Friday, January 17, 2020

Site tracks how often each Congress member votes with Trump; could be helpful in covering this year's elections

Part of the database shows two senators who support Trump much more than their voters do; click on the image to enlarge.
The first votes in the 2020 primary elections will be cast soon, and some primary challengers have attempted to unseat their opponents by criticizing how often their opponents did (or didn't) vote with President Trump. If you're reporting on your local congressional race, it's essential to know how often that actually happened, and to know the details of the issues involved.

Analytics site FiveThirtyEight has compiled a database that tracks how often each member of Congress has voted in line with Trump's position; Trump's local share of the vote in the 2016 election minus Clinton's (as a rough measure of the president's popularity in the district); a prediction of how often each member is expected to support Trump in the future, based on the first two figures; and the difference between a member's actual support for Trump and their predicted support. Also, if you click on the senator or representative's name, you can see the specific bills they voted on.

Retired rural reporter criticizes Facebook for allowing fake news; his op-ed is easily adaptable by all news media

Mark Kelly
In an op-ed published yesterday, a retired rural reporter took Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to task for failing to tackle the proliferation of fake news on its social media sites (Facebook has acquired other popular platforms like Instagram and WhatsApp).

Facebook isn't a news site, exactly, but many people get their news from Facebook because friends use it to share news stories. Zuckerberg has a responsibility to police that content to prevent fake news purveyors from spreading lies, Mikel Kelly writes for the Lake Oswego Review, a weekly just south of Portland, Oregon. Kelly retired from the paper a few years ago but still writes a column.

News media have to stand behind the words they publish, no matter their size, platform or how frequently they publish, Kelly writes: "Even the tiniest weekly and monthly newspapers have to figure out a way to sniff out the lies, mistruths and complete B.S. their readers and advertisers would like to sneak into their news, editorial and advertising content — and block them from public view."

Zuckerberg has argued that people should have the freedom to write what they want on Facebook as long as it's not obscene or illegal, but Kelly dismisses that notion: "The classic cliché used when discussing the freedom of expression that we possess in this country is how we all have the right to free speech, but it does not extend to crying 'Fire!' in a crowded theater. Mark Zuckerberg's response to that is, 'Hey, I'm no fireman — how would I know if it's really a fire or not?' Well, I'm telling you, Marky: It IS a fire. And your failure to deal with it is embarrassing. You are not helping one bit. Please stop your whimpering and take responsibility for the massive role you and your company play in the world."

Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog, says Kelly's editorial could easily be adapted by any news outlet, and should be, because journalists and their paymasters need to constantly remind their audiences of the fundamental differences in types of media: "News media do journalism, which emphasizes facts and practices a discipline of verification; social media emphasize opinion and have little if any discipline or verification. It’s important to know the difference."

Proposed rule would end requirement for faith-based health-care providers to refer for services they won't perform

"The Department of Health and Human Services has unveiled a proposed rule that would remove a mandate that faith-based providers refer patients to other providers for services they won't offer for religious reasons," John Commins reports for HealthLeaders, a health-care industry publication.

If adopted, the rule could hurt rural patients. At Catholic hospitals, which make up an increasing share of rural health systems, providers often can't offer services related to abortion, birth control, some end-of-life care, and gender affirmation. Rural patients who are refused care because of religious beliefs may have no other local options, as illustrated by a recent story about a Minnesota woman who had to drive for hours and contact several pharmacies to get a morning-after pill. 

The proposal "removes what the Trump administration claims is a discriminatory Obama-era policy that requires religious providers of social services, but not other providers of social services, to make referrals," Commins reports. "HHS is one of nine federal departments, including the Department of Education and the Department of Justice, that were named in a Trump executive order to remove what it said were unfair barriers in federal policies that singled out faith-based groups."

Quick hits: Washington community tries a creative solution for its shortage of mental-health-care providers

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

A rural town in Washington state is trying to mitigate mental health care provider shortage by weaving mental health into primary-care appointments. Read more here.

A new poll shows that rural and small-town voters in Vermont and along the Eastern seaboard believe their communities don't get their fair share of transportation funding, and most also want more environmentally friendly transportation and transit options, writes the Vermont director of The Nature Conservancy. Read more here.

A new book explores the offensive term "white trash" along with the place impoverished white people hold in American society. Read more here.

The Department of Agriculture is hosting a series of workshops about the Rural Development Broadband ReConnect Program. The first one will be in Denver, Feb. 12-13. Read more here.

The FBI says it will alert states when local election systems have been hacked. Read more here.

A federal judge has blocked state and local veto power over refugee resettlement. Read more here.

Nebraska bill aims to reduce property taxes for farmers, make up the difference with excess state revenue

As farmland continues to rise in value, more and more farm owners say they're struggling under the weight of increased property taxes, especially after 2019's poor harvest. 

In Nebraska, property taxes are especially high. "On average, Nebraska farmers pay $16,200 in property taxes per year, among the highest figures of any state. And the state relies heavily on that money: More than a quarter of its total property-tax revenue, much of which pays for public education, comes from farmland," April Simpson reports for Stateline. "In fact, Nebraska brings in more cash taxing farmland than any state but California and Texas."

Critics say land value doesn't necessarily indicate what farmers are making off that land, and say "Nebraska’s antiquated system reflects a time when property ownership was an indication of wealth and income," reports Simpson, who notes that property taxes are also high in the northeastern U.S.

