Friday, December 07, 2018

Quick hits: Loneliness, boredom blamed for addiction; will big new philanthropies help rural America?

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at

Paper dolls, magic portals and Twitter: how this rural Colorado teacher connects her kindergarten students to the world: Read more here.

Author says opioid addiction caused by loneliness and boredom: Read more here.

Will these big new philanthropy foundations pay attention to rural America? Read more here.

Rural advocates are concerned about new liver -transplant rules. Read more here.

Trump administration unveils plan to open millions of acres of sage grouse habitat to oil and natural-gas drilling

Greater sage grouse permanent habitat
(map from
"The Trump administration on Thursday detailed its plan to open nine million acres to drilling and mining by stripping away protections for the sage grouse, an imperiled ground-nesting bird that oil companies have long considered an obstacle to some of the richest deposits in the American West," Coral Davenport reports for The New York Times.

The plan would open up millions of acres to drilling, more than any other step the administration has taken. It would also limit the sage grouse's highly protected habitat to 1.8 million acres and eliminate the requirement that drillers pay into the habitat preservation fund. States could keep Obama-era protections in place, and at least two, Montana and Oregon, are expected to. The administration's plan is the latest in a string of moves to promote drilling on public land. Predictably, environmentalists criticized the move while the energy industry praised it.

Sage grouse in mating ritual (AP photo by David Zalubowsi)
Bobby McEnaney, an expert in Western land use at lobbying group the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Davenport that "With this single action, the administration is saying: This landscape doesn't matter. This species doesn't matter. Oil and gas matter."

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, an association of independent oil and gas companies, told Davenport in an email that the plan would conserve the sage grouse's habitat while "without needlessly stifling economic activity."

Whatever the fallout of the plan, once drillers start leasing the land and sinking rigs into the ground, the move will be "practically irreversible," said Patrick Parenteau, an environmental law professor at Vermont Law School. The proposal is expected to be finalized next year, Davenport reports.

Package from six-month investigation explores lack of clean, reliable drinking water in Appalachian parts of Ky. and W.Va.

A collaboration among media outlets aims to bring attention to the lack of clean, reliable drinking water in Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia and spur public debate and change. Will Wright of the Lexington Herald-Leader, Caity Coyne of the Charleston Gazette-Mail, and Molly Born of West Virginia Public Broadcasting spent nearly six months interviewing dozens of residents, water district officials and experts before yesterday's publication of the multimedia "Stirring the Waters" package. The series was coordinated by The GroundTruth Project's Report for America initiative, a national service program funded in Appalachia by the Galloway Family Foundation.

Among the investigation's key findings:
  • Because water districts in Central Appalachia are understaffed and underfunded, they can't adequately perform routine maintenance. That leads to quality and reliability problems for customers and doesn't address long-term infrastructure problems.
  • Some districts routinely produce water with high levels of dangerous chemicals that can harm the most vulnerable customers, such as infants, pregnant women and the elderly; this violates the Safe Water Drinking Act.
  • Grants are the most sought-after source of funding for water projects, but there has been less and less of that money available in recent years. Low-interest loans are an increasingly popular source of funding, but the debt can overwhelm small water systems.
  • Some grant funding awarded to districts are so narrowly focused that they can't be used to fix water districts' most pressing problems.
  • Bill collection is the only real source of revenue for community water systems, but as the population in Central Appalachia drops, so do water systems' revenues.
  • Local politicians often pressure water boards to keep rates unchanged rather than raise rates gradually, which sometimes leads to financial catastrophe.
  • Nine community water systems in Southern West Virginia have been under boil water advisories for longer than five years. The state is aware of this, but there's no indication it's doing anything to help.
  • A clearinghouse for West Virginia infrastructure projects estimates that $17 billion is needed to correct the state's water and sewage problems and connect everyone to central systems. That number will rise the longer problems are ignored.

Despite challenges, fourth-generation UNC student carries on family tradition at rural weekly, a Pulitzer winner

This column first appeared on the University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism's Media Hub, and is republished with its permission.

By Margaret High

There’s something entrancing about watching a 1974 Goss Community Press in action. The oatmeal-colored newsprint leaps from one roller to the next, adding to its bouquet of colors on the page with each turn.

Pressmen in their blue-on-blue, ink-stained uniforms dart from unit to unit, delicately turning knobs to control speed, ink and alignment.

It takes multiple stages of imprinting before the final paper spills out of the press, perfectly stacked and proudly bearing The News Reporter’s name.

Margaret High
I’m the fourth edition pouring out of the press, the fourth generation of a newspaper family.

My great-grandfather, Leslie Thompson, was first and won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1953. His son-in-law, Jim High, now 85, was next and still has an office complete with his Underwood typewriter standing at the ready. The third is my father, Leslie High, the paper’s editor who started working at 13 years old as a photographer.

I never thought I would get swept up in the fast-moving press, but years of exposure led me to the family tradition.

