Friday, May 19, 2017

FCC looks to roll back net neutrality, which is designed partly to help connect underserved areas

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission took the first step in rolling back Obama-era net-neutrality rules, which were designed to prevent telecom giants from having monopolies over service and to help rural and under-served areas that lack broadband, Margaret Harding McGill reports for Politico.

In releasing the rules in February 2015, FCC aimed to make broadband internet service a public utility, resulting in an open internet, created in response to a lack of competition for high-speed internet service, leaving many areas with only one option. In some rural areas, providers refused to offer services because they viewed it as too costly to connect a small amount of people, or they offered service, but at increased costs.

Municipal utilities also sought to go outside their defined service areas to provide broadband to rural areas. Laws in many states prohibit governments from getting into the business and/or limit public utilities to their existing service areas. In 2015, the FCC allowed two municipal utilities, in Wilson, N.C., and Chattanooga, to do so. Telecom giants claimed the FCC was exceeding its authority with the net neutrality rules. But in June 2016, a federal appeals court for the District of Columbia, by a 2-1 decision, dismissed those arguments.

The FCC, which now has a Republican majority under President Trump, this week "voted along party lines to begin the process of rolling back the rules," McGill reports. "The telecom industry has criticized the rules as burdensome and unnecessary regulations, but supporters among startups and online tech companies say they ensure ISPs don't abuse their position as internet gatekeepers to favor some websites over others. The net-neutrality order, passed by the FCC's then-Democratic majority in 2015, represents one of the signature policy achievements of the Obama administration."

Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who was appointed by Trump, said "the FCC, in applying utility-style regulation to ISPs, was too heavy-handed and threatened the longstanding tradition of government keeping its hands off the internet," McGill writes. "Net-neutrality supporters argue that the rules provide important protections for consumers who may not have many options in buying internet service and also allow online companies to thrive, increasing consumer demand for broadband services."

Meanwhile, John M. Donnelly a reporter for CQ Roll Call, and chairman of The National Press Club’s Press Freedom Team and president of the Military Reporters & Editors association, said he was manhandled at an FCC hearing on Thursday, Julie Schoo reports for club. Donnelly said when he made his way toward FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly to pose a question, two guards pinned him "against the wall with the backs of their bodies until O’Rielly had passed." Donnelly said he was then forced to leave the building under implied threat.

FCC freezes rural phone rates for two years

The Federal Communications Commission voted on Tuesday to freeze rural phone rates for two years, Kery Murakami reports for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. "The 2-1 vote provided relief from the rule mandating companies charge the national average phone rate, which goes from $18 to $20 in July and then to $22 the following year."

FCC said it will consider at a later date permanently changing or revoking the six-year-old rule that has been widely criticized for raising phone rates to more than one million rural customers, Murakami writes. FCC's decision may have come too late to stop all rural phone bills from increasing this year. At least one company, the non-profit People’s Rural Telephone Cooperative in McKee, Ky., said it had already scheduled a rate hike of $21 to cover an additional service area.

FCC Chairman Adjit Pai, a Republican, said the rural mandatory minimum rule was unfair "when compared with the average rate in some high-income urban areas like Washington, D. C.’s $13 monthly fee," Murakami writes. Republican Mike O’Rielly "said he agreed with the reason that led to the rule—urban phone customers subsidizing rural customers—but voted for the freeze anyway." Democrat Mignon Clyburn "said phone urban customers include “those who can least afford” to subsidize rural customers. She wanted the FCC to also approve policies cracking down on waste, fraud and abuse in the subsidies in order to lower rates."

Rural-urban disparity on school bus transportation costs puts some rural districts in financial bind

Like many states where rural school districts are large in area, but small in population, Iowa's rural schools are shelling out large sums of money to transport students in half-empty school buses, Sarah Boden reports for Iowa Public Radio. The state median for transportation costs is $380 per student, according to the Iowa Department of Education.

But a rural-urban disparity exists, Boden notes. For example, the Des Moines Independent School District, Iowa’s largest, "spent $193 below the state median per pupil on transportation during the 2015-2016 school year," which comes to an additional $6 million. In rural Greene County Community School District, which is the state’s eighth largest in geographic size at 388 square miles, but only has 3.35 students per square mile, the average cost is $586 per pupil. That's $206 per student above the median, or $268,111 for the entire school year. (IPR graphic: Student population density in Iowa; click here for an interactive map.)
Greene County Superintendent Tim Christensen said that if he had that extra $268,000 a year, "he could hire more teachers, which would allow him to reduce class sizes and offer more electives," Boden writes. "What’s going on in Greene County is going on all over the state. "Especially in rural school districts where populations are shrinking and districts are dissolving or consolidating at a clip of a least a couple a year."

"The state’s funding formula is primarily to blame for this inequality," Boden reports. "Each district’s general fund budget receives a set amount per student from the state. For the 2016-2017 school year the sum was $6,591. In addition to transportation costs, a district’s general fund must also budget for salaries, text books, technology, and even capital improvements."

"But it's not all the state's fault," Boden notes. "School districts also have a responsibility to keep transportation costs low, and some do a better job than others... In part to keep transportation costs in check, Greene County is moving all K-12 classes to the city of Jefferson, which is the center of the district and the county seat. That means the intermediate school is closing. The fourth grade class will move to the elementary school, while fifth and sixth graders will become middle schoolers."

Rural Mainstreet Index in positive territory for first time since August 2015

In May, the Rural Mainstreet Index was above growth-neutral for the first time since August 2015. The index, an economic barometer for the 10-state region that stretches from Illinois to Wyoming, is dependent on agriculture and energy. On a 0-100 scale, it had been below 50 for 20 straight months, indicating economic weakness in the region. But in May the index rose to 50.1, up from 44.6 in April.

Creighton University economist Ernie Goss surveys bank CEOs in rural areas of Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Wyoming and the Dakotas.

