Friday, November 03, 2017

Highlights, especially rural, of Republican tax bill

Congressional Republicans’ proposed tax code overhaul is complicated, but here are a few highlights about what it will do and who stands to win and lose:
  • The tax cuts heavily favor corporations and wealthy private citizens (which don’t make up much of the rural population), and could explode the deficit, The New York Times reports
  • It’s not clear how much the middle class will benefit, if at all.
  • The plan seeks to eventually repeal the estate tax by 2024, though first it would double the exemption to $11 million. Republicans have said that the repeal will benefit farmers, but it will have no impact on small farmers and relatively little on large farmers. “If enacted, the proposal would further diminish the tax’s ability to promote inter-generational mobility, which has eroded very badly over time. By now, only a tiny group of extremely large estates are subject to any tax at all,” The Brookings Institution says.
  • “With the release of an ambitious overhaul of the tax code, House Republicans are moving to fulfill a long-held desire of corporate America: a large and audacious tax cut. Yet economists are divided over whether the plan is likely to revitalize the economy or merely bestow a windfall on the wealthiest investors, the Times reports.
  • The standard deduction would increase to $12,000 for individuals, from $6,500, and $24,000 for families, from $13,000. But the bill would also eliminate the personal exemption of $4,150 for each taxpayer and dependent, which could limit savings for some filers, especially if they have larger families and are affected by some of the changes to deductions,” NBC News reports. “To help make up for the loss of the personal exemption, the child tax credit is expanded to $1,600, from $1,000. Each taxpayer would also be able to take a "family flexibility credit" of $300. The bill would add a $300 credit for dependents who aren’t children, like aging parents or college students living at home, but only for the next five years. Except for the first $1,000 of the child tax credit, which would rise with inflation, none of these provisions increase the amount of refundable credits available to families today. That means households that don’t make enough to pay income taxes today are unlikely to see much benefit from the individual changes.”

'Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia' helps us understand roots of the region's problems

 Some pop culture pundits have complained that the nation is too preoccupied with Appalachia. Urban liberals may be exasperated by what they feel is an increasingly-Republican population that votes against its own interests. But the region's transformation into a Republican stronghold is worth studying, and the problems it faces--like the opioid epidemic--can't simply be quarantined and written off, because they affect the rest of the country.

"We should be thankful, then, for what Steven Stoll, a historian at Fordham University, has delivered in his new book Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia (Hill and Wang) — not just another account of Appalachia’s current plight, but a journey deeper in time to help us understand how the region came to be the way it is. For while much has been written about the region of late, the historical roots of its troubles have received relatively little recent scrutiny," Alec MacGillis writes for ProPublica. MacGillis, who wrote The Cynic, a polemical biography of Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell, says Stoll "has set out to tell the story of how the people of a sprawling region of our country — one of its most physically captivating and ecologically bountiful — went from enjoying a modest but self-sufficient existence as small-scale agrarians for much of the 18th and 19th centuries to a dreary dependency on the indulgence of coal barons or the alms of the government."

“Whenever we see hunger and deprivation among rural people, we need to ask a simple question: What went on just before the crisis that might have caused it?" he writes. "Seeing the world without the past would be like visiting a city after a devastating hurricane and declaring that the people there have always lived in ruins."

UPDATE, Nov. 21: "His book is a powerful and outrage-making if somewhat academic analysis of the forces that have made West Virginia one of the sorriest places — statistically, at any rate — to live in America," Dwight Garner writes in a review for The New York Times. "His book is not especially warm to the touch. But as economic history it is gravid and well made."

House Republican committee chairs retiring in droves; is your representative seeking re-election?

House Republicans are retiring "in droves," James Hohmann reports for The Washington Post, despite the GOP's control of Congress. Two Texans who serve as committee chairmen -- Lamar Smith, who heads up the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, and Jeb Hensarling, who chairs the Financial Services Committee -- say they're not seeking re-election in 2018 because they've reached the term limit for the committees they chair, and it's hard to go back to being a regular representative after having that kind of power.

