Friday, December 22, 2017

An update on a Calif. town's battle for water access

Sperling's Best Places map
Things are heating up on a story from 2016 about a Northern California town's battle with a lumber company over water access. Oregon-based Roseburg Forest Products charged the residents of Weed, Calif., only $1 a year for the past 50 years for spring water piped in from land it owns nearby, but in July 2016 the company began charging $97,500 a year and encouraged the town of 2,700 to look elsewhere for water. A company spokesperson said at the time that Roseburg couldn't guarantee the availability of the water in the long-term, but residents speculated that Roseburg wanted to increase its water sales to Crystal Geyser Alpine Spring, which bottles water in Weed and was looking to increase its supply. Weed residents argued that the water has been used by the town for more than a century and was always intended for municipal use, not for sale.

Seven months after the original story was published, "A group of residents sent a letter to the district water office asking to clarify the ownership of the municipal water. They also convinced the Weed City Council to back their request," Brian Fuller reports for The New York Times. "Roseburg responded by suing the residents and the Weed City Council."

The town's lawyers asked California Supreme Court Judge Karen Dixon to dismiss Roseburg's lawsuit, citing a state law that allows defendants to strike down lawsuits meant to silence criticism. Last week, Judge Dixon ruled in favor of Weed and dismissed Roseburg's lawsuit, Fuller reports. The battle over who owns the water will continue in court.

Drug overdose deaths reduced life expectancy in the U.S. for the second consecutive year

Life expectancy in the United States decreased in 2016 for the second year in a row, mostly because of a rise in drug overdose deaths, according to data released by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unintentional drug overdoses are categorized under the "unintentional injuries" category, which has now become the third-leading cause of death in the U.S.,behind heart disease and cancer.

CDC chart; click the image to enlarge it.
Drug-overdose deaths spiked 30 percent between 2015 and 2016, the result being that "American life expectancy is now 78.6 years, down by 0.1 years from 2015 and also down from 2014," Mariam Alam reports for ABC News. "The decline in life expectancy appears to be caused by rising death rates for Americans ages 15-64. Death rates of Americans ages 25-34 by 10.5 percent between 2015 and 2016, and other young age groups also have increased death rates."

In raw numbers, that translates to more than 63,600 overdose deaths in 2016, up from 52,400 in 2015. Many are driven by opioids (such as prescription painkillers or heroin) or synthetic opioids like fentanyl or carfentanil. Overdoses from synthetic opioids rose 88 percent from 2013 to 2016, the CDC reports.

"According to the new report, drug-overdose deaths were highest in West Virginia, Ohio, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania," Alam reports. "Though it is not entirely clear why, experts suggest it may be related to drug trafficking patterns, population characteristics, frequency of opioid prescriptions and delayed prescription monitoring systems in these states."

Bob Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch at the CDC, noted that the trend seems likely to continue for 2017, and that if life expectancy decreases for a third year in a row, it will be the first time such a thing has happened since the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1916, 1917 and 1918.

Ohio grain handler pleads not guilty to stealing $3.5 million from farmers

Monroeville (Wikipedia map)
A northern Ohio grain handler pleaded not guilty Dec. 20 to 41 charges of keeping about $3.5 million in farmers' profits from grain sales, Cary Ashby reports for the Norwalk Reflector. Richard Schwan, 78, of Monroeville, was indicted Nov. 17 by a Huron County grand jury on:
• Seven counts of aggravated theft, all first-degree felonies
• Six counts of grand theft, all fourth-degree felonies
• Six counts of theft from the elderly, all third-degree felonies
• Nine counts of falsification in a theft offense, all third-degree felonies
• Three counts of insolvent handler not to accept deposits, all fourth-degree felonies
• One count of delayed price agreement, a fifth-degree felony
and nine counts of falsification, all first-degree misdemeanors.
Schwan, doing business as Schwan Grain Inc., is accused of keeping $3.5 million from grain sales made for 35 farmers. He also allegedly filed financial reports and documents with the state Department of of Agriculture that "falsely reported and concealed his liabilities and the monies which he owed to farmers after he reportedly sold their grain and kept the proceeds," Ashby reports. Schwan was released on bail and is scheduled for trial April 24.

Fly fishing increasingly popular among women

Fly fishing on the Steelhead River in British Columbia (Photo by Adrienne Comeau)
In good news for rural areas that depend on recreational tourists for revenue, fly-fishing is becoming increasingly popular among women, the only growing demographic in the sport. "Women make up about 31 percent of the 6.5 million Americans who fly-fish, according to the most recent study by the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation," John Clarke reports for The New York Times. "In 2016, more than two million women participated in the sport, an increase of about 142,000 from the previous year."

Sports-equipment and apparel companies are rushing to cater to the new market: Patagonia sells a full line of apparel for female fly-fishers; and Orvis, Simms, Costa and Yeti have launched a program called "Come Fish With Us" that aims to achieve an even gender split among fly-fishers by 2020. The program will expand next spring with outreach events to educate women on gear and skills as well as arrange mentoring opportunities for women in businesses that serve fly-fishers. There's even a quarterly magazine, DUN, dedicated to women who fly-fish.