Goss said, “Stabilizing and slightly improving farm commodity prices helped push the overall index into a weak but above growth neutral for May. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is projecting that net U.S. farm income will sink by 8.7 percent to $62.3 billion for 2017, the fourth consecutive year of declines after reaching a record high in 2013. This downward trend has weighted on our survey results for almost two years.” (Creighton graphic: Rural Mainstreet Index)
The agriculture equipment-sales index jumped to its highest level in more than two years, to 26.8, up from 21.5 in April, and 10.7 in March. Despite reaching its highest level since January 2015, it marks the 45th straight month the reading has fallen below growth neutral of 50.0.

Almost one in four bank CEOs "said the Federal Reserve should raise short-term interest rates at June meetings," Goss notes. "Approximately 28.9 percent of bankers named rising regulatory costs as the biggest challenge to banking operations over the next 5 years. Approximately 11.1 percent of bankers reported farm foreclosures represented the greatest risk to banking operations, more than double the 4.5 percent who identified such foreclosures as the greatest risk in May 2016 survey."

Rural Tenn. hospital turns to crowdfunding to pay debts; hospital accused of mistreating employees

Copperhill, Tenn. (Best Places map)
A struggling rural hospital in southeast Tennessee has turned to crowdfunding to pay off its debts, Max Blau reports for Stat, the national health-and-science website of The Boston Globe. A GoFundMe campaign has been created for Copper Basin Medical Center, that seeks to raise $100,000. As of 9:30 a.m. ET today it had raised $870.

Of the 78 rural hospitals that have closed since 2010, eight are in Tennessee, second most behind Texas, according to the University of North Carolina. Most have been in states like Tennessee that did not expand Medicaid under federal health reform. STAT graphic showing national rural hospital closures from 2005 to 2016.

Dan Johnson, CEO of Copper Basin, the only critical access hospital in Polk County, said he is confident that local residents, who he said have relied on it in medical emergencies, "will now help their hospital in its time of need," Blau writes. Johnson told Blau, “I’m a positive thinker. There should be health care in this community. There’s a definite need for this hospital.”

The fundraising campaign has exposed rifts in the community, Blau writes. "Some employees are openly urging people not to donate, noting that the hospital recently laid off workers with just three days’ notice." Tracy Rhodes Robinson, a registered nurse who was among those laid off this month, "told Stat she was angry at the hospital’s treatment of employees. Their health insurance was eliminated; some are still owed paychecks and aren’t sure they’ll ever get them."

Another problem is that Copper Basin "isn’t in immediate danger of shutting down, but the hospital has cut staffing from about 130 employees to fewer than 80," Blau writes. "Johnson said he had no choice," telling Blau, "It wouldn’t have been fiscally responsible or morally responsible to have people work without paying them every two weeks. And to raise capital, we need to reduce payroll."

Alaska town reinvents itself as cruise destination, some dislike the culture and commerce changes

Visit Ketchikan map
An Alaska town facing an economic collapse has reinvented itself as a tourist magnet, Melissa Block reports for NPR. When the timber industry moved away from Ketchikan, officials decided to take advantage of their natural resources, turning the town into a premier docking spot for cruise ships. They expect a million visitors this summer, and say the town of 13,000 often doubles in size from as many as six ships on any given day.

"Ketchikan sits on an island at the southernmost end of southeast Alaska, a prime spot for cruise ships navigating Alaska's Inside Passage," Block notes. "The landscape is spectacular: snow-capped mountains, glaciers descending into narrow fjords, and all around, the dense Tongass National Forest. At 17 million acres (bigger than West Virginia), the Tongass is the largest national forest in the U.S."

Cruise ship tourists in Ketchikan
(NPR photo by Elissa Nadwomy)
The town once relied almost exclusively on timber, Block writes. "For many decades, the spruce, hemlock and cedar trees of the Tongass have also been a source of timber for the logging industry. At its peak, logging camps dotted the islands of southeast Alaska, and pulp mills were robust economic drivers of the region. One by one, those pulp mills shut down, faced with global competition, new environmental regulations, lawsuits and fines for pollution violations," with the last one closing in 1997.

Ketchikian gift shop items (Nadwomy photo)
Not everyone in Ketchikan has enjoyed the town's transition, Block writes. Longtime Ketchikan resident Eric Collins told Block, "We don't know who we are anymore. We had shoe stores in Ketchikan. We had work clothes stores in Ketchikan. We had a Chevy dealer and a Ford dealer. They're all gone." Block writes, "What's replaced them? Lots of jewelry and watch stores, some of them owned by the cruise ship companies themselves. Also, souvenir and gift shops, as well as local tour operations."

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Education budget has big cuts, pushes school choice; would ax rural public-career program

The Trump administration's proposed education budget would cut $10.6 billion from federal education initiatives and spend "about $400 million to expand charter schools and vouchers for private and religious schools and another $1 billion to push public schools to adopt choice-friendly policies," Emma Brown, Valerie Strauss and Danielle Douglas-Gabriel report for The Washington Post. School choice favors urban areas, because in many rural areas there is only one school to choose from and charter schools are unlikely. Trump was particularly popular in rural areas during the presidential election.

"Local news media should check with their school districts to see how they would be affected," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, publisher of The Rural Blog.

The proposed budget also ends a loan-forgiveness program for public servants, the Post reports. Enacted in 2007, it "was designed to encourage college graduates to pursue careers as social workers, teachers, public defenders or doctors in rural areas. There are at least 552,931 people on track to receive the benefit, with the first wave of forgiveness set for October. It’s unclear how the proposed elimination would affect those borrowers." (Post graphic: Percentage of rural public schools in each state)
The Trump administration "would devote $1 billion in Title I dollars meant for poor children to a new grant program (called Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS) for school districts that agree to allow students to choose which public school they attend—and take their federal, state and local dollars with them," reports the Post. "The goal is to do away with neighborhood attendance zones that the administration says trap needy kids in struggling schools."

"But the notion of allowing Title I dollars to follow the student—known as 'portability'— is a controversial idea that the Republican-led Senate rejected in 2015," reports the Post. "Many Democrats argue that it is a first step toward private-school vouchers and would siphon dollars from schools with high poverty to those in more affluent neighborhoods."