"Being a "backbencher in the minority party of a majoritarian institution like the House is depressing and joyless, Hohmann writes. "Unless you're Nancy Pelosi, you're functionally irrelevant." Also, the "very real prospect of losing the majority next November makes sticking around even less desirable."

It may be a good time to ask your member(s) of the House of Representatives whether they plan to run for re-election next year, if they haven't said so yet.

Southwestern Pennsylvania coal miners reject retraining, wait for Trump's coal comeback

 Appalachia has lost more than 33,000 mining jobs since 2011, prompting the creation of numerous Obama-era job retraining classes for coal miners. Such programs are doing well in states like West Virginia and Kentucky where locals widely acknowledge that there's little hope for a comeback. But in southern Pennsylvania, more ample coal reserves and a marginally better mining job market have led miners to largely reject retraining efforts.

"What many experts call false hopes for a coal resurgence have mired economic development efforts here in a catch-22: Coal miners are resisting retraining without ready jobs from new industries, but new companies are unlikely to move here without a trained workforce," Valerie Volcovici reports for Reuters. "The stalled diversification push leaves some of the nation’s poorest areas with no clear path to prosperity."

The brief upsurge in mining jobs in Pennsylvania is mainly related to a rise in foreign demand for metallurgical coal, which is used to produce steel. "Some market analysts describe the foreign demand as a temporary blip driven by production problems in the coal hub of Australia," Volcovici reports. Most U.S. coal is mined to burn for electricity, and that is the sector of the industry that Trump has taken actions to help.

Some displaced miners are turning to a surprising new enterprise: beekeeping. West Virginia resident Mark Lilly will begin training former coal miners to keep bees starting in January throught the Appalachian Beekeeping Collective, funded by a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission. "Lilly sees beekeeping as a way for longtime Appalachians to preserve their connection to the land and to earn extra money during lean times. Some might even be able to support themselves and their families on income from bees," Marlene Cimons reports for EcoWatch. "The Appalachian Beekeeping Collective plans to process, market and distribute honey. The ultimate goal is to bring millions of dollars into the region and provide income for hundreds of Appalachians. The new beekeepers will receive hives either for free or at a reduced price, depending on their income."

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Why dollar stores thrive in rural areas

Leading dollar-store chain Dollar General Corp. had 13,601
U.S. stores when MarketWatch did this map earlier this year.
Dollar stores are one of the nation's fastest-growing retail segments, and they're thriving in rural America where big box stores can't survive. But some experts see them as an unsettling signpost about the future of rural America. "Some analysts see their proliferation as a bellwether of a widening gap between economic classes," Jason Nark reports for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Garrick Brown, director for retail research at commercial real estate company Cushman & Wakefield, told Bloomberg's Mya Frazier that "Essentially what the dollar stores are betting on in a large way is that we are going to have a permanent underclass in America . . . It’s based on the concept that the jobs went away, and the jobs are never coming back, and that things aren’t going to get better in any of these places."

Rural Pennsylvanians told Nark that stores like Dollar General, Family Dollar and Dollar Tree fill the need for a grocery store; many live in rural "food deserts," which the Department of Agriculture defines as a low-income rural community where at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract's population live more than 10 miles from a supermarket or large grocery store (usually defined as one having 50,000 square feet). Rural shoppers may also be attracted by dollar stores' lineup of competitively priced name brand items that normally would only be available at larger stores.

Dollar Tree Vice President Randy Guiler told Nark that a big factor in dollar stores' rural success is saving time, when the nearest big-box store could be an hour away. "I think the customer today is time-starved," he said. Dollar stores are "an attractive spot to stop for their fill-in needs. People need items at different times of the week."

USDA science pick, faulted for poor credentials, withdraws after being implicated in Russia probe

Sam Clovis (CNN image)
Controversial nominee Sam Clovis has withdrawn his name from consideration as the Department of Agriculture's chief scientist after his name surfaced in the ongoing Russian probe. Clovis, who serves as the USDA's senior White House advisor, was already widely criticized for having no scientific experience; this week the news broke that "he was one of the top officials on the Trump campaign aware of efforts by foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos to broker a relationship between the campaign and Russian officials," The Washington Post reports. Clovis didn't resign as the White House advisor for the USDA.