A new bill in Nebraska would decrease property-tax assessments, more so on farmland, and funnel excess state revenue to fund schools so districts are less reliant on property taxes, Simpson reports.

Will press associations survive, at a time when local papers, especially independents, need them more than ever?

By Peter Wagner

“By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall,” wrote Pennsylvanian activist John Dickinson in 1768.

Those words held true for the American colonies then and hold true for our free and paid paper industry today.

The newspaper and shopper business is often difficult today. One out-of-state publisher friend sent me a discouraging Christmas message this year. He wrote, “With the economy hovering near a depression, and our farmers saved only by a bumper crop two years in a row, business has been tough. We’ve downsized our operation again and again and both my wife and I have taken outside jobs part of the time.”

But if times are tough with press associations, how would our business be without them?

Trade groups have always banded together to create a bigger voice in Washington and provide better opportunities at home. Our state and national press associations have lobbied for better postal rates, a greater understanding of the need for legal notices, more transparent open meetings, improved independent contractor laws and most importantly, among many other issues, “freedom of the press.”

Many state associations, and at least one national press association, have regularly made an expert available to offer specific advice on how to handle problems with local postal officials. Others in that same national association have time and again traveled to Washington to testify before post office hearings in regard to mailing costs on-time delivery and difficult, sometime unnecessary, postal regulations.

Additionally, paid- and free-paper press associations have helped both young and experienced editors and publishers find needed staff members, connect with professors and administrators at nearby journalism schools and obtain unbiased information regarding new ideas in management and changes in publishing equipment.

Without press associations, many papers would find it difficult to purchase libel insurance, afford a reliable attorney who understands newspaper issues, embark on industry-organized international tours or benefit from organizational sales of regional, state or national advertising sales.’

Most importantly, without press associations, many current and future independent publishers would find themselves without the value of volunteer one-on-one peer mentoring, the sharing of much-needed new revenue ideas, the joy of receiving publishing profession awards and recognition and the enduring social and professional relationships so important to us all.

Unfortunately, press associations are an endangered species. The nation’s large publishing chains are often no longer joining state and even national press associations. Others, when they do join, are requiring membership fees at greatly reduced per-publication rates.

“We have our own training, legal and lobbying departments,” the large groups say. “We can’t justify paying for the same services twice. Besides, we want our people at home, at work, and not off at some convention or conference.”

Smaller papers, too, are also not renewing their membership in local associations. “We just can’t afford it,” they claim.

But the truth is, “You cannot save yourself into success.” Publishers, like all businesses, need to invest in their knowledge and expand their connections to grow and profit. Press associations still provide solid roads to exceptional profit.

Having worked with almost all the press associations in America and Canada over the last two decades, I am worried about the future of press associations. I often tell participants at my seminars “when I make any paper better, I increase the value and longevity of my publications.”

In a time when so many metro papers are declining and even disappearing, I see a good future for smaller, home-owned papers. Those publications, with a continued investment in providing local, credible information not available anywhere else, will still be desired and needed for a long time.

And with the growth of local digital publishing, combined with traditional printed papers, that positive future can extend far beyond anyone’s speculation or expectation.

Even the strongest independent publisher cannot stand alone. We need, and will continue to need, our press associations to be the united “grassroots” voice in our communities, state legislatures and in Washington, D.C.

Encourage your friends and neighboring publishers currently wavering on the sidelines to join in and support the future of the “free press.” Let’s keep our press associations healthy and effective.

Peter Wagner is publisher of the N'west Iowa Review, repeatedly judged to be one of the nation's best weekly newspapers, and other papers. He often speaks at state newspaper association meetings and writes for their publications.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Study: 1 in 3 rural adults have trouble paying medical bills

One in three rural adults has trouble paying medical or dental bills, according to a study by Harvard University researchers. The study was an effort to see what rural adults perceive to be their biggest obstacles. As the study noted: "The 2016 U.S. presidential election brought national visibility to prominent economic issues affecting rural America, yet little has been done to examine serious health or economic problems in rural communities from the perspectives of rural U.S. adults themselves."

The researchers surveyed 1,300 adults in 2018 and 1,405 adults in 2019. Respondents said that, along with trouble paying medical bills, drug abuse and a lagging economy are the most serious problems rural areas face. About half of respondents said they know someone who has an opioid or other drug problem, and about half said they'd have trouble paying off an unexpected $1,000 expense. 

"Although rural communities have traditionally been self-reliant, more than half of rural adults are open to outside help to solve serious problems facing their communities, including major help from government," the researchers write.

In new trade deal, China keeps tariffs on U.S. farm goods but promises to buy more over next two years

Chinese and U.S. officials signed the first phase of several planned trade resolutions Wednesday at the White House. The agreement has more than 50 agriculture-related commitments, including a faster approval process for biotech crops and tariff exclusions for many U.S. commodities.

"The pledged changes will remove obstacles for U.S. ag exports from beef, pork, poultry and seafood to avocados, blueberries, pet food and hay," Ryan McCrimmon of Politico's Morning Agriculture reports. "China won’t lift any of its retaliatory duties on American farm goods, which total $110 billion, but the new tariff exclusions will facilitate an uptick in agricultural purchases from U.S. producers."

China promised to buy about $40 billion in U.S. farm products this year and next year, contingent on market conditions. "Beijing had balked at committing to buy set amounts of U.S. farm goods earlier, and has inked new soybean contracts with Brazil since the trade war started," Ryan Woo and Jeff Mason report for Reuters. "Although the deal could be a boost to U.S. farmers, automakers and heavy equipment manufacturers, some analysts question China’s ability to replace imports from other trading partners with more shipments from the United States."