The proposed budget also cuts at least 22 programs, including "$1.2 billion for after-school programs that serve 1.6 million children, most of whom are poor, and $2.1 billion for teacher training and class-size reduction," reports the Post. Also cut would be "a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs."

"Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly," the Post notes. "Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent)."

Lines leading from oil or gas wells were sources of many spills, say data from states that collect it

Top five causes for spills in Colorado,
New Mexico and Texas, the states
that report spill sources. Records for
New Mexico and Texas go back to
2009, Colorado data to April 2014.
Flow lines—the small, low-pressure pipes blamed for a fatal home explosion in Colorado last month—have been cited as the problem in more than 7,000 oil and natural gas "spills, leaks and other mishaps since the beginning of 2009, according to an E&E News analysis of state agencies' records," Mike Soraghan reports for Energywire. "And that is likely an undercount because of the widely varying ways in which states report spills."

"There are different terms for flow lines, but generally they refer to narrow pipelines that carry oil, gas or wastewater—often all three—from scattered wells to tanks or other equipment within the same lease," Soraghan writes. "Other lines, like gathering lines and transmission pipelines, are larger. They lead to processing facilities and away from production sites."

Flow lines (Colorado Oil and Gas
Conservation Commission
Flow lines are "prone to corroding and leaks, lines freeze, and joints break" and they also can get cut and crushed by heavy equipment, Soraghan writes. "In most states, that hasn't led to stricter regulation. Only Colorado and California have specific rules for such small pipelines. Colorado requires the lines to be pressure tested but doesn't require detailed maps. California is still implementing its requirements for mapping and pressure tests."

"Flow lines are more common with conventional oil and gas development, in which vertical wells are scattered across vast acreage. In modern shale development, horizontal well bores spread out underground," Soraghan reports. "But wellheads are concentrated in one area at the surface, so there's less need for long flow lines. They usually leak oil or 'produced water'—a salty, toxic mix of fluids—along with natural gas. The gas leaked from such lines often isn't reported."

Kerry Sublette, a spill cleanup expert and chemical engineering professor at the University of Tulsa, told Soraghan, "In a lot of these mature fields, they haven't been replaced in a long time. If nobody's looking over your shoulder, you're not as likely to replace it." Soraghan notes that "most states don't require that operators dig up and remove the lines when they're done using them." Sublette told him, "They've got lines that they've got no idea where they go. They never remove them."

Feds suspend rule requiring injury and illness reports to be filed electronically; blocks disclosure

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Labor suspended an Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule, issued late in the Obama administration, "requiring that companies electronically report their injury and illness records, a move that effectively keeps these records from being publicly disclosed for the immediate future," Juliet Eilperin reports for The Washington Post.

"Companies have been required to maintain worker injury and illness logs since 1971, and between 1995 and 2012, OSHA had required about 180,000 establishments in high-hazard industries such as manufacturing and nursing homes to submit the summary data by mail," Eilperin writes. "But the program cost $2 million a year to run, and officials decided to expand the requirement and transition it to an electronic system instead."

"The rule, which covered nearly 441,000 workplaces, took effect Jan. 1 and employers were obligated to send in their summary data by July 1," Eilperin notes. "But OSHA never launched the website for companies to submit the information, and it posted language Wednesday with an existing fact sheet saying it 'is not accepting electronic submissions of injury and illness logs at this time, and intends to propose extending the July 1, 2017 date by which certain employers are required to submit the information' to the agency."

Several business groups, led by the Associated Builders and Contractors, Associated General Contractors of America and the National Association of Home Builders, sud to overturn the rule "and lobbied the administration to jettison it on the grounds that it could unfairly damage the reputation of some of their members," Eilperin reports.

Iowa Republican senator slams energy secretary for study that undermines wind energy

Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, one of the nation's leaders in generating electricity from wind energy, slammed an Energy Department study that Grassley said was "pre-determined" and created to show that renewable sources such as wind "will not be viewed as credible," Valerie Volcovici reports for Reuters.

Grassley wrote in a letter to Energy Secretary Rick Perry: “I’m concerned that a hastily developed study, which appears to pre-determine that variable, renewable sources such as wind have undermined grid reliability, will not be viewed as credible, relevant or worthy of valuable taxpayer resources . . . Not only is Iowa's wind energy resource reliable, it's also affordable." (American Wind Energy Association graphic: Wind energy in the U.S., state production totals by megawatt)
Grassley said Iowa's electric rates, which have only increased twice since 1998, are frozen until 2029, and are the ninth lowest nationally. He also said any study reviewing the impacts of wind energy on grid reliability and security should look at Iowa as proof of wind energy's success. He noted that the state gets 36 percent of its electricity from wind, and that its largest utility, MidAmerican Energy Co., generates 55 percent of its electricity from wind and expects to raise that to 90 percent in the next few years.

Volcovici writes, "Perry served as governor of Texas, a leading oil-producing state, from 2000 when he succeeded President George W. Bush until 2015. Under his tenure, Texas became the country's leading wind energy producer. But Perry has also been a strong advocate of the fossil-fuel industry. He told Department of Energy staff that he wanted them to examine whether environmental regulations and tax credit programs that bolster wind and solar energy are forcing coal and nuclear plants to shut down prematurely."

30% of Wisconsin's CAFOs have expired permits; state staffing shortages blamed

Socially Responsible Agriculture Project photo
Nearly one-third—91 of 294—of Wisconsin’s large-scale concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are operating under expired permits, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Many of the permits expired in 2016, Danielle Kaeding reports for Wisconsin Public Radio.

While it is not illegal or uncommon for farms to operate with an expired permit, WDNR says a growing number of large farms, coupled with a shortage of staff to issue permits, has led to the backlog, Kaeding writes. Under state and federal rules, CAFO permits are issued every five years.

