Friday, March 13, 2015

Arkansas bill to record and review closed sessions dies after newspapers oppose revised version

A bill to require public agencies to record their closed sessions and have the recording reviewed by the local prosecutor has died in the Arkansas General Assembly. House Bill 1054 was withdrawn from consideration March 11 and referred to an interim study committee.

The Arkansas Press Association originally favored the bill, but opposed it after prosecutors had it changed so that they would not have to review any recording unless five people complained.

"The Coalition found this burdensome and likely would change nothing regarding the abuse of executive sessions by governing bodies, " APA Executive Director Tom Larimer reported in an email to The Rural Blog. "The real killer was when the bill's sponsor again amended the bill to allow attorneys to attend executive sessions," something prohibited by the state Freedom of Information Act.

"Executive sessions continue to be the most abused tool of governing bodies who prefer to conduct the public's business out if view of the public," Larimer wrote. "Any time a bill is filed to amend the executive sessions portion of the FOIA we become very concerned, and for good reason, I believe."

Celebrate Sunshine Week March 15-21; fight governments trying to deny freedom of information

Sunshine Week, from March 15-21, is an important time for newspapers to promote open government and freedom of information. In several states, politicians and local governments trying to restrict access to records are threatening those rights, Michael Felberbaum reports for The Associated Press. "The public’s right to see government records is coming at an ever-increasing price, as authorities set fees and hourly charges that often prevent information from flowing."

"In Kansas, Gov. Sam Brownback’s office told The Wichita Eagle that it would have to pay $1,235 to obtain records of email and phone conversations between his office and a former chief of staff who is now a prominent statehouse lobbyist," Felberbaum writes. "Mississippi law allows the state to charge hourly for research, redaction and labor, including $15 an hour simply to have a state employee watch a reporter or private citizen review documents. The Associated Press dropped a records request after Oregon State Police demanded $4,000 for 25 hours of staff time to prepare, review and redact materials related to the investigation of the director of a boxing and martial arts regulatory commission."

"Whether roadblocks are created by authorities to discourage those seeking information or simply a byproduct of bureaucracy and tighter budgets, greater costs to fulfill freedom of information requests ultimately can interfere with the public’s right to know," Felberbaum writes. "Such costs are a growing threat to expanding openness at all levels of government, a cornerstone of Sunshine Week."

That's why journalists, even those from the smallest newspapers in the smallest towns, need to promote Sunshine Week and open government and freedom of information. The Sunshine Week website includes Felberbaum's story, as well as other materials available for news media. To view materials, click here.

Michigan one step closer to removing public notices from newspapers; issue affects all communities

On Thursday the Michigan House Local Government Committee passed HB 4183 out of committee to the House floor. The bill would remove all public notices from newspapers by the year 2025. Keeping public notices in newspapers and ensuring open government, affects all journalists, newspapers and members of the community and is an issue that all community newspapers should be discussing, especially because Sunshine Week is next week. Bill Speer, president of the Michigan Press Association, wrote a column in response to the move. Here is Speer's column:

Bill Speer
Local government officials say removing notices from newspapers saves money that can be spent on police and fire services. But they fail to say that these notices are a miniscule amount of their operating budgets. In one Michigan community, a $4 million budget pays $680—.00017 of its budget—in a given year. These same groups have yet to show any verifiable data on the net cost savings on such legislation. Yet they have been successful in getting legislators in Lansing to consider such a measure. 

Efficient, reliable and accountable public notice is essential for the local governments of Michigan to move in synch with their tax paying citizens and provide transparency. While the technology of information delivery continues to evolve and change, the responsibility of government to inform its constituents has not, and newspapers have adapted to the information age by developing websites that are visited far more often than governmental websites. Newspapers, as private businesses, have an incentive to provide their products and services at the lowest possible cost. 

It's vital to protecting taxpayers rights that Michigan government's maintain an independent third party platform for these notices to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt what notice was provided. 

With notices printed in a newspaper, if there are challenges, taxpayers would have an authentic record to use in court to force government to fix problems. Web-only posting would allow government to cover up mistakes because the Internet is constantly changing (as are the platforms used to provide information) and can be corrupted by viruses and other tools used by hackers. 

The security of notices in a print publication combined with the online reach and accessibility of local newspaper websites will provide the public with the most secure and dynamic notice possible at competitive and reasonable cost. Help us protect your rights, your property and your taxpayer dollars. Call your state legislators and urge them to vote no on HB 4183.

Rural counties in the West have highest rates of deaths from exposure to cold, says CDC study

Deaths from exposure to cold are more likely to happen in rural counties in the West than in any other area of the U.S., says a study by the Centers for Disease Control published in the British Medical Journal, Laura Geggel reports for Live Science. The study counted all counties west of the Rocky Mountains as part of the West.

The study found that from 2010 to 2013, about 5,800 people died from exposure to cold, Geggel writes. In rural western counties that equals 20.5 deaths for every 1 million people, compared to 4.5 to 7.8 deaths for every 1 million people in other non-metro areas. In metro areas the rates were 2.9 to 5 deaths for every 1 million people.