Another possible issue: if China reneges on its promises, the deal allows the U.S. to again put tariffs on Chinese goods. "But according to the text, if the offending party disagrees with such a result, its only recourse is to quit the agreement. There are no provisions for appeal or levying retaliatory tariffs," David Lawder reports for Reuters. "Trump administration officials insist that they have set up a robust process for resolving disputes, with each country opening an enforcement office to field and review complaints about compliance. Those grievances will be aired through a series of consultations with escalating levels of officials over a roughly 90-day period before penalties can be levied."

Kentucky lawmakers still dubious about rural fiber-optic broadband project that hasn't delivered on its promises

"The much-heralded plan to improve internet connectivity across the state, promised to create financial opportunities through reliable, high-speed internet access for rural communities that have repeatedly been hammered by the loss of jobs in the coal and tobacco industries," the Louisville Courier Journal's Alfred Miller reports with ProPublica's Local Reporting Network. "But the project is stalled and its future looks increasingly bleak because of a number of missteps by state officials and Macquarie Capital, the Australian investment bank managing the ambitious plan."

The project, already two years behind schedule, could cost $1.5 billion over the next 30 years, Miller reports. Kentucky's new governor, Democrat Andy Beshear, will soon have to make important decisions about the future of the program, but he hasn't said what he plans to do yet, even as state lawmakers threaten to block funding. "Meanwhile, the project that promised so much to residents in rural communities has yet to deliver, and it’s unclear if and when it will," Miller reports.

The KentuckyWired project aims to bring high-tech jobs and entrepreneurship to impoverished rural counties where jobs are often hard to come by. It was scheduled to be completed nine months from now, but right now "one in 11 Kentuckians — roughly 405,000 mostly rural residents — have no wired broadband service in their area, according to Federal Communications Commission data. For those who do have internet access, it’s either too slow or simply unaffordable," Miller reports.

Part of the problem is that the steep hills and forests in much of Kentucky make fiber-optic cable difficult and expensive to install. The other problem is the "last mile." Even if the state lays fiber-optic cable to rural areas, it's not feasible to lay it to every home. Instead, homes and businesses will need third-party providers to lay fiber-optic cable to connect them to the local hub. But, many third-party providers "are reluctant to make plans without first knowing how much the state’s private-sector partner, Macquarie, will charge for access to the network," Miller reports.

Project managers want the state legislature to approve $100 million for KentuckyWired in the new budget, $28 million more than in the last budget. But lawmakers are frustrated by the program's slow implementation and ballooning costs, especially since their rural constituents are clamoring for broadband access, Miller reports.

State Sen. Jimmy Higdon, a Republican from Lebanon, said something needs to give. "Unless somebody in the Beshear administration can come up with a plan to save it — a viable plan, a workable plan — and somebody steps up and says this will work, I don’t see us funding something that’s going down a dead-end street," he told Miller.

Researchers conclude that pain from working in coal mines, not layoffs (as some think), leads to opioid addiction

Common wisdom holds that opioid abuse has skyrocketed in Appalachian coal-mining areas because of despair from layoffs. "But that may not be the case at all. There is evidence that it was the presence of coal mining jobs that helped create the opioid epidemic, not their absence," Bill Bishop reports for The Daily Yonder.

A newly published study notes that coal mining is physically taxing and dangerous work, and that many coal miners who abuse opioids began using the drug after it was prescribed to them for workplace injuries, Bishop reports.

"The two economists found that as active coal mining jobs decreased in counties, the overdose death rate also declined. The national shift away from coal to natural gas hasn’t set off a drug epidemic in coal counties because of economic despair, the two academics write," Bishop reports. To the contrary, they argue that the shift from coal to natural gas has helped mitigate the opioid epidemic.

Jan. 21 webinar on rural cancer prevention, control efforts

Rural residents are more likely to get and die from cancer than their urban and suburban counterparts, and some rural areas have higher than normal rates of certain cancers because of environmental factors. The Rural Health Information Hub will host a free, one-hour webinar at 3 p.m. ET Jan. 21, to discuss comprehensive, innovative and sustainable policies that can improve rural cancer treatment and prevention efforts. Featured speakers will be:
  • Paul Moore, D.Ph., executive secretary of the National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services, and senior health policy adviser at the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy
  • John Rochat, MD, an oncologist at Anderson Valley Health Center in Boonville, Calif.
  • Peggy Wheeler, MPH, vice president of rural health care and governance at the California Hospital Association.
Click here to register or for more information. If you are unable to attend, a recording will be made available on the RHIH website afterward.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Social studies textbooks are edited to reflect states' political leanings; how does your local version compare?

Students in different states sometimes see different versions of the same textbooks, and the differences are often influenced by the beliefs of political leaders in large states.

In an analysis of recently published eighth- and 11th-grade social studies textbooks widely used in the megastates of California and Texas, The New York Times found hundreds of differences that ranged from subtle to extensive, Diana Goldstein reports for the Times.

For example, an annotated Bill of Rights is given different treatments in two versions of the same textbook. The California version notes that rulings on the Second Amendment have allowed for some gun regulations, but the same space in the Texas edition contains only a blank space, Goldstein notes. Another textbook discusses the Harlem Renaissance, but the Texas version adds that some critics "dismissed the quality of literature produced."