John Holevoet, director of government affairs for the Wisconsin Dairy Business Association, said "rules allow permits to remain in effect until they’re reissued." He told Kaeding, "It’s not as though these farms don’t have a permit. They have a permit. They’re 100 percent legally bound by their permit even though the initial timeframe is over. Until they have a new one, they must follow everything in that original permit."

The backlog has caused concern among activists, who fear WDNR lacks the staff to enforce rules, Kaeding writes. Holevoet said it also has caused problems for farmers. He told Kaeding, "While your permit is in this limbo, you could not even do a simple construction project to the production site. So, if you need a new feed storage pad, you might have difficulty getting that completed during this limbo period of time."

Event in upstate New York introduces 1,000 students in grades 6-10 to agriculture careers

Students learned about hops at the event.
About 1,000 students in grades 6-10 in upstate New York participated in an event Wednesday that was designed to introduce them to careers in agriculture, Stephanie Sorrell-White reports for the Times Telegram in Herkimer, N.Y. "Farming Your Future" enabled students to sample four subject areas —animal science, plant science, end products and technology and equipment — featuring more than 50 exhibitors.

Best Places map
Christopher Groves, director of the Schools to Career program for the Herkimer County Board of Cooperative Education Services, "said it was important to ensure Farming Your Future would resonate with students from districts where children are familiar with agriculture and from districts where that isn’t the case," Sorrell-White writes. Groves, who focuses on rural education, told her, “Today is really about exposing students to agriculture, agribusiness and agri-tourism. Certainly, the region is rich and robust in agriculture, and we need to better connect students to it. One of the terms that has been dubbed for this event is ‘where agriculture meets education,’ and that has come to life. We need to get students more involved in the agriculture field.”

Richard Hughes, superintendent of Central Valley Central School District, which had 130 students participating, said he "believed the event will leave kids 'inspired' to opportunities in the agriculture field," Sorrell-White writes. He told her, "What many people visualize as farming is much more."

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Agricultural pesticide EPA refused to ban in March is blamed for California workers' sickness

A widely used agricultural pesticide that Environmental Protection Agency EPA head Scott Pruitt refused to ban in March, is being blamed for causing 47 California farmers to become sick on May 5, Oliver Milman reports for The Guardian. Chlorpyrifos, also known as Lorsban, has been used by farmers for more than a half-century to kill pests on crops including broccoli, strawberries and citrus. EPA under the Obama administration proposed a ban in 2015.

Vulcan, a brand name chemical produced by Dow Chemicals, was sprayed on an orchard southwest of Bakersfield, Calif, led to the pesticide drifting to a neighboring property where workers harvesting cabbage "subsequently complained of a bad odor, nausea and vomiting," Milman writes. The primary ingredient in Vulcan is chlorpyrifos. Farm operator Dan Andrews, who said he doesn't use chlorpyrifos, said wind spread the pesticide, leading to sickness, which forced the harvest to be shut down. He said samples of cabbage and clothing have been taken to the state lab for testing.

Chlorpyrifos "has been linked to developmental problems in children such as lower birth weight, reduced IQ and attention disorders," Milman writes. "Large doses of the chemical can cause convulsions and sometimes even death. People are exposed through spray drift, residues on food and water contamination."

Rural Georgia voters twice as likely to be investigated for fraud, says Daily Yonder analysis

Experts say poor training of poll workers in rural Georgia has led to a disproportionate number of voting fraud charges being levied in rural areas, Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder. The Georgia State Election Board reviewed 250 separate cases in 2015 and 2016, with one-third coming from rural areas. Less than one-fifth of Georgia electorate lives in rural counties.

"A Daily Yonder analysis of State Elections Board records shows that rural voters are about twice as likely to be investigated as urban voters are," Marema writes. "Over a two-year period, the State Elections Board investigated rural voters at a rate of about 1 for every 23,000 votes. Urban voters were investigated at a rate of about 1 investigation per 52,000 votes."

Candice Broce, spokeswoman for the Georgia Secretary of State's office, told Marema, “It’s definitely a resource issue — it comes down to money. In metropolitan areas, local governments have more time and money to spend on training. Non-metro doesn’t.”

One problem is that each of the state's 159 counties is responsible for conducting its own election, Marema. That can make it difficult for voting rights groups to monitor every county, especially smaller, more remote ones, said Fred McBride, with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. He told Marema, "Voting rights organizations oftentimes don’t have the resources to go to every single site. So where do you go first? You go to the places that make the most noise. You go to the bigger cities first and you deal with that. Unfortunately, that’s just the dynamics of it.”

Poor public housing conditions in rural Cairo, Ill., could force lifelong residents to leave town

Cairo, Ill. (Best Places map)
When urban areas tear down uninhabitable public housing, residents have options to move to another location in or around the city. But when the same thing happens in a rural town, there are few, if any, options, for residents who want to remain local, Monica Davey reports for The New York Times. That's what is happening in Cairo, Ill., where residents are being vacated from two public housing developments that are being demolished, leaving residents with no place to go in the town of 2,576.

Nena Ellis, a 38-year-old mother of three who lives in one of the developments slated to be demolished, told Davey, “For sure they needed to fix this place up a long time ago. But there’s really nowhere else for us to go around here — even with a housing voucher, there just aren’t other places. Are we all supposed to just scatter to other cities — to big cities? Our kids grew up in Cairo. Our memories are in Cairo. And if you take this place out, it’s knocking everything else down in Cairo with it.”

Cairo has "no functioning grocery store or gas station, and a main thoroughfare with an ornate, arching entry that reads 'Historic Downtown Cairo' but one that features shuttered storefronts, vacant lots and, on a recent day, not a person in sight," Davey writes. "Cairo is in the triangle where the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers meet. Lewis and Clark once camped near here, and the city was cited in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a wished-for destination that would offer access to the Ohio River and a route north, away from slave states. But in the past half-century, Cairo was better known for racial strife — riots in the 1960s and a tense transformation that followed, from a majority-white city to a mostly black one."

