Friday, April 13, 2018

County-level map shows changes in ACA enrollment; county data available via spreadsheet, interactive map

"The Affordable Care Act’s health insurance exchanges have proven to be quite sturdy despite a barrage of federal actions that threatened to topple them," Shelby Livingston reports for Modern Healthcare. "The picture of the exchanges that emerges from the CMS’ final open-enrollment data is far from the imploding market that the Trump administration and countless headlines over the past year warned about."

Though enrollment decreased and premiums increased by an average of 30 percent this past year, tax credits increased enough for most people that the average person paid less for coverage than the year before. ACA plans remain unaffordable for millions who aren't eligible for financial help, Livingston reports. Congress is unlikely to pass legislation that would decrease premiums before insurers file 2019 plans later this spring.

For an Excel spreadsheet showing county-by-county data on Obamacare enrollment, click here.

An interactive map shows the changes over the past year. Here's a screen grab:
Modern Healthcare map. Click on the image to enlarge it or click here to see the interactive version.

Trump considers buying crops, rejoining Trans-Pacific Partnership to help farmers in trade war; skeptics abound

President Trump is considering options to help American farmers hurt by the trade war with China, including harnessing the Commodity Credit Corporation and trying to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which he abandoned soon after he became president.

The CCC is an early New Deal program created in 1933 to help farmers hurt in the Depression. Part of the Department of Agriculture, the CCC can borrow up to $30 billion from the Treasury to deploy in numerous ways, including buying crops to keep prices stable. The White House and USDA wouldn't say how they might use the CCC right now, saying they want to keep their ideas secret to avoid tipping off the Chinese, Damian Paletta reports for The Washington Post.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, urged caution in using the CCC, saying that he's seen it misused before. "It’s not that I’m diametrically opposed to it to the degree that I’d say no," he told Paletta. "I’m just saying I don’t know how we implement this, I don’t know what kind of cockamamie scheme that we could come up with that would be fair, that would be at least somewhat responsible."

Yesterday Trump also floated the idea of rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, though he famously opposed it as a candidate and withdrew the U.S. from the pact in his first week in office. "Trump had told Republican senators earlier in the day that he had asked ... Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow to re-open negotiations," David Chance and Tetsushi Kajimoto report for Reuters.

Trump said the U.S. would only rejoin the pact if more favorable terms were negotiated. Though President Obama championed the TPP since 2008, in 2016 his administration stopped trying to get it passed because of Congressional opposition. Without the U.S.'s input, the other 11 countries went forward with negotiations and eliminated parts on investment, government procurement and intellectual property that were key demands for the U.S.

Rejoining the pact will not be easy. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters recently that "If the United States, it turns out, do genuinely wish to rejoin, that triggers a whole new process," Chance and Kajimoto report. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said it would be "great" to have the U.S. back in the TPP, but said they're "not counting on it."

Steel tariffs increase equipment prices for U.S. farmers

U.S. farmers are starting to see negative consequences from President Trump's new tariffs on Chinese-made steel and aluminum. The price of American-made steel has increased since the tariffs were announced and remains volatile, bumping up costs for farming equipment such as tractors and grain silos.

"The impact of rising steel prices on agriculture illustrates the unintended and unpredictable consequences of aggressive protectionism in a global economy," Tom Polansek and P.J. Huffstutter report for Reuters. "And the blow comes as farmers fear a more direct hit from retaliatory tariffs threatened by China on crops such as sorghum and soybeans, the most valuable U.S. agricultural export."

U.S. farmers are already working on thin to nonexistent profit margins, Reuters notes. The average farm income is less than half what it was before 2013 because of years of bumper corn and soybean crops that depressed prices. Other countries like Brazil, Argentina and Russia have increased grain exports in recent years, which means more competition and less money for U.S. farmers exporting their crops. Renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement could affect sales further.

One Illinois farmer, a Trump voter named Allen Entwistle, said he decided to put off construction of an $800,000 grain storage system after manufacturer AGCO Corp. raised the price by 15 percent; he said he will have to instead store corn in bags on the ground instead. "President Trump keeps telling us he’s going to get a better deal," Entwistle told Reuters. "When are we gonna make it better?"

USDA opioid roundtable makes a stop in Utah; one concern is lack of detoxification centers, reliance on jails

A U.S. Department of Agriculture official met with state and local leaders at the Utah state Capitol this week to hear their input on the opioid epidemic. Wednesday's stop was the second of five visits Assistant Secretary for Rural Development Anne Hazlett is making to better understand local concerns about the crisis. The first session was in Pennsylvania, and the remaining three will be in Kentucky, Oklahoma and Maine this summer.

USDA has good reason to listen to rural concerns about the epidemic: "Federal health officials say drug overdose death rates continue to rise in less-populated regions of the country, and a recent national poll found that 3 in 4 farmers and other agricultural workers have been directly affected by opioid abuse," Luke Ramseth reports for The Salt Lake Tribune. Hazlett has said the opioid crisis is "a matter of rural prosperity."