In general, conservative versions of textbooks tend to celebrate patriotism, the influence of Christianity and the Founding Fathers. More liberal versions seek to help students focus on the experiences of marginalized groups such as women, African Americans and Native Americans, Goldstein reports.

"The differences between state editions can be traced back to several sources: state social studies standards; state laws; and feedback from panels of appointees that huddle, in Sacramento and Austin hotel conference rooms, to review drafts," Goldstein reports. Publishers are eager to please big states since textbook publishers are rapidly losing ground to digital sources, and can only publish a few different versions of a book.

Because California and Texas are the nation's most populous states, the textbook edits could affect the country's political future. "Classroom materials are not only shaded by politics, but are also helping to shape a generation of future voters," Goldstein reports.

All of this prompts the question: What do your local textbooks look like, and how might state political leanings have influenced their contents?

Oregon weekly seeks donations to fund investigation after local officials won't waive fees for copies of public records

The Malheur Enterprise, an award-winning weekly in rural eastern Oregon, is trying to raise money so it can get to the bottom of an industrial development that local officials don't want to talk about. (Click here to donate.)

Malheur County officials want to create one or two industrial parks; developing that farmland will require streets, water lines and sewers. "The county has indicated in its documents – that we obtained from the state – that developing this project could require as much as $14 million beyond $2 million it has already borrowed," writes Editor-Publisher Les Zaitz. "Where’s the county going to get that money? We’ve been trying to find out for you for more than two months."

Officials are refusing to talk with the Enterprise, which isn't the county's only paper. That's their right, Zaitz acknowledges, but he is still pursuing the story because locals want to know about the deals. 

Thus far, what information the paper has obtained has come from records obtained under the state open-records law, but officials made the Enterprise pay $1,018 before releasing the copies. "As a veteran of public records fights, we see this as Malheur County’s attempt to blunt our reporting by making it too costly to seek government records," Zaitz writes. "The law allows government agencies to reduce or entirely waive the cost of providing documents when releasing them serves the public interest. We have asked Smith [the county economic development director] for that waiver with every request. He has ignored the request and the law in each instance. We paid. If Smith thought he would price us out of the business of finding the truth, he miscalculated."

But the Enterprise says it doesn't have the money to keep paying so much, so, Zaitz is announcing a fundraising drive called "Dollars for Disclosure" and says the money will go toward a fund that will pay for public-record fees and perhaps legal help. It isn't a charitable donation, but it's a worthy cause, Zaitz writes: "Even $10 would help, and a lot of small donations would be another message to county officials: the public wants the truth. The more we raise, the more we can do."

If you'd like to help out, click here to donate online or you can mail a check to PO Box 310, Vale OR 97918. Checks should be made to the Malheur Enterprise and designated for the disclosure fund. 

GAO report recommends rural transit improvements

The Government Accountability Office said in a recent report that the Federal Transit Agency must better coordinate with state and local governments to help rural transit services reduce costs, increase efficiency, and improve service, Bill Lucia reports for Route Fifty.

An FTA database lists about 1,500 rural transit providers. Such service can be critical for those who can't drive, such as seniors, the poor, or disabled. Coordination among rural areas is essential because passengers often need to travel long distances to access grocery stores or doctors, the report said.

But coordination can be challenging, so the report recommends that the FTA come up with a better plan for communicating with state agencies and local transit providers as well as best practices for carrying out the plan. "This might include taking steps like setting common drop-off points or schedules, or aligning service to ease access to places where people go for medical care," Lucia reports. The report notes that all of the rural transit providers interviewed for the report already coordinate with each other on a limited basis.

Rural transit providers often face obstacles that can limit transit or coordination, including "staff shortages, tight funding, limited technology and long distances between the places where they operate and the neighboring jurisdictions serviced by their counterparts," Lucia reports. In the past three years, "the FTA has allotted about $2.1 billion in grants to support public transit in rural areas, including tribal lands."

Top six Democrats debate trade and more, cite need to support family farmers in last debate before voting

Last night at Drake University in Des Moines, six Democratic primary candidates met for the last debate before the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses: Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, former Vice President Joe Biden, Mayor Pete Buttegieg of South Bend, Ind., and billionaire Tom Steyer. CNN's Wolf Blitzer and Abby Philip, along with the Des Moines Register's chief political reporter, Brianne Pfannenstiel, moderated.

Here's a few things the candidates had to say about trade and other issues with rural resonance:

Buttegieg and Warren both noted the need for increased cybersecurity. Municipal governments and utilities, especially in small towns, are increasingly vulnerable to foreign hackers.

Sanders said the USMCA trade pact "will result in the continuation of the loss of hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs as a result of outsourcing" and said our trade negotiators could have done "much better." Sanders noted that he voted against NAFTA and normalized trade relations with China, and said the deals force American workers to compete against cheaper labor overseas.

Warren said she supports the USMCA because it has modest improvements that help farmers who are hurting from the trade war with China, and "It will give some relief to our workers. I believe we accept that relief, we try to help the people who need help, and we get up the next day and fight for a better trade deal."

Klobuchar said ethanol and corn interests had been hurt by the trade war, and noted that she had toured an ethanol plant in Iowa that had shuttered because of oil refinery waivers for the Renewable Fuel Standard. She said she supports the USMCA because it could help those hurt by the trade war.

Buttegieg said that while the USMCA has been improved by Democrats' input, it's still not perfect. Still, he said he supports it because it helps those who have been hurt by the trade war.