While the study didn't offer a reason for the higher rate in the West, a 2014 CDC report suggested "that people have an increased risk of dying from the cold if they live in places with rapid temperature shifts, large shifts in nighttime temperatures or high elevation," Geggel writes. The 2014 study also found that weather-related deaths "are two to seven times higher in low-income counties than in high-income counties, the 2014 study found. Many of the rural counties in the American West have high rates of poverty."

Those most at risk to suffer weather-related deaths are "elderly, infants, men, African Americans and people with pre-existing chronic medical conditions, such as cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses," Geggel writes.

Canada proposes tougher oil tank car standards after four derailments in Canada and U.S.

A string of fiery crashes involving tank cars used to transport crude oil has led the Canadian government to propose tough new standards requiring "cars to have outer 'jackets,' a layer of thermal protection and thicker steel walls," Rob Gillies and Joan Lowry report for The Associated Press. There have been four oil train derailment in Canada and U.S. in the past month, and 47 people died in a derailment in 2013 near Quebec. (Bloomberg photo by David Paul Morris)

"The requirements are tougher than the oil industry wanted," AP reports. "But the proposal doesn't include electronically controlled brakes that automatically stop train cars at the same time instead of sequentially, which are opposed by freight railroads. Regulators said they will take that issue up separately." The U.S., which has been working closely with Canada on its regulations, is expected to announce final regulations in May.

New standards were enacted after the 2013 derailment near Quebec, "but safety officials on both sides of the border called for even stronger measures after fiery derailments continued to happen despite the new tank cars standards," AP reports. "The newest standard calls for a hull thickness of 9/16th of an inch, up from 7/17th of an inch and makes thermal jackets mandatory. The thicker the shell, the less oil a tank car can hold, and with about a half-million carloads of crude hauled by rail in the U.S. and Canada last year, the cost difference could add up." (Read more)

Neb. foundation boss says rural philanthropy begins with teaching communities to help themselves

Rural philanthropy can bridge economic, social and cultural gaps, bringing people of differing backgrounds together to form a common bond, Nonprofit Quarterly wrote in July 2013. The problem is that money to rural areas keeps declining. That doesn't mean that rural advocates have given up hope. Some are still fighting the good fight, such as Jeff Yost, president and CEO of the Nebraska Community Foundation, Rick Cohen writes for Nonprofit Quarterly.

"Emphasizing the development of affiliated funds linked to and serviced by the statewide community foundation he runs, Yost says that they’re trying to do something different in Nebraska, to build a 'system [that] is all about helping communities to help themselves,'" Cohen writes. "This framework runs counter to the history of rural America, where political power and financial resources have largely seeped out of rural communities."

Yost said the foundation stresses leadership development; discretionary capital, so that leaders have resources they can apply; and the willingness to think about the future in different ways than we have in the past, Cohen writes.

And based on statistics the foundation's ideals have led to success across the state, with 532 incorporated places across the states. The foundation's accomplishments include:
  • 223 affiliated funds serving 254 Nebraska communities in 78 counties since the first affiliated fund was established in 1994
  • 286 planned gifts totaling $52.5 million to benefit Nebraska’s communities and organizations
  • $222.7 million reinvested since 1994 ($126.1 million in the last five years)
  • 35,728 contributions in the last five years
  • As of December 2014, 101 affiliated funds building endowments

Police in rural New Hampshire town rewarding citizens for obeying the law

Getting stopped by police in Farmington, N.H., is turning out to be a good thing for many residents. The local police department in the town of 6,786 has "began issuing gift cards for free pizza and fries to residents who use crosswalks, turn signals and otherwise obey laws that are easy to ignore," Harry Smith reports for NBC News. Funding for the program has come from local donations.

"Farmington Police Chief Jay Drury said he came up with the idea amid a stretch of particularly bad winter weather, after watching a man downtown make his way to a crosswalk despite heavy snow," Smith reports. Drury told him, "I said to myself, that gentlemen deserves a medal for battling the snow that we've had and everything else. And it was a couple of days later, and it kept weighing on me, and I thought to myself, I can't give him a medal but maybe I can do something else."

The program has been a success in a town where there are a small number of criminals repeatedly being arrested, Smith reports. Police Sgt. Brian Driscoll told Smith, "We end up seeing 10 percent of the people 90 percent of the time. The same individuals over and over and over again. So the gift cards help form connections. And build community trust." (Read more)

Thursday, March 12, 2015

USDA not charging enough for crop insurance in some high-risk areas, federal report says

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is undercharging farmers for crop insurance in some high-risk areas, says a report by the Government Accountability Office, Philip Brasher reports for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. The report said that USDA's Risk Management Agency "needs to do a better job of tracking insurance costs for lawmakers and ensure that premium rates are being increased as much they should be legally."

