Friday, March 16, 2018

Soybean farmers worry tariffs will spark a trade war

American soybean growers are worried that President Trump's new tariffs on steel and aluminum could spark a trade war with China that would hurt the agriculture industry, Sarah McCammon reports for NPR.

John Heisdorffer
American Soybean Association President John Heisdorffer, an Iowa farmer, sent a letter to Trump this week urging him to change his mind about the tariffs, which will take effect next week.

"Sixty percent of U.S. soybeans are exported. China is our biggest customer," Heisdorffer told McCammon. "They take one out of every three rows, $14 billion worth of soybeans and soy products. You know, that's huge. You take all the other countries that we export to and they still don't lead up to as much as what China takes from us. So we would be actually giving that market away to a different country. South America has many more acres that can go into production, and they'd be glad to furnish what they are now plus take whatever we'd be willing to give up in a retaliation type of situation."

Not only would a trade war hurt the agriculture industry, he said, but it would have a ripple effect on the industries that depend on it, such as farming equipment manufacturers. They are on the front lines of the trade war already because they are big users of steel. Heisdorffer said he met with officials in the Commerce and Treasury departments as well as other White House staff last summer, but says he believes they don't understand how much damage the tariffs could do.

Mass. town kept out Walmart, now struggles with Amazon

Greenfield, Mass., kept out Walmart to help local businesses stay solvent, but now struggles with a foe much harder to fight: Amazon.

Al Norman headed up the fight in his hometown of Greenfield and other towns like it for the past 25 years, and runs a website called Sprawl Busters, an "International Clearinghouse on Big Box Anti-Sprawl Information."

"But Norman and business owners in Greenfield are noticing that the Main Street stores are now struggling in the face of another force that’s become more and more powerful in recent years: e-commerce," Alana Semuels reports for The Atlantic. "Many customers who kept shopping in Greenfield’s downtown because Walmart was too far away are now turning to Amazon and other websites that offer free and fast shipping for basic needs, sapping business away from local stores that had survived for so long. Facing competition from a company as enormous as Amazon, some local stores are having trouble staying open." It's a long story, but worth the time. Read it here.

Sociologist who spent eight years asking rural people why they’re mad at government publishes a book about it

Princeton University sociologist Robert Wuthnow, who grew up in rural America, spent eight years interviewing rural people to find out why they're so angry with government. In the resulting book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, "He argues that rural Americans are less concerned about economic issues and more concerned about Washington threatening the social fabric of small towns and causing a 'moral decline' in the country as a whole," Sean Illing reports for Vox. "The problem, though, is that it’s never quite clear what that means, or how Washington is responsible for it."

Wuthnow did the research between 2006 and 2014, speaking to people in every state, but only those living in towns with a population under 25,000 and far from suburbs or cities. In an interview with Illing, he noted that though rural America's racial makeup is mostly white, the number of Hispanics and other immigrants is growing. Rural whites, he found, believe that the government has a great deal of power over their lives, and feel threatened when they perceive that government wants to help urban areas or minority populations more.

Rural Americans "value their local community. They understand its problems, but they like knowing their neighbors and they like the slow pace of life and they like living in a community that feels small," Wuthnow told Illing. In interviews, "I kept hearing from people is a general fear that traditional moral rules were being wiped out by a government and a culture that doesn’t understand the people who still believe in these things.

The book, and the project it was based on, come across somewhat as Wuthnow processing his feelings about growing up in -- and away from -- rural America. And impatient as he is about socially conservative attitudes, he recognizes also the very real problems facing rural areas, such as the opioid epidemic. And he notes also that America's divisions (and commonalities) aren't always predictable: "It’s worth remembering that not all divisions run along the rural-urban divide. The conservative-liberal divide or the Republican-Democrat is just as pronounced in many cases. So we’ve got a lot of work to do in this country, and it goes beyond this one fault line.

Senate passes bill easing restrictions on smaller banks, which make most loans to agriculture

The Senate passed a bill this week to ease restrictions on small- and mid-sized banks that provide half of all small business loans and 80 percent of agricultural loans. Republican Sen. Mike Crapo's bill went to the House on a 67-31 vote; all 51 Republicans supported it, as well as 16 Democratic senators and one independent, mostly from rural states, who worked out bipartisan compromises with the Idahoan.