Biden said the U.S. must strengthen ties with its allies and strengthen trade relationships in order to limit China's global power, and Steyer said that on his first day as president, he would undo Trump's tariffs on Chinese goods and end the RFS waivers.

Click here for a complete transcript of the debate.

New restaurants in SW Va. celebrate Appalachian cuisine

Travis Milton (Photo by Kindler Studios)
A popular chef has returned to his coal-country home in Southwest Virginia to open restaurants showcasing traditional Central Appalachian food, Eric Wallace reports for Atlas Obscura. And those are just the beginning of his plans.

Travis Milton was born about 20 miles from his restaurants in Castlewood, pop. 2,000. His grandparents and great-grandparents babysat him most of the time, so he spent a lot of time at one family's diner and the other family's cattle farm. Both kept orchards and home gardens. That gave Milton a solid foundation with gardening and cooking Appalachian food, and he went on to become a successful chef who incorporated regional ingredients at a hip restaurant in Richmond, Va., Wallace reports.

In 2015, a new boutique hotelier in Southwest Virginia asked Milton to develop two restaurants that featured Appalachian cuisine. "The collaboration led to an eponymous restaurant in the hip and offbeat Western Front Hotel in the 1,000-person town of St. Paul, which was devastated by the near-total loss of regional coal jobs in the early 2000s," Wallace reports. "Situated deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains on the Clinch River, the hotel and eatery is at the center of the town’s effort to overhaul its economy around outdoor tourism."

Milton recently partnered with Kevin Nicewonder (whose family owned Nicewonder Coal Group) to finance two new restaurants. Milton says it's fitting that money from the coal industry is financing his efforts to celebrate Appalachian food, because the industry's arrival in the region helped quash Appalachian foodways. "Men took jobs in coal mines, moving with their families to mining camps and towns," Wallace reports. "Though their families kept home gardens to avoid overpriced goods from commissaries, it was a big step away from subsistence. Over time, higher wages combined with better roads made buying from grocers more attractive. The gardens began to vanish."

In the two new restaurants—a "brews-and-bistro" pub called Taste, which is already open, and a fine dining restaurant called Hickory slated to open this summer— Milton serves up regional varieties of fruits and vegetables once common in coal country, like red Bloody Butcher corn and Candy Roaster squash, Wallace reports. Those aren't available in the supermarket, so Milton collected seeds from Appalachian old-timers and grows some of the food for his restaurants in a garden right next door.

Traditional varieties are worth bringing back, Milton said. "Appalachian gardens were laboratories dedicated to creating new tastes and useful characteristics, like later-maturing squash that grew sweeter with time and kept into the winter. With limited access to sugar, specialty corns were bred to be sweet enough to make delicious cornmeal," Wallace reports.

Google map, adapted
Milton believes the eateries will help the local economy. "Restaurants hire and train workers and, if they source local, support area farmers and food artisans," Milton told Wallace. And, more restaurant traffic brings more revenue to local businesses, Wallace notes: "Visitors bring dollars that drive tourism-related businesses—including pick-your-own berry farms, ATV tour companies, fly-fishing and canoe outfitters, farmer’s markets, breweries, cideries, distilleries, and additional restaurants."

Milton and Nicewonder hope to "redefine a region known for poverty, branded as hick, and defined by its dying coal industry as a thriving culinary destination," Wallace reports.

"We want to build a beacon that tells people that left the region, or those that’re thinking about leaving: 'Things are changing. You can put your talents to work here,'" Milton told Wallace.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Cops mock drug defendants on social media; some papers do, too; experts say that adds to stigma, inhibits treatment

Some law-enforcement agencies are getting sassy in their social-media posts about the disease of addiction, a practice they say attracts a larger audience for their work against drugs and other ills. But health advocates say the practice is dehumanizing, discourages people with substance-use disorders from seeking help, and perpetuates stigma that discourages them from getting treatment, Bobbie Curd reports for the Advocate-Messenger in Danville, Ky.

Curd details several cases. One involved an intoxicated man who reported a stolen laptop computer, and told the responding officer that he wanted to go to jail, eventually saying he wanted to be with his girlfriend, who was serving a five-month term. Then he pulled out a spoon, syringe and a large amount of suspected methamphetamine, and was arrested.

Screenshot of Facebook post; for a larger version, click on it.
The Garrard County Police Department posted a release on its Facebook page about the incident Jan. 6 with the headline "True Love" and a subhead "BUT WAIT, IT GETS BETTER," above the drug revelation.

"Hashtags on the post included “#LoveWins, #IsThisMTVCribs, #LemmeShowYouAround, #LoveANDmethAreInTheAir, #WhereCupidAt,” and “#CheckOutMyStash,” among others," Curd writes. After her story appeared, the hashtags were removed.

Earlier, Garrard County Judge-Executive John Wilson told Curd that a "younger moderator" created the tags, which mimicked what other agencies had done. He said his headline and subhead did not editorialize, and “bringing publicity to what the officers are doing is helpful. It’s not intended to poke fun.”

Curd reported, "Out of the 572 comments on the post, almost all are from people making jokes. The post has been shared 1,300 times. Only a handful of comments question the wording of the post."

Some other police agencies in the area have used similar catchy hashtags, perhaps getting the idea from the Louisville Metro Police Department. A department spokesman, told Curd that the department's more comedic approach helped increased its Facebook followers from 5,000 in 2016 to 130,000 today, a "valuable law enforcement asset" that has spurred apprehension of suspects and enabled police to share knowledge of the law with a wider audience.