When I was about a foot shorter, I would sit on the chipped, ink-stained concrete floors watching the whisking rolls before running to the pre-print room. There I would proudly stand beside 30- to- 40-year employees as we worked in silence, manually inserting colorful advertising circulars from Food Lion, CVS and Belk.

At the end of the day, my dad would walk into the back and take photographs with me in the middle, surrounded by my newspaper family and the number of inserts I had completed, scribbled with 6-year-old penmanship on a sheet of paper.

One of those photos is permanently taped in my dad’s office.

It hangs near a framed black-and-white photograph of my father as a child, holding a shovel he had used to break ground in 1966 for the new office on Columbus Street as my great-grandfather and grandfather stood next to him, watching with amusement.

The pride on my grandfather’s face in the picture is as distinct as the smell of newsprint in The News Reporter. He risked everything he owned to break ground on a new office and purchase a printing press in our small town.
My father, Les High (center), breaks ground for The News Reporter where it is located on West Columbus Street. My grandfather, Jim High, watches directly behind while surrounded by other employees. (Photo  from Margaret High)
My grandfather had seen firsthand how important good community journalism is. He knew and loved my late grandmother’s resolve to show no fear when the paper was under attack by Klansmen in the 1950s.

When Leslie Thompson decided to run reporter Willard Cole’s articles detailing Ku Klux Klan activity across Columbus County, he knew his family would be in danger. The Whiteville police chief was a Klansman. The police chief in another town in our county, Fair Bluff, was the Grand Dragon.

The KKK was one of those small-town secrets, something Whiteville’s population of 4,500 kept under wraps. These men were cowards, though, thugs who threatened harm against anyone who opposed them while hidden behind a mask and robe.

The Klan burned crosses in my great-grandfather’s front yard and they threw bricks through the window of the newspaper office. My grandmother, Carolyn Thompson, needed a police escort to school during the tense times. This was odd, because even though the Whiteville police chief was a Klansman, he was also my great-grandfather’s secret protector.

The Whiteville police chief would notify my great-grandfather of planned attacks on the paper. When robberies were discussed, my family would get extra protection for the office. If brick throwing was going to happen, the police chief gave us warnings.

Despite the threats of violence, the advertising boycotts and the subscription cancellations, my great-grandfather ran the damning stories anyway. The articles resulted in an FBI investigation and the subsequent arrest of many Klansmen.

It was the apex of exceptional journalism: the truth at all costs. The Pulitzer committee agreed.

These stories filled my childhood but I never gave any weight to them. They were simply fun tales that I thought about while waxing newspaper copy and sticking the long tiles onto the layout sheets. Or little tidbits my dad would tell me when we developed film in the dark room.

The ink slowly seeped into my veins over time.

My great-grandfather’s stubbornness has survived four generations, and as a proud descendant, I wanted to rebel. My classmates knew of my family and always told me I would be a journalist, too.

Their cajoling drove me crazy; no one tells me what to do. Besides, my family survived the Great Recession, but I knew print was crumbling. We were in dangerous waters because of Whiteville’s aging population.

Print was dying, and the legacy of my family with it.

I planned on adapting by entering a different profession: maybe global studies or psychology? A liberal arts education was supposed to decide for me.

The University of North Carolina did. It was journalism.

With chagrin, I took introduction to news writing and fell in love. I was given the opportunity to write creative stories but used the truth instead of my imagination. Turns out the ink from the printing press actually stuck.

But newspapers didn’t magically stop disappearing, and news deserts didn’t stop their consuming creep across the nation. My father knows this, and so does the School of Media and Journalism at UNC.

As I learned writing tools, three floors above me in in the journalism school sat my father and other members of The News Reporter staff: my mother, my aunt and a member from the advertising team. They took part in Knight-Lenfest conferences with UNC that took comprehensive approaches to saving journalism.

Despite a Pulitzer Prize and being a major employer in our community, The News Reporter hasn’t turned a profit in two years. It will lose money again this year. Our rural community is shrinking, life-long subscribers are dying, and young people aren’t filling the void.

But our four generations know how important a paper is for a rural community. Last year, we published an eight-part series investigating the opioid crisis in our county, which led to a better understanding and action against a plague that is killing both young and old.

This fall, as Hurricane Florence flooded the swamplands and left a town in our county irreparable, our reporters posted urgent Facebook Live reports from the only place in the county that had power and the internet – the lobby of the local hospital.

With no electricity at The News Reporter for a week, my family drove through floodwaters to print the paper at The Fayetteville Observer an hour away. When the power finally came back on the night before the next press day, the staff cranked up the press at 12:45 in the morning, continuing a proud tradition of The News Reporter never missing an issue.

The stubborn gene in my father refuses to let our paper fail. Our community has benefitted from more than 120 years of The News Reporter. Journalism is the backbone of democracy, even in out-of-the-way places like Whiteville.

The condition of the newspaper business dictates the conversations I have with my father. Every day we end up talking about strategies to diversify income, drive subscriptions and find ways to retain loyal, life-long employees.