Many who spoke with Hazlett had ties to Carbon County, a rural area with the state's highest opioid overdose death rate. Debbie Marvidikis of the Southeast Utah Health Department told Hazlett the county needs more resources to follow up with addicts. "Medical first-responders, she said, face a vicious cycle of saving an addict from an overdose one Friday night — then having to make the exact same life-saving maneuvers with the opioids-overdose drug naloxone a week later," Ramseth reports. Because Carbon County doesn't have a detoxification center, the only way for area residents to get clean under supervision is to get arrested and detox while in jail.

Jail can be an effective venue for treatment, says Cam Williams, a medical provider at the Carbon County Jail. A jail program provides inmates with the addiction-management drug Naltrexone, and officials follow up with recently released inmates to make sure they're still taking the drug. "Williams said he believes there are 60 to 70 people now sober and finding jobs because of Naltrexone treatment and subsequent follow-up," Ramseth reports.

Tiffany Van Sickle, a prevention coordinator for Four Corners Behavioral Health, which operates treatment clinics, said it can be difficult to convince rural residents to try new strategies or devote more resources to fixing the problem; even when a new treatment is science-based, Van Sickle said "there's a lot of 'We've tried that 20 years ago, and it didn't work, so we're not going to try it again,'" Ramseth reports.

Patrick Rezac said his needle-exchange and recovery-support group program One Voice Recovery has had a hard time helping in Carbon County because some residents live too far away to consistently come to meetings or have to navigate unpaved roads. He recommended more treatment and detox centers in rural Utah, and said rural residents who seek help often have to wait for days. The wait "can mean the difference between getting clean and dying of an overdose," Rezac said.

Lee Peacock, president of the Utah Petroleum Association, said oil and gas companies are having difficulty hiring rural residents because so many are addicted to opioids.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, who created a task force on opioids in conjunction with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency last year, said Wednesday that many Utahns' independence and strong religious sentiment can sometimes prevent them from asking for help with addiction. He urged addicts to stop worrying about judgment from others and get the help they need.

At Wednesday's meeting, Hazlet "urged state and local officials to apply for grants the federal agency is offering. These include cash for telemedicine and distance learning to be used to address opioid issues, and other funds for new community facilities, such as mobile treatment clinics," Ramseth reports.

Some rural patients could lack access to dialysis after non-emergency ambulance reimbursement cut takes effect

Rural dialysis patients could lose access to treatment when a 13 percent cut in Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement for non-emergency ambulance transportation goes into effect Oct. 1.

The cut was included in the continuing resolution Congress passed in February. It comes on top of a 10 percent cut mandated in 2013, which means the reimbursement for such ambulance rides will be 23 percent less than five years earlier.

Virgil Dickson reports for Modern Healthcare, "Transportation for dialysis patients can mean the difference between life and death for some, as many aren't able to drive or don't own cars, according to Alice Andors, a spokeswoman for the American Kidney Fund, a charity dedicated to helping kidney patients pay their insurance costs."

Health-care providers may no longer be able to afford to send ambulances on dialysis runs. John Watts, CEO of South Carolina ambulance provider MedTrust, said his company can't afford to provide dialysis transportation, and said rural patients with no other options will likely suffer. Joyce Noles with West Tennessee Healthcare told Dickson that the company may start using stretcher vans for dialysis rides, which would mean that patients who experience a medical problem during transit would not have a medical professional present to help.

As we reported yesterday, Type 2 diabetes is a major health concern in rural America, and rural residents are already at an increased risk of dying from diabetes-related hospitalizations.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Decline in local reporters hurts journalism, democracy and communities, say founders of nonprofit reporting project

The United States has a lot fewer local news reporters these days, and it's hurting not only the news media, but Americans and democracy, Steven Waldman and Charles Sennott write in an opinion piece for The Washington Post. The two co-founded Report for America, a nonprofit project announced last September aimed at putting 1,000 new reporters at local papers in the next five years.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. newspapers employed 183,000 people in 2016, 60 percent fewer than 456,300 recorded in 1990. About 100 newspapers have shuttered, and many more have reduced their coverage areas or forced fewer journalists to try to cover the same area. Some newspapers have attempted to compensate for the thinning coverage with snazzier websites and better tech, write Waldman and Sennott, but "the key solution is not technology. It’s having more reporters — a lot of them — on the scene."

Fewer reporters means citizens don't have the information they need to make decisions as citizens and hold institutions accountable. They have less information about local candidates, and less reporting has been correlated with lower voter turnout. News outlets have less horsepower to challenge elected officials, and increasingly print stories based on press releases — giving politicians more power to spin the narrative, Waldman and Sennott say.

Here's an angle you may not have considered: Fewer local reporters makes people less likely to trust journalists, Waldman and Sennott write: "Residents would be less likely to view 'the media' as arrogant, ideologically driven miscreants if they see real reporters at school board meetings until midnight, covering nitty-gritty stories of importance to them."

National news outlets can be biased and lack the nuance and background of local reporting, they say: "In 2014, almost 1 out of 5 U.S. reporters worked in New York, Washington or Los Angeles, compared with 1 in 8 in 2004," Waldman and Sennott write. "Isn’t it likely that this contributed to the media missing the two biggest stories of the past few years – the rise of the opioid epidemic in middle America and the political strength of Donald Trump?"