What caused this rise in interest for women? Jeff McGlothlin, an instructor and photographer from Bozeman, Mont., told Clarke that "Many women I teach to fish are in it less for the fishing itself, and more for the excuse to be outside. . . . Many liken it to yoga; a quiet, meditative getaway from daily stressors."

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Cullen family of Iowa's Storm Lake Times wins 2017 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism

From left, John and Mary Cullen; Tom Cullen; Dolores and Art Cullen (Times photo)
A Northwest Iowa family that has demonstrated courage, tenacity and integrity in the face of competition and powerful, entrenched local interests is the winner of the 2017 Tom and Pat Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog.

The Cullen family publishes the Storm Lake Times, a twice-weekly newspaper that has focused attention on water-pollution issues in Iowa, often to the dislike of agribusiness interests that are sources of much of the pollution.

“We’ve lost some friends, we’ve lost subscriptions; for a while, lost some ads,” said Art Cullen, editor and co-owner of the paper started by his brother John more than 27 years ago. This year Art Cullen won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, for a series of columns about pollution in the Raccoon River, which supplies water for Iowa’s capital and largest city, Des Moines. He and his son Tom also wrote many news stories about the issue.

Following their reporting, the Des Moines Water Works sued the drainage districts of Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties for failing to stop the pollution. The Times forced the release of public records that showed major agribusiness interests were paying for the suit’s defense. Courts ruled the districts couldn’t be sued, but the suit and the Pulitzer Prize focused more attention on the issue. Art Cullen says “The terms of the debate are changing,” and the amount of farmland in cover crops that prevent pollution has doubled in the past year.

Cullen’s Pulitzer-winning columns had punch. He wrote in March 2016, "Anyone with eyes and a nose knows in his gut that Iowa has the dirtiest surface water in America. It is choking the waterworks and the Gulf of Mexico. It is causing oxygen deprivation in Northwest Iowa glacial lakes. It has caused us to spend millions upon millions trying to clean up Storm Lake, the victim of more than a century of explosive soil erosion."

The Pulitzer committee said the editorials were “fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests.” Much of that reporting was done by Tom Cullen. Art’s wife, Dolores, also reports and takes photographs for the paper, and John’s wife, Mary, writes a recipe column. The family dog, Mabel, is there, too.

The Times began reporting and editorializing about pollution from farms about a year after it was established in June 1990, first looking at concentrated hog-farming operations. It has brought to light other environmental concerns, such as the need to dredge Storm Lake, and issues surrounding the livestock-processing plants that have brought many immigrants to Buena Vista County, in the heart of socially and politically conservative northwest Iowa.

In one of his most recent Editorial Notebooks, Art Cullen wrote, “Many of my ignorant friends conflate people of color with their having lost control of their own destiny; they don’t realize they never had control of it. It’s harder to hate the Chicago Board of Trade than it is a Mexican who doesn’t like American football or can’t speak English. They voted for Barack Obama to take on the Board of Trade and Wall Street. He didn’t,” so they voted for Donald Trump.

“That column is a sterling example of a rural editor speaking hard truths to power and to the people he serves,” said Al Cross, director of the Institute, based at the University of Kentucky. “The Storm Lake Times has long been known to those of us who follow rural journalism as a great example to emulate, and Art Cullen’s Pulitzer Prize merely confirmed that. We hope this award to the Cullen family will show that they have had high ideals and standards for a very long time.”

Cross noted that the paper is a commercial success, with a circulation of 3,000, more than the 1,700 reported by the thrice-weekly Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune, owned by Rust Communications of Cape Girardeau, Mo. “Unlike most weeklies, the Times gets most of its revenue from circulation, with a relatively high $60 annual subscription price,” Cross said. “That is testimony of community support for quality journalism, providing another example to follow.”

The Tom and Pat Gish Award is named for the late couple who published The Mountain Eagle at Whitesburg, Ky., for more than 50 years and became nationally known for their battles with coal operators and politicians, and the firebombing of their office by a Whitesburg policeman. Their son, Eagle Editor-Publisher Ben Gish, is on the award selection committee.

“It is encouraging to know that small, family-owned-and-operated community newspapers like the Storm Lake Times and Editor Art Cullen are still here and doing their jobs in very difficult circumstances with the same courage and tenacity exhibited by my parents,” Ben Gish said.

Past winners of the award have been the Gishes; the Ezzell family of The Canadian (Texas) Record; publisher Jim Prince and former publisher Stan Dearman of The Neshoba Democrat in Philadelphia, Miss.; Samantha Swindler, columnist for The Oregonian, for her work in rural Kentucky and Texas; Stanley Nelson and the Concordia Sentinel of Ferriday, La.; Jonathan and Susan Austin for their newspaper work in Yancey County, N.C.; the late Landon Wills of the McLean County News in Western Kentucky; the Trapp family of the Rio Grande Sun in EspaƱola, N.M.; and Ivan Foley of the Platte County Landmark in Platte City, Mo.