"The bill makes a five-fold increase, to $250 billion, in the level of assets at which banks are deemed to pose a potential threat if they failed. The change would ease regulations and oversight on more than two dozen financial companies, including BB&T Corp., SunTrust Banks, Fifth Third Bancorp and American Express," Kevin Freking and Marcy Gordon report for The Associated Press. "Crapo, chairman of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, emphasized that the Federal Reserve would still have the authority to apply tougher standards for banks with between $100 billion and $250 billion in assets."

The restrictions were first passed as part of the Dodd-Frank law after the 2008 financial crisis. Under it, banks that are "too big to fail" must be assessed by the Federal Reserve each year to make sure they have enough capital to survive an economic shock, and must also submit a plan called a "living will" that detail how they would liquidate assets if they fail so as not to hurt the financial system.

The bill would also exempt some banks and credit unions from having to report some mortgage loan data such as the applicant's age, credit score, total loan costs and interest rate. Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who opposed the bill, argued it would make it easier for banks to discriminate against minority applicants without anyone noticing. The bill would also require free credit freezes for consumers affected by data breaches such as the one from Equifax.

Microsoft to host rural broadband presentation

A senior Microsoft official will lead a presentation on how broadband technology can help rural America with economic development, health care access, education and more. Shelley McKinley, general manager of Microsoft's Technology and Corporate Responsibility Group, will "deep dive into the use of technology, such as artificial intelligence, to create environmental sustainability, connect 1 billion people around the world with disabilities and prepare the workforce of the future."

Microsoft's Rural Airband Initiative is aimed at bringing more broadband connectivity to rural America, partly through the use of white-space technology. Critics say it's self-serving and not properly focused on rural areas.

The free presentation will take place at 3 p.m. CT March 28 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and will be live streamed for those who can't attend. Learn more here.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Ky. State Police try to keep local news media from reporting on investigations until KSP gives them green (blue?) light

Here's another timely story for Sunshine Week, which celebrates government transparency and the role of the news media in keeping the government honest:

A Kentucky State Police spokesperson recently caused a stir when he told two rural news outlets that they need to wait until the KSP issues press releases before publishing anything about ongoing investigations, Will Wright reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The officer wrote in an email to the Barbourville Mountain Advocate and Pineville radio station WRIL:"From this point forward when KSP is working an investigation, you are to wait until OUR (KSP) press release is sent out before putting anything out on social media, radio, and newspaper. No more posting inaccurate information from Sheriffs or anyone else. I don't care to confirm something and then get a release out later. [On] authority of my supervisors, if this continues, you will be taken off our media distribution list."

Jon Fleischaker, general counsel for the Kentucky Press Association, told the Herald-Leader the order violates the First Amendment, and that state agencies cannot withhold information "just because they don’t like what the media outlet is writing," Wright reports.

KSP Capt. Ryan Catron said the police do not plan to withhold information from the Advocate or WRIL, and that the email was meant to encourage news organizations to wait for accurate information before publishing stories.

Mountain Advocate Editor Charles Myrick wrote that that the weekly has a strong relationship with KSP and that while he appreciates the sacrifices law-enforcement officers make to keep people safe, "Part of keeping the public safe is an open forum of communication, and that’s what we do. An attempt to silence the media is not only a breach of the First Amendment, but a slap in the face of any effort to keep our public safe."

Medicaid, integral to rural health care, faces uncertain future

Medicaid, the federal-state health insurance program for low-income Americans, is "part of the financial bedrock for rural hospitals" across America, Shefali Luthra reports for Kaiser Health News as part of "Medicaid Nation", a KHN series examining the program's reach and role.

Medicaid began as a medical program for the poorest Americans, but millions now rely on it. The program covers nearly 24 percent of rural Americans who aren't senior citizens, and pays for almost 45 percent of all U.S. births — 51 percent of rural births.

Some don't even know Medicaid is helping them: Medicaid reduces the amount of uncompensated care hospitals must provide, insulating them from worse financial problems and enabling some to stay open and keep services such as obstetrics. About half of rural counties don't have a hospital with an obstetric unit, since Medicaid compensation rates are lower for the expensive service, so it's often one of the first to be cut by cash-strapped hospitals.

When a hospital can stay afloat, not only is more medical care available in rural areas, but it provides hundreds, sometimes thousands of local jobs that are often critical to the local economy. The data backs this up: rural hospitals in states that expanded Medicaid are six times less likely to close than in states that didn't.