In his letter to President Trump, Clovis said "The relentless assaults on you and your team seem to be a blood sport that only increases in intensity each day. As I am focused on your success and the success of this Administration, I do not want to be a distraction or negative influence, particularly with so much important work left to do for the American people." Click here for the full text.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters that "We respect Mr. Clovis' decision to withdraw his nomination," CNN reports. When a reporter asked if President Trump was still comfortable with Clovis serving as the USDA advisor, Sanders said, "I'm not aware of any change that would be necessary."

Grain market prices may contribute to rise in grain bin deaths; more probably go unreported

Poor crop prices may increase farmers' risk of dying in grain bins, Dan Miller reports for The Progressive Farmer. "The combination of low grain prices and surplus grain is motivating farmers to store more grain," Nationwide Insurance consultant Paul Stevenson told Miller. "As on-farm storage increases, so does the likelihood of grain going out of condition and farmers entering bins."

Purdue University's 2016 annual report on agricultural confined space-related injuries and fatalities documented 29 grain-bin entrapments (both fatal and nonfatal), which was up from 24 in 2015. But the report says the real figures are probably much higher: "Currently, over two-thirds of grain storage capacity in the U.S. is found on farms that are exempt from the current OSHA injury-reporting requirement standards."
Bars show number of annual grain entrapment cases between 2006 and 2016;
line shows five-year average. click on the graph to enlarge it. (Purdue graphic)
Corn is the most common grain associated with grain-bin entrapment, but it can happen with other grains. Nationwide, as the country's top farm insurer, took steps to mitigate incidents by sponsoring an annual Grain Bin Safety Week, during which it awards grants to local fire departments around the country to buy special grain rescue tubes. "Simply put, we got tired of seeing people die inside of grain bins," Stevenson told Miller.

Opioid panel's final report recommends more drug courts, prescription monitoring, doctor training

"President Trump's commission on the opioid crisis called Wednesday for a nationwide system of drug courts and easier access to alternatives to opioids for people in pain, part of a wide-ranging menu of improvements it said are needed to curb the opioid epidemic," Lenny Bernstein reports for The Washington Post. The President's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, led by Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, was created by Trump in March. It issued an interim report on July 31.

Fewer than half of all federal court jurisdictions have drug courts; the commission wants them in all 94. The bipartisan group made 56 recommendations in its final report, including a requirement that opioid prescribers check prescription-monitoring databases to make sure patients aren't "doctor shopping" for opioids. Doctors would also have to show they've received special training on safe opioid-prescription practices.

The commission also recommended changing the way insurance rates are set, so doctors will be encouraged to try physical therapy or other non-drug treatments before prescribing opioids. And it recommended that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services "eliminate questions about pain from satisfaction surveys that are used rate hospital performance. Physicians have said they feel pressure to treat pain aggressively, often with drugs, so they are not penalized on such surveys. The start of the opioid epidemic in the early 2000s is widely blamed on the over-prescription of opioid medications," Bernstein reports.

What the commission didn't recommend: marijuana for pain management, or safe injection sites like those in Canada where intravenous drug users can inject drugs while under medical supervision.

The White House's press shop offered a noncommital response to the report, saying that "We are grateful for the Commission’s extensive work since March, and look forward to reviewing these recommendations as the entire Administration continues to work to lessen drug demand and the opioid crisis."

The commission's draft report was released the same day as a Government Accountability Office study that recommended accountability measures for the Department of Health and Human Services to respond to the opioid epidemic.

Democratic House members question halt to study of strip-mining impact on Appalachian health

When a federal study on the public-health impacts of large-scale surface mining in Central Appalachia was cancelled in August, the Interior Department said it wasn't because of the subject matter. All projects costing more than $100,000 were being reviewed because of budget cuts Interior's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement said in a statement.