"From 2005 through 2013, government costs averaged 14 cents per dollar of expected crop value in higher-risk counties versus 5 cents per dollar in lower-risk ones, according to GAO," Brasher writes. "Those differences mean that for two farms, each with an expected crop value of $1 million, it cost the government on average $140,000 to insure a grower in a higher-risk county versus $50,000 in the lower-risk one."

"In 2013, the cost gap between higher risk and lower counties was 17 cents versus 5 cents per dollar of crop value, Brasher writes. The report said government costs "would have been reduced $600 million in 2013 if premium subsidies in higher-risk counties had been the same as they are in lower-risk counties: 4 cents per $1 of expected crop value. Premium subsidies in higher-risk counties that year averaged 11 cents per $1 of crop value." (Read more)

Coal-reliant Ky. is ground zero in climate-change battle; poor rural residents to pay higher costs

In Kentucky, where 93 percent of power generation comes from burning coal, some groups "say efforts to wall off the state's coal-dependent utilities from competing sources such as natural gas and distributed solar power are leading to higher costs for Kentucky's poorest communities," Joel Kirkland reports for EnergyWire.

One problem is that the Kentucky General Assembly is dominated by coal-friendly conservatives who aren't open to sustainable alternatives, Kirkland writes. "Anything that touches on energy is fiercely political in Kentucky and all the more so as the Obama administration presses on with plans to counter climate change," even though the Environmental Protection Agency's mandate for carbon-emission reductions in Kentucky is one of the nation's lowest. (EnergyWire map; for specific figures for each state, click here)
"Elected officials here are taking a scorched-earth approach to opposing Obama administration policies that affect utilities and nearby coal fields," Kirkland writes. "Kentucky is arguably the epicenter of opposition to EPA's Clean Power Plan, which would require states to cut carbon dioxide emissions from their power sectors by varying amounts through 2030." Longtime Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, has even called on states to ignore the rules. State Democrats haven't been much help either. Attorney General Jack Conway, the leading candidate for the state's Democratic nomination in this year's race for governor, "joined a multi-state lawsuit aiming to stop a final carbon rule."

"The 'just say no' campaign now embraced by McConnell and the state legislature comes from the playbook of Washington's powerful coal lobby," Kirkland writes. "At the top of that heap is the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which is run by Mike Duncan, a top Republican powerbroker. In Kentucky, Duncan is simply known as the chairman and CEO of the small Inez Deposit Bank in Inez, Ky., a friend of McConnell's and an old-school guardian of coal interests. Seemingly, the result is a state energy policy set in granite until EPA finalizes a rule."

"Under the Clean Power Plan, Kentucky would have to cut its power-sector carbon emissions rate 18.3 percent between 2012 and 2030," Kirkland writes. "In part because the state is so reliant on coal to keep the lights on, EPA's reductions target for Kentucky is among the lowest in the 13-state regional grid operated by PJM Interconnection, which serves 61 million people across the Mid-Atlantic region and Midwest." (Read more)

Crusading weekly in New Mexico is lit by arsonist; causes little damage, and fresh motivation

The Rio Grande Sun, a rural weekly in north-central New Mexico that has a history of exposing government corruption, crime and school improprieties, has had its share of run-ins with angry community members, including having rocks thrown through—or finding bullet holes in—its windows. On March 7 someone took it to the next level, setting the building on fire. Damage was minimal, and for the staff it was back to business as usual this week, Robert Noft reports for the The New Mexican in Santa Fe. (Wikipedia map: The Sun covers Rio Arriba County, which has a population of 40,000.)

Managing editor and owner Robert Trapp told Noft that "the brief conflagration was 'nothing. There was a fire. I gotta clean up, get a new copier. We gotta move forward. There’s a lot of people mad at us for a lot of stuff and for a long time.'” Trapp also said the building's surveillance cameras caught footage of someone pouring fuel in the office and lighting a match. He believes it will be enough to catch the perpetrator.

In this week's edition, in an editorial titled "Fiery Journalism," Trapp writes, "We know there is a portion of the population that doesn’t like what we do here. A nice, quiet, chamber-of-commerce cheerleader that runs press releases, without asking questions, is more to their liking. Those readers don’t want to know how badly the schools are doing, lack of city services, problems in police departments and county job bids that are illegal and padded. . . . When a newspaper informs readers in such a manner, whether they wish to be informed or not, certain risks come with that, including bullet holes in windows, occasional paint-balling and the ever-so-popular rocks. But to start a fire? Understanding the anger or the arsonist’s lack of ability to cope with a problem is just beyond all of us here at the Rio Grande Sun." He concludes, "Our arsonist(s) should know fires in newspaper buildings spread into the bellies of good journalists and supportive newspaper staff. It makes them angry and makes them work harder. For that we thank our fire bug."