The benefit of Medicaid to rural communities has been a conundrum for rural residents, who tend to vote Republican even as GOP lawmakers consistently vote to reduce Medicaid costs and the number of people who have access to it. "In Ohio, many state lawmakers are pushing a cap on the state’s expanded Medicaid program — a controversial move that would almost certainly squeeze hospital revenue. Nationally, Republican leaders are weighing cuts to Medicaid, Medicare and other safety-net programs," Luthra reports. Still, a Republican-flavored Medicaid that includes work requirements for able-bodied recipients may make Medicaid expansion more palatable to conservatives.

Interactive map with local data rates U.S. counties on economic distress; shows some unexpected outliers

Dark red counties are the most economically stressed, and dark blue the least.
(EIG map; click on the image to enlarge it or click here to view the interactive map.)
The Economic Innovation Group has created a interactive map that identifies the economic distress level of every zip code in the United States. Maps are also available that measure by zip code, congressional district or city.

The Distressed Communities Index is comprised of seven metrics that measure economic well-being: percentage of the population with high school diplomas, housing vacancy rate, unemployment rate, poverty rate, median income (expressed as a percentage of the state's median income), percentage change in the number of jobs available from 2011 to 2015, and the percentage change in the number of business establishments from 2011 to 2015.

Putnam County, W.Va., is near the middle.
Some of the map is predictable, with large swaths of dark red (the most economically distressed) across Appalachia, the Black Belt, the Mississippi Delta, the Rio Grande and many rural areas. But the map reveals some unexpected outliers too, like Putnam County, West Virginia, a dark blue dot in a sea of dark red.

It's a fascinating portrait of America. At a large scale, it’s almost an Impressionist painting; at small scale a colorful mosaic. How did your county fare?

Trump administration sets new record for censoring or withholding government files, AP finds

An Associated Press data analysis shows that over the past eight months under President Trump, "the federal government censored, withheld or said it couldn’t find records sought by citizens, journalists and others more often last year than at any point in the past decade," Ted Bridis reports for AP. "People who asked for records under the Freedom of Information Act received censored files or nothing in 78 percent of 823,222 requests, a record over the past decade."

In 63,749 of the requests, the government said it would be illegal to release the requested information, which is double the number of such claims from the previous year. And the government said it couldn't find any records related to a request 180,924 times, an increase of 18 percent over the year before. The AP couldn't determine whether journalists were asking for records that didn't exist in those cases, or whether federal employees weren't looking hard enough.

The federal government turned over everything requested about 20 percent of the time, the analysis found. And in two-thirds of the cases where it turned over anything at all, the documents were censored. Adam A. Marshall, the Knight Foundation-funded litigation attorney at the Washington-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told Bridis "Federal agencies are failing to take advantage of modern technology to store, locate and produce records in response to FOIA requests, and the public is losing out as a result."

When challenged, more than one-third of the time the government backed down and said it had improperly tried to withhold pages. But people filed only 14,713 appeals, or in 4.3 percent of cases in which the government said it had found records but wouldn't hand them over. Not fulfilling FOIA requests has been expensive for the government: it spent a record $40.6 million in legal fees last year defending decisions to withhold files. That number includes paying the winner's attorney's fees sometimes, if the government loses its case. The Trump administration said last week that it had received a record number of FOIA requests last year and that many agencies had reduced their backlogs of overdue requests.

This story is one in a series produced by the AP as part of Sunshine Week, which celebrates government transparency and freedom of the news media in the service of democracy.

Dentistry program trains students to serve in rural areas

Dr. Art DiMarco with RIDE students (RIDE photo)
It's hard to find medical professionals to practice in rural areas, and dentistry is no exception. So the University of Washington School of Dentistry has created a program to train future dentists to serve in rural areas, Kay Miller Temple reports for the Rural Health Information Hub. Other universities near rural areas could copy its model.

The Regional Initiatives in Dental Education program has an impressive success rate: over 70 percent of its graduates have been placed in rural or underserved areas of Washington, Oregon, California and Texas. The 4-year program is modeled on--and designed to integrate with--the university's WWAMI program (so named for the states Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho), which trains medical students to serve as primary care physicians throughout the Pacific Northwest, especially in rural areas. RIDE dental students and WWAMI medical students both spend their first year at Spokane's Eastern Washington University campus. Second- and third-year RIDE students train in Seattle, and fourth-year students spend four months working with community health center dentists. The training is meant to create a "super-generalist" who can capably serve in rural areas.