But that may not be the case. Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, the highest-ranking Democrat of the House Committee on Natural Resources, wrote Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in October demanding an explanation of the fate of the remaining $400,000 in funds for the study, which had a $1 million budget. "According to Rep. Grijalva’s letter, no other studies have been halted as a result of budget review by the Department of Interior of grants over $100,000. Arizona’s representative expressed concern that the reasons behind the research’s cancellation might be driven by ideology and not fiscal responsibility," Jan Pytalski reports for 100 Days in Appalachia.

Appalachian Voices graphic; not all coal mines show in red may
be "mountaintop removal" as such; click on the image to enlarge it.
"It increasingly appears as if DOI ended the study because of fears that it would conclusively show that mountaintop removal coal mining is a serious threat to the health of people living in Appalachia," Grijalva wrote in the letter. "Cutting off funding for a scientific study because it will likely produce uncomfortable results for powerful administration allies is unconscionable, especially when these political games are affecting public health. Sadly, as we have seen so far this year, this Administration routinely suppresses science that doesn’t agree with its ideology."

"In his letter, Rep. Grijalva recalls a joint call for the re-institution of the study with Reps. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), ranking member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), ranking member of the Committee on Budget, Don Beyer (D-Va.) and Donald McEachin (D-Va.)." The representatives sent the letter one week after the Aug. 18 order to halt the study. "As of press time it remains unanswered," Pytalski reports.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Horizontal hydraulic fracturing pits big oil companies against small drilling outfits in Okla.

Oklahoma's laws encourage the practice of drilling new oil wells in old oilfields, but that has "left a trail of older wells damaged by 'frack hits,' flummoxed state regulators and started a civil war within the state's singularly powerful oil industry, Mike Soraghan reports for Energy & Environment News. Some say it could also lead to groundwater contamination.

Small drilling companies, which Soraghan says are "as revered as the family farmer" in Oklahoma, complain that big oil companies are drilling long horizontal wells through their fields, which they say siphons off their oil and damages their older, vertical wells.

An illustration of how fracking fluid from a horizontal well can hit a vertical well.
(Illustration by Environmental Protection Agency)
"They know they're going to ruin your well and they don't care," said Mike Cantrell, who helped lead an exodus of small drillers from the state's largest oil industry trade group earlier this year and formed a new group called the Oklahoma Energy Producers Alliance. OEPA "commissioned a study estimating more than 400 wells have been damaged by such 'frack hits' in just one county. An E&E News review found at least 10 state and federal lawsuits alleging that horizontal fracturing damaged vertical wells," Soraghan reports.

Zack Taylor, who has a small family-run oil company in Seminole and is also a state representative, told Soraghan: "The whole argument boils down to private property rights. . . You can't step on someone's property right to promote development."

Large oil drillers say there are protections in place for small drillers. Horizontal wells are supposed to stay at least 600 feet away from vertical wells (though the Oklahoma Corporation Commission can waive that). Vertical drillers can also buy into a new horizontal well, and if that's not possible, can cut a deal with the horizontal driller. Alternatively, an OCC judge can assign fair market value to the vertical driller's interest. And if all else fails, the vertical driller can file suit. And pay lawyers.

Hospitals in five states make big improvements in patient safety; some rural hospitals stand out

Independent nonprofit The Leapfrog Group has released the Fall 2017 Leapfrog Hospital Safety Grades, a twice-yearly report that assigns a letter grade of A through F to general, acute-care hospitals in the U.S. Leapfrog found that five states made significant improvements in their overall percentage of A-grade hospitals since the safety grades were first calculated in 2012: Hawaii, Idaho, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin. Notably, many of the A-grade hospitals in those states are in small towns. Some examples include:
  • Hawaii: Lihue (on Kauai) and Ewa Beach (on Oahu)
  • Idaho: Rexburg and Twin Falls
  • Oregon: The Dalles, Grants Pass, Redmond and Roseburg
  • Rhode Island: Narragansett, Newport
  • Wisconsin: Beaver Dam, Burlington, Elkhorn, Monroe and Portage
The five states with the highest percentage of “A” hospitals this fall are Rhode Island, Maine, Hawaii, Idaho and Virginia. The five states with the lowest percentage of “A” hospitals this fall are North Dakota, Washington D.C., Delaware, Maryland and New York.