Despite being a small paper, the Sun sells more than 10,000 copies a week, mostly because of its refusal to back down from difficult stories, Noft writes. Since its founding in 1956 by Robert Trapp Sr. and his wife Ruth, the Sun "has published stories on embezzlement of school funds, heroin addiction and trafficking and wayward public figures—including former Rio Arriba County Sheriff Tommy Rodella, who recently was sentenced to 10 years in a federal prison for violating a man’s civil rights while brandishing a handgun during an out-of-uniform traffic stop." (Read more)

PBS documentary focuses on rural education in South Carolina town with high poverty rate

A PBS documentary premiering March 17 allows viewers to "experience a year in the life of one small Southern town, two schools that work primarily with low-income children and one family’s efforts to break the generational cycle of poverty," says a blog post by one of the documentary's producers, reports Valerie Strauss for The Washington Post.

"180 Days: Hartsville" focuses on Hartsville, S.C., a town with a population just under 8,000, 46 percent of whom are African American. In the late 1800s, Hartsville was home to cotton plantations that relied on slave labor, writes Horace Fraser Rudisill for the Darlington County website.

Arkansas raising speed limit for big trucks on rural interstates to 70 mph

Truckers in Arkansas will soon be able to put the petal to the metal on rural interstates. Currently, the state has separate speed limits for big trucks and all other vehicles—65 mph for big trucks and 70 mph for everyone else. Beginning on Monday, big trucks will be allowed to go 70 mph, Noel Oman reports for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Speed limits are the same for both vehicles on suburban interstates (65 mph) and urban ones (60 mph). (University of Arkansas photo)

"The Arkansas Highway Commission on Wednesday adopted an order eliminating the different speeds, which have been in place for almost 20 years," Oman writes. " Research has shown that the different speeds don't promote efficient traffic flow, and none of the states surrounding Arkansas use the different speeds, according to the order."

Fatalities on Arkansas highways have reached record lows in recent years, with 465 in 2014 and 490 and 2013, Oman writes. Critics, though, argue that the faster a truck goes, the longer it takes to stop. (Read more)

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

New England town meetings provide examples for the rest of the nation, British correspondent says

Many New England towns still use their original political system of town meetings, which could teach the rest of the nation, including many in Congress, how to get things done while including the voices of anyone interested in throwing in their two cents. For his weekly "Lexington" column about the U.S., David Rennie of The Economist went to the meeting in Duxbury, Vt., where "all adult residents are invited to become legislators for a day, electing dozens of office-holders and debating the fine details of budgets, such as which brand of dump truck to buy."
Duxbury is in red on left map (Wikipedia)

"The impressive part is how Duxbury deals with conflict," Rennie writes. "Deep differences are often visible, as old-time conservatives butt heads with liberal newcomers, or pony-tailed professionals compete for election against retirees in check shirts. Sometimes transparency is painful, as when votes are held by a show of hands, forcing neighbor to snub neighbor. There is a lot of grumbling. As Duxbury’s elected moderator drily asked at one point, as he attempted to press on with the agenda: 'Is everyone relatively happy?'”

"But transparency also eases distrust: some of the angriest interventions turned out to have roots in a misunderstanding," Rennie reports. "The mere fact of being allowed to air grievances left several speakers visibly mollified and willing to bow to the consensus in the room. All those hours sitting on hard chairs in a school canteen left Duxbury residents weary. But the repeated votes and endless discussions also left them with a personal stake in the running of the town for the coming year."

"It would be hard to replicate town meeting elsewhere," Rennie writes. "Vermont is a curious state, where good manners and civic spirit co-exist with curmudgeonly individualism and self-reliance. But there is no need to clone town meeting for its example to do some good." University of Vermont political scientist Frank Bryan, who conducted a study of about 1,500 New England town meetings, writes: "If town meeting teaches anything, it is how to suffer damn fools and to appreciate the fact that from time to time you too may look like a damn fool in the eyes of people as good as yourself.'” (Read more)

For a news story on the meetings in Duxbury and other towns in the Mad River Valley, from The Valley Reporter, click here.

Fraudulent oil schemes are again a booming business in Southern Kentucky

Last week, Mark Cornell "pleaded guilty to securities fraud in U.S. District Court in Eastern Kentucky, admitting his role in a scheme that defrauded investors out of $3 million," Justin Story reports for the Bowling Green Daily News. Cornell acknowledged acting as operator of oil wells in southern Kentucky "while others sold investments in the wells. Court records show his co-defendants misled investors with false information about the wells to make it appear they were producing substantial amounts of oil."

Kentucky Geological Survey map (TORIS is tertiary recovery)
Several similar cases returned guilty pleas in recent years, and several more cases are pending. Southern Kentucky has long been known as a “promoter’s paradise” because its oil production comes mainly from shallow wells that produce strongly at first but quickly decline.

Bowling Green attorney John Caudill told Story, “Frequently, what you get is an operator that advertises on the Internet that they have a very lucrative prospect . . . what typically happens is there’s no prospect at all. It seems very lucrative unless you do your due diligence and look into the prospect, but unfortunately, some people don’t, and they wire large sums of money as investors in exchange for a royalty interest in the project.”