Public housing in Cairo, Ill. (New York Times photo)
"Yet this city, once five times its current population, can scarcely afford to lose more residents," Davey notes. "About 400 people are being asked to move out of McBride and Elmwood, including about 200 children. If all of them move from Cairo for some of the cities residents now find themselves contemplating — Marion, Ill.; Cape Girardeau, Mo.; Paducah, Ky. — Cairo’s already-shrinking school enrollment will drop by nearly half, and job cuts in the schools, which education officials say is the city’s biggest employer, will probably follow."

Ben Carson, secretary of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, "said he understood the devotion that residents have to their hometown, but the circumstances, including a 'nearly bankrupt' local housing authority, made moving families the best immediate option," Davey writes. Carson wrote to the local school superintendent, “Despite our best efforts, we know that some families, your students included, may have to move outside of Cairo. My hope would be that they never forget their Cairo roots and the inspiration you’ve provided.”

Fracking boom's pay raise for less-educated men led to more babies and unwed mothers, says study

In rural areas that experienced a fracking boom, birth rates soared, but so did the number of unwed mothers, says a study by economists at the University of Maryland published in The National Bureau of Economic Research. Researchers, who said less-educated people are more likely to have children out of wedlock, wanted to examine if an "increase in potential earnings of less-educated men would correspondingly lead to an increase in marriage and a reduction in non-marital births."

In rural parts of Texas, Wyoming, Pennsylvania and Colorado, the oil and gas industry "created plentiful and lucrative blue-collar jobs and a bonanza of attractive bachelors," Lydia DePillis reports for the Houston Chronicle. "Predictably, childbearing rates rose in those areas: About three more births per thousand women, or three percent above the baseline rate. But those well-paid jobs for men without college diplomas did nothing to bring down the rate of births to unwed women, which now account for 40 percent of American babies, an all-time high."

Researchers speculated that "social attitudes are playing a greater role than economic factors, as out-of-wedlock births no longer carry the stigma they once did," DePillis writes. "To further explore the idea that social norms shape the decision to marry and bear children, the paper compared the fracking boom in the 2000s with the rise of the coal industry in Appalachia in the 1970s. Then, as now, more babies were born as incomes improved. But back then, the share of babies born to unwed mothers declined substantially, suggesting that economic trends and social expectations were both working in favor of more traditional family structures."

Retired Iowa teacher has popular response to congressman over Republican health-care bill

Barbara Rank
Republican leaders have been holding town halls to explain why they voted in favor of the health-care bill, Avi Selk reports for The Washington Post.

When Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa) defended his vote at a town hall in Dubuque, Iowa by saying, “Get rid of some of these crazy regulations that Obamacare puts in, such as a 62-year-old male having to have pregnancy insurance,” it drew the ire of one woman in attendance, who wrote a succinct response in 107 words in a letter to the editor of her local newspaper, the Telegraph Herald.

The letter, written by retired special education teacher Barbara Rank of Dubuque, Iowa, has gone viral. Here is her letter:
Congressman Rod Blum in a Dubuque town hall (Monday) night asked, "Why should a 62-year-old man have to pay for maternity care?”
I ask, why should I pay for a bridge I don’t cross, a sidewalk I don’t walk on, a library book I don’t read? Why should I pay for a flower I won’t smell, a park I don’t visit, or art I can’t appreciate?
Why should I pay the salaries of politicians I didn’t vote for, a tax cut that doesn’t affect me, or a loophole I can’t take advantage of?
It’s called democracy, a civil society, the greater good. That’s what we pay for.

Society of Environmental Journalists conference scheduled for Oct. 4-8 in Pittsburgh

Registration is now open to members, for the Society of Environmental Journalists 27th Annual Conference, from Oct. 4-8 at the University Pittsburgh. Non-member registration opens Monday. This year's theme is "Rivers of Change."

The conference, which "will blend a local, post-industrial focus on the Pittsburgh region with a strong current of national and global environmental issues," will have a session on investigative journalism, including an examination of your legal rights when reporting and safety in the field, according to SEJ.

Another session will focus on "the convergence of science, policy, politics and social media, and how that mash-up has muddied our jobs as journalists covering the environment," says SEJ. "We’ll assess the evolving mainstream media, the roiling freelance landscape and advocacy journalism against a background of 'alternative facts' that has made our professional navigation both more difficult and daunting, but ever more crucial." For more information or to register click here.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Liberal-leaning group warns proposed changes to Medicaid would hurt millions in rural America

People who have health insurance through the Medicaid expansion are at great risk of losing their coverage if the Senate passes the House health bill, a decision that would greatly harm rural America, says a Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report.

Republican senators have said they are "starting from scratch" and writing their own bill, but that is misleading because "the House bill's core provisions remain firmly at the center of Senate discussion," said Shannon Buckingham, spokesperson for the liberal-leaning group.

The report says the House health bill, called the American Health Care Act, would "effectively end" the Medicaid expansion because "beginning in 2020, states would receive only the regular federal Medicaid matching rate, which averages 57 percent for any new enrollees under the expansion instead of the permanent expansion matching rate of 90 percent." The matching rate for Kentucky is 70 percent, so the state would have to pay "2.8 to 5 times more than under current law for each new enrollee," the report said.The bill also allows states to stop enrolling people in expanded Medicaid.

The detailed CBPP report, which offers state-level details on many measures, found that in at least eight expansion states, more than one-third of expansion enrollees live in rural areas.

The report notes that states that expanded Medicaid had the largest drops in rural people without health coverage, from 16 percent in 2013 to 9 percent in 2015. In non-expansion states, the uninsured rate dropped from 19 percent to 15 percent in 2015.

Mary Wakefield, former acting deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said the rural states of Kentucky and Arkansas, which expanded Medicaid, saw a "one-third increase in the share of low-income adults getting regular check-ups and a two-thirds decrease in the share depending on the emergency room for care."

Wakefield said Medicaid expansion has reduced people's risk of medical bankruptcy, improved treatment access for people with substance use disorders and dramatically decreased uncompensated care in rural hospitals.