Yet, alongside four generations of stubbornness are four generations of innovation. The fear is tinged with excitement. There’s a challenge we face in order to survive and the solution is unprecedented.

I imagine that’s how my great-grandfather felt. The fear of printing a community-altering story tinged with excitement about shaking the fabric. Money didn’t matter when a greater good was at stake.

Take away the office and chairs, the constantly ringing telephones and light hum of the press running. Take away the entire building. The News Reporter has pursued accountability and compelling storytelling for three generations. I intend to carry them for the fourth.

It’s an Invictus spirit that runs from Leslie Thompson to me. We’re rebellious, we’re independent, we’re unshaken.

The future might not have the Goss Community Press. It might be a legal pad and internet access, but my family will continue our public service of truthtelling.

My family’s association with the press is immutable.

It’s a lineage that runs like the whirling of print through the press and hits hard like the aluminum plates imprinting pictures, and it commands attention like bold headlines.

New book profiles Virginia's Tangier Island, which experts predict will soon be overtaken by rising sea levels

Many structures on Tangier Island have been elevated in recent years to stay above water. (Photo by Gunner Hughes)

Tangier Island, off the coast of Virginia, was once known for its crab harvest and its time-capsule local speech, but experts say the low-lying island will soon be lost under rising sea waters. Author Earl Swift's new book Chesapeake Requiem "takes a long look at life on this beautiful, vanishing island in Chesapeake Bay," Mickie Meinhardt reports for The Bitter Southerner.

It's a long read but well worth your time.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

North Carolina county again embroiled in election fraud investigation over absentee ballots, a rural commodity

A rural North Carolina county is, for at least the fifth time since 2010, embroiled in accusations of election fraud. Bladen County, just south of Raleigh, is at the center of an investigation into voting irregularities in the 2018 election for the state's Ninth Congressional District. The State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement has refused to certify the results of the election, which Republican Mark Harris apparently won by 905 votes over Democrat Dan McCready, Brian Murphy, Carli Brosseau, and Anna Douglas report for The Charlotte Observer.

"The board has scheduled a hearing later this month to hear evidence about voting irregularities with absentee ballots in Bladen and Robeson counties," the Observer reports. McCrae Dowless, a contractor who worked for Harris, allegedly contributed to the voter fraud. In both the primary and general elections, Harris received a suspiciously high percentage of mail-in absentee votes from Bladen County. A Democratic candidate for whom Dowless worked in 2010 also got far more mail-in votes than his opponent, the Observer reports.

Some voters say Dowless or those working for him collected their absentee ballots, which is illegal. The ballots could have been changed before submission or discarded if not favorable to the desired candidate.

"Treating absentee ballots as a valuable commodity to be sold and brokered is a long-standing problem in poor areas of the rural South and Appalachia," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog.

Lumps of coal: 'Clean coal' plants emit more smog; coal is increasingly unprofitable; UMW sues feds over mine safety

Here's a trio of coal-related items for the interested among you:

Taxpayers have spent billions of dollars subsidizing chemically treated and refined coal in an effort to reduce air pollution, but a analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data shows that some "clean coal" plants regularly emit more nitrous oxides, not less. Nitrous oxide is the main contributor to smog and acid rain, Tim McLaughlin reports for Reuters.

Coal is increasingly financially unsound, according to a new report by independent energy-market think tank Carbon Tracker. About 42 percent of the world's coal operations are likely operating at a loss in 2018, it found, and predicts that number will rise to 72 percent by 2040, "independent of additional climate or air-pollution policy," Douglas Perry reports for The Oregonian. Within 12 years, the report estimates, none of the United States' coal capacity will have lower long-run operating costs than renewable energy options. "Over the long-term coal power will become a net liability . . . and those politicians in regulated markets who remain wedded to high-cost coal will be forced to choose between subsidizing coal generation and power prices (which will impact the fiscal health of the state) or increase power prices (which will hurt consumers and undermine competitiveness)," the report says.

The United Mine Workers of America has sued the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration after the agency reduced heightened regulatory scrutiny of a West Virginia coal mine with a history of repeated safety violations. Two miners were killed in separate incidents within two weeks at the Pocahontas Coal Company's Affinity mine in October 2013, Brittany Patterson and Becca Schimmel report for Ohio Valley Resource.

Insiders say China preparing to buy U.S. soybeans again

"In a potentially encouraging sign" for U.S. soybean growers, "China appears to be making early efforts to make good on elements that the White House said were part of the short-term trade bargain Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping reached in Buenos Aires," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico.

It's unclear whether or when China will drop its retaliatory tariffs on soybeans, but "Chinese officials have been told to take necessary steps for the purchases, according to two officials with knowledge of the discussions," Bloomberg reports. "It is possible that Beijing could reimburse buyers for the tariffs they pay, as they have done for purchases for the state soybean reserve."

Another positive sign: China announced new punishments for intellectual-property theft, Bloomberg reports. President Trump cited concern over IP theft as one of the main reasons he imposed tariffs.