Waldman and Sennott argue that a nonprofit model that focuses on public service could help local reporting, but that will require nonprofits and philanthropy will need to play a bigger role in journalism: "Whether it’s Report for America or some other model, a sea change is required: Local donors — and the community as a whole — need to view journalism as essential as local libraries, museums and hospitals. It’s not complicated. We need more reporters — not for the sake of journalism but for the health of America’s democracy."

Americans' desire for cheap meat drives a cycle of low wages, illegal immigration, raids, missing parents and so on

Federal officials arrested 97 immigrants in rural Bean Station, Tenn., last week in a meatpacking plant raid that the National Immigration Law Center said was the largest in a decade. But it's unlikely to be the last such raid, because of Americans' desire for inexpensive meat and the government's decision to punish undocumented immigrants instead of their employers, Hampton University journalism professor Lynn Waltz writes for The Washington Post.

Labor unions once ensured meatpacking workers were well-paid and protected from injury, but in the 1960s meatpackers moved to right-to-work states, erasing those protections. After the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexican markets were flooded with cheap, government-subsidized corn from the U.S.; many Mexican corn farmers lost their livelihood and immigrated to the U.S. illegally. Meatpacking plants welcomed them because undocumented immigrants were willing to do more dangerous work for less money than Americans.

As president in 2001-09, Republican George W. Bush vowed to crack down on illegal immigration by catching and deporting workers instead of punishing the businesses that hire them, a strategy also favored by President Trump. But surprise raids provide little deterrent for illegal immigration and hurt communities in a cycle that keeps repeating, Waltz argues: "Americans want cheap meat. That requires low wages. So plants hire undocumented workers. ICE raids the plants. Latino families cry. Schoolteachers are put in the untenable position of either supervising children after hours or sending them home, knowing their parents are missing. People are appalled by the human cost, momentarily. Then employers and workers become more sophisticated at evading detection and the cycle begins again."

Head Start helps rural families with more than child care

The federally-funded Head Start program helps low-income families across the U.S. with child care, but in rural areas it can be a critical resource for much more. "In 2015-16, 68 percent of rural families with a child enrolled in Head Start received a family service, including job training, parenting education, and substance abuse prevention through the program," Jackie Mader reports for The Hechinger Report, which says it "covers inequality and innovation in education."

A new report by the Center for American Progress found that, in some states, Head Start accounts for one-third of all child-care centers. In rural areas, it is sometimes the only available source of child care for families, enabling parents to go back to work or work more hours. That means the program has a big impact on rural economies, too.

The program also helps children's health. "Mississippi’s Head Start centers provide each child with five screenings when they enroll, including a vision, hearing and dental screening, to ensure no health issues are standing in the way of learning. Many children in the state’s rural or low-income communities would not get these screenings if not for Head Start," Mader reports. "The centers also work with each parent to create a plan for short and long-term goals and connects families with resources that can help parents meet their goals and services that can help children with any developmental delays that arise."

Parts of U.S. face extreme drought, which increases wildfire risk and drives up costs of farming and ranching

A wildfire in Glazier, Tex., near the heart of the biggest exceptional drought area. (Canadian Record/Laurie E. Brown)
Several areas of the U.S. are facing extreme or exceptional drought conditions this year, threatening crops and increasing chances of another destructive wildfire season.

"According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s recently released U.S. Seasonal Drought Outlook, persisting and additional drought is forecast through June in California, Nevada, Utah and Colorado. The impact is forecast to be especially strong in Arizona and New Mexico, both of which are already almost entirely in the grip of drought," Spencer Chase reports for Agri-Pulse. Michael Crimmins of the University of Arizona's Department of Soil, Water, and Environmental Science told Chase that the weather conditions are drying up rangelands and hurting livestock operations.

The Colorado River watershed overall is experiencing one of its driest winters ever, which will hurt downstream farms that depend on irrigation. Paul Gutierrez, a livestock economics expert at New Mexico State University, said farmers will need to use more well water for irrigation if less surface water is available. "It definitely makes the cost of farming go up significantly," Gutierrez told Chase. "The quality isn’t as good either and it impacts the yields of some of your specialty crops."

In the Texas Panhandle, where drought conditions have reached the highest level, firefighters have already battled two wind-propelled wildfires in the past weeks, and more could follow soon, Laurie Ezzell Brown reports for The Canadian Record, in a town named for the Canadian River.

Some parts of the east are suffering too. On April 5, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue declared four Virginia counties (Shenandoah, Frederick, Warren, Page, and Rockingham) as well as Hardy County in West Virginia primary counties for a drought disaster. Lack of rain last fall hurt pasture growth, small grains and hay fields, and during the winter some farmers discovered their wells were going dry, Matthew Sasser reports for The Breeze, James Madison University's student-run newspaper. That's the sort of lingering effect that doesn't show up on the U.S. Drought Monitor map:
United States Drought Monitor map as of April 5, 2018; click on the image for a larger version.

Could trade war hurt West Virginia's energy sector?