Dr. Art DiMarco, the program's director at Eastern Washington University, said the program was different from other rural placement programs from the start. Other programs relied on loan forgiveness to lure students, which DiMarco said helped, but didn't attract as many students as they needed. The RIDE program's founding director, Dr. Wendy Mouradian, looked instead to the WWAMI program. She says the four keys to both programs that ensure its success rate are:
  1. Have faith in the students' desire to provide care to rural/underserved populations and reward this interest early.
  2. Ensure comprehensive training for rural practice.
  3. Provide mentoring and post-graduation support.
  4. Structure education for a "cohort effect". i.e., the students support each other so that everyone shows up every day and does their best work.
Read more about the RIDE program here.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

2018 county health rankings show rural America still behind

The County Health Rankings & Roadmaps program, a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, released its annual County Health Rankings report today. The report found that meaningful health gaps persist in the U.S. in different geographic areas and among racial and ethnic minorities. These health gaps are mostly the result of differences in opportunities in the places people live, the report says.

Of rural interest:

Child poverty rates overall are still higher than they were before the Great Recession, and have been especially slow to rebound in rural counties. Rural counties have the highest child poverty rates, at 23.2 percent, followed by large urban metro counties with 21.2 percent, smaller metro with 20.5 percent and suburban counties with 14.5 percent. The areas with the highest child poverty rates tend to be in the Southwest, Southeast, and in parts of Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, and the Plains.

Teen birth rates have been declining steadily for more than a decade, but teens in rural counties have seen the least improvement and continue to have the highest teen birth rates (35.9 births per 1,000), nearly twice that of suburban counties (18.5 births per 1,000).

Low birthweights are most common across the Black Belt in the South, Appalachian coal country, and rural Colorado and New Mexico.

Unemployment is high in the Mississippi Delta, Appalachian coal country, Alaska, and other pockets across the country, especially along the Rio Grande.

The more opioids doctors prescribe, the more money they make from pharmaceutical companies, analysis says

"As tens of thousands of Americans die from prescription opioid overdoses each year, an exclusive analysis by CNN and researchers at Harvard University found that opioid manufacturers are paying physicians huge sums of money -- and the more opioids a doctor prescribes, the more money he or she makes," Aaron Kessler, Elizabeth Cohen and Katherine Grise report for CNN.

In 2014 and 2015 opioid manufacturers paid hundreds of doctors fees for speaking, consulting or other services. Hundreds of doctors were paid six-figure sums, and thousands were paid more than $25,000. The doctors who prescribed particularly large amounts of opioids were the most likely to be paid consulting fees. It wasn't clear whether the payments encouraged the doctors to prescribe a company's opioid, or whether the pharmaceutical companies are finding and rewarding doctors who already prescribe large amounts of their opioids.

"It smells like doctors being bribed to sell narcotics, and that's very disturbing," said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, a senior scientist at the Institute for Behavioral Health at Brandeis University, where he co-directs the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative.

The analysis was done primarily by comparing two federal government databases: one that tracks payments drug companies give to doctors, and one that tracks prescriptions doctors write to Medicare recipients. During the period studied, more than 811,000 doctors wrote prescriptions to Medicare patients, and almost half of those doctors wrote at least one opioid prescription. Of the doctors who wrote at least one prescription for opioids, 54 percent received a payment from pharmaceutical companies that make opioids.

CNN graph; click the image to enlarge it.
"Doctors were more likely to get paid by drug companies if they prescribed a lot of opioids -- and they were more likely to get paid a lot of money," CNN reports. "Among doctors in the top 25th percentile of opioid prescribers by volume, 72 percent received payments. Among those in the top fifth percentile, 84 percent received payments. Among the very biggest prescribers -- those in the top 10th of 1 percent -- 95 percent received payments." The more opioids doctors prescribed, the more money they received. The top 10th of 1 percent received, on average, nine times more money than the typical doctor.

Paying doctors for speaking and consulting is legal, but controversial--and common. "Pharmaceutical company payments to doctors are not unique to opioids. Drug companies pay doctors billions of dollars for various services. In 2015, 48% of physicians received some pharmaceutical payment," CNN reports. Giving doctors kickback payments in exchange for prescribing certain drugs is illegal, though. Purdue Pharma, which has been under increasing scrutiny for its aggressive marketing practices for opioids OxyContin, Butrans and Hysingla, stopped paying doctors for promotional activities in 2016.