Charter schools less likely than traditional schools to have library media centers

Some advocates say charter schools are the answer to rebuilding rural communities while avoiding school consolidation. But students at charter schools are less likely than those at traditional schools to have access to libraries, according to a survey by the National Center on Education Statistics, Michael Alison Chandler reports for The Washington Post.

The survey, which included respondents from all 50 states, found that during the 2011-12 school year, 27,500 of 29,000 (94.8 percent) of rural schools reported having a library media center, 20,200 of 23,600 (85.6 percent) of city schools had one and 22,500 of 24,300 (92.6 percent) of suburban schools had one. Also, 79,000 of the 85,500 traditional schools (92.3 percent) reported having a library media center, while only 2,200 of the 4,500 charter schools (48.8 percent) reported having one. At the same time, 67 percent of traditional schools with a library media center had a full-time, paid, state certified library media center specialist, compared to 33 percent of charter schools. Of those, 52 percent in traditional schools had a master's degree, compared to 27 percent in charter schools.

Feds again get low grades on FOIA compliance; newspapers no longer drive information releases

The Department of Agriculture ranked first in the Center for Effective Government's second annual Access to Information Scorecard, a survey of the 15 federal agencies that get 90 percent of records requests under the Freedom of Information Act. Most agencies' scores improved, but remained "low overall," the center said.

The survey examined the establishment of clear agency rules guiding the release of information and communication with those requesting information; the quality and user-friendliness of an agency’s FOIA website; and the timely, complete processing of requests for information.

The Department of Agriculture scored 85 percent. The Social Security Administration scored 82, considered a B. Receiving Cs were the Department of Justice, 73; the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 72; and, ironically, the National Archives and Records Administration, 71. The Department of State was the worst offender, scoring 37.

UPDATE, March 14: "Newspapers were once the dominant force in dislodging documents and other records from reluctant federal government agencies, but a new crop of media players, advocacy groups and corporate interests now drive the release of information," report Kevin Johnson of USA Today and Kevin G. Hall of McClatchy Newspapers., in a joint effort for Sunshine Week, the annual observance of the need for open government.

"News organizations continue to paper federal agencies with written and electronic requests for records and other information under FOIA, a review of agency logs shows, though they are cash strapped and less likely to press their claims in court," the reporters write. "Meanwhile, over the past decade there's been a surge of requests from bloggers, advocacy groups, corporate lawyers, researchers and even foreign nationals tapping the promise of open records. It means that the information obtained under FOIA may reach the public in a raw, less contextual form, or through a particular political prism. Or it may not reach the public at all."

N.C. fines Duke Energy record $25.1 million for coal ash spill; much larger action pending

North Carolina officials on Tuesday fined Duke Energy $25.1 million—the largest environmental fine in state history—for contamination of groundwater by coal ash from the company’s Sutton Plant near Wilmington, N.C., Jonathan Katz reports for The New York Times. Federal prosecutors are pursuing a separate larger fine for the February 2014 spill that dumped 82,000 tons of coal ash in the Dan River.

North Carolina officials said the steep fine for the 2013 spill is "because of the severity and duration of groundwater pollution near the coal-fired L.V. Sutton Plant," Taft Wireback reports for the News & Record of Greensboro. "They based the fine on the length of time coal ash contamination continued in the groundwater, the harmful characteristics of the chemicals detected near the plant and the overall amount of damage to the groundwater." Also included in the fine was the state's cost to investigate the spill. Duke has 30 days to pay or appeal.

"Federal prosecutors are pursuing a separate, much larger action against the company stemming from its spill of millions of gallons of toxic coal ash from a plant on the Dan River, near the Virginia border," Katz reports.

Seminar on extractive industries in Appalachia part of conference in Pittsburgh starting March 24

The Society for Applied Anthropology will hold its annual meeting from March 24-28 in Pittsburgh at the Omni William Penn Hotel. Among the activities will be a day-long conference on March 24 on extractive industries in Appalachia, including showing of a film, "Triple Divide," documenting oil and gas development of the Marcellus Shale.

Panels include the keynote roundtable, “Building an Appalachian Agenda for Economic and Environmental Justice.” Other panels are: “Mine Lands and Mining Towns: Reclamation, Cleanups and Policy”; “Fracking and Citizen Science: Bridging the Data Gap?”; “Contesting Fracking: Grassroots Mobilization and Legal Strategies” and “Communicating the Impacts of Gas Extraction in Film, Photography, and Digital Storytelling.” For more information, click here.

Celebrating awfulness, site lists what your state is worst at

Louisiana has the highest murder rate. Michigan has the worst roads. Mississippi has the shortest life expectancy. Montana has the most traffic deaths per capita. Nevada has the highest divorce rate. These are all part of a list by travel website Swifty, highlighting the worst aspects of each state. To find out what each state is the worst at click here. (Swifty map)

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Rural youth twice as likely to commit suicide as urban counterparts, study says

The suicide rate for rural residents ages 10 to 24 is nearly double the rate in urban areas, according to a study by Columbus, Ohio, researchers published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics, Maanvi Singh reports for NPR. The study found that rural males in this age group commit suicide at a rate of 19.93 per every 100,000 residents, compared to 10.31 urban suicides per every 100,000. Among females, 4.40 per every 100,000 rural girls commit suicide, compared to 2.39 per every 100,000 urban girls.