The escalating trade war with China could hurt not only agriculture, but West Virginia's energy sector. "That’s because the China Energy Investment Corp. signed a non-binding $84 billion 20-year deal with the state to help it develop its petrochemical sector that wants access to abundant and cheap shale gas. It is especially needed in a place that has seen its coal industry lose ground to more competitive and cleaner electric generation fuels," Ken Silverstein writes for Forbes.

Steve Roberts, chair of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, told Silverstein that the state is on friendly terms with the Chinese, and that "We have to do this in an international environment in which nations huff and puff. We have things that are very valuable to them and we have to go through a process to see if we can do a deal with each other. The relationship is actually improving and that is a good sign." 

China has its own shale gas reserves--it's the third-largest producer after the U.S. and Canada--and is shifting increasingly to natural gas from coal, but the reserves are in difficult to access areas, so it must import shale gas to meet demand

West Virginia sits on a huge shale gas reservoir, but Silverstein fears the Chinese could choose to delay implementing its deal to put pressure on Trump, or choose other sites to develop such as the Marcellus or Utica Shale basins. China could also buy more liquefied natural gas from Canada, but a larger export terminal would need to be built.

Roberts told Silverstein that West Virginia "is trying to make the necessary investments in infrastructure and education that can keep China’s full attention."

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Trump backs off biofuel reforms after failing to broker a deal

"The Trump administration will delay any moves to reform the nation's biofuel policy," reports Jarrett Renshaw of Reuters, adding that one of his three sources source said the move was meant to ease concerns of farmers worried about a potential trade war: "There's just a lot going on right now, so they decided to take a pause and revisit in three months."

President Trump "failed to broker a deal between Big Oil and Big Corn during meetings over months about the future of the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard, a law broadly supported in the U.S. heartland that requires oil refiners to add biofuels like ethanol to the nation's gasoline," Renshaw notes. "The biofuel reforms threaten to weaken demand for corn-based ethanol, compounding concerns from farmers about a loss of grain exports to China due to the trade dispute. Rural voters are an important constituency for . . . Trump, helping propel his election victory in 2016, but his support with this group has slipped."

The prospect of a deal fell apart Monday, after Trump hosted "the latest meeting on potential RFS reforms," Renshaw reports. "Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue presented the president with a list of potential options aimed at helping refiners without undercutting ethanol demand. Those options included capping the price of blending credits, called RINs, that refiners must earn or purchase under the RFS while expanding the sales of high-ethanol gasoline blends that are currently banned during summer. The price cap was a non-starter for most of the biofuel industry, a group that includes corn farmers from deep-red states like Iowa and Nebraska, who said it would erode investment in biofuels infrastructure."

A cap would have helped "merchant refiners like Valero and PBF Energy," which don't have blending facilities and must purchase RINs," Renshaw notes. "Trump was drawn into the divisive debate over the RFS by the potential shutdown of oil refiner Philadelphia Energy Solutions. PES, which employs a thousand people in politically important Pennsylvania, has blamed its financial woes on the cost of compliance credits under the RFS."

Diabetes hospital deaths more likely for rural residents

Type 2 diabetes is a big cause for concern in rural America, especially in the South and Midwest, according to a study by the Southwest Rural Health Research Center at Texas A&M University. The study, funded by the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, found that despite innovations and increasingly available self-management programs, big differences between rural and urban death rates remain: rural residents are 17 percent more likely to die from a diabetes-related hospitalization than people who live in large metropolitan areas.

More than 30 million adults, about 10 percent of the population, have diabetes; 97 percent of them have Type 2 diabetes. It's the seventh most common cause of death in the country, with nearly 80,000 related deaths in 2015. This study focused on diabetes deaths in hospitals in 2009-2014. Of the 38,075 diabetes-related deaths in hospitals, 20.3 percent occurred in rural areas. Death rates were highest in rural areas of the South and Midwest (21.0 and 15.1 per 100,000 population, respectively) compared to the Northeast and West (11.1 and 10.8, respectively). Nationally, a rural-urban difference of 3.4 percentage points amounted to a 17 percent difference in rural and urban rates.

The researchers speculated that the difference in death rates could be attributed to factors such as access to primary and endocrinology care, health literacy, trust in the health-care system, access to good nutrition, and lifestyle choices. They recommend that more research be done to explore the role of these factors in mortality discrepancies. 

Ga. protects sea-turtle nests with full-time wild-hog hunter

Corey Elrod (Fish and Wildlife Service photo)
In an effort to save endangered loggerhead sea turtles, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources has taken an unusually aggressive approach: a full-time hunters of wild hogs. Corey Elrod, 29, whose official title is "hog control technician," lives alone on Ossabaw Island, a 40-square-mile island of wild marshes, forests, swamps and beaches just below Savannah. Feral hogs eat newly laid turtle eggs from May to September, so Elrod's job is to pick off the swine with his AR-15.

"I never would’ve imagined that this would be my job. But I sure enjoy doing it," Elrod told Dan Chapman of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who did a story on it. Chapman reports that Elrod has killed an average of 1,117 hogs per year since he was first hired as an hourly hog hunter in May 2010. The year after that, he was hired full time. He uses dried corn bait, thermal-imaging scopes, two dogs, and traps.