"What we’ve learned is that transparency has a real impact on patient safety. By making the Hospital Safety Grades public, we’ve galvanized major changes in these states and many communities," said Leah Binder, president and CEO of Leapfrog. "Not only does it require dedication from national organizations, such as Leapfrog, to make this information public, but also from local coalitions, regional leaders, employers, business leaders and other community organizations to work with these hospitals and their communities to improve the quality and safety of health care."

GAO tells HHS it should set clear measures for expanding medication-assisted addiction treatment

The Government Accountability Office released a study today recommending that the Department of Health and Human Services, as it works to expand access to medication-assisted treatment for addiction, should develop clear measures to gauge its performance.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who requested the study, said it "will help to ensure that dollars are spent wisely to fight the crisis of opioid abuse taking lives in communities across the country. The announcement of GAO’s conclusions will help us as we continue to build a comprehensive approach to combating heroin and prescription drug abuse."

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is a combination of behavioral therapy combined with medication such as methadone and buprenorphine to manage addiction. The report found that HHS has implemented five key steps in expanding access to MAT for opioid users since 2015, but many who need MAT still don't have access to it, especially in rural areas. In addition to recommending that HHS create and implement performance measurements, the report recommends that the agency should establish timeframes for when it will evaluate efforts to expand MAT.

UPDATE, 2:35 p.m.: "President Trump's commission on the opioid crisis . . . called for a large expansion of medication-assisted treatment, which many experts have called the most effective approach and which Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb has endorsed,' The Washington Post reports.

Rural hospitals sue Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oklahoma over drastic reimbursement cuts

Haskell County Community Hospital
(Photo provided to The Oklahoman)
Four rural Oklahoma hospitals have sued Blue Cross Blue Shield of Oklahoma for breach of contract over crippling proposed provider reimbursement rate cuts, Dale Denwalt reports for The Oklahoman.

"BCBS does not favor supporting rural, critical-access hospitals," the lawsuit states. "BCBS, through its actions and behavior, is attempting to drive critical access hospitals out of business in favor of driving business to large metropolitan hospitals and related services."

BCBS has not confirmed the rate cuts it's asking for, but Don Buchanan, CEO of Haskell County Community Hospital in Stigler, said BCBS wants to cut reimbursement by 30 percent for all services except those in the emergency room.

"Unfortunately, it's not a rate that would allow us to continue to serve Blue Cross patients. It borders on being below the cost of actually providing that care," Randy Simmons, CEO of Prague Community Hospital, told Denwalt.

"In Prague, BCBS is the third-largest payer behind federal health care programs. Simmons said losing patients who use the insurer would be devastating for the hospital, and in turn would critically limit health care in the community," Denwalt reports. The other two hospitals named in the suit are Drumright Regional Hospital and Fairfax Community Hospital.

The hospitals' contracts with BCBS were set to expire Oct. 31, but a Tulsa judge issued a temporary restraining order. A hearing on the lawsuit is set for Nov. 3.

National Rural Health Day is Nov. 16

National Rural Health Day, Nov. 16 this year, was created by the National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health in 2010 to highlight efforts to improve health in rural communities while acknowledging the unique challenges in accessing health care services.

The Federal Office of Rural Health Policy will organize NRHD events, including a series of Twitter chats and webinars in the days leading up to Nov. 16. On National Rural Health Day, the office will provide a day-long webcast of a summit that includes speeches and panel discussions of current efforts to increase accessibility to health care in rural areas. Click here to see the full schedule and to find out more information about participating in the Twitter chats or registering for the webinars.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Rural areas face confusion as ACA enrollment opens

Open enrollment for health insurance under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act begins tomorrow, but many people, especially in rural areas, may face confusion about how to sign up. That could lead to fewer people being covered by health insurance. "Much of the cutbacks and confusion, health-care advocates said, follows President Trump's constant disparagement of the law.