Researchers from Ohio State University, The Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital and the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services used data from 1996 to 2010, finding that more than half of all suicides used a firearm, Singh writes. Rural residents were three times more likely than urban ones to commit suicide with a gun, with 51 percent of rural youth suicides coming by way of a gun.

The disparity in suicide rates can be attributed to a lack of psychiatric care in rural areas and a rural fear of admitting mental health issues and of being found out by friends and neighbors, researchers said, Singh writes. Speaking of rural areas, researcher Cynthia Fontanella told Singh, "There's often this emphasis on self-reliance and this rugged individualism. People hesitate to seek help with emotional issues. And even if someone wants to go to a mental health professional, in small towns there's a lack of anonymity in seeking care." (Read more)

Number of U.S. households with guns reaches record low, General Social Survey says

The number of U.S. households that owned at least one gun in 2014 tied the record low from 2010, says a study by the General Social Survey, which found that 32 percent of households have at least one firearm, Emily Swanson reports for The Associated Press. In all, 22 percent of Americans own a firearm, down from 31 percent in 1985. Some might dispute the survey, considering Gallup released a poll last year that said that 42 percent of American households own guns.

While the General Social Survey did not differentiate between rural and urban gun owners, guns are more prevalent in rural areas, with 51 percent of rural households owning a gun, compared to 36 percent suburban and 25 percent urban, Rich Morin reports for the Pew Research Center in a story from July 2014 that used a 2014 survey. Guns are most likely to be found in the South, where 38 percent of households own a gun, compared to 35 percent in the Midwest, 34 percent in the West and 27 percent in the Northeast. (Pew graphic: Gun ownership, based on 2014 Pew survey)

Alaska led the U.S. in most firearm deaths in 2013, with 19.59 per every 100,000 people, says the Violence Policy Center using Centers for Disease Control data. Following Alaska was Louisiana, 19.15 deaths per every 100,000 people; Alabama, 17.79; Mississippi, 17.55; Wyoming, 17.51; Montana, 16.94; Arkansas, 16.93; Oklahoma, 16.41; Tennessee, 15.86; New Mexico, 15.63; South Carolina, 15.60; and West Virginia, 15.10. Hawaii had the fewest firearm deaths at 2.71 per every 100,000 people. The national average was 10.64 per every 100,000.

Farm Bill programs leading to bigger subsidies than previously predicted

A program in the Farm Bill called Agricultural Risk Coverage is having much higher participation than previously thought, leading to projections from the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri that the program's cost will increase $1.7 billion, or 81 percent, above what the organization had predicted for the 2015-16 marketing year, David Rogers reports for Politico.

Another report, by the Congressional Budget Office, "shows total payments to corn and soybean producers from ARC alone will be $3.37 billion in fiscal 2017—when the big subsidies come due for the government," Rogers writes. "That is 38 percent higher than what this sector collected in 2014 under the old system of direct cash payments to producers."

"In the case of corn and soybeans, CBO is projecting most producers will go in the direction of ARC, but thousands will opt for PLC (Price Loss Coverage) instead, accounting for another $1.47 billion in costs in fiscal 2017," Rogers writes. "When added to the ARC subsidies, the corn and beans sector is expected then to receive a total of $4.8 billion in government payments in fiscal 2017. That’s nearly double what the direct payments were for these two crops in 2014." (Read more)

More than one-third of U.S. public school districts serve locally produced foods, USDA says

More than one-third of U.S. public school districts serve locally produced food, according to a survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Of the 9,887 school districts that responded to the survey, 36 percent said they serve local foods, and 9 percent said they plan to serve local foods in the future.

USDA, which created the Farm to School program in 2010 to encourage school districts to serve local food, found that more than 80 percent of districts in Rhode Island, Maryland, Delaware, Vermont, Hawaii and Maine serve local foods, according to survey respondents. In 10 states—Nevada, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Illinois, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama—20 percent or fewer respondents said they served local foods.

The most common local foods served are fruits and vegetables, with more than 90 percent of schools saying they serve those foods. The majority of local foods come from distributors, but many districts also receive food directly from producers, food processors and manufacturers. (Read more) (USDA map)

Formerly segregationist publisher played key role in resurrecting ferry to help black community

Half a century ago in Gee's Bend, Ala., African Americans were fighting for the right to vote. Even after Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, barriers still existed. As protests grew in 1962, the Alabama River ferry from Gee's Bend to the Wilcox County seat of Camden was taken out of service, which increased the isolation of the Gee's Bend community, mostly black.