Chapman says Elrod is the only full-time government-paid wild board hunter in the South, but most other Southern states have programs dedicated to eliminating most of the hogs. Some states have managed hog hunts, and in Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma hunters can shoot hogs from helicopters. Texas has a particularly bad hog problem, and has legalized not only hunting from helicopters but hot air balloons (which are quieter than helicopters), and pays hunters for hog carcasses. South Carolina has hired three hog hunters like Elrod, but they're contract workers rather than full-time.

Why all the fuss? Hogs are an invasive species thought to have been introduced by Christopher Columbus and other Spanish explorers. They breed rapidly and "compete with native animals — deer, squirrels, ducks and turkeys — for food and devour ground-nesting birds, reptiles and amphibians," Chapman reports. "Their incessant rooting destroys vegetation, creates wallows and furthers erosion." All told, the hogs roam 39 states and cause $1.5 billion in damage to crops and infrastructure each year. The boars also spread diseases like brucellosis and pseudorabies.

Elrod's work has yielded good results. Georgia DNR wildlife biologist Kara Day told Chapman that seven years ago, hogs were everywhere on the island. "In the five years before Georgia hired a marksman (Elrod was the third sniper), 31 percent of loggerhead turtle nests were partially destroyed by hogs and other predators. In the last five years, only one of every 10 nests has been partially destroyed," Chapman reports.

Reporter who broke Sandusky abuse story consulted on film

Sara Ganim
Sara Ganim, "who broke the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal wide open at the tender age of 23" as a reporter for The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, played a key role "Paterno," HBO's new movie on the 2011 Penn State scandal, John Luciew reports for the newspaper. 

The film, which premiered Saturday, is half about head football coach Joe Paterno's downfall, and half about Ganim's dogged pursuit of the story about the assistant coach, for which she and others at the paper won a 2012 Pulitzer Prize. Ganim, now a CNN correspondent in Washington, D.C., was a paid consultant for the movie. She told Luciew she had turned down similar projects, but believes this film puts the appropriate focus on the victims. 

Ganim said she hopes it will inspire other journalists: "This came at a great time for community journalists . . . As a profession, they are not appreciated. There are major cuts and financial problems. I felt this was a win for people who are doing good work. I can only hope it will inspire others who are grinding it out every day for a very little paycheck and very little reward."

National Safety Council offers free course about the dangers of distracted diving, online all next week

April is Distracted Driving Awareness Month, so the National Safety Council is offering a free, 45-minute online course about the dangers of distracted driving, available Sunday, April 15 through Saturday, April 21.

Distracted driving caused 3,477 deaths nationwide in 2015. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that people in rural areas are less likely to wear a seat belt and more likely to die in car crashes. For more information or to register for the online course, click here.

Even without factoring in distraction, rural drivers face additional dangers on the road: because inebriated people can't call a taxi or Uber in a rural area, they may be tempted to drive home. Fewer traffic lights means more room to speed. Rural drivers have older cars on average that may be prone to mechanical failure. Deer are more likely to jump out in front of drivers in rural areas. And when a crash happens, it can take much longer for an ambulance to arrive and take the victim to the hospital. Common sense dictates that combining any of those factors with distracted driving makes for even greater danger.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Transportation Dept. says competitive grants were 64% rural in last round; last one under Obama was only 20% rural

Non-metropolitan areas got 64 percent of the money in the last round of a competitive grant program that funds transportation projects, the Department of Transportation said in press release. "That’s a reversal from the Obama administration, which in its last year in office provided just $102 million in grants to rural areas. That was just above the 20 percent minimum required by the law that established the program" in 2009, as part of President Obama's economic-recovery bill, Andrew Taylor reports for The Associated Press.

Nebraska Department of Transportation map
Some of the rural designations on the department's detailed list of Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants are debatable; for example, a $25 million grant for a southern beltway of Lincoln, Neb., is classified as rural, as is a $25 million boost for a connector road in suburban Loudoun County, Virginia, that opponents call "an outer Beltway" of Washington, D.C. The list says it will provide "safer, more efficient and reliable access to the western, more rural portion of Loudoun County."

Nevertheless, the program "is focused more on projects in rural areas that turned out for Donald Trump in the 2016 election," Taylor writes. "That means more road and rail projects in GOP strongholds such as Idaho, North Dakota, and Oklahoma, and fewer 'greenways,' 'complete streets' and bike lanes."

While the list said 64 percent of the money was going rural, its definition of rural was broad: anything outside an "urbanized area" as defined by the Census Bureau. That is even broader than the typically broad definition of rural, "non-metropolitan." For example, one of the "rural" grants was $8 million to redo several blocks of a major street in the state capital of Kentucky, Frankfort, population 25,000. A city must have 50,000 people to be the core city of a metropolitan area.

The release said a record $39 million was going to projects on Native American reservations; more than half of that is going to rebuild a road in the Lower Brule Sioux reservation in South Dakota.