Postal Service task force recommends changes that could raise some package prices for rural customers

A Treasury Department task force released a 74-page report Tuesday that recommended big changes to the U.S. Postal Service in order to keep it afloat, some of which could cost rural residents more, but stopped short of full privatization. President Trump ordered the review in April after saying that the Postal Service was losing money on its shipping deal with online giant Amazon. At the time, the president was feuding on Twitter with Amazon, whose CEO also owns The Washington Post.

The report does not address contracts with individual companies, which are confidential, but it says the Postal Service is "unsustainable and must be fundamentally changed if the USPS is to avoid a financial collapse and a taxpayer-funded bailout." The service lost almost $4 billion in fiscal 2018, even as package deliveries increased, and is expected to lose tens of billions of dollars more over the next decade, Reuters reports. The financial stability of the service has been major concern of rural newspapers that rely on the mail and fear further rate increases.

The report did not recommend a reform promoted by the National Newspaper Association and other Postal Service allies that would remove the requirement that the USPS pre-fund health benefits for its retires for 75 years. No other agency must meet that requirement, which Congress imposed in 2006, Ivanova reports. The task force also "did not recommend what the Postal Service and lawmakers consider the key piece of their legislative overhaul, namely to require most eligible employees and retirees to use Medicare as their primary provider," Eric Katz reports for Government Executive.

NNA issued a statement that said in part, "We particularly appreciate the task force’s recognition that the rural areas served by our members have unduly suffered from some of the therapies tried thus far. We also like the task force’s agreement with us that universal service is essential and that all areas of the country, including rural areas, must be fairly served. We believe any entity but the United States Postal Service will inevitably fail at providing that service, having seen the challenges faced by other nations who have experimented with privatization. But there are areas within the system where more involvement from the private sector would benefit the system. There are other aspects of the report, such as the recommended removal of the price cap on rates, that would cause our members great concern—unless it is carefully and successfully balanced by serious cost control and by a fair evaluation of the need of readers of newspapers and magazines to receive their periodicals on time and at fair rates."

The report recommends that the service develop a new pricing model that would remove current price caps and charge market-based prices for mail and packages that were not deemed to be 'essential postal services'," Irina Ivanova reports for CBS News. "That recommendation could raise costs for Amazon and other major businesses that are currently using the Postal Service to supplement their delivery operations." That could mean higher prices for consumers, including rural residents who depend on Amazon and other online retailers to access goods not available locally.

Mail and packages from one person to another would be considered essential and therefore exempt from higher rates. The report also recommends the government more clearly spell out the types of mail and packages whose delivery it should financially support, such as prescription medications, Ivanova reports.

"Most of the recommendations made by the task force can be implemented by the agency. Changes, such as to frequency of mail delivery, would require legislation," Reuters reports.

New federal rules could ease shortage of foster parents

The opioid epidemic has increased the need for foster care, especially in rural areas, but states are struggling to find enough foster parents to take children in. Proposed federal regulations could help by making it easier for people to qualify as foster parents, including more biological family members of foster children, Teresa Wiltz reports for Stateline.

Current regulations require a certain amount of square footage and a certain number of bedrooms in prospective foster parents' homes, but the more flexible regulations proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services instead focus on "sleeping spaces," which could be in a living room. "The suggested standards also propose that states not require foster parents to own a car, as long as they have access to reliable public transportation," Wirtz reports. "That change would make it easier for city residents to become foster parents."

Though many stakeholders praised the flexibility of the new rules, they also "raised concerns in their public comments about some of the proposed rules, including specifics on swimming pool barriers, languages spoken, immunization schedules, transportation options and physical and mental health exams for foster parents," Wirtz reports.

The proposed regulations underwent a public comment period this summer and fall. States and 12 Native American tribes now have until April to explain how they are working to align their foster care standards with the new regulations, Wirtz reports.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Proposed immigration policy change could hurt rural hospitals by reducing Medicaid enrollment

According to a report from Manatt Health, part of a lobbying firm, a proposed change to the "public charge" immigration rule would endanger $17 billion in Medicaid reimbursements for U.S. hospitals, which would especially hurt the rural hospitals that depend more on such reimbursements.

"The rule proposed by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services would require most immigrants seeking green cards to show that they have a middle-class income: specifically, more than 250 percent of the federal poverty line (about $62,750 for a family of four)," S.E. Smith reports for Talk Poverty, a service of the liberal Center for American Progress. "Immigrants could also fail the test if they have received government benefits, including Medicaid and Medicare Part D, in the past or if officials feel they are likely to receive them at any point in the future. The test would also penalize use of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program . . . and housing assistance programs."

Researchers for Manatt Health found that the change could lower Medicaid enrollment even for legal residents who are eligible for coverage and would not be subject to the new rule because they might fear accidentally breaking the law. The same fears are already driving down enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamps), especially in households with a mix of legal immigrants, citizens, and/or undocumented immigrants, Smith reports. The change could affect as many as 13.2 million immigrants on Medicaid who use almost $70 billion in Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program services every year.