Study: 'Deaths of despair' on the rise across the country

"Death due to alcohol, drugs, suicide, and interpersonal violence – sometimes characterized as 'deaths of despair' are on the rise in the U.S., particularly among white males, reversing a centuries-long improvement in life expectancy," F. Perry Wilson reports for MedPage Today.

In the most detailed study yet on the topic, published yesterday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers from the University of Washington found that these deaths aren't distributed evenly around the country. Though overdose deaths are not disproportionately rural overall, a trio of maps in the article shows that Appalachian coal country is in particularly bad shape, with more OD deaths per capita than almost anywhere else in the country. The mortality rate has increased fifty-fold there and in a few other hotspots across the country. And the amount of opioids prescribed per person is extremely high.

Self-harm is much more prevalent in Western states, but has increased greatly since 1980 in not just Western states, but in other Midwestern rural areas and the Dakotas. Deaths due to interpersonal violence are concentrated in the South, especially in the Mississippi Delta region, the Black Belt, rural Alaska, and around Indian reservations in the Dakotas and the Southwest. The greatest increase in interpersonal violence deaths has been in the Mississippi Delta, but also in Fremont County, Wyoming, on which sits most of the Wind River Indian Reservation. The reservation has been noted in the past for having a high suicide and crime rate.

In general the high rate of variation in deaths of despair suggests that different factors are at play in different areas, which means that a one-size-fits-all approach to fixing it would be unwise, Perry writes.
Overdose deaths per 100,000 people (Washington University map; click on the image to enlarge it)

USDA kills animal welfare rules for organic meat

"New rules, decades in the making, that would have required organic meat and egg producers to abide by stricter animal welfare standards were withdrawn by the federal government on Monday, frustrating organic farmers and animal welfare groups but leaving some traditional egg and livestock farm groups rejoicing," David Pitt reports for The Associated Press.

The rules would have ensured improved living conditions for animals whose meat would be labeled organic. Livestock would have to have enough space to lie down and move around a little, chickens could not have their beaks removed and cattle could not have their tails cut off. All organically raised animals would be required to have proper ventilation and access to fresh air and direct sunlight.

The rules were published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture two days before President Obama left office in January 2017; the Trump administration repeatedly delayed implementing the rule before this week's announcement. USDA Marketing and Regulatory Program Undersecretary Greg Ibach said the rules would exceed the department's statutory authority, and that the organic industry's continued growth shows that consumers are fine with current rules.

Kansas Republican Pat Roberts, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in a statement that the rule would have increased the paperwork burden and driven up the cost of production for farmers and ranchers.

Organic dairy farmer Francis Thicke blamed industry lobbyists for the decision, and told Pitt some organic farmers are working on creating their own label, the Real Organic Project, which they hope to pilot on farms this summer and eventually roll out nationwide. The label would guarantee improved living standards for organically raised animals.

Rural voters largely stayed put in tight Pa. race, but Democrat cut into rural margins to win narrow victory

New York Times map; click on it to enlarge, or here for interactive version.
There's no official winner yet in yesterday's special Congressional election in Pennsylvania, though Democrat Conor Lamb has a small lead over Republican Rick Saccone and has declared victory. Whether Lamb wins or not, the closeness of the race could be interpreted as a sign that blue-collar Americans are losing faith in Republican policies, James Hohmann writes for The Washington Post. After all, President Trump won this district by 20 points in 2016, but it took millions of dollars from national political action committees and heavy support from Trump and other GOP luminaries to bring this race even.

"The bigger reason that the savviest GOP operatives in town are freaking out right now, though, is that the results underscore the degree to which the party has been unable to hone in on a message that can reliably win races in this environment," Hohmann writes.