Cross will present the 2017 Gish Award to the Cullen family at the annual convention of the Iowa Newspaper Association in Des Moines on Feb. 2.

Nominations for the 2018 Gish Award are being accepted at 122 Grehan Journalism Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042 or via email to

Congress won't reauthorize CHIP this week, and stopgap funding will fall short, experts say

"House leaders reached a deal on a plan to avert government shutdown, but it won't be enough to help states that are running out of money for their Children's Health Insurance Programs," Susannah Luthi reports for Modern Healthcare. Uncertainty about the program is causing alarm all over the country.

“CHIP is being used as a pawn in larger debates and negotiations,” Linda Nablo, deputy director of the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services, told Robert Pear of The New York Times. “It has fallen victim to the dysfunction and partisanship in Congress. And we are getting very close to the point where some children will also be victims.” Virginia has told parents that the program will end Jan. 31 unless Congress funds it; other states have issued similar warnings.

House Republicans' plan for a short-term spending package to fund the government through Jan.19 would add $2.85 billion to CHIP for the first two quarters of next year. Advocates say that isn't enough, and "Some states have reached a critical point in their programs," Luthi reports. "The plan also includes the controversial provision that House Democrats staunchly oppose, of taking $750 million out of the Affordable Care Act's Prevention and Public Health Fund to help pay for $550 million in funding for community health centers and other programs." In the Senate, Democratic votes are needed to reach the 60-vote threshold for passage. UPDATE: The bill passed Thursday night.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a floor speech this morning, "My Republican colleagues in the Senate stand ready and eager to ensure full and long-term funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Nine million children receive coverage through CHIP. They and their parents deserve to know that Congress is committed to them. Republicans agree. We support a provision that would fund CHIP not just for a few weeks, but for five years."

Stopgap bills earlier this year allowed the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to move move money "from states that currently have a surplus of funding to programs that are running out of money," Luthi reports. However, that means the surplus states will run out of money sooner. Georgetown University researchers estimates that 25 states would run out of money in January, leaving 1.9 million children uninsured. "Congress must get CHIP done before they leave for the holidays," said Joan Alker, director of the university's Center for Children and Families.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a co-founder of the program and chair of the Senate Finance Committee, "told The Washington Post he remained confident that CHIP will be funded before states run out of money," Robert Samuels reports in a story that focuses on a Republican couple in Utah, parents of boys 3 years and 3 months old, who have become disenchanted with the GOP-led Congress. Private insurance would be “$1,200 for the four of us,” Ashlee Smith, 26, told Samuels. “We can’t pay that and save for a mortgage, or save anything at all.”

Anonymous conservative 'news' sites sink Democratic mayoral candidate in Lewiston, Maine

Democratic challenger Ben Chin may have lost the mayoral race in Lewiston, Maine, because of a slew of defamatory articles from conservative sites that look and sound like news, but don't adhere to journalistic standards. One story featured emails to campaign operatives in which Chin apparently describes some Lewiston voters as "a bunch of racists," and another story just before the election claimed Chin's car had been towed for "years" of parking tickets, a highly colored and half-accurate riff on the truth.

"Chin may be the first Maine politician derailed by a new phenomenon: anonymous conservative 'news' websites whose most effective pieces blend a kernel of truth from opposition research with large factual and rhetorical leaps traditional media ethics would prohibit," Michael Shepherd reports for the Bangor Daily News.

The Maine Examiner and the nationalist (and conspiracist) Maine First Media published seven stories about Chin between them in the days leading up to the election, which the state Republican party amplified greatly. Both websites appeared after President Trump's election when, as Shepherd notes, trust in the news media was at an all-time low.

"Both of the new Maine sites look somewhat like news sites. The Maine Examiner, for example, commingles political items with more benign ones — including one on an author’s night in Freeport — but a reader can’t find out who’s bankrolling it or writing the posts," Shepherd reports. "These sites exploit conservatives’ lack of trust in the press and traditional reporting methods. If Chin’s emails were passed to an interested mainstream news outlet, he would likely be contacted for an explanation of the 'racist' language."

Matthew McDonald, the former owner of Maine First Media, told Shepherd that traditional media are "dying" and that he started the site because he thought Maine news media wasn't covering Trump fairly, and that he could "start something that has more influence than your newspaper . . . And I did."

'Cornbread Mafia' leader, nabbed after 8 years, pleads guilty to pot charge; faces 5-year sentence

Johnny Boone
John Robert "Johnny" Boone, the former leader of a huge, Kentucky-based marijuana operation styled the "Cornbread Mafia," could spend the next five years in prison after pleading guilty to marijuana-cultivation charges after eight years as a fugitive.