Without the ferry, it was very difficult for people living in Gee's Bend to get into town to shop, see a doctor or cast their votes. Most did not have a car to travel 40 miles by road to Camden. "Whites who held power said the old flat-bottom boat simply wasn't up to the task anymore," Clyde Haberman writes for The New York Times, in a story pegged to the current observances of the 50th anniversary of the voting-rights march from nearby Selma to the state capital of Montgomery.

Hollis Curl,  publisher of the The Progressive Era
Hollis Curl, a strong segregationist when he bought The Progressive Era weekly newspaper in Camden in 1969, played an instrumental role in estblishing a new ferry in 2006. He died in 2010.

"Hollis grew up a segregationist, and, in the end, no one fought harder for the rights of all the people in Wilcox County than Hollis did," said Brad English of the Alabama Press Association. Curl felt a "call to atone for his bigotry," so fighting for the restoration of the ferry was part of his change of heart, Haberman reports.

The people in Gee's Bend are still poor, though the area has become famous for its colorful quilts, and racial divides still exist. "It's two societies in one location," said Jo Celeste Pettway, a District Court judge from a Gee's Bend family. "Separate and still unequal." (Read more)

Here's a collection of tools for social media and web work that can benefit any journalist

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Robert Hernandez, an associate professor at the University of Southern California, has compiled a list of social media and web tools that can be helpful to all journalists and editors. The list of 128 sites includes links to graphics and audio clips, an app to create 360-degree panorama photographs, tools to help create a web page and improve writing skills, tips for crowdsourcing or converting a web browser into a teleprompter, coding, animation, tutorials and instructions on how to create interactive maps and helpful ways to find the best tweets. (Read more)

Monday, March 09, 2015

Most Republican presidential candidates hold forth at Iowa Agricultural Summit

While 11 months remain until the first votes for president, Iowa Republicans had the chance to see the candidates up close and hear what they had to say on all the key issues Saturday at the inaugural Iowa Agricultural Summit.

Present were Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, former New York Gov. George Pataki and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Retired physician Ben Carson and Kentucky U.S. Sen. Rand Paul didn't attend; Paul was getting Kentucky Republican leaders to start planning a caucus so he can run for re-election as well as president.

One of the main issues addressed was immigration. Bush, taking a stand not necessarily popular with caucus-goers, said "undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. need a path to legalization," Chris Clayton reports for DTN The Progressive Farmer. Christie said "current immigration laws should be enforced to make them work," including "improving the H2A guest-worker program and making sure employers use the E-Verify system."

Perry "declared that President Obama and Congress have destroyed any trust that Washington, D.C., can address immigration," Clayton writes. "Perry would put more people and fencing on the southern border as well as ramp up aerial surveillance." Cruz "said there is overwhelming bipartisan agreement about securing the borders. He also thinks there is substantial agreement to improve and streamline legal immigration. Cruz notes he is the son of an immigrant from Cuba who risked everything for freedom."

Politico reporter James Hohmann has a round-up of the event, saying that Walker acted like the front-runner, while Perry did the most to connect with farmers, expressing "concern about falling crop prices and new challenges facing farmers," Hohmann writes. Huckabee separated himself from his competitors on many topics by expressing "skepticism of trade agreements and decrying the outsized power of business in the Republican Party," while Christie fell flat with an unenthusiastic performance and Graham won over the crowd with his outgoing personality, despite being well behind in polls.

The candidates discussed "major agriculture themes not often discussed in presidential elections," Alex Hanson reports for the Iowa State Daily in Ames. The Des Moines Register has in-depth coverage of the event, including news stories, profiles, videos, columns and a ranking of how well each of the candidates performed. Some stories are behind a paywall.

Report: Rural critical-access hospitals getting billions in extra Medicare funds, perhaps too much

"A law that allows rural hospitals to bill Medicare for rehabilitation services for seniors at higher rates than nursing homes and other facilities has led to billions of dollars in extra government spending," according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report released today.

In 1997, Congress passed legislation to designate critical access hospitals to help small facilities in remote areas stay open, Matt Sedensky reports for The Associated Press. "Rather than paying set rates for services as throughout the rest of the Medicare system, the federal government reimburses the hospitals for 101 percent of their costs. They also often receive state funding and grants."

The report's authors said that "most patients could have been moved to a skilled-nursing facility within 35 miles of the hospital at about one-fourth the cost," Sedensky writes. "Hospitals juggling tough balance sheets have come to view such 'swing-bed' patients as lucrative, fueling a steady rise in the number of people getting such care and costing Medicare an additional $4.1 billion over six years, the report said." (Health and Human Services graphic)

Health and Human Services investigators "examined a sampling of 1,200 critical access hospitals that submitted swing-bed claims between 2005 and 2010, estimating 90 percent of the patients could have been cared for elsewhere," Sedensky writes. "The average swing-bed hospital reimbursement in 2010 was $1,261 daily, versus an average estimated cost of $273 daily if the patients had been moved. Medicare paid for 914,000 days of swing-bed care in 2010, up from 789,000 in 2005, the report found."  (Read more)

Rural health leaders ripped the report. "They view rural as simply a small version of urban. They don't recognize that it is a different health-care delivery system," said Alan Morgan, CEO of the National Rural Health Association. NRHA will conduct a free webinar on the topic at 3:30 ET Thursday, March 19. It has already released a video questioning the report's methodology.