The most-current precinct-level map (above) shows that rural townships went for Saccone, but in those areas, "dozens of precincts went more Democratic than in the 2016 presidential election for Trump," Domenico Montanaro reports for NPR. In rural areas, "Lamb was able to cut into the Republican margins, and when every vote counts, as in a race like this, it can make all the difference." Lamb ran as a pro-gun, anti-abortion Democrat.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Dave Ramsey says more people worry about finances, perhaps thinking that politicians will improve their fortunes

Financial guru Dave Ramsey advises millions of Americans to gain wealth by paying off debt, via his weekly radio show, a book, and classes. He says he's worried about what he's hearing these days from people who are in debt, Tim Alberta writes for Politico. Ramsey's radio show is the third-most popular on the airwaves, right behind Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, and has an obvious appeal to rural Red-Staters with his Tennessee accent, homespun sayings and bootstrappy approach to financial discipline. Perhaps coincidentally, high personal debt tends to cluster in rural and disproportionately rural areas such as the Central Appalachian coalfields, the Mississippi Delta, the Black Belt in the South, and rural Texas. (Politico map from Urban Institute data)

Map colors show each county's percentage of population that is the target of at least one debt collector.
Ramsey told Alberta that he hears from a lot more people, both Democrats and Republicans, who are terrified about their finances than when he started his radio show 25 years ago, and said part of it is because people seem to have lost hope in their ability to dig themselves out of financial problems, instead looking to the government to fix things. He believes the elections of both Trump and Obama were driven by voters' beliefs that their candidate would increase their financial security, a notion Ramsey scoffs at, but believes is a direct consequence of the Great Recession.

"I now have to spend more time talking someone into believing they control their own destiny than I used to,” Ramsey told Alberta. "I don’t know if I blame that all on 'hope and change' from Obama, or 'Make America Great Again.' They’re both hope slogans. Different ideologies, different politics, but both hope slogans: I’m going to deliver something for you that you can’t do for yourself."

IBM Watson Health lists top hospitals; did yours make list?

IBM Watson Health has released its annual list of the top 100 hospitals in the nation, a list that has been compiled for the past 25 years using "independent public data, risk-adjusted and peer-reviewed methodologies, and key performance metrics" to rate hospitals on patient satisfaction, efficiency, and financial stability. Hospitals are compared only against other hospitals that are similar in terms of size and teaching status.

Rural and small-town hospitals that made the list included Cedar City Hospital in Utah which topped the "Small Community Hospitals" category and made the list overall for the seventh time. It's in a town of 28,000.

Did your local hospital make the cut? Download the list free here through March 16; it will cost $75 after that.

Special congressional election in Pennsylvania is a possible litmus test for blue-collar union voters' allegiance

Today's special election for a congressional seat in southwestern Pennsylvania is an "acid test for the allegiance of working-class voters," Trip Gabriel reports for The New York Times. Union leadership is backing Democrat Conor Lamb, but it's unclear if the rank-and-file union members in the district, who care more about social issues and voted heavily for Trump in 2016, will follow their lead.

Conor Lamb, state Rep. Rick Saccone
Because of this possible symbolism, months before the midterm elections, both Republican political committees and small-donor Democrats from all over the country have poured millions of dollars into the race. Democrats want to shore up the narrative of a "blue wave" of rising anti-Trump and anti-Republican sentiment, and Republicans want to prove that Trump's connection with blue-collar workers is solid.

President Trump and Donald Trump Jr. have appeared at recent rallies for Saccone, and this morning the president tweeted: "The Economy is raging, at an all time high, and is set to get even better. Jobs and wages up. Vote for Rick Saccone and keep it going," the Observer-Reporter in Washington, Pa., reports. Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America and a member of the AFL-CIO's executive council, pitched Lamb to union workers as a "God-fearing, union-supporting, gun-owning, job-protecting, pension-defending Democrat" in a recent speech, Brent Scher reports for the Washington Free Beacon.

Monmouth University poll found that 51 percent of voters polled said they support Lamb, compared to 45 percent for Saccone; that's nearly a 10-percentage point swing over last month's poll, in which Saccone had a small edge. Poll director Patrick Murray said, "This district has voted overwhelmingly Republican in recent elections, but a large number of these voters have blue-collar Democratic roots. Lamb seems to have connected with them."

The poll was unclear about whether Trump's steel tariffs, which could help Saccone, had much effect on the race. Click here for updates on the race throughout the day from the Observer-Reporter.

Record 21 states see decline in well-being in 2017

For for the first time in the nine years The Gallup Organization and Sharecare have been tracking changes in Americans' well-being, no state saw any statistically significant improvement over the past year. People in 21 states, mostly in the South and West, saw their well-being scores drop by a statistically significant margin from 2017. That broke the previous record set in 2009 during the Great Recession, when well-being in 15 states declined.