"On Dec. 19, Boone admitted that on May 27, 2008, in Washington County, he conspired with other persons to possess more than 1,000 marijuana plants, intending to cultivate and grow the plants and distribute the marijuana when the plants were harvested. Boone also admitted to watering and fertilizing the plants, and concealing them on a farm in Washington County on Walker Lane near his residence," The Lebanon Enterprise reports. His sentencing is scheduled for March 15.

Boone went on the lam after his farm in Springfield was raided in 2008 and federal agents seized 2,400 marijuana plants. Known as the "Godfather of Grass" and "King of Pot," he was arrested in Dec. 2016 near Montreal, Mike Stunson reports for The Lexington Herald-Leader.

Boone spent more than a decade in prison after being arrested in 1987 on charges of growing 182 tons of marijuana, and served two years in 1982 after the FBI caught him with more than 500 pounds of marijuana, Stunson reports.

"Despite his reputation, Boone was beloved in Marion and Washington counties," Stunson reports. "Former U.S. Marshal Rick McCubbin told the Louisville Courier Journal that he took care of the community, and residents repaid Boone by not disclosing his whereabouts when he was on the run."

Agriculture and rural America shaped modern holiday traditions, Farm Bureau columnist says

Robert Giblin
In the days leading up to Christmas, Farm Bureau Federation columnist Robert Giblin muses about the impact of agriculture and rural America on modern holiday trends:

"Although few Americans have direct connections to farms or ranches, they appreciate that U.S. agriculture produces the greatest selection of affordable food found anywhere in the world," he writes. "Those who cut or buy real Christmas trees also know that those trees come from a farm. But fewer may consider how farmers grow the cotton and wool for clothing, and that agricultural commodities are used in making buttons, plastics, housewares, personal and industrial products, electronics, and thousands of other products used day-to-day or given as holiday gifts."

And it's not just the products consumers buy, but electrical components for their phones and computers, and the electricity used to power them, Giblin writes.

There are rural echoes too in the way modern Americans start thinking about Christmas right after Thanksgiving, he says. Long before the days of online shopping, department stores like Montgomery Ward and Sears would send out thick catalogues to rural Americans so they could mail-order gifts at a lower price and with a better selection than they could get shopping at local mom-and-pop stores.

Giblin's essay is a lovely meditation on our rural roots and well worth a read.

Update: Va. House race ruled a tie; Republican wins random drawing, preserving GOP majority

UPDATE, Jan. 4: Republican David Yancey won a random drawing for the seat.

Election officials recounted ballots.
(Associated Press photo by Ben Finley)
UPDATE, Dec. 21: The winner of the race is in question after a three-judge panel would not certify the recount that ruled Democrat Shelly Simonds the winner by one vote. The panel said that a questionable ballot should be counted for Republican David Yancey, rendering the vote a tie. The ballot in question contained a mark for both Simonds and Yancey, but the voter drew a line through Simonds' name, which the judges believed indicated that they intended to vote for Yancey. Republicans challenged the recount in court yesterday, saying that the voter in question had voted for every other Republican on the ballot and had intended to vote for Yancey, The Washington Post reports.

"Virginia Board of Elections Chairman James Alcorn said on Twitter Thursday that the board will met Dec. 27 to break the tie," The Associated Press reports. "By law, the winner's name will be drawn at random by an elections official."

In a stark reminder that every vote can count, "a recount in a Newport News district appears to have flipped the outcome and moved the House of Delegates to a 50-50 split between Republicans and Democrats, ending 17 years of GOP control," David Seidel and Mallory Noe-Payne report for NPR.

Democratic challenger Shelly Simonds will beat Republican incumbent David Yancey by one vote our of more than 23,000 cast, if a recount court certifies the results today. If so, neither party will have a majority in the House of Delegates, which will necessitate a power-sharing agreement not seen in the state since the 1990s, NPR reports. The final vote tally was 11,608 for Simonds and 11,607 for Yancey, Jessica Estepa reports for USA Today.

Simonds' victory is the final word in an election where Virginia Democrats erased a 32-seat GOP advantage in the House of Delegates. Republicans had controlled 66 of the chamber's 100 seats, NPR reports. Republicans have conceded the seat to Simonds, pending court confirmation. Democrats hope the power-sharing under a Democratic governor will lead to an expansion of Medicaid under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

States get creative to attract doctors to rural areas

"People who live in rural areas are more likely to die from heart disease, stroke, cancer, injuries, drug overdoses, car crashes and suicide. Women are more likely to die in childbirth. Children are more likely to die as infants," John Ingold reports for The Denver Post. And though many factors are behind those statistics, a big problem is that there aren't enough doctors and medical providers in rural America. Ingold reports that fewer than 10 percent of the nation's doctors practice in the rural areas where 20 percent of the U.S. population lives.

And they're getting older, too. According to a 2009 report, "27.5 percent of primary care physicians in non-metropolitan areas were age 56 or older, compared with 25.5 percent in urban locations. In remote rural areas, the percentage is 28.9 percent," the Rural Health Information Hub reports.