But Washington also told Curd that even with “all the fun,” the department never posts mugshots, unless they have an active warrant for someone and want the public’s help; tries not to lose sight that the person involved is a family member; and strives not poke fun at addiction or use slurs like "crackhead" or "doper."

After the Garrard County post went up, the Garrard Central Record, the local weekly newspaper, printed a story that Thursday with the headline, "Might as Well Face It, He's Addicted to Love."

Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, told Curd, “This is one reason I did a Covering Substance Abuse and Recovery workshop in November for journalists." One session explained why it is important to not use stigmatizing language when reporting on addiction.

Cross, who is also the editor and publisher of The Rural Blog, said reporters are largely uncomfortable with doing enterprise reporting on the subject and “often default to the law-enforcement narrative. When the law enforcement narrative turns into mocking people with the disease, that is an inappropriate narrative to adopt.”

Several people working against addiction agreed. Robert Fox, who is in recovery from his addiction and is the director of community outreach at the Shepherd's House, an outpatient treatment center in Danville, told Curd that such posts create a feeling of "It's us against the world" and "make people like me seem less-than, to keep us in our place. … We go out every day and work with employers to get them to realize this is a disease, and that these are normal people."

Tanith Wilson, vice president of Shepherd's House and sober 13 years, called the trend "sad and heartbreaking." She said it can create a pack mentality online, with “heinous comments like ‘lock them up forever,’ or ‘just let them die.’ I’m very comfortable sharing my past, especially due to what I’m doing now, but it still makes me feel less than human when I read those comments. It’s a terrible, awful feeling.”

Kathy Miles, coordinator for the Boyle County Agency for Substance Abuse Police, told Curd that people who struggle with addiction shouldn’t have their “whole persona encapsulated in their addiction like this, or made light of,” partly because it discourages them from getting treatment. “Law enforcement and the media have incredible power to help people get treatment,” she said.

Don Helme, who is running a health-communication campaign in an $87 million grant-funded project at the University of Kentucky to reduce drug overdoses in Boyle and 15 other counties, told Curd, “It has a chilling effect on people seeking help. They become ashamed, fearful and angry. This sort of stigma in these hashtags — it’s heartbreaking.”

GAO to review Trump administration's use of biofuel waivers

"The U.S. Government Accountability Office will review the Trump administration’s use of waivers exempting oil refineries from the nation’s biofuel blending requirements, according to a letter dated Friday, after lawmakers called for an investigation," Stephanie Kelly reports for Reuters.

In August, a bipartisan group of congressional representatives from corn-growing states like Iowa and Minnesota wrote a letter asking the GAO to review what factors the Environmental Protection Agency considered in approving the waivers in 2018 and examine the Energy Department's process for recommending exemptions to the EPA, Kelly reports. The lawmakers wrote that they wanted the review because excessive Renewable Fuel Standard waivers have harmed rural communities. On Jan. 10, a GAO representative wrote to confirm that the GAO will begin the review "shortly."

The RFS requires that refineries add a certain amount of ethanol into their gasoline. The waivers are meant to protect financially distressed small refineries by eliminating the expense of blending ethanol into their gasoline, but corn and ethanol producers and processors have accused the Trump administration of improperly granting them as a boon to the petroleum industry, Kelly reports.

"The EPA has roughly quadrupled the number of waivers it has been granting to oil refineries since Donald Trump became president. The agency has also routinely waived higher volumes than the DOE has recommended," Kelly reports. The increased waivers, plus lower demand, have caused at least 18 ethanol plants to shutter and has left many corn growers without buyers.

HGTV seeking a small town to spruce up for new show

Erin and Ben Napier (HGTV photo)
Home renovation shows are HGTV's bread and butter, but an upcoming series called "Home Town Takeover" has a grander goal: they want to make over a whole community.

HGTV is seeking applications from towns with a population under 40,000 through Feb. 4. Selected public spaces and individual homes in the winning town will get renovated or revitalized, David Haynes writes for HGTV. The process and results are to be aired in a six-episode special in 2021. 

Erin and Ben Napier will host the new series; they got the idea of a whole town makeover from fans responding to their series "Home Town," in which they renovate houses and public spaces in their home of Laurel, Mississippi. "Renovating one house at a time is an awesome experience. But the chance to support an entire town, where we help bring a community back to life — that's something we’ve always wanted to try," Ben Napier told Haynes.

HGTV says, "Applicants should strive to highlight aspects of their town that make it special, fascinating, historic or unique — including distinctive features like vintage period architecture, special destinations or a classic main street." Apply here.

Miners block another coal train in an effort to get back pay; UPDATE: Company pays up, protest ends

Campfire at miners' blockade casts smoke over Kimper. (Photo by Ryan Hermens, Lexington Herald-Leader)
Wikipedia map
Coal miners in far Eastern Kentucky are blocking a coal train from leaving a Quest Energy mine near Kimper; they say it's because they haven't been paid in weeks, and that they don't plan to go back to work until they get their back pay.

"Miners said they worked from Dec. 16 until now without getting paid for that work. They came home last Thursday after a 17-hour shift, expecting to be paid Friday, but that check never came," Buddy Forbes and Lynette Cooney report for Hazard's WYMT-TV. "They were told to wait until Monday and then the date was pushed back again. Now they just want to get what is owed to them."