Here's the rural rub: "When people begin to unenroll from Medicaid, the rise in uninsured people who still need health care will lead to fewer Medicaid reimbursements and a corresponding increase in uncompensated care costs," Smith reports. "That will be particularly hard on rural hospitals, in part because rural communities rely more heavily on Medicaid coverage than their urban counterparts due to the lower number of other insurance options and high poverty rates."

While most immigrants live in urban areas, they're an increasing presence in rural areas, and the loss of their Medicaid dollars could badly hurt already-struggling rural hospitals. That's already happening in Texas, which has a large immigrant population and where changes to Medicaid policy have hit rural hospitals hard, Smith reports.

Manatt Health said it prepared the report for America’s Essential Hospitals, the Association of American Medical Colleges, the American Hospital Association, the Catholic Health Association of the United States, the Children’s Hospital Association, and the Federation of American Hospitals.

Suicide and drug overdoses, of which rural people are at more risk, help decrease average life expectancy in the U.S.

Age-adjusted suicide rates by county urbanization level. (CDC chart; click on the image to enlarge it)
An increase in suicide and drug overdoses, of which rural areas have more than their share, has pulled down life expectancy in the United States. "Overall, there were more than 2.8 million U.S. deaths in 2017, or nearly 70,000 more than the previous year, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday. It was the most deaths in a single year since the government began counting more than a century ago," Mike Stobbe reports for The Associated Press.

The U.S. saw more than 47,000 suicides last year, making for the highest rate in at least 50 years, Stobbe reports. The rate was higher at all levels of urbanization in 2017 than it was in 1999, but it increased more in rural areas, and the more rural a person, the higher their risk for suicide. The age-adjusted suicide rate for the most rural counties in 2017 was 53 percent higher than the rate in 1999, according to the CDC figures. The age-adjusted suicide rate for the most rural counties was 1.4 times the rate for the most urban counties in 1999; in 2017 it increased to 1.8 times the rate.

What's causing the increase in suicides and drug overdoses? Dr. William Dietz, a disease prevention expert at George Washington University, told Stobbe that financial struggles, a widening income gap and divisive politics are driving Americans to despair: "I really do believe that people are increasingly hopeless . . . That leads to drug use; it leads potentially to suicide."

A survey of more than 115,000 voters conducted by AP buttresses Dietz's opinion: "About half of voters nationwide said they expect life in America for the next generation to be worse than it is today. Nearly a quarter said life would be better and about as many said it would be the same," Stobbe reports.

Domestic coal consumption is at the lowest level since 1979, but increased exports have helped the industry

U.S. Energy Information Administration chart; click on the image to enlarge it.
"Americans are consuming less coal in 2018 than at any time since Jimmy Carter’s presidency, a federal report said Tuesday, as cheap natural gas and other rival sources of energy frustrate the Trump administration’s pledges to revive the U.S. coal industry," Ellen Knickmeyer and Matthew Daly report for The Associated Press. "A report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration projected Tuesday that 2018 would see the lowest U.S. coal consumption since 1979, as well as the second-greatest number on record of coal-fired power plants shutting down." But despite the continuing drop in domestic use, 2018 has been a good year for the industry overall because of increasing exports.

American coal consumption in 2018 is expected to fall 4 percent from 2017, a 44 percent drop from 2007 levels mainly driven by declines in use by electric utilities, the report says. Utilities use the lion's share of coal in the U.S., but are increasingly burning natural gas and using renewable energy sources. More stringent pollution laws also made it more profitable for some older coal-powered plants to close rather than upgrade their equipment to trap harmful coal emissions, AP reports.

"Coal’s continuing slump comes despite Trump policy efforts to prop up the industry. That includes scrapping Obama’s signature Clean Power Plan that would have spurred electrical suppliers to turn away from coal-fired power plants in favor of cleaner forms of energy such as natural gas," AP reports. "Ironically, the new tax law approved by the Republican-controlled Congress has encouraged coal plants to close, as utilities use a provision that allows them to accelerate depreciation costs for closing plants," according to Joe Pizarchik, who directed the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement under President Obama.

Missouri voters put anti-gerrymandering formula into state constitution; rural areas likely to lose influence as a result

Missouri Democrats seem poised to gain seats in the state's Republican-dominated legislature in 2022 because of a first-of-its-kind redistricting initiative approved by voters in the midterm election. Rural areas, which enjoy an outsized influence on statewide elections and generally vote Republican, are likely to lose ground under the new constitutional amendment.

"Missouri’s initiative marks a new frontier in a growing movement against partisan gerrymandering that has now notched ballot-box victories in eight states over the past decade," David Lieb reports for The Associated Press. "Other states have created independent commissions and required bipartisan votes to redraw legislative and congressional districts. Missouri will be the first to rely on a new mathematical formula to try to engineer 'partisan fairness' and 'competitiveness' in its state legislative districts; the legislature will continue drawing the state’s congressional districts."

Missouri's formula could end the GOP's supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature and move the ratios closer to a true reflection of voter choices, but the outcome is uncertain because the formula has never been tested in real life.