Other than those above, the largest grants listed as rural were $25 million for improvements of a major truck route in Nogales, Ariz.; $17 million for the riverfront in Burlington, Iowa; $16.6 million to finish rebuilding US 212, the Beartooth Highway, in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming; $16 million to repair the route for Amtrak's Southwest Chief in Kansas and Colorado; $15 million for climbing lanes on Interstate 15 in Utah; and  $13.1 million for streets in Immokalee, Fla.

The largest urban projects were $20 million for a port in Baltimore; $20 million for a freeway in Rhode Island; $19.9 million for a road-railroad grade separation in Raleigh; $18.3 million for a brudge in North Bergen, N.J.; $$13.25 million for a bridge in a suburb of Charleston, S.C.; $13 million for a port in St. Bernard, La.; $12.7 million for the port of Mobile; and $12.6 million for a new bus route in Atlanta.

In 2013 about two-thirds of TIGER funding went to Democratic districts, which tend to be urban. Trump twice sought to eliminate the program, but Congress tripled its budget to $1.5 billion in last month's spending bill, which he signed.

"Of the 41 grants announced by the Trump administration, 25 totaling $271 million were awarded to projects in congressional districts represented by Republicans," Taylor reports. "Districts represented by Democrats garnered 14 projects and $190 million. Two grants worth $25 million went to projects spanning district lines." Not counting those two, GOP districts got 64 percent of the grants and 59 percent of the money; Republicans hold 55 percent of the seats in the House.

Bureau of Land Management to move out West from D.C.

Grand Junction, Colo., is the suggested location. (MapQuest image)
The Bureau of Land Management is going to move its office from Washington, D.C., to somewhere in the Western U.S., Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said last week, speaking by hookup from the White House to attendees at a Western-issues forum at Colorado Mesa University, Gary Harmon reports for the Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction, Colo. Most of the 245 million acres the bureau manages is in 12 Western states, Harmon notes.

Rep. Scott Tipton and Sen. Cory Gardner, both Colorado Republicans, were at the forum and hailed the announcement. Both have offered bills to move the BLM headquarters to a Western state. Though the new headquarters site hasn't been selected, the two have asked that it move to Grand Junction.

The agency has allocated money in its 2019 budget to begin the process of selecting a new location and moving. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is also looking for ways to reorganize other agencies with land-management responsibilities, such as the Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Reclamation, Bernhardt said.

Justice Dept. will allow Bayer to buy Monsanto, WSJ reports

"The Justice Department has decided to allow Bayer AG’s megadeal to acquire Monsanto Co., valued at more than $60 billion, after the companies pledged to sell off additional assets to secure government antitrust approval, according to people familiar with the matter," Brent Kendall and Jacob Bunge of The Wall Street Journal report. "The companies still need some additional approvals, including from regulatory bodies in Canada and Mexico."

"An agreement in principle between the companies and the department, brokered in recent days, marked a breakthrough in the U.S. merger review process, which had remained in limbo because of Justice Department concerns about the deal," the Journal reports. "Bayer Chief Executive Werner Baumann and Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant recently met with Justice officials in Washington to help secure an agreement, people familiar with the matter said."

Bayer, a pharmaceutical-chemical firm based in Germany, is a major manufacturer of pesticides. Monsanto, based in St. Louis, "is a market leader on seeds and crop genes," the Journal notes. "The deal, which was announced in September 2016, would make Bayer the world’s biggest supplier of pesticides and seeds for farmers. The European Union last month conditionally approved the deal after Bayer agreed to sell off more than $7 billion worth of assets to rival BASF SE . The sales include Bayer’s soybean and cottonseed businesses, as well as Bayer’s glufosinate weedkiller, which competes against Monsanto’s Roundup."

Google building data centers on old TVA power plant sites

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, U.S. Rep Mo Brooks and Google and local officials ceremonially break ground on the data center.
(Chattanooga Times Free Press photo by Dave Flessner)
In an apt symbol of rural economic revitalization, Google broke ground on a data center in the northeast Alabama town of Bridgeport (pop. 2,400) on the former site of a Tennessee Valley Authority coal-fired power plant. Google also announced a $100,000 grant to the Jackson County School District for local science, technology, engineering and math programs. "The Google complex, which is expected to employ from 75 to 100 people there once in full operation, was heralded by Alabama officials Monday for turning an economic hardship to a potential economic windfall," Dave Flessner reports for the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The 360-acre data center, only the eighth in the U.S. and the 14th worldwide, will be built on the 2,000-acre site of the Widows Creek Fossil Plant. The plant, which closed in 2015 after 63 years, brought hundreds of jobs both directly and indirectly in its heyday. Google may buy more of the Widows Creek land, which TVA is still cleaning up.

The Bridgeport facility and a similar one on a former TVA site in Clarksville, Tenn., northwest of Nashville, are aimed at helping meet growing demand in the Southeast for internet services such as cloud-based programs, browser searches and video streaming. Widows Creek, on the Tennessee River, was an attractive location because of its plentiful land, water, local labor, and the availability of green energy: Google wants to power the plant with only clean energy, and the TVA promised to provide it with electricity generated with renewable solar, wind or hydroelectric energy.