Congress was not able to pass a repeal or replacement law, so the administration may be knocking the legs out from under the law in other ways. The Department of Health and Human Services slashed the ACA advertising budget by 90 percent, which means there are many fewer messages to tell people when open enrollment is, or whether they qualify. HHS also cut by 40 percent grants to pay navigators, which are regular citizens trained to help people sign up for ACA plans.

The Trump administration has also decreased overall access to the plans, trimming open enrollment from three months to six weeks. The enrollment website,, is also being taken offline for maintenance for 12 hours almost every Sunday during open enrollment, even though weekends are generally a convenient time for people to apply.

"Most recently, Mr. Trump announced plans to cut off subsidies that reimburse insurance companies for assistance they are required to provide to low-income customers who struggle with co-payments and deductibles. The cuts resulted in a crazy quilt of premiums for 2018 that differs radically from the pattern of the last four years, which will upend expectations of consumers in many states," Abby Goodnough and Robert Pear report for The New York Times.

Rural areas risk being undercounted in 2020 census

In an attempt to save money, the Census Bureau will try to get most people to fill out the 2020 census form online instead of using a paper questionnaire. When more people fill out the survey online, the bureau doesn't have to follow up with costly door-to-door visits. The problem with pushing online self-response is that many rural areas lack broadband or any internet service, and those people may be under-counted. If rural residents are under-counted, their jurisdictions may receive less government funding and redrawn political maps may not accurately reflect their presence.

The Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York analyzed 2010 census mail return rates and the share of households in each congressional district with inadequate internet service and created a map that shows the counties most likely to be under-counted in 2020. "If these districts already tend to have low self-response via mail, and households in these districts also tend to be less connected to the internet, then the preferred online option for self-response in 2020 may not help boost response as much as it would in other districts with better digital access," the report says.

The darker the area, the harder it is to count. Click on the map to enlarge it,
or click here for the interactive map with county-level data. (CUNY map)
New Mexico is the hardest state to count, the report says. "Obtaining an accurate head count gets a lot harder in communities that are difficult to navigate, such as New Mexico’s frontiers, and communities where people might move around regularly with no fixed address or simply will not open the door for a government worker," Andrew Oxford reports for The New Mexican.

The bureau meant to test the new system in rural West Virginia, but said it could not afford to because of the budget cuts. Census Bureau Director John H. Thompson resigned following the budget cuts, and a permanent replacement has not yet been appointed.

Study warns chemicals used in fracking could lead to neurological problems in nearby children

A newly released study found that multiple pollutants in the air and water near hydraulic-fracturing wells are linked to brain problems in children. More than 1,000 studies have looked at possible health hazards from fracking, but this is the first to focus on neurological health of children living near fracked wells. "Researchers focused on five types of pollution commonly found near the sites—heavy metals, particulate matter, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene and endocrine-disrupting compounds—and scrutinized existing health studies of the compounds' impacts to kids' brains," Brian Bienkowski reports for Environmental Health News.

Early exposure to those five types of pollutants is associated with a host of problems, from learning and developmental disorders to neurological birth defects. The study's lead author, Ellen Webb of the Center for Environmental Health, told Bienkowski that the research on children's health near oil and gas sites is "slowly emerging" but "It's only reasonable to conclude that young children with frequent exposure to these pollutants would be at high risk for neurological diseases." Webb recommends an increase in the required distance (at least a mile, she suggests) between fracking wells and places where children live or go frequently, such as schools, parks or hospitals. She also recommends "more research on low level, chronic exposure, mandatory testing of industrial chemicals used on site, and increased transparency of the chemicals used in drilling," Bienkowski reports.

Seth Whitehead, a spokesperson for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, counters that there is no hard evidence that pollutants associated with fracking do harm children. "This is not unlike saying bleach — which can be found in most folks' laundry rooms — can make you sick if you drink it and that more research is needed to understand the extent to which people get sick from drinking bleach from their laundry rooms," he said in an email to Bienkowski.