All states must redraw congressional and state legislative districts after the 2020 census; the new maps will generally go into effect in time for the 2022 elections. In addition to the criteria most states set for redistricting, Missouri's new amendment will require "a new nonpartisan state demographer to base state House and Senate districts on the votes cast in the previous three elections for president, governor and U.S. senator — races that are decided by voters statewide and are not affected by gerrymandering," Lieb reports. "The districts must come as close as practical to achieving 'partisan fairness' as measured by a formula called 'the efficiency gap.'"

The efficiency gap is the difference between the percentage of seats a political party wins compared with the share of the vote it receives. Missouri has a fairly high efficiency gap: though Republican candidates got an average of 57 percent of votes this November, the party won 71 percent of the seats. That's an 8 percent efficiency gap favoring Republicans, meaning they picked up 13 more seats than expected by voting tallies, Lieb reports.

The efficiency-gap formula was created a few years ago by Eric McGhee, a researcher at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, and Nick Stephanopoulos, a law professor at the University of Chicago. "Although the efficiency gap has been cited in court challenges to politically gerrymandered districts in Wisconsin and elsewhere, no other state has made it a legally required test for redistricting," Lieb reports. The U.S. Supreme Court sent the Wisconsin case back to a lower court in June.

Amendment would give National Park Service clear authority to allow natural-gas pipeline construction

"Legislation is pending in Congress that would give the National Park Service clear authority to allow construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline beneath the Appalachian Trail and Blue Ridge Parkway, both potentially critical obstacles under litigation pending in the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals," Michael Martz reports for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The Fourth Circuit has proved a formidable stumbling block for the 600-mile natural-gas pipeline: it halted construction in early August after throwing out two necessary permits, arguing that one permit violated the agency's mandate to preserve the environment, and another permit issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not adequately assess the project's impact on threatened and endangered species. The court also stayed the permit the U.S. Forest Service issued for the pipeline to cross the Appalachian Trail on land in the George Washington National Forest. 

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission allowed construction to resume in September after its builders, led by Dominion Energy, reissued the revised permits on the $7 billion project.

The measure has been proposed as an amendment to the end-of-year omnibus spending bill, and its chances are shaky; Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., opposes it. "The legal battle carries high stakes for the pipeline, which must cross the parkway and national scenic trail on its path from gas-producing shale fields in West Virginia through the heart of Virginia to the Atlantic Coast and eastern North Carolina," Martz reports.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

USDA to limit states' work exemptions for some able-bodied SNAP recipients after farm bill doesn't expand requirements

Though the reconciled Farm Bill jettisoned strict work requirements for more recipients in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has a workaround plan aimed at appeasing nettled House Republicans who wanted the measure included in the bill.

Once the Farm Bill passes, Perdue said the Department of Agriculture will issue a rule to reduce states' waivers that exempt some SNAP recipients from current work requirements. "The rule has been in the works for months and many had expected it to be released before the midterms, but the administration held off. Perdue had said he didn’t want to preempt Congress" while it was negotiating the Farm Bill," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico. "Perdue said the rule will appeal to conservative lawmakers who are frustrated that House Republicans came up short."

USDA has been seeking ways to reduce food aid to the 36 states that exempt at least some SNAP recipients from the existing three-month limit for able-bodied adults without dependents to receive benefits within a three-year period if they're not working at least 80 hours a month, McCrimmon reports.

Fentanyl drove record high drug overdose deaths in 2017

New York Times chart; click on the image to enlarge it.
New numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that drug overdoses killed more than 70,000 Americans in 2017, a record high, and that use of synthetic opioids like fentanyl drove the increase.

Since 2013, the number of overdose deaths associated with fentanyls and similar drugs has grown to more than 28,000, from 3,000." Josh Katz and Margo Sanger-Katz report for The New York Times. "Deaths involving fentanyls increased more than 45 percent in 2017 alone. Overdose rates have been especially high in the Northeast, the Midwest, and mid-Atlantic states.

Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for adults under 55. The increase in drug overdose deaths has been so great that it's contributed to a four-month reduction in the average American's life expectancy; that kind of reduction hasn't been seen since World War II, Katz and Sanger-Katz report.

The federal government's recent efforts to fight the opioid epidemic have focused on prescription abuse, but some public health researchers say that fighting fentanyl requires a different approach. Synthetic drugs tend to be more potent, and therefore deadlier, since small measurement errors can lead to an overdose. "The blends of synthetic drugs also tend to change frequently, making it easy for drug users to underestimate the strength of the drug they are injecting. In some parts of the country, drugs sold as heroin are exclusively fentanyls now," Katz and Sanger-Katz report.

Preliminary data from the CDC indicate that 2017 could be the peak of the overdose epidemic, with nationwide death rates leveling off in early 2018, but it's too soon to tell.

Chinese President Xi Jinping Xi recently agreed to designate fentanyl as a controlled substance and to crack down on illicit shipments of the deadly opioid, but the Chinese have said that before.