Nevertheless, Americans said they were more confident about the economy and believed the job market was better in 2017 than they did in 2009, Dan Witters reports for Gallup.

The data is based on more than 160,000 interviews with U.S. adults in all 12 months of 2017. The Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index is a mean score comprised of metrics that measure five elements of well-being:
  • Purpose: liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals
  • Social: having supportive relationships and love in your life
  • Financial: managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security
  • Community: liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community
  • Physical: having good health and enough energy to get things done daily
Many states showed declines in metrics concerning purpose, social well-being, and mental health, such as increased worrying, little interest or pleasure in doing things, not liking what they do each day, more clinical depression diagnoses, more daily physical pain, less "positive energy" received from friends and family, less encouragement from others to be healthy, fewer people who have a leader in their life who makes them "enthusiastic about the future," fewer people reaching their goals, and less satisfaction with their standard of living, Witters reports.

The states that saw declines in well-being in 2017 and mostly in the South and West, including states that have had historically high well-being scores. West Virginia had the lowest well-being score in the nation, a spot it has held for nine consecutive years. South Dakota and Vermont, which have both been high-ranked in years past, tied for the best well-being scores.

Employers should care about this because workers with higher well-being scores are much better performers, are likely to have fewer unplanned absences, and use less health care than workers with lower well-being scores. They're also more likely to stay at the same job, file fewer worker compensation claims, and are more resilient in the face of challenges like lay-offs or natural disasters.

Community leaders should care because drops in well-being "increase the liability in each of these areas for the states that suffer them and should command the attention of their leaders, as weakening well-being can result in slowing the pace of an otherwise improving economy," Witter reports.

Energy Department wants to develop smaller coal plants

"The Trump administration is set to ask companies to help the government develop small-scale coal-fired power plants," according to a top Energy Department official, Amy Harder reports for Axios. Steve Winberg, assistant secretary for fossil energy in the department, told Harder at a major energy conference in Houston that the "smaller coal plants would be able to better complement an electricity grid that has growing amounts of intermittent wind and solar power and be able to include other technology that captures carbon emissions."

The funding would be competitive and would require coal companies to share the costs, another department official told Harder. Coal has been declining for years, mostly because of cheap natural gas, but Winberg said he hopes coal can survive if these smaller power plants do well.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Federal government focuses on school safety bills instead of gun restrictions

While state legislatures have mostly focused on gun-control legislation in response to recent school shootings, the federal government is leaning more toward school-safety initiatives. President Trump walked back his recent support for raising the minimum age for gun purchases after pushback from the National Rifle Association, and called on Congress today to pass legislation aimed at violence prevention and intervention in schools.

The Students, Teachers and Officers Preventing (STOP) School Violence Act has been introduced in the Senate and the House. Both versions have bipartisan support, would authorize Department of Justice school safety programs, and would authorize grant money for school safety initiatives, but there are some differences in the House and Senate versions, Andrew Ujifusa reports for Education Week.

The House bill, introduced by Republican John Rutherford of Florida, would provide $50 million annually from fiscal years 2019 through 2028. The Senate bill, introduced by Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah, would provide $75 million for the Secure Our Schools grant program through the end of fiscal year 2018, which ends on Sept. 30, then $100 million annually for fiscal years 2019 through 2028.

The bills differ on how the grant money could be spent. The Senate bill specifies that the grants can be used for technology such as panic buttons or surveillance systems, while the House bill doesn't mention technology as a possible use for funding. Hatch's bill also puts a greater emphasis on seeking evidence-based solutions to award grant money. Both bills would require school districts to put up 25 percent in matching funds to be eligible for grants, but the Senate bill allows the fund-matching requirement to be waived. And finally, "Rutherford's bill would move the Secure Our Schools grant program out of the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office at the Justice Department, and into the Bureau of Justice Assistance, which provides technical assistance to state and local officials. Hatch's bill keeps the program in the COPS office," Ujifusa reports.

In addition to urging Congress to pass the STOP legislation, Trump is also calling on Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to form and chair a school safety task force to look at successful safety measures already in place in schools and districts around the country. "The administration will also review federal privacy laws to determine if there are ways to improve coordination between education, healthcare, and law enforcement sectors. And it will support a so-called 'Fix NICS' bill that would seek to ensure more thorough records in the existing background check system for gun purchases," Evie Blad reports for Education Week.