Any public-health issues caused by fracking are likely to disproportionately impact rural America, since most of the nation's fracking occurs in rural areas. Research has shown that fracking can contaminate drinking water up to one kilometer away from the well pad.

Small rural college requires patriotism/fitness class

Freshmen at the College of the Ozarks (Photo by Shann Swift)
College of the Ozarks, a private institution in rural Missouri, is making headlines by requiring all freshmen to take a new course called Patriotic Education and Fitness. "In requiring the new course, the college is signaling that patriotism is largely synonymous with the military, to judge from its materials. The required course debuted last year as a retooled version of previous courses in physical education and patriotism — this time, with a more-intentional emphasis on the military," Sam Hoisington reports for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

A press release says that students will "learn map reading, land navigation, rifle marksmanship, rope systems and knots, and rappelling" as well as "the formation of American government and politics, military customs, task organization and courtesies, and flag protocol and procedures," Hoisington reports.

President Jerry Davis says the college has attracted a lot of publicity because it's willing to stand up for what it believes. "Our college, given who we say we are, needs to make a strong statement about what we represent and what we’re a part of," he told Hoisington. The college was in the news last month after refusing to play sports against any team whose members kneel during the national anthem.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Puerto Rico deal with small-town electric contractor is canceled, and under investigation

After widespread controversy, Puerto Rico is canceling a $300 million contract with a small Montana company to repair some of the hurricane-devastated island's electrical grid, and The Wall Street Journal reports that the FBI is investigating the deal with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.

Andrew Scurria writes that agents "are looking into circumstances surrounding the disaster-recovery deal the public-power monopoly known as Prepa signed with Whitefish Energy Holdings LLC," based in the northern Montana town of the same name.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is from Whitefish, but insists he had nothing to do with the contract. "Only in elitist Washington, D.C., would being from a small town be considered a crime," he said in a statement on Oct. 27. News of the deal broke nationally on Oct. 24, but it was first reported Oct. 21 by The Flathead Beacon in nearby Kalispell.

Questions about the contract go beyond connections, The Washington Post reports. Whitefish was not required to provide proof that it would complete the work it promised, and the two-year-old company has only two employees. Whitefish CEO Andrew Techmanski said the company's structure allowed it to hire subcontractors quickly.

Most counties dependent on exports are small, so they could be hurt most by changes to NAFTA

Changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement could have an outsized impact on many places in rural America. "Although counties containing big cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Houston generate the highest dollar volumes of exports, the most export-dependent places tend to be relatively small, often rural or suburban counties whose economies are based on a single industry – or sometimes even a single company or plant," Drew DeSilver reports for the Pew Research Center. "In fact, of the 154 counties or county equivalents where exports accounted for more than a quarter of GDP last year, only 11 had populations above 100,000 and half had fewer than 25,000 residents, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of data compiled by the Brookings Institution for its 'Export Monitor 2017' report." Many of the high-export counties manufacture automobiles or auto parts.
Pew Research map; click on it to enlarge it.
Three U.S. counties rely on exports for more than 50 percent of the local gross domestic product. Leading the pack is Hancock County, Ky., a county of 8,810 residents which brings in 55.3 percent of its GDP from manufacturing aluminum and other nonferrous metal products.

In the counties with the greatest growth in exports, "booming U.S. oil and gas production and higher precious-metals prices have turbocharged export growth in many resource-rich counties. In 17 of the 30 counties with the highest annualized real export growth rates between 2003 and 2016, the economic sector that contributed the most to that growth was mining, oil and gas extraction," DeSilver reports.

Canada and Mexico are the two biggest destinations for U.S. exports, so a change in the U.S.'s trade relationships with those countries could hurt rural America. The NAFTA renegotiation talks are ongoing, but have been granted an extension after negotiators have had a hard time meeting stringent American demands.

How a small daily in Tenn. did its job when white nationalists and counter-protesters came to town

White nationalists at the rally. (T-G photo by William Mitchell)
When big news happens in small towns, national journalists often parachute in to cover it. But Terry Corrigan, editor of the Shelbyville Times-Gazette in Tennessee, says local papers can do a better job than the outsiders, Callum Borchers reports for The Washington Post.