Within hours, people in the community brought the miners pizza, water and firewood. The situation is similar to a recent protest in southeastern Kentucky, where miners for now-bankrupt Blackjewel LLC blocked a coal train for nearly two months because their paychecks had bounced. The last miner left the tracks in late September, but none of them got paid until a month later.

American Resource Corp., which owns Quest Energy, released a statement disputing that the company makes miners work for 17 hours, and said that, though some employees are due one to eight days back pay, miners have been paid since Dec. 16 and the company doesn't "take this lightly." The statement also hinted at financial distress: "Given challenging markets, we are focused on ensuring the longevity of the employment for all the men and women of our organization."

Will Wright of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports, "Records obtained by the Herald-Leader show that neither ARC nor any of its subsidiary companies had posted a performance bond with the state to protect wages as of November, possibly in violation of state law. The performance bond issue made headlines last year when Blackjewel LLC failed to pay the bond and laid off hundreds of employees without paying them for weeks of work."

UPDATE, Jan. 15: ARC says it has paid the miners what they are owed, that they are lying and holding the train for ransom. Some miners said early Wednesday that they were paid Tuesday for two weeks' work, but "the checks did not include overtime pay or vacation days, and that they will continue to protest until they receive full compensation," Wright reports. Tonight, Wright reports that one miner "said the small group of protesting miners packed up and left at nightfall after receiving payment for overtime pay, vacation days and all other money owed to them."

Big-box stores try to get lower taxes, hurting towns' coffers

"Big-box retailers and other businesses around the U.S. in recent years have been battling with local governments to get the assessed value of their stores lowered so that they can pay less in property taxes," Bill Lucia reports for Route Fifty. "In some cases, where their appeals are successful, cities and counties can end up owing the companies sizable tax refunds. The localities are also forced to grapple with the long-term effects of the lost revenue, which can mean shifting tax burdens onto others or service cuts."

Property-tax cuts particularly hurt public schools, which depend heavily on such revenue for funding, and can make a big difference in small-town budgets. In Franklin County, Missouri, for example, Walmart wants the county government to halve the assessed value of its two stores there. The county had appraised the properties at more than $24.8 million, but Walmart claims the value is just over $14 million, Monte Miller reports for The Missourian in Washington, Mo. Walmart and other large retailers are pursuing the same strategy in stores all over the country.

Businesses that seek such a reassessment are employing a tax-avoidance strategy some call "dark-store theory." Essentially, "this involves retailers and others appealing property tax assessments on the grounds that their active stores should be valued in line with similar property that is vacant," Lucia reports. "The thinking goes that even though a big-box store may be valuable to its current owner, it’s worth far less on the resale market. Among the reasons that this argument can gain traction is that the stores are often built for a business's specific needs and aren’t easily repurposed, and because there’s a growing abundance of empty retail space available around the country."

Indiana state Rep. Lisa Beck filed a bill this week that aims to help communities who lose tax battles with big-box stores. The bill would allow local governments and school districts to get zero- or low-interest loans to help them cope with the loss of revenue, Lucia reports.

Monday, January 13, 2020

High-deductible insurance hurts rural hospitals and patients

High-deductible health insurance plans are hurting the financial health of small, rural hospitals and their patients, Markian Hawryluk reports for Kaiser Health News.

"Plans with annual deductibles of $3,000, $5,000 or even $10,000 have become commonplace since the implementation of the Affordable Care Act as insurers look for ways to keep monthly premiums to a minimum," Hawryluk reports. "But in rural areas, where high-deductible plans are even more prevalent and incomes tend to be lower than in urban areas, patients often struggle to pay."

When patients can't afford to pay, hospitals must eat the cost of treatment; that has contributed to a "substantial" rise in the amount of uncollectible hospital debt in the past few years. "According to the Healthcare Financial Management Association, hospital bad debt increased by $617 million to nearly $56.5 billion between 2015 and 2018," Hawryluk reports. "According to the National Rural Health Association, bad debt for rural hospitals has gone up about 50 percent since the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010." Partly because of bad debt, more than 120 rural hospitals have closed in the past decade and many more are on the brink of bankruptcy.

Rural residents often choose these high-deductible plans for several reasons. Consumers tend to shop for insurance based on monthly premium costs, and gamble that they won't get sick and need to pay a deductible. Others may not understand that they will have to pay the full deductible before their insurance covers bills, Hawryluk reports.

Another problem is the lack of choice. "In many rural counties, consumers shopping on their state’s health insurance exchange had little choice. This year, about 10% of enrollees, living in 25% of counties, many of them heavily rural, will have access to just one insurer in their local Affordable Care Act marketplaces," Hawryluk reports.

Maggie Elehwany, vice president of the NRHA, told Hawryluk that the exchanges were meant to provide people with choices, but "There’s no shopping in rural America. You have one choice."

Some places ban dollar stores, blame them for poor diets; research says that won't improve nutrition in 'food deserts'

Photo illustration by
Though dollar stores are a fast-expanding retail segment, some municipalities are banning them, blaming them for contributing to poor health by creating "food deserts," which are defined differently in urban and rural areas. Detractors say they "saturate poor neighborhoods with cheap, over-processed food, undercutting other retailers and lowering the quality of offerings in poorer communities," Steven Malanga reports for City Journal, a national policy publication.