Dr. Sheleatha Taylor-Bristow
States are getting creative to come up with solutions to the rural doctor shortage. In Colorado, for example, the state runs a program called the Colorado Health Service Corps that helps doctors repay medical school loans if they work in a rural or underserved area, Ingold reports in a story in the "Colorado Divide" series, which examines the differences between rural and urban Colorado.

Hospitals in urban Colorado have struck up partnerships with struggling rural hospitals, beefed up their tele-health programs, and established locum tenens services, which act as medical-temp agencies when rural doctors need a break, Ingold reports. And the University of Colorado School of Medicine has a Rural Track program to prepare select students to work in rural settings.

Oklahoma has two similar programs for recruiting rural doctors through Oklahoma State University, Michaela Wheatley reports for The Oklahoman. Students agree to establish a practice in a medically underserved area of the state for a minimum of two years, after which the physician will become eligibile for student loan repayments for up to four years if they maintain their practice.

One of those physicians is Sheleatha Taylor-Bristow, who told Wheatley that she never imagined herself as a small-town doctor. Though she is from Oklahoma City, she says she loves her new home in Spencer, which has a population of about 4,000 and is one of the few historically black towns in Oklahoma. Running into her patients at the grocery store doesn't bother her because, as she told Wheatley, "I am a physician 24 hours a day . . . It is not something you go home and stop doing. You cannot vacation from it. It is part of who you are as a person."

Health reporter covering Appalachia hopes urban media will continue covering rural health in 2018

In a wry end-of-the-year column for NiemanLab, Ohio Valley Resource reporter Mary Meehan looks back at the urban-based news media's coverage of rural America in 2017 and lays out a few predictions for 2018.

She applauds urban journalists for taking more of an interest in rural issues in 2017 (a trend which we note was largely driven by urban news media outlets' discovery that rural voters who felt ignored were the catalyst behind Trump's election). And she touts different organizations' efforts to lay inroads to rural America, such as The Neiman Foundation's new fellowship to support local investigative journalists, or ProPublica's new Local Reporting Network.

"My prediction is that this effort will continue to grow as journalists from different places join in the common goal of doing work that matters in the day-to-day lives of people," Meehan writes. "My hope is that this trend will evolve into a sustained exploration of poor health in rural areas, particularly Appalachia."

That's because rural health is a serious problem. People are dying from drug overdose in record numbers, and HIV and Hepatitis C remain a serious risk for intravenous drug users. All that and more is leading to a shortening life span for Appalachians, she writes.

"Sustained political will is necessary to make a tangible change and that begins with dedicated journalists laying bare the problems, but also highlighting the good work people are doing to change their communities for the better," she writes. That means more focus on the fallout of government policy votes. "In way too many stories, the idea that tens of millions of people could lose health insurance amounted to a throwaway line. Those are real people, people like my sister, who will literally die if she can’t afford her medicine."

Pruitt falsely claims coal jobs are up 20 percent

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt's recent claim that coal jobs are up 20 percent this year is false, according to national and state figures. Pruitt made the claim during an interview with Louisville's WDRB-TV last week.

U.S. Department of Labor numbers show that there were around 50,000 coal mining employees in January 2017 and 51,200 employees as of November 2017 -- a 2.4 percent uptick, mostly due to increased coal exports. But that increase is likely temporary and due to a variety of global factors such as Asian countries' need to purchase coal after some mines were damaged or lost in a cyclone, Clifford Krauss reports for The New York Times. And even with that small increase, mining jobs are still drastically down from the 89,400 U.S. coal jobs in December 2011.

It's possible that Pruitt, in talking to a station in his native state, was talking or thinking about Kentucky, but coal jobs in that state have shown no sustained rebound this year, Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Pruitt made a misleading claim in June that the coal industry had added 50,000 jobs since the fourth quarter of 2016, as we reported here. But he found those figures by conflating coal mining jobs with mining support jobs in the booming oil and gas industries. The oil and gas industries, notably, are speeding coal's decline.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Rural Ky. county decides some jobs cost too much

Opponents applauded when county officials
rejected the plan. (Lexington Herald-Leader)
Rural counties all over the country are trying desperately to attract more jobs, but what happens when the price of those jobs is considered too high? That was the dilemma faced by residents of rural Bourbon County, Kentucky, when Lockheed Martin wanted to open an industrial park that might have created 3,500 good jobs.

Lockheed Martin is the nation's largest defense contractor, and scored a Pentagon contract last summer to modify C-130 cargo planes for military special operations. The company wants to do that at Bluegrass Station, a military industrial park right next to Bourbon County. State officials made a proposal to the county's top official: If the county "acquired 2,500 acres of farmland — likely through condemnation, because most landowners didn’t want to sell — and built an industrial park with an 8,000-foot to 10,000-foot runway and two hangars, Lockheed Martin would create 350 jobs by 2020," Tom Eblen writes for The Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky. If the industrial park filled with other tenants, state officials projected 3,500 jobs by 2027."