Florida governor signs bill imposing limits on gun purchases; other states could follow

Three weeks after the deadly Parkland school shooting, Florida's Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill imposing new limits on firearms purchases. It was a surprising move for a governor who has ardently supported gun rights in the past. Hours after Scott signed the law, the National Rifle Association filed suit in federal court to block the part of the law that raises the minimum age for purchasing long guns to 21, saying it violates the constitutional rights of 18-20-year-olds.

The law also imposes a three-day waiting period for most long gun purchases, bans the possession of bump stocks, establishes a program to arm some school personnel, allocates hundreds of millions of dollars on school security and mental health treatment, and makes it easier for law enforcement and judges to take guns from people considered dangerous to themselves or others.

Before signing the bill, Scott repeated his opposition to the new waiting periods as well as arming teachers. "After Scott came out against arming teachers in schools, state Republican leaders amended the bill to exclude school employees who work exclusively as classroom teachers from being part of the 'school marshal' program," Michael Scherer reports for The Washington Post. "The program is voluntary for school districts, and any school employees who carry a weapon will have to undergo 132 hours of law enforcement training with the county sheriff’s office, pass a background check and take additional diversity training."

Scott's willingness to allow limits on gun purchases tracks with public opinion in Florida, which has seen three mass shootings in the past two years: at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Pulse nightclub in Orlando, and Fort-Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. A recent poll found that 78 percent of Florida residents support raising the age for all gun purchases to 21, 87 percent support a mandatory waiting period for all gun purchases, and 56 percent support allowing school personnel to carry guns on school grounds, Scherer reports. Florida Democrats accused Scott of signing the new law for political reasons. Scott has taken steps toward challenging Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson for a Senate seat, but has not yet formally declared his candidacy.

The Parkland shooting may prove to be a catalyst for other gun-related legislation. At least 38 states have introduced or passed gun-related legislation since the Parkland shooting. The Chicago Tribune did a great job of rounding up pending gun legislation in other states, along with data about each state's political landscape and how each state rates on gun owners' rights and preventing gun violence.

Politicians at all levels take up 'fake news' smear; Ohio editor who backed Trump tells journos to look in mirror

Huffington Post graphic
President Trump's repeated attempts to discredit the news media with the term "fake news" have inspired conservative politicians all over the country to copy him.

"An Idaho state lawmaker urges her constituents to submit entries for her 'fake news awards.' The Kentucky governor tweets #FAKENEWS to dismiss questions about his purchase of a home from a supporter. An aide to the Texas land commissioner uses the phrase to downplay the significance of his boss receiving donations from employees of a company that landed a multimillion-dollar contract," Ryan J. Foley of The Associated Press reports.

Denouncing news stories as fake news helps politicians dodge uncomfortable questions in the short term, but experts on press and democracy say the tactic could cause long-term damage by undermining the news media's role as a governmental and political watchdog. The hostility toward the press has already turned violent on several occasions. "In the last year, at least three political figures have been implicated in physical assaults on reporters asking questions, while journalists have been attacked in dozens of other incidents by protesters, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker," Foley reports.

The confusion sown by Trump and other conservative politicians is exacerbated by the proliferation of actual fake news on the internet. Public trust in the media is at an all-time low, especially among conservatives, and even small town newspapers are bearing the brunt of conservative outrage. Rebecca Baker, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, recommends that journalists respond to claims of "fake news" by increasing transparency as much as possible: sharing audio, video and documents that back up their stories.

This story is the first in a series produced by the AP as part of Sunshine Week, which celebrates government transparency and freedom of the news media in the service of democracy.

UPDATE: Editor-Publisher Gary Abernathy of The Times Gazette in Hillsboro, Ohio, finds fault: "It is telling that the story notes that the claim of bias comes from conservatives, which raises the question: Why don’t liberals complain as much about media bias? The obvious liberal slant to the media is typically ignored in favor of journalists adopting the mantle of victimhood. . . . I share the concern over the shaky position of newspapers today, but not for the same reason as many of my colleagues. The attacks by the president and others cannot hurt us. They are merely firing ammunition handed them by media outlets that have too often abandoned their “impartial and steady course” — as Carothers put it 200 years ago — in favor of point-of-view journalism and obvious agendas reflected in tabloid-style, click-bait headlines and sensationalized reporting."