Bridgeport Mayor David Hughes told Flessner that "Having Google in our area will usher in a new era for our community . . . Ultimately, Google will help us recruit other high-tech companies to our area."

Corn Belt GOP senators ask Trump to halt biofuel waivers

On Monday five Republican senators from Corn Belt states -- Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst of Iowa, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, John Thune of South Dakota and Roy Blunt of Missouri -- wrote a letter asking President Trump "to temporarily halt the use of biofuels policy waivers for small oil refineries, after reports the Environmental Protection Agency had issued a recent wave of such exemptions," Jarrett Renshaw and Chris Prentice report for Reuters.

The waivers free small, financially struggling refineries from having to mix ethanol into their fuel as mandated by the Renewable Fuel Standard; in the past the EPA has issued between six and eight waivers per year, but last week an agency source revealed that 25 waivers were issued in 2017. Some were given to refineries owned by Andeavor, one of the country's largest refiners.

Critics, including the senators above, allege that the increased exemptions are an attempt to gut a program the administration dislikes without formally eliminating it. The call-out continues Trump's long-standing headache in attempting to appease Republicans from petroleum-producing states and corn-producing states who are at cross-purposes over the RFS.

Trump was scheduled to meet with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on the issue yesterday.

Monday, April 09, 2018

GOP politicos try to calm farmers' trade war fears

"Many of the farmers who helped propel Donald Trump to the presidency fear becoming pawns in his escalating trade war with China, which threatens markets for soybeans, corn and other lifeblood crops in the Upper Midwest," David Weigel reports for The Washington Post. That's putting Republican politicians in the difficult position of needing to listen to constituents' concerns while supporting their president and chief of their party. And though "many of the Trump administration’s economic documents have been laughably sketchy and amateurish," Fareed Zakaria of CNN writes in an opinion piece for The Washington Post, Trump is correct on a fundamental point: China is a "trade cheat" and is violating World Trade Organization principles.

So Trump and GOP politicos have a tricky line to walk in an election year. "While the battle for control of the House will be waged in large part in the suburbs, rural districts in Southern Illinois, Iowa, Arkansas and Missouri could prove important," Sheryl Stolberg and Ana Swanson report for The New York Times. "And control of the Senate could come down to Republican efforts to unseat Democrats in North Dakota, Indiana, Missouri and Montana — all states staring down the barrels of a trade war’s guns."

In a statement last week, Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation (arguably the nation's most influential farmers' group), released a statement pleading with President Trump to end the trade war, William Watts reports for MarketWatch. In a visit last week to Kentucky, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue sought to calm farmers' fears, promising that American farmers won't be "the tip of the spear" in the escalating trade war, Greg Kocher reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Community engagement project enlists 42 Ohio newsrooms

At a Your Voice Ohio event (Jefferson Center photo)
Some 42 newsrooms across Ohio are participating in a community engagement project called Your Voice Ohio that was conceived during the 2016 election season. The Jefferson Center, a nonprofit that tries to help citizens become more informed and participate in democracy, held three events with eight news-media partners. "Reporters met with citizens in northeast Ohio to find out the ways in which people wanted the election and the candidates to be covered and how they expected news organizations to provide them with information," Mădălina Ciobanu reports for

After the election, Jefferson Center Program Director Andrew Rockaway told Ciobanu that Ohio news organizations saw the events and realized they needed to listen more to voters and find out why they felt the way they felt.

Funded by the Democracy Fund and the Knight Foundation, Your Voice Ohio aims to do exactly that, with partners in urban and rural areas. The first and only topic so far is the opioid epidemic, since newsrooms and readers are frustrated with the glut of overdose stories. "We wanted to shift that narrative a little bit to think about what information people really need, and what are some solutions or ideas that can shift this coverage so it's not just the negative impact, but also what we can actually do about it," Rockaway told Ciobanu. (In the coming months, the project will expand to another subject: the future of Ohio's economy.)

The project has held eight community conversations, each lasting about two hours and attracting 100 to 120 people. Participants break into groups of five or six, with a reporter at each table, and share what the opioid epidemic looks like in their community, what they see as the cause of the epidemic in their community, and what steps they could take to fight it.

Project coordinators research topics that come from those discussions, and plan to use platforms such as Hearken and GroundSource soon to reach out to people who are less likely to attend events but still have something to say. "The aim is to find out what best practices and solutions are being employed in other communities around the world and collect them into databases that can be used to develop a solutions-focused approach to reporting on the opioid crisis," Rockaway said.

HUD shuts dilapidated public housing sites in rural Southern Illinois, but residents face obstacles finding new homes

Terri Childs and her daughter near their former apartment
in Cairo, Illinois. (ProPublica photo by William Widmer)
After years of ignoring horrible living conditions in public housing complexes in small towns on the Mississippi River at the southern tip of Illinois, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development addressed the problem last spring -- but its solution may be just as much a hardship to former housing residences. 

For years, people who lived in public housing in Cairo and nearby Thebes "were stuck living in aging and neglected buildings with inoperable heat, leaky ceilings, broken windows, mold, mice, roaches, and frequently clogged toilets and sinks," Molly Parker reports for The Southern Illinoisan, in partnership with ProPublica, which recently started an Illinois operation. Parker was selected last year for the ProPublica Local Reporting Network to write about issues related to low-income and federally subsidized housing. 