"The House health bill is a threat to rural hospitals," said Jesse Cross-Call, a senior policy analyst at CBPP and co-author of the report. "Over the past few years, closures of rural hospitals around the country have been heavily concentrated in states that have not expanded Medicaid."

Virtual summer school created to reach students in a rural Missouri district has gone statewide

Hillsboro, Mo. (Best Places map)
An online summer school program created to reach students in one rural Missouri county that didn't have enough students or teachers for traditional classes has spread statewide, Paige Hulsey reports for KMOV, a television station in St. Louis.

The Missouri Online Summer Institute, funded by the state, offers more than 100 core and elective courses for middle and high school, at no cost to the students, Hulsey writes. Students can transfer all credits earned back to their school district.

The subjects offered include math, science, foreign languages, social studies, language arts and a variety of required electives. Students can also enroll in advance placement and career readiness courses. The program is structured with 'online classrooms' for online interaction between students and teachers. Online tutoring is also available.

Matt Zoph, superintendent of the Grandview R-2 School District in Hillsboro, Mo., told Hulsey, "It originally started because we had a K-8 summer school and we were trying to figure out something we could do with our Grandview students in the high school. So we brain stormed and decided we would have a virtual class where the kids don’t have to come into the building and our teachers didn’t have to come in and it started from there with our students and then we started getting requests from other districts. It’s kind of grown into a statewide program." The program is now in its sixth year and, "expects to enroll 1,000 students from around the state," Husley noted.

Author argues that impoverished whites are passing hopelessness from one generation to the next

Graham's book cover
Impoverished white Americans, largely in rural areas, are inheriting hopelessness from previous generations, argues Carol Graham, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, in her book, Happiness for All?: Unequal Lives and Hopes in Pursuit of the American Dream.

Graham said "those who believe in their future are more likely to invest in it. For poor people with little time and money to spend on building a better future, hope and optimism are even more important," Ana Swanson reports for The Washington Post.

She said "inequality shapes people’s hopes and beliefs about the future, and that those perceptions are passed down to future generations just as surely as an inheritance would be," Swanson writes. "Today, 62 percent of Americans think their children will be worse off than they are."

Graham told Swanson, “If you think about the makeup of rural places where many poor whites live, they’re socially isolated. Everybody drives everywhere, and the distances are huge. For people in places like that, your job was your place of social interaction and if you lose that there isn’t much left.”

"There is a lot of anger and resentment now, particularly among blue-collar whites," Graham said. "But we still haven’t had a decent public discussion about inequality, perhaps because there’s still this attitude that any government handout is bad. ‘Make America Great Again’ was in large part about people falling behind, but the word inequality didn’t come in there once... One of the things we find is that there is really low optimism for the future among poor whites, and desperation and suicide."

Large imports of food labeled 'organic' have turned out not to be organic; part of a weak system

Post graphic; click on it for a larger view
A recent shipment from Europe to the U.S. of 36 million pounds of soybeans magically went from being labeled and priced as ordinary soybeans, to being labeled organic, which boosted their value by approximately $4 million, Peter Whoriskey reports for The Washington Post, saying it exposes major holes in the way the U.S. ensures that foods labeled "organic" actually are. One problem is that at least half of organic commodities in the U.S. come from overseas, from as many as 100 countries.

"After being contacted by The Post, the broker for the soybeans, Global Natural, emailed a statement saying it may have been 'provided with false certification documents' regarding some grain shipments from Eastern Europe," Whoriskey writes. "About 21 million pounds of the soybeans have already been distributed to customers."

That shipment, plus two others, "each involving millions of pounds of 'organic” corn or soybeans, were large enough to constitute a meaningful proportion of the U.S. supply of those commodities," Whoriskey reports. "All three were presented as organic, despite evidence to the contrary. And all three hailed from Turkey, now one of the largest exporters of organic products to the U.S., according to Foreign Agricultural Service statistics."

Under U.S. Department of Agriculture rules, "a company importing an organic product must verify that it has come from a supplier that has a 'USDA Organic' certificate," Whoriskey writes. "It must keep receipts and invoices. But it need not trace the product back to the farm. Some importers, aware of the possibility of fraud, request extra documentation. But others do not."

"Regardless of where organics come from, critics say, the system suffers from multiple weaknesses in enforcement: Farmers hire their own inspection companies; most inspections are announced days or weeks in advance and lack the element of surprise; and testing for pesticides is the exception rather than the rule," Whoriskey reports. "These vulnerabilities are magnified with imported products, which often involve more middlemen, each of whom could profit by relabeling conventional goods as 'organic.' The temptation could be substantial, too: Products with a 'USDA Organic' label routinely sell for twice the price of their conventional counterparts."

Wild hogs linked to at least 67 viruses, bacteria and parasites that can infect humans, animals

Feral hogs have been blamed for causing millions of dollars in damage in some states. But scientists say an even bigger problem is that the animals carry a large number of viruses, bacteria and parasites that can infect humans and animals, Brian Broom reports for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss. Wild hogs have been reported in every county in Mississippi.

One of the most common diseases spread by feral swine is leptospirosis, Broom writes. It's a disease that U.S. Department of Agriculture data says 61 percent of wild hogs in Mississippi have been infected with at some point in their lives, according to Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks biologist Anthony Ballard. (Year of first recorded occurrence of wild hogs: 2015 study by Conservation Science Partners, Colorado State University and USDA)
MDWFP biologist William McKinley told Broom, "Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection. It's common in the environment. Multiple animals can get it including deer and humans. Wild hogs are a reservoir for it, meaning they are walking around shedding it everywhere. It is primarily passed through urine."

One problem is that "when the bacteria is shed, it lingers," living outside the host for weeks of months, Broom writes. "We see outbreaks of it during flooding events. Anything that drinks that water, including humans, has the ability to contract that disease. Wild hogs are such a reservoir for so many diseases. Hogs are hosts to about 30 types of bacterial and virulent diseases and 37 parasites. They can contract things and live with it that will kill other animals. They can carry on, do their thing and basically be unaffected," Ballard told Broom.