Will lagging rural job growth erode Trump base?

Rural employment lags behind metro areas. (Bloomberg chart)
Though the nationwide unemployment rate is at a near-record low, it's a different picture in rural areas, where many are "barely scraping by as their jobs drain away in the downturns and don’t come back in the booms," Sarah Foster reports for Bloomberg. "The economic divide maps onto a political one, which only deepened in this month’s midterm elections. President Donald Trump claims credit for a vibrant economy. Yet it’s in the least-vibrant rural areas that his Republicans picked up support -- the same trend that helped Trump get elected two years ago. Cities and suburbs, where the recovery is palpable, swung toward the Democrats."

The reasons for rural America's recovery lag are many and varied: lack of broadband and good roads for shipping, brain drain to urban areas, lack of educational options nearby, and more. Federal money to rural areas could help, as it did after the Great Depression in the 1930s, but the main source of federal money in rural areas these days is the Department of Agriculture, which administers food aid and farm programs, and issues grants for a wide array of projects under its Rural Development umbrella such as medical services, broadband buildout, telehealth and addiction treatment. "But the Trump administration plans to cut USDA funding by 16 percent in fiscal 2019, and revamp the food stamps it distributes," Foster reports.

That may not decrease Trump's popularity in rural areas, according to David Andersen, an assistant professor of political science at Iowa State University. Many of Trump's rural supporters "don’t sound as if they expect to get anything out of the administration," Andersen told Foster. But they feel abandoned by previous administrations and just want to "destroy the system overall." Trump, he said, was "the first candidate in a very long time" to explicitly encourage such resentments.

Beloved Yellowstone wolf killed by trophy hunter

Spitfire (Getty Images photo by Mark Perry)
"A wild wolf beloved by wolf watchers and biologists who visit Yellowstone National Park has been shot dead by a hunter," just as her equally famous mother was, Hayley Miller reports for Huffington Post.

Nicknamed Spitfire, the 7-year-old female wolf wandered about five miles outside Yellowstone Park's northeast entrance last weekend and was legally killed by a trophy hunter. She was the daughter of "famous alpha female 832F, who inspired the book American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West," Miller reports.

The death has revived calls for a hunting-free buffer zone around Yellowstone to protect animals who wander beyond the boundary (which has no fence or other physical barriers to keep in animals). In a recent blog post, the New York-based Wolf Conservation Center observed that Yellowstone's wolves bring in about $35 million in annual tourist revenue. Since Montana wolf hunting licenses are $19-$50, it "seems that Yellowstone wolves are worth a lot more alive than dead."

Monday, December 03, 2018

No mail delivery Wed. out of respect for George H.W. Bush, Postal Service says; many newspapers will be delayed

Wednesday's national day of mourning for former President George H.W. Bush, declared by President Trump, will include suspension of almost all mail delivery and closure of post offices, "to honor his vast contributions to our country," the U.S. Postal Service announced today. The service did likewise for the funerals for Ronald Reagan in 2004 and Gerald Ford in 2007.

USPS said it will deliver Priority Mail and Express Mail, and make "limited package delivery consistent with our peak-season Sunday schedule." It said it would fulfill scheduled package pickups and collect mail from boxes in front of post offices and "high-volume boxes that have a potential to overflow, while other collections will be suspended."

Newspapers' drop shipments will be accepted, but "mail verification (weighing and acceptance) will not be available until Thursday," the National Newspaper Association advised its members, suggesting that papers contact their local postal officials. Many weekly papers mail on Wednesdays. USPS said its call center will be "in operation but may have reduced staffing."

All federal offices and courts will be closed, as will the New York Stock Exchange, Nasdaq and some banks.

U.S., China agree to trade-war truce, but Chinese traders say tariffs need to drop before they buy more U.S. goods

At the Group of 20 meeting in Argentina on Saturday, "President Trump agreed to hold off on a plan to raise tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods on Jan. 1, while President Xi Jinping of China agreed to an an unspecified increase in their purchases of American industrial, energy and agricultural products, which Beijing hit with retaliatory tariffs after Mr. Trump targeted everything from steel to consumer electronics," Mark Landler reports for The New York Times. "The two also set the stage for more painstaking negotiations to resolve deeply rooted differences over trade."

That could boost agricultural sales to China if the deal works out in time, helping U.S. farmers who have been hurt by tariffs on soybeans, corn, and other crops. "Trump is now under the gun to force China to make structural changes on long-standing disputes like forced technology transfers and intellectual property theft," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico. "The U.S. is seeking resolution on key issues within 90 days, or else Trump is in position to hike tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods from 10 percent to 25 percent. (That increase was scheduled for January, but Trump agreed to hold off on it — as well as imposing new tariffs on another $267 billion of Chinese products — as part of the short-term deal.)"

Since tariffs on crops like soybeans are still in place, Chinese traders are waiting for action on tariffs to return to U.S. markets, Halli Gu and Dominique Patton report for Reuters: "No substantial purchases can happen with a 25 percent duty still in place on U.S. soybeans, corn, sorghum and wheat, said buyers and analysts."

