connection writes. "An appellate court decision upholding that ruling would make it even harder for EPA to persist in imposing wide-scale federal permitting requirements on large animal farms."

"EPA's voluntary dismissal of its appeal signals the agency's desire to avoid a likely loss in the appellate court," Wisconsin Ag Connection writes. "The appeal could still go forward if any of the five environmental groups that intervened in support of EPA decides to go forward without the government." (Read more)

Coal mogul says to expect more bankruptcies

Expect more coal producers to go bankrupt because there’s “nothing on the horizon” to suggest demand and prices will recover, Robert E. Murray, owner of the largest privately held coal company in the U.S., said Monday in a speech in Pittsburgh, Tim Loh reports for Bloomberg. Murray said, “We are planning for a somewhat reduced coal marketplace, in terms of prices and demand, through at least next year, with only a possible slight improvement in the years beyond." (Bloomberg photo by Kenny Crookston)

Murray, owner of Murray Energy Corp., which has 7,400 employees and 12 active underground coal mines in Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Utah, and West Virginia, blames President Obama for the downturn in the coal industry, Loh writes. (Read more)

Monday, September 22, 2014

Some states creating two-tier taxes, charging seasonal residents more than year-round ones

Some states with large populations of seasonal residents are imposing higher taxes for snowbirds and vacation rentals, as opposed to year-round residents, often pitting part-time residents against full-time ones, Elaine Povich reports for Stateline. David Brunori, deputy publisher at Tax Analysts, which examines state tax law and policy, told Povich, “One of the great ways of exporting the tax base is to tax people from out of state who rent property, own property or work in the state. It’s a political nirvana. They don’t vote.” (Getty Images: Provincetown, Mass.)

Several states "have a 'homestead exemption,' which lowers the property tax bills for certain categories of homeowners, usually full-time residents," Povich writes. "Some of the exemptions are income-based, while others apply to categories of homeowners such as widows or widowers and military families. In general, the exemptions do not apply to second homes of any kind, particularly vacation homes. Homestead exemptions are one way to protect local homeowners while taxing vacationers at the full market value. The other way is to increase taxes on vacation homes directly."

There are about 3.6 million vacation homes in the U.S., making up 3.1 percent of all housing units, says the 2000 U.S. Census, the most recent year for such data, Povich writes. Maine has the highest percent of vacation homes at 15.6 percent, followed by Vermont at 14.6 percent. But some towns, like Provincetown, Mass., explode with seasonal residents, with the population of Provincetown increasing from 3,000 in the winter to 30,000 during the summer.

Tom Donegan, chairman of the Provincetown Board of Selectmen, argues that higher taxes for part-time residents are justified because the town has to prepare for 30,000 residents by increasing its costs for emergency services and utilities, Povich writes. He told Povich, “It’s not about charging them more; it’s about finding ways to stabilize the population so we can keep people in their homes. (Year-round residents) are retired men and women and working men and women. Their homes are increasing in value, and they have to pay increased property taxes, usually on a small or fixed income.”

Not surprisingly, seasonal residents have complained about higher taxes, with the Cape Cod town of Mashpee rejecting such an idea earlier this year, Povich writes. "Joyce Mason, town manager for Mashpee, said it was 'pretty clear folks were not in favor of splitting the community.'" (Read more)

Even though Obamacare has insured millions, rural hospitals still struggling to remain open

The main goal of federal health reform was to ensure that uninsured Americans would be able to find affordable insurance. But some rural hospitals, especially in states that chose not to expand Medicaid, have struggled to remain open, with 24 rural hospitals closing since 2013, Robin Respaut reports for Reuters. Almost all of those hospitals were in states that did not expand Medicaid. (Atlanta Business Chronicle photo: Charlton Memorial Hospital in southeast Georgia closed last year)

"Investors are being warned of the change," Respaut writes. "Standard & Poor's Ratings Service in August concluded that the nonprofit hospital sector is 'at a tipping point' from the drop in the number of patients cared for. Moody's Investors Service reported hospital revenue growth and operating margins are at all-time lows. Fitch Ratings wrote that the Affordable Care Act has accelerated the transition of patients out of the hospital and into clinics by tightening reimbursements and emphasizing technology."

Mark Claster, president of investment firm Carl Marks & Co. and chairman of the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System board of trustees, told Respaut, “There is a big transition happening. I don't think smaller hospitals are prepared, and I don't think they can be. I don't think they have the economic wherewithal.”

Even in states that did expand Medicaid, rural hospitals are facing serious hurdles. Kentucky state Auditor Adam Edelen said "that Medicare and Medicaid reimburse hospitals at below the cost of providing care, with the expectation that they will make it up from private payers, but such payers are in short supply at many rural hospitals because the economic recovery is 'nonexistent in rural areas,'" Molly Burchett and Melissa Patrick report for Kentucky Health News, a service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which also publishes The Rural Blog.

"Some rural hospitals are expressing concerns about the expanding Medicaid rolls under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but Edelen said in the interview that most of the complaints he heard are about Kentucky’s move to put Medicaid under managed care in 2011," Burchett and Patrick write. "He said in Bowling Green that Kentucky rolled out in six months what should have taken 18 months, creating a 'extraordinarily complex' and costly Medicaid system that still has no-pay and slow-pay issues. Then came the PPACA, generally known as Obamacare, creating an unprecedented level of complexity."