In rural food deserts, dollar stores may be the only easily accessible place to buy groceries, but most dollar stores do not stock fresh produce, and only a limited selection of healthful frozen food. Dollar General Corp., which plans to open 1,000 more stores in the U.S. this year, has put some full-service grocery stores out of business. That's mostly because of Dollar General Markets, a store model that sells limited selections of fresh produce and meat.

However, dollar stores aren't completely to blame for poor dietary choices in food deserts, Malanga notes. Recent research found that households in former food deserts keep buying unhealthy food even after a local supermarket opens. The researchers wrote that stores sell people what they want to eat, and that "lower demand for healthy food is what causes the lack of supply."

"Combatting the ill effects of a bad diet involves educating people to change their eating habits. That’s a more complicated project than banning dollar stores. Subsidizing the purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables through the federal food-stamp program and working harder to encourage kids to eat better—as Michelle Obama tried to do with her Let’s Move! campaign—are among the economists’ suggestions for improving the nation’s diet," Malanga writes. "That’s not the kind of thing that generates sensational headlines. But it makes a lot more sense than banning dollar stores."

Farmers Union worries proposed USDA rule won't adequately protect farmers from unfair meatpacker practices

The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to overhaul its Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration regulations aimed at protecting producers from unfair practices by meatpackers.

"Several farmer advocacy groups, however, argue the proposal doesn’t go far enough to ensure a competitive landscape in the increasingly consolidated meat and poultry sector," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture. "As the industry rapidly consolidates, producers say they need more legal options for challenging unfair and discriminatory practices by conglomerates."

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue's proposed rule would lay out new, narrower criteria to determine when actions by meatpackers and large livestock dealers are considered unfair to farmers who raise livestock. "It outlines four factors to determine whether actions by meatpackers is so unfair that it harms a farmer’s success, like negotiating higher prices with a favored livestock supplier for no justifiable business reason," McCrimmon reports. But Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union said the rule doesn't go far enough, won't likely protect farmers, and doesn't address other power imbalances between producers and corporations.

The 2008 Farm Bill ordered more protective GIPSA rules for such contract farmers, and the Obama administration repeatedly tried to finalize those rules. However, the Trump administration scrapped the Obama-era rules in October 2017, arguing that they would lead to too many lawsuits.

Most rural counties gained jobs over the past year, but job growth rate lags metros; map has county-level data

Employment change by county from November 2018 to November 2019
(Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here to see the interactive version)
Two-thirds of rural counties gained jobs between November 2018 and November 2019, but rural job growth continued to trail metropolitan job growth, according to the newest data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The data also conformed with a well-known trend: the more urban the county, the higher the job growth rate, and vice versa. The biggest cities had the highest job growth rate, while the most rural areas had the lowest.

"Almost twice as many rural counties proportionately lost jobs in the last year compared to metro job-losers. Nineteen percent of metro counties had fewer jobs at the end of the year than at the beginning. Among rural counties, 37 percent had lost jobs," Bill Bishop reports for The Daily Yonder. "Job growth was an almost entirely urban phenomenon. The top 319 counties in total job growth were all in metro areas."

Jan. 24 journalism talk to cover farmers' role in fighting climate change; you can watch via livestream

The Society of Environmental Journalists will host the eighth annual Journalists' Guide to Energy & Environment at 3 p.m. ET Jan. 24. in Washington, D.C.; those who can't be there can livestream the discussion.

A panel of top environmental and energy journalists will discuss the biggest topics likely to come up in 2020, including the role of farms and ranches in fighting climate change, and grazing on public lands.

Click here to read some backgrounder information they've published on the issues ahead of the conference, and click here for more information on attending or livestreaming the event.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

McConnell backs anti-trust exemption for newspapers to negotiate compensation from Facebook and Google

Dink NeSmith, CEO of Community Newspapers Inc.: "If you
let them get milk through the fence, they’ll never buy the cow.”
At the most polarized time in American politics since the Civil War, and more notably when the news media have become targets of both sides (but mainly one), there is bipartisan agreement in Congress to help newspapers cut a deal with Google and Facebook -- and it includes some powerful and influential members.

The legislation would give newspapers a four-year exemption from anti-trust laws to negotiate with the internet platforms that profit from their journalism but have cost them much of the advertising revenue that has been the main source of money to pay for that journalism. It got a big boost last week with co-sponsorship by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Its prime sponsor is Rep. Doug Colllins of Georgia, who as ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee led the defense of President Trump in the impeachment hearings.

“I am a free-markets guy and have fought against the idea that just because something is big it is necessarily bad,” Collins told Cecilia Kang of The New York Times. “But look, I’m a politician and live with the media and see its importance. These big, disruptive platforms are making money off creators of content disproportionately.”

Facebook and Google declined the Times' requests for comment on the legislation, but "The companies say their businesses have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on programs to bolster local journalism," Kang writes. "The companies also work with news organizations to promote their articles and videos, driving traffic to their websites." Google told her, “Every month, Google News and Google Search drive over 24 billion visits to publishers’ websites, which drive subscriptions and significant ad revenue.”

Kang writes from Georgia, a good choice because 29 of its 159 counties don't have a local paper. She focuses first on Dink NeSmith, CEO of Community Newspapers Inc., which owns 24 papers, mainly in Georgia, several in Collins' district and recently showed its worth through coverage that blocked a coal-ash landfill. But on breaking daily news that lives mainly on social media, newspapers get little recognition or money, Kang notes. NeSmith quotes one of his grandmothers: “Honey, if you let them get milk through the fence, they’ll never buy the cow.”