Federal authorities failed to fix the problems in Cairo for years, in spite of financial reviews and inspections that should have prompted action. In 2017, HUD announced it would close two complexes each in Cairo and Thebes and help the nearly 500 residents, half of whom were children, find new homes. Residents were offered spots in other public housing units or vouchers to subsidize rent on a non-HUD unit, but there aren't enough affordable rental units in the two towns to house everyone. That means some families must move to other towns, where landlords may not want to rent to families with federal Section 8 vouchers. And some residents who were able to find a new home face increased rent and utility costs. Overall, the shuffle has torn apart residents' communities and their social networks and support systems, Parker reports.

David Omotoso Stovall, a professor of educational policy studies and African-American studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago, told Parker: "The chances of people ending up in better situations are not great." UPDATE, April 10: HUD says it doesn't have the money to fix up the complexes, but the two senators from Illinois says the decision to close them violates federal law, Parker reports.

Rural California weekly owner Newt Wallace, dubbed 'World's Oldest Paperboy' at 94, dies at 98 in Winters

Newt Wallace (Sacramento Bee photo by Emily Zentner)
Newt Wallace, recognized as the world's oldest paperboy by Ripley's Believe It or Not, died April 1 at 98. He bought the Winters Express in Northern California in 1947 and ran a hands-on operation, reporting stories, writing columns, setting type, selling ads and delivering the paper with his wife and childrens' help. The Express, serving a town of 7,000 in Yolo County, enjoyed a circulation of 2,000. After he was done delivering the papers, he liked to walk to the Buckhorn Steakhouse and trade three newspapers for a beer.

"Charley Wallace succeeded his father as Express publisher in 1983. Newt Wallace remained the paper’s 'publisher emeritus' and worked full-time until officially retiring in 2015, but he never really stopped," Hudson Sangree reports for the Sacramento Bee. "Months shy of his 99th birthday, Wallace still arrived at the office for a few hours daily to organize advertising inserts and put together the paper’s history page."

Wallace went to high school in Muskogee, Okla, and graduated from Iowa State University. Heart problems kept him out of the military in World War II, but he helped build the Alaska Highway, worked in a shipyard in Long Beach, and worked as a reporter at a local daily. He decided he wanted to buy a weekly and heard the Express was for sale. He had to find Winters on a map, he told the Bee in a 2008 interview, since he had no idea where it was. "Once he saw Winters, a little farm town nestled against the Vaca Mountains, he fell in love. It reminded him of small towns in Iowa," Sangree reports. "Wallace plunked down $8,500 for the paper, which began publishing in 1884 and had 700 subscribers in the late 1940s."

Winters is a small town, but Wallace had some red-letter days. While recovering from a herniated disk in August 1953, he covered two big stories in one day: after covering the nearby groundbreaking on the Monticello Dam, he learned about a wood-mill fire and drove out to cover it. He made it back to the office at 4 a.m. and was able to print the paper by 9 a.m. -- then deliver it, Sangree reports.

In 1962, as the vice president of the California Newspaper Publishers Association, he was invited by John F. Kennedy's press secretary to represent the state's weekly papers at a White House lunch. When he told Kennedy "I'm glad you have this job instead of me," Kennedy told Wallace, "This is the first I knew you were a candidate." In 1967 the U.S. Information Agency produced a documentary about the Express as a representation of small-town weeklies in the U.S.

Wallace was CNPA president in 1964. His generation of publishers "really viewed themselves personally as a utility," CNPA Executive Director Tom Newton told Sangree, who paraphrases him: "They provided an essential service to their towns, like water or electricity, while also being principal citizens, he said."

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Trump outperformed Clinton, Romney in areas with the fewest daily newspaper subscribers, which tend to be rural

A new analysis shows that President Trump pulled far more votes in areas with the fewest daily newspaper subscribers, which shows "a clear correlation between low subscription rates and Trump’s success in the 2016 election, both against Hillary Clinton and when compared to Romney in 2012," Shawn Musgrave and Matthew Nussbaum report for Politico. Controlled for other factors that likely influenced voter choices, the findings "put Trump’s escalating attacks on the media in a new context."

Daily newspaper subscriptions tend to be lower in rural areas, partly because many dailies have shrunk their circulation areas in the last 15 years. Rural areas without dailies have weeklies, but those don't do much national election coverage. In such areas, Trump was able to reach voters with social media and local TV and radio stations owned by conservative media conglomerate Sinclair Broadcasting, which often forced its stations to run pro-Trump commentary.

Trump frequently encourages voters to listen to him for the truth instead of the news media. He wrote on Twitter in December, "I use Social Media not because I like to, but because it is the only way to fight a VERY dishonest and unfair 'press'."

"What he's doing is, he is becoming the source, and they believe him," Rick Tyler, communications director for Texan Republican Sen. Ted Cruz's presidential run, told Politico. "It doesn’t matter if the people they don’t believe say he’s not telling the truth. Trump’s breakthrough is that he’s unencumbered by the truth."