New Media Investment Group, parent company of GateHouse Media, lays off newspaper employees

New Media Investment Group, parent company of GateHouse Media—which filed for bankruptcy in 2013—earlier this month began laying off employees from its 36 community newspapers located mainly in the southeastern U.S. Many of the newspapers were formerly owned by The New York Times and then by Halifax Media, which was recently purchased by New Media for $280 million.

The StarNews in Wilmington, N.C., laid off an unknown number of employees on March 3, the newspaper reports. Details of the layoffs have not been made public. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune also suffered layoffs, including sportswriter John Brockman, who has been with the paper for 54 years, reports Jim Romenesko. Florida newspapers the Ocala Star-Banner, The Lakeland Ledger, the Gainesville Sun and The Daytona Beach News Journal also suffered layoffs.

Halfiax Media consisted of 16 publications in Florida, 11 in North Carolina, two in Alabama, one in Louisiana, one in Massachusetts and one in South Carolina.

FDA study finds some dairy farmers illegally use antibiotics in ways that evade detection

Some farmers are getting away with improperly treating dairy cows with antibiotics not detected by routine tests, says a report of a study by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Dan Charles writes for NPR. Because antibiotics are not supposed to be administered to dairy cows under any circumstance, the tests are not designed to detect them.

The FDA study, which looked for 31 different drugs in samples of milk from almost 2,000 dairy farms, found just over 1 percent of the samples from the targeted farms—farms that had come under suspicion for sending cows to slaughter that turned out to have drug residues in their meat—and 0.4 percent of randomly collected samples, contained drug residues, Charles writes. A total of 12 drugs were found, none of which are approved for use in lactating dairy cows. Because the samples were collected anonymously for research purposes, FDA can't send investigators to the farms. (Read more)

More national parks announce rate increases; Last year national parks had record attendance

More national parks are raising prices. In October 2014, the National Park Service for the first time since 2008 gave parks permission to raise rates. Some, such as Yosemite National Park, immediately announced that rates would be increased in 2015. Others are now following suit. (Western Kentucky University Public Radio photo: Entrance to Mammoth Cave National Park)

Only 131 of the 401 properties currently charge fees, Howard Meyerson reports for The Grand Rapids Press. While Yosemite's price increase went into effect this month, Virginia's Shenandoah National Park will increase prices in May then again in 2016. Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park in Utah and Mt. Rainier National Park in Washington and Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming have also proposed price increases.

Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky will raise its fees beginning on Saturday, Kevin Willis reports for WKU Public Radio. An increase in cave tours from $1 to $2 and camping from $3 to $5 as well as the cost of reserving picnic shelters increasing by $25 are expected to bring in an additional $350,000 this year.

Last year a record number of people visited national parks.

Derailed oil trains used tougher cars, and they still ruptured; many states unprepared for such events

One answer to the rash of oil-train derailments has been tougher cars to carry the crude, but in recent derailments, "New and sturdier railroad tanker cars being built to carry a rising tide of crude oil across the continent have failed to prevent ruptures," report Russell Gold and Paul Vieira of The Wall Street Journal. Each derailed train has the new CPC-1232 cars, "which weren’t able to prevent the crude from escaping, leaking into one river and exploding into several giant fireballs." (Photo by KCRG-TV9, Cedar Rapids: Last week's derailment near Galena, Ill.)

That "could increase momentum for rules aimed at further reducing the risk of shipping crude by rail," the reporters write, noting that "Last year, the Transportation Department proposed additional new rules for tank cars carrying crude, presenting three main options. One would stick with the CPC-1232, but the other two would make new cars stronger and retrofit existing cars.
The White House is now reviewing these options and is expected to issue recommendations in May.

Meanwhile, some states remain woefully unprepared to handle such disasters. In Oregon, "State officials have moved slowly to address oil-train safety gaps since the trains started rolling in late 2012," Rob Davis reports for The Oregonian.

"Trains haul crude oil throughout Oregon, along some of its most iconic and scenic locations, passing Multnomah Falls, through the Columbia River Gorge and along the Deschutes River. They move through Portland south along Interstate 5, crossing the Willamette River," Davis writes. "Yet, planning and readiness in Oregon have lagged despite the dangers. Though there have been no major accidents in the state, oil trains have introduced catastrophic spill risks in areas where they did not exist before."

Rep. Barbara Smith Warner (D-Portland) has introduced legislation that "would levy a one-time, $3.75 million assessment split among railroads moving oil through Oregon to pay for spill readiness as well as the supplies first responders need to address oil train accidents," Davis writes. "A recurring $375,000 annual fee also would be split among those railroad companies to pay to continue oil spill planning along rail routes." (Read more)