Shelbyville, a town of about 21,000 south of Nashville, more famous as the site of the Tennessee Walking Horse Celebration, was the site of a white nationalist rally on Saturday, Oct. 28. Crowd counts are important in stories like this, and the Times-Gazette gave itself a wide berth: It reported that the rally crowd of 200 to 400 was outnumbered by 400 to 600 counter-protesters. The Tennessean of Nashville reported "about 160" and "more than 400," respectively.

The T-G prints six days a week, and Corrigan told Borchers its news staff consists of "four old white guys" with about 65 years of combined experience covering Shelbyville. And though it lacks the resources of national news media, the paper provided an impressive amount of in-depth coverage before, during and after the event, using angles and local sources that national reporters might never have thought of.

"I went down and ate breakfast at Barb’s diner [Thursday] morning at 5 a.m. to talk to the boys who are in there every morning,” Corrigan told Borchers. “That’s the kind of story we’ve been doing leading up to it, as much as we can.”

But Corrigan knew it was still important to defend his turf against national press. When he covered a wildfire for a small newspaper in Arizona in 2002, he remembered being frustrated that the police were "enamored" of big-name reporters and would take them to places where local media hadn't been allowed. So Corrigan talked to the Shelbyville police this week and asked them not to make the same mistake.

"I said: ‘Don’t do that to us. We are the ones you depend on week to week. If somebody’s done something bad, you want it in our paper, so maybe you can find ’em. Just remember we’re the ones that are here all the time.’ And they seemed okay. They understand," he told Borchers.

Monsanto attacks weed scientists who say new 'low volatility' dicamba is still too volatile, hurts crops

Bob Scott, University of Arkansas
(NPR photo by Dan Charles)
Monsanto Co. is fighting back against weed scientists who say its herbicide dicamba is hurting crops, Dan Charles reports for NPR. Monsanto, BASF and DuPont all sell herbicides containing dicamba, as well as seeds for corn and soybeans that are genetically engineered to withstand it. The companies came out with new "low-volatility" formulas in 2016, and have blamed reported crop damage since then on improper application of the weedkiller. But weed scientists say they weren't able to test the products before they hit the market.

"I wish we could have done more testing. We've been asking to do more testing for several years, but the product was not made available to us," University of Arkansas weed scientist Bob Scott told Charles. "These are proprietary products. Until they release those formulations for testing, we're not allowed to" test them.

When scientists were finally able to test the new low-volatility versions, they found that damage to nearby crops didn't come from physical drift--windblown droplets of dicamba--but from volatization, the chemical's propensity to turn into a powder and drift elsewhere.

"In Arkansas, where state regulators proposed a ban on dicamba during the growing season next year, Monsanto recently sued the regulators, arguing that the ban was based on 'unsubstantiated theories regarding product volatility that are contradicted by science,'" Charles reports. "The company called on regulators to disregard information from Jason Norsworthy, one of the University of Arkansas' weed researchers, because he had recommended that farmers use a non-dicamba alternative from a rival company. Monsanto also attacked the objectivity of Ford Baldwin, a former university weed scientist who now works as a consultant to farmers and herbicide companies."

Kevin Bradley, a professor of weed science at the University of Missouri, says Monsanto executives have repeatedly called his supervisors to express their displeasure with his research on dicamba. Scott says Monsanto's actions are an "attack on all of us, and anybody who dares to [gather] outside data."

Monsanto's Vice President of Global Strategy Scott Partridge told Charles, "We are not attacking Dr. Bradley. We respect him, his position, opinion, and his work. We respect him, and academics in general."

Two weeks ago the Environmental Protection Agency said dicamba use will still be allowed next year, though with additional restrictions. Some say that's not enough, because the restrictions address application, and not the fundamentally volatile nature of the herbicide. Arkansas may ban it at the state level, and will hold a public hearing for the proposal on Nov. 8.