Tenn. governor signing broadband expansion bill to boost service in underserved areas

Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Haslam is scheduled to sign today an amended version of his broadband-expansion bill to connect under-served areas in Tennessee, reports WBIR-TV in Knoxville. Tennessee ranks 29th in broadband access and 34 percent of residents in rural areas "lack access to recognized minimum standards of connection."

The bill can increase broadband service to "the state's unserved citizens by providing $45 million over three years in grants and tax credits for providers who help make broadband more readily available," reports WBIR. "It will also permit Tennessee's private, nonprofit electric cooperatives to provide retail broadband service and grant funding." Haslam is expected to sign the bill at 1:30 p.m. in Brownsville in West Tennessee.

Legal judgments leave rural counties in a bind, facing bankruptcy

Gage County, Nebraska (Wikipedia map)
When rural counties face legal judgments that award defendants millions of dollars that local governments are unable to pay, the only option often is to declare bankruptcy, Stephen C. Fehr, Adrienne Lu and Matthew Cook report for Stateline. "Of the 18 general-purpose local government bankruptcies filed since 2006, legal judgments have been an important factor in five, or nearly 30 percent, according to research by The Pew Charitable Trusts."

Gage County, Nebraska, could be the next rural county to file for bankruptcy, reports Stateline. A federal jury in July awarded $28.1 million in damages plus attorneys’ fees to six people, who DNA evidence showed were wrongly convicted of a rape and murder in the county in 1985." In response to the jury's financial award, Myron Dorn, chairman of the Board of Supervisors for the farming county of 22,000, told Stateline, “No county could prepare for that."

Stateline reports, "Increasing taxes to cover the judgment would be difficult, because Nebraska’s property tax cap limits the county from raising taxes by more than about $3.7 million. Residents could theoretically vote to exceed the state-imposed limit, but that is unlikely. The county has appealed the verdict and is awaiting a decision; in the meantime, officials have hired bankruptcy attorneys to explore their options in case they lose the appeal."

"The legal judgments underscore the importance of local governments maintaining a healthy reserve fund balance to absorb unforeseen expenses," reports Stateline. "They also reinforce the need for states to be aware of the fiscal health of their local governments, so officials can prepare for situations when the state may need to step in to help. Washington state, for example, asks local governments about 'litigation costs or pending legal judgments that risk depleting available fund reserves,' to try to anticipate and to plan for potential fiscal shocks."

Monday, May 15, 2017

Rich-poor divide in oral health forces low-income folks to choose extraction over costly repairs

The rich-poor divide is causing many impoverished rural residents to forgo dental health care, or resort to having teeth pulled rather than pay for costly fixes, Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan report for The Washington Post. The rate of Americans who have lost all their natural teeth is higher in rural areas in every age group, and 20 percent of all Americans over 65 do not have a single real tooth remaining. (CDC graphic: National Health Survey 2010-12 results of of people who have lost all their natural teeth)
Toothless rates among those 65 and older are especially high in the South. According to Kaiser Family Foundation data from 2014, 33.6 percent of West Virginia residents 65 and older have had all their natural teeth extracted. Second is Kentucky, at 23.9 percent, followed by Mississippi and Oklahoma (22.5), Tennessee (22.4), Alabama (22.2), Arkansas (22) and Louisiana (20.5). (CDC graphic: Where people 65 and older have lost all their teeth, by region)
More than 50 million Americans "live in areas officially designated by the federal government as Dental Health Professional Shortage Areas," reports the Post. "A great many of them are working poor. In these rural areas, even the water can work against people." Many people rely on well water that is not fluoridated, which helps reduce tooth decay. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 25 percent of Americans are not connected to a fluoridated water system. Another problem in rural areas is a shortage of dentists.

While rich people can afford the luxuries of the best oral health care, poor people often resort to standing in line at free clinics, reports the Post. "High-end cosmetic dentistry is soaring, and better-off Americans spend well over $1 billion each year just to make their teeth a few shades whiter. Millions of others rely on charity clinics and hospital emergency rooms to treat painful and neglected teeth." The problem is that emergency rooms are not typically equipped to fix dental problems. That means they prescribe painkillers, which can lead to addiction, which destroys teeth, and dry mouth, which leads to more cavities.

Anti-tax movement in rural Oregon leads counties to lose law enforcement, jails, libraries

Southwestern Oregon
Rural residents in southwest Oregon have been waging an anti-tax battle that they say is a fight against government interference and wasteful spending, Kirk Johnson reports for The New York Times. But a refusal to approve any new taxes has cost some counties important local services.

Budget cuts in Curry County to the sheriff's departments have eliminated round-the-clock staffing, meaning there's no one to take calls at night, Johnson writes. "In Josephine County, the jail has been defunded after nine consecutive defeats of public safety tax levies, leading to a policy of catch-and-release for nonviolent criminals."

All 11 branches of the Douglas County library system will be closed by June 1, because residents "voted down a ballot measure that would have added about $6 a month to the tax bill on a median-priced home and saved the libraries from a funding crisis," Johnson writes.

"Demographic and economic changes in this swath of the Pacific Northwest, where thick forests brush down to the rocky Pacific Coast, have given the tax resistance movement its backbone," Johnson notes. "Retirees who came in recent years for the low housing costs or the conservative political culture have become a major voting bloc. And the tech jobs that are fueling growth in Portland, a three-hour drive north, are mostly just a dream."

"But what is even more significant is that for many years, timber-harvesting operations on public lands here paid the bills, and people got used to it,' Johnson reports. "A law passed by Congress in the 1930s specified that a vast swath of forest lands that had passed into corporate hands and back into federal control would be managed for county benefit. But then logging declined, starting in the 1980s and 1990s, as it did across many other parts of the West, and the flood of timber money slowed to a trickle, with only a stunted tax base to pick up the difference. The property tax rate in Curry County is less than a quarter of the statewide average. Douglas County residents pay about 60 percent less than most state residents. Oregon has no state sales tax, and also limits some property tax growth rates, through laws passed in the 1990s."