That sounded good to Bourbon County Judge-Executive Mike Williams, because his county has had the slowest growth in the Bluegrass region for decades. He wasn't allowed to tell the other Fiscal Court members about the proposal until Dec. 6, and Lockheed needed the officials' decision by Jan. 13. Locals, and the magistrates, were horrified and spoke out against the proposal. They didn't want to give up their farmland, which includes many horse farms, they said. Local infrastructure would need expensive improvements, and the jobs were only projections, not guarantees. So the Fiscal Court, Kentucky's version of a county commission, voted no.

Its decision was "courageous" and "struck a blow against corporate welfare," Eblen writes. Lockheed Martin has received more than $1 billion in state and local incentives in recent years despite $5 billion in profits, he notes. The officials "did a remarkable thing in this money-obsessed age."

USDA withdraws tougher rules for organic eggs

A chicken at an organic farm in Dawson, Ill. (Associated Press photo by Seth Perlman)
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Friday that it plans to withdraw Obama-era rules that would have required organic-egg producers to give hens room to graze outdoors, which would have made it much harder for large-scale poultry farms to earn an organic certification.

It was a widely anticipated move, since USDA has delayed the implementation of the rules several times. Smaller operators who demanded the stricter regulation say the rules were necessary for a level playing field and have vowed to file suit. "Smaller producers who provide open yards for egg-laying hens have complained that the loophole lets competitors reap the premium price of organic eggs without substantially changing their operations," Geoffrey Mohan reports for the Los Angeles Times. "Livestock and poultry companies, however, complained that the rules went beyond the intent of the original law establishing organic certification, which covered only feed and medicine.

"Current organic rules require animals to have "access" to the outdoors. The largest egg producers, however, have built chicken houses that hold tens of thousands of hens, and the hens have access to the outdoors only through small enclosed "porches." Under the new rules, finalized at the end of the Obama administration, these porches would no longer be adequate," Dan Charles reports for NPR.

The USDA says it will open a public comment period on the rule withdrawal before taking final action in early 2018. The rule would otherwise have taken effect in May.

Tax bill could cost cash-strapped Western states $1.3 billion in oil, gas and coal subsidies

U.S. Department of Labor chart
The Republican tax overhaul passing Congress today could cause states in the Western U.S. to lose nearly $1.3 billion in oil, gas and coal royalties that they rely on heavily.

"Neither the House nor Senate versions of the bill are completely funded; Republicans argued economic growth spurred by the cuts would offset their cost," Rebecca Beitsch reports for Stateline. "That lack of funding could ignite a 2010 federal law that requires across-the-board budget cuts, including withholding from states their portion of the money that oil, gas and coal companies pay to operate on federal land, when Congress approves a deficit-increasing measure." 

Losing those royalties would be big blows for states such as Wyoming, New Mexico and Montana, whose budgets have suffered in recent years because of falling energy prices. The cuts would likely hurt schools and other social services, since those states tend to use royalty payments to fund those systems, Stateline reports.

Montana, for example, would lose $24 million in royalties if the tax bill goes through as is, which the state revenue agency projects would cause the state to lose $122 million. Just five months ago, state lawmakers attended a special session to address a $227 million budget shortage.

Wyoming would be hard-hit, too. It received more than $664 million in royalty payments last year (the most of any state) and has $770 million two-year budget deficit.

"The law that would trigger the cuts, the Statutory Pay-As-You-Go Act, also known as "pay-go," requires across-the-board cuts to certain programs if legislation passed by Congress increases projected deficits. An analysis from the nonpartisan Office of Management and Budget determines the amount of the cuts," Stateline notes. Congress can vote to waive the law, which is exactly what some Republicans are suggesting." It has voted 16 times to waive such cuts.

Lawmakers say they will fund CHIP but haven't agreed how; Ala. to stop enrollment if they don't

As one state warned that it would stop enrolling kids in the Children's Health Insurance Program on Jan. 1 for lack of funds, Senate Republicans said an extension of the program would be in this week's must-pass bill to keep the federal government running. But Senate and House negotiators still haven't agreed on the details, and "Who will blink and when could determine the future of the program," Alice Ollstein reports for Talking Points Memo. The program covers nearly 9 million low- and mid-income children whose parents can't afford private health insurance, but who make too much money to qualify for Medicaid. Republicans want states to assume an increasing amount of the cost of the program, if not all, eventually.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas said last week that Congress would pass a long-term CHIP bill this week, Jessie Hellman reports for The Hill. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Monday that the CHIP extension would be included in the stopgap spending bill. However, "Senate Democrats are threatening to oppose House Republicans’ version that cuts public health programs to pay for CHIP, noting that they aren’t demanding similar offsets for either the $1.4 trillion tax bill or $81 billion disaster aid bill up for votes this week," TPM reports. Hellman notes, "Because Republicans have such a slim majority in the Senate, Democratic support is needed for the bill."