Xi also agreed to designate fentanyl as a controlled substance and to crack down on illicit shipments of the deadly opioid, Landler reports.

Ex-reporter who says party must appeal to rural areas elected to head House Democrats' campaign operation

Cheri Bustos
Illinois Democrat Cheri Bustos, who has repeatedly urged her party to appeal more to rural voters, was elected by her House colleagues to serve as the Chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee next year, the Canton Daily Ledger in Illinois reports. The DCCC is a political action committee that supports Democratic House candidates, so Bustos could influence the party to fund candidates sympathetic to rural concerns.

"With an incoming class of 62 Democratic freshmen, 31 of which come from districts that President Trump won, this is a task that Bustos is uniquely qualified for," the Daily Ledger reports. "During the last election, Bustos won Illinois’ 17th Congressional District by 24 points; this was the largest margin of victory of any Democrat from a Trump district. Bustos, who first won her seat in Congress by defeating a Republican incumbent in 2012, is now just the second woman ever to lead the DCCC."

Bustos, a former reporter for the Quad City Times in Davenport, Iowa, recently commissioned a study to find out how Democrats could better serve rural America, seeking advice from 72 elected Democratic officials in rural areas. 

FCC starting outreach tour in West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee; calls it Appalachian, but it's mainly not

Representatives from the Federal Communications Commission's Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau are visiting towns in West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee this week to help citizens and their representative groups learn more about issues that affect their daily lives. Representatives will also meet privately with local leaders to discuss concerns.

Topics to be covered in the free and open to the public informational events include:
  • Robocalls, spoofing, scam alerts
  • Slamming, cramming and other telephone bill related items
  • Television broadcast transition: what consumers need to know; how to take action; broadcast TV Stations in your area will be affected)
  • Broadband and digital inclusion: encouraging everyone to get online
  • Telehealth
  • Lost and stolen mobile devices – protecting mobile devices
  • How to make your views heard at the FCC
  • How to file complaints and comments with the FCC
The first public meeting is tonight at 6 in Bridgeport, W.Va. Tomorrow the team will be in Clarksburg and Huntington; on Wednesday it will be in Elizabethtown and Frankfort, Ky.; on Thursday in Huntingdon and Waverly, Tenn., and Friday in Hopkinsville, Ky. Click here to learn more about the tour, including a schedule of tour stops and private meetings.

The FCC might need a lesson in geography; it is billing the meetings as an "Appalachian Region Outreach Tour," but the only Appalachian locations are in West Virginia.

Rural households more likely than urban to use food stamps

SNAP participation in rural counties from 2012-2016 (Map by FRAC; click on the image to enlarge it.)
From 2012 to 2016, rural households were more likely than urban households to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, according to a recent analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

In their Rural Hunger in America report, the Food Research and Action Center differentiated between households in rural areas and those in small towns under 2,500 people; metro areas saw 13 percent participation in SNAP, while rural areas had 16 percent participation and small towns had 15 percent participation.

There are more senior citizens in rural areas, and that's driving the increase, Peggy Lowe reports for Iowa Public Radio. Ellen Vollinger, the legal director of FRAC, told Lowe that most other rural SNAP participants are families with children and low-wage workers who don't make enough money at work to cover their bills. Farm income is also down because of low crop prices, which makes it likely the trend continues today, Lowe reports.

FRAC notes that more rural residents need access to SNAP and suggests in its report six strategies to increase participation:
  1. Increase education and application assistance. Many people don't know they're eligible, may feel shame about applying for SNAP, and/or might be confused by the application process. States can partner with non-profits to help educate and work with potential applicants.
  2. Address poor access to rural offices for rural residents. Many rural residents live far away from SNAP offices and don't have transportation. States can operate mobile eligibility offices and offer applications online, over the phone, or via app.
  3. Change SNAP so more working poor and other rural residents can access it.States can eliminate asset tests in SNAP and allow applicants with gross incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty line to have their out-of-pocket costs for other basic needs taken into account to determine if they have net incomes low enough (100 percent of poverty) to qualify for SNAP benefits. That helps more senior citizens qualify, as well as working families with high childcare costs.
  4. Promote opportunities to connect older adults to SNAP and age in place. Fewer than half of eligible rural senior citizens participate in SNAP, and many who do get less than they could. States can partner with non-profits to work with seniors on application assistance, and the USDA could streamline the application process and allow out-of-pocket medical expenses to count against their income. State funds could be used to supplement SNAP benefits.
  5. Prepare to meet future disasters with Disaster SNAP. Disaster SNAP helps natural disaster victims, many of which have been rural because of hurricanes and wildfires. States can better help these survivors by updating their D-SNAP plans and explore streamlining the application process and partnering with non-profits to help with education and application assistance.
  6. Use SNAP employment and training resources. Fewer rural residents would need SNAP if they had better jobs. States can use federal SNAP employment and training resources and partner with other stakeholders like community colleges to help rural residents get better job skills.