Supreme Court refuses to consider reinstating N.C. voter-ID law, found to have partisan bias

The U.S. Supreme Court announced Monday it will not consider "reinstating North Carolina’s 2013 elections law which includes a voter-ID requirement and other restrictions on voting," Anne Blythe reports for The Charlotte Observer. "The law called for voters to show specific kinds of photo identification and prohibited voters from registering to vote and casting ballots on the same day. It sought to eliminate out-of-precinct voting as well as preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds who would turn 18 by Election Day. And it eliminated a week of early voting."
Voters wait in line for early voting in Raleigh, N.C.
Wednesday, October 26, 2016. Charlotte Observer photo by Chuck Liddy.
The Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals struck down the law in July as biased. Critics of the law, which was passed by the Republican-controlled legislature, said it discriminated against African American voters, making it harder for them to cast ballots, most likely in favor of Democrats. North Carolina had one of the largest rural populations among the states in the 2010 census: 3,233,727, or 34 percent of its total, second only to Texas.

U.S. reaches deal to export $2.6B worth of beef to China annually after 13 years of mad-cow lockout

The Trump administration has reached a trade deal with China that will allow U.S. imports of beef into China, 13 years after a case of mad-cow disease prompted the Chinese to block American beef. "At the same time, the U.S. is to resolve issues to allow Chinese cooked poultry to be exported to the U.S. The timeline for both: as soon as possible, but no later than July 16," Sara Wyant and Bill Tomson report for Agri-Pulse.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association said China, the second largest beef importer in the world, "buys about $2.6 billion worth of beef every year," notes Agri-Pulse. "China didn’t import much beef when the country first banned U.S. product after the first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy was discovered here in December, 2003. But that has changed significantly because of rapidly rising demand in the country."

Craig Uden, president of National
Cattlemen's Beef Association
Craig Uben, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said in a statement: “After being locked out of the world's largest market for 13 years, we strongly welcome the announcement that an agreement has been made to restore U.S. beef exports to China. It’s impossible to overstate how beneficial this will be for America’s cattle producers. We look forward to providing nearly 1.4 billion new customers in China with the same safe and delicious U.S. beef that we feed our families.”

Some critics expressed concern of several outbreaks of avian flu in China and questioned the countries ability "to enforce food-safety standards, given its poor track record," Maria Godoy reports for NPR. There is concern "that if raw Chinese poultry were processed in the U.S., it could potentially contaminate American plants or somehow spread to birds" in the U.S.

Also, China has been accused of selling rat meat as lamb, "oil recovered from drainage ditches in gutters being sold as cooking oil and baby formula contaminated with melamine that sickened hundreds of thousands of babies and killed six," Godoy writes. "In 2014, a Shanghai food-processing factory that supplied international restaurant brands including McDonald's and KFC was caught selling stale meat, repackaged with new expiration dates." In recent months U.S. Department of Agriculture have "traveled to China to train Chinese officials in meat safety."

Former Social Security judge pleads guilty to taking bribes in disability scam with coalfield lawyer

David Daugherty (Lexington Herald-
 photo by Pablo Alcala)
A federal Social Security judge in Huntington, W.Va., pleaded guilty Friday in federal court to two felonies of accepting illegal gratuities from an Eastern Kentucky lawyer in fraudulent disability cases, Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. David Black Daugherty, 81, admitted to accepting more than $609,000 in bribes from 2004-11 to award disability benefits to thousands of clients of attorney Eric C. Conn, who pleaded guilty in March to stealing from the Social Security Administration and bribing Daugherty.

Conn admitted he falsified medical documents to show clients were disabled and paid doctors to sign the evaluations, Estep writes. From October 2004 to April 2011, Conn made a payment to Daugherty for each favorable decision made by Daugherty, who "arranged for Conn’s cases to be assigned to him—taking files off other judges’ desks in some cases—and rubber-stamped the claims."

According to court documents, Daugherty awarded benefits to people represented by Conn in 3,149 cases, Estep writes. His decisions in those cases "would have obligated the government to pay $550 million in benefits, the court document said. The government actually paid $46.5 million to people that the agency has determined were not eligible to receive before the scheme came to light, according to a document in Conn’s case. Daugherty retired abruptly in 2011 after federal authorities began investigating."

Prosecutors are pushing for the maximum sentence of four years when Daugherty is sentenced in August. Conn faces up to 12 years in prison when he is sentenced on July 14.

Disputed mine blocked by Obama finds life under Trump

The controversial Pebble Mine project in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed that seemed all but dead under the Obama administration has found new life under President Trump, Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report for The Washington Post. The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday reached a legal settlement with Pebble Limited Partnership, which for years has been "hoping to build a massive gold, copper and molybdenum mine, clearing the way for the firm to apply for federal permits."

New York Times map
"While the move does not grant immediate approval to the Pebble Mine project, which will have to undergo a federal environmental review and also clear state hurdles before any construction takes place, it reverses the agency’s 2014 determination that a large-scale mine in the area be barred because it would imperil the region’s valuable sockeye salmon fishery," reports the Post.

"In 2014 EPA invoked a rarely used clause of the Clean Water Act, 404(c), to issue a proposed determination that the company could not apply to the Army Corps of Engineers for any permits because a massive mine could have 'significant' and potentially 'catastrophic' impacts on the region," reports the Post. "The company has sued EPA on three different fronts, arguing that the agency violated the Clean Water Act, colluded with outside groups to reach its determination and violated the Freedom of Information Act. The suit concerning the outside groups, filed under the Federal Advisory Committee Act, was the one settled Thursday in federal court in Alaska."

"Under the terms of the agreement, EPA will begin the process of withdrawing its proposed determination, which will be subject to public notice and comment," reports the Post. "It will not take the next step in the process until 48 months from the settlement or until the Army Corps of Engineers issues its final environmental impact statement, whichever comes first."