Meanwhile, Alabama has become the first state to announce that it would freeze CHIP enrollment Jan. 1 and close the program Jan. 31 if federal funding is not restored soon. Virginia and Colorado have sent out letters telling beneficiaries that their coverage is at risk. Both states have allowed children to keep enrolling up until the termination date, Quinn Libson reports for Route Fifty. All states' CHIP funding lapsed on Sept. 30, but they have been using leftover funds, redistributed by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Connecticut and Colorado have said they will also shut down their programs Jan. 31 if funding doesn't come through and will shift CHIP kids to Medicaid or private insurance from an Obamacare exchange. Most state would run out by March, and all 50 states and the District of Columbia would run out by June.
A Politico map shows when each state is expected to run out of money; click the image to enlarge it.
If Alabama freezes enrollment in its CHIP program, it won't be the first time a state has done so. Arizona did it in 2009 during the recession, in what researchers from Georgetown University's Center for Children and Families call a "cautionary tale." It saved the state $12.9 million in fiscal year 2011, but there were down sides: 14,000 children lost medical coverage completely, and "by July 2011, the waiting list for that program had swelled to include more than 100,000 kids. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the waiting list continued to grow at a rate of 10,000 kids every month." The state also lost $41 million in federal matching funds.

Disaster aid slow in coming to hospitals hit by hurricanes; aid included in appropriations bill

The hurricanes may be long gone, but areas of the South and Puerto Rico are still reeling, particularly in rural areas. That goes for hospitals too, many of which were struggling even before the storms. Some hospitals faced the double whammy of a huge — and expensive — influx of patients after the disasters, and storm damage to their facilities.

"In Texas alone, where Hurricane Harvey wiped out roads and buildings with heavy floods, 92 hospitals reported around $460 million in losses. Most of that estimate—about $380 million—came from facility damage," Susannah Luthi reports for Modern Healthcare. "But that number also includes about $40 million in increased uncompensated care costs attributable to the storm and its aftermath and $48 million from business office closures, billing and claims disruption, delayed or unpaid insurance claims and more. While for-profit hospitals don't qualify for federal aid, not-for-profit hospitals can get federal money through the Federal Emergency Management Agency's public assistance program.

Congress is supposed to pass an appropriations bill by Dec. 22 that will include disaster aid to communities hit by hurricanes or wildfires. House Republicans proposed an $81 billion disaster aid package for the bill, almost double what President Trump had requested.

"The emergency aid would provide $26 billion for community development block grants, which would help Florida, Texas and the Caribbean rebuild, along with Western states recovering from wildfires," Andrew Taylor reports for The Associated Press. "There's funding for prevention of future flooding, highway repairs and help for small businesses. There's almost $28 billion for the government's chief disaster aid account, $4 billion of which could be used to help cash-strapped governments such as Puerto Rico's stay afloat."

The package would also include $2.6 billion for farm disasters. If the full $81 billion is included in the appropriations bill, that would bring the total aid provided this year for hurricane relief to more than $130 billion —more than taxpayers paid for Hurricane Katrina.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Lack of affordable, decent child care in rural areas can limit parents' work options and advancement

Percent of people in child-care deserts in states surveyed. (Ctr. for American Progress)
It seems like a paradox, but many parents can't afford to work -- due to the lack of decent, affordable child care. The problem is greater among rural residents, creating "child care deserts" in almost 60 percent of rural census tracts, according to the Center for American Progress. The problem disproportionately hurts Latinos and Native Americans, also at about 60 percent.
Screen shot of the interactive version that has data by census tract. Click here to use it. 
The center defines a child-care desert as "any census tract with more than 50 children under age 5 that contains either no child care providers or so few options that there are more than three times as many children as licensed child care slots." The center collected data from nearly 150,000 licensed or registered child-care providers in 22 states, including child-care centers, family child-care providers, Head Start programs, and public and private preschools.

A lack of child-care options can lead parents to pass up better job opportunities, stay in poor-paying or dangerous jobs that offer schedule flexibility, not go back to college or pursue other learning and training opportunities, stay in abusive partnerships, or leave their children alone or in inadequate care, Stephanie Pfeffer reports for Working Mother. That creates an employment gap, and worsens the wage gap between men and women. Women who are able to return to work after giving birth increase their lifetime earnings by an estimated $79,000, according to ChildCare Aware of America.

This affects fathers, too. A 2015 poll by The Washington Post found that three-quarters of all mothers and half of all fathers have passed up job opportunities, switched jobs, or left the workforce to care for their children. That parents go to such great lengths to avoid paying for child care is understandable: The cost of child care for families with working mothers has increased more than 70 percent in the past 30 years, with some parents paying as much for child care as they do for their mortgage, report Danielle Paquette and Peyton M. Craighill of the Post. The problem is more acute for single parents, parents who have substantial student-loan debt, and those with special-needs children.

Good child care doesn't just help parents. "Children who receive high-quality early education are less likely to fail future grades and more likely to graduate high school and go to college," Bob Sanborn, CEO of the research and advocacy group Children at Risk, told Pfeffer. "They are better able to work and cooperate with others, less likely to end up in the justice system, and tend to be better citizens."