"The extra administrative overhead is particularly difficult for small hospitals and health-care providers, he said, and payment disputes with managed-care companies can be existential threats to community hospitals with small cash reserves," Burchett and Patrick write. Edelen told KHN, "We've got a number of hospitals in Kentucky who have less than 15 days of cash reserves. One hospital in particular told me that leaders meet weekly to figure out about who's getting paid and how much just to keep the doors open. . . . County officials are afraid they are going to lose their hospital, while the Cabinet [for Health and Family Services] says all is well. What's the good of having everybody insured if there's no one to provide care?" (Read more)

FCC will face backlash on net-neutrality rules, regardless of how they are written

When the Federal Communications Commission finally releases its rules on net-neutrality—which are expected by the end of year—the rules will be met with criticism, regardless of how they are written, Julian Hattem reports for The Hill. The FCC said it has received more than 3.7 million comments on its proposed rules, and many fear that FCC chairman Tom Wheeler "would not go far enough to ban 'fast lanes,' which could create a 'two-tiered' Internet, one with faster service for companies with deep pockets that could pay the Web companies’ 'tolls' and another with slower service for those who couldn’t." (Telco illustration)

"Democrats have pushed for the FCC to ban 'fast lanes' on the Internet, which critics have said could emerge under Wheeler’s plan if Internet service companies charge Netflix, YouTube or other websites for speedier service," Hattem writes. "Some of the Democratic Party’s more liberal members, along with the moderate Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), have pushed the FCC to reclassify broadband Internet service as a 'telecommunications service' instead of as an 'information service. That move would give the FCC more power over companies by drawing from the same legal authority that the agency uses to regulate traditional wired phone lines."

"Republicans, meanwhile, have struck back, warning that tough rules would allow the heavy hand of the FCC to stifle the Internet," Hattem writes. "Some Republicans have pushed back on the suggestion that the FCC should dust off old regulations to assert authority over Internet providers."

There is also concern whether or not the rules apply to people accessing the Internet wirelessly on smartphones and tablets, Hattem writes. "The commission’s original 2010 rules, which were struck down by a court earlier this year, did not apply to wireless service. But Wheeler has dropped several hints about taking that step this time, to high marks from supporters of strong rules." (Read more)

Candidates reaching for guns in an attempt to relate to voters

When gun control legislation was shot down last year, it solidified the notion that American voters have a strong attachment to their firearms and are not willing to budge on the issue, no matter how slight the law's changes would have been. As November elections approach, it seems all the candidates—especially those in tight races—have latched onto this and are airing ads with them toting a gun, regardless of how ridiculous they might look.

"So far this election, we've seen candidates shoot drones, televisions, elephant pinatas, Obamacare and targets that were metaphors for Obamacare in campaign ads," Jamie Fuller reports for The Washington Post. "One candidate threatened to shoot those who tried to come into his home. Other candidates have brought guns to rallies, raffled them off to supporters or challenged their opponents to debates of accuracy at the shooting range."

"In races where the candidates would rather talk about the character deficits of their opponents . . . voters are sometimes left with ownership of a gun, a snowmobile or a pick-up truck as the only thing they definitively know about a candidate by the time November comes along," Fuller writes. "Which is to say, nothing at all."

"The one thing these ads all shy away from, though, is talking explicitly about guns and gun policy," she writes. "Guns are used to make statements about Obamacare, outside money or civil liberties. The candidates know that the 2014 midterms aren't about guns, but they would like you to know that they own one."

"But the truth remains that while ads with guns have proliferated, the only gun legislation that has made it through Congress in the past few decades has lifted restrictions on firearm usage," Fuller writes. "The flavor of gun support that politicians have inherited imparts an 'us vs. them mentality' where it often seems like Americans for Responsible Solutions and some of the gun ads from the candidates it supports can't co-exist." (Read more(Kentucky Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes is running a gun ad where she accuses incumbent Mitch McConnell of not knowing how to hold a gun. McConnell responded by comparing Grimes to Obama, when the president ran an ad firing a gun.)

Series by Des Moines Register uses virtual reality to explore state's family farms

The Des Moines Register this summer undertook a three-month agricultural journey across Iowa in search of the diverse nature of what makes up the state's family farms. The result is a five-day series beginning today called "Harvest of Change" that uses virtual reality technology and 360-degree video with 3-D effects. (Register photo by Christopher Gannon)

"Iowa's farm families are as diverse as their operations, growing crops that are conventional, organic and chemical-free alongside pastures of grass- and grain-fed beef and free-range chickens," Sharyn Jackson reports for the Register. "Among those who steward these operations are a six-generation farm family, a same-sex couple, an aging father and son, and an immigrant who found refuge in Iowa."

"'Harvest of Change' is an exploration of a nation in transition, as seen through the lens of the family farm in Iowa," she writes "We look at major shifts, including the aging of the population and the decline of rural communities; the change of America's complexion, as the country heads toward becoming majority nonwhite; the increasingly global connections that are altering business in even the most remote corners of the country; and the environmental challenges predicted from climate change."

"These broad changes are giving many Americans an unsettled sense of the future," Jackson writes. "But what we found in the homes and on the farms of the Iowa families we met was a determination to continue contributing to a legacy that is rooted in history, even as they innovate to make their life's work compatible with a changing world. We're telling this story of a changing America and changing farm life through all the tools of a changing journalism landscape." To read the first story, click here.