Some parents depend on state and/or federal subsidies to help pay for child care, but those could be cut. "If the Trump administration’s proposed 2018 budget were to be fully adopted, federal spending on children would be at least 9 percent lower over the 10-year budget window compared with projections under current law," the Urban Institute reports. "The largest proportional cuts would be to spending on education programs, which would be reduced by 15 percent below baseline spending projections for 2018-27."

Several states and communities have tried to improve the quality of unlicensed, home-based child care services to help more children have access to high-quality child care. Minnesota has a $1 million pilot program called The Rural Child Care Innovation Program to support, educate and make professional-development resources available to home day-care providers.

Interior takes tighter control of FOIA requests

"The Trump administration’s top environmental policymakers are engaged in a new war with their adversaries — over how much information to release to the media and outside groups, who are often perceived as enemies, as part of a heavy stream of Freedom of Information Act requests," The Washington Post reports.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior are becoming particularly slow to respond to FOIA requests, since such requests have uncovered information that links those departments' officials with players in the industries they're regulating, Dino Grandoni and Juliet Eilperin write.

In response to the flood of FOIA requests about the recent review of national monuments, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke instructed all agencies responsible for the review to forward FOIA requests directly to his office. Both Interior and EPA have seen an increase in FOIA requests since President Trump was elected; between October 2016 and September 2017, Interior received a total of 8,014 FOIA requests and the EPA got 11,493. The previous fiscal year, Interior got 6,438 FOIA requests and EPA got 10,498.

"The desire to consolidate duplicative FOIAs isn’t in itself a sign of something untoward," David Pozen, a professor at Columbia Law School and expert on information law, told the Post. “But the consolidation of the FOIA requests in a political office strikes me as more notable and concerning."

Zinke appears to be trying to clamp down on coverage overall, reprimanding the superintendent of Joshua Tree National Park last month after a series of tweets about climate change, Timothy Cama reports for The Hill.

Environmental groups and news outlets have criticized EPA for not answering FOIA requests more quickly, but EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said he and his staff are concentrating on clearing out the backlog of requests filed during Obama's administration, the Post reports. Some state officials are irked too: California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed suit in August to force EPA to release documents about how Pruitt is handling potential conflicts of interest.

U.N. investigator reports on extreme U.S. poverty, decries pollution and disease in Alabama

Activist Aaron Thigpen shows Philip Alston a sewage pool. (Photo: Connor Sheets,
A United Nations team that investigates extreme poverty and human rights around the world turned its gaze on the United States earlier this month with a two-week tour of cities and towns, at the invitation of the American government. The team's conclusion? In a report published Dec. 15, Philip Alston, the UN's special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, wrote, "The United States is one of the world’s richest, most powerful and technologically innovative countries; but neither its wealth nor its power nor its technology is being harnessed to address the situation in which 40 million people continue to live in poverty."

Though the U.S. is one of the world's wealthiest countries, Alston reports, it has startling inequalities compared to other developed countries: Its health-care expenditures are much higher, but there are fewer doctors and hospital beds per person than in other developed countries; Americans tend to live shorter and sicker lives, are more obese, have the highest youth poverty rate, and the highest infant mortality rate in the developed world.

The Australian-born investigator said that he also saw positive steps, such as an "amazing" community health initiative in Charleston, W.Va., that gives 21,000 patients free medical and dental care, and "extraordinary resilience and community solidarity in Puerto Rico." But people in Alabama's Black Belt are "suffering the most dire sewage disposal crisis of any place he has visited in a developed country," Connor Sheets reports for

Alston toured communities in the Black Belt's Butler and Lowndes counties "where residents often fall ill with ailments like E. coli and hookworm - a disease of extreme poverty long eradicated in most parts of the U.S., in part because they do not have consistently reliable access to clean drinking water that has not been tainted by raw sewage and other contaminants." Alston told Sheets that what he saw in rural Alabama was "very uncommon in the First World."

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Medicaid expansion expanded coverage by 8.5% in rural areas, 4.1% in urban areas, study concludes

The expansion of Medicaid under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act resulted in larger coverage gains in rural areas than urban ones, suggesting that any roll-back of the program would hurt rural America the most, according to a recent University of Louisville study.

The study, published in The Journal of Rural Health, found the percentage of low-income residents who signed up for health insurance through the expansion was greater in rural regions compared to urban ones: an 8.5 percent increase, compared to a 4.1 percent increase, respectively.

Joseph Benitez, who led the study as an assistant professor in U of L's School of Public Health and Information Sciences, said that even with the Medicaid expansion, cost-related barriers weighed more heavily on rural residents related to things like transportation to a medical provider. He said that can be problematic for individuals who live in health provider shortage areas.

“Any efforts by the government to roll back Medicaid expansion will certainly disproportionately affect the ability of rural residents to gain affordable coverage and access to care,” Benitez said in a news release.