Saturday, February 15, 2020

Open-records laws are often violated with impunity due to lax laws and agencies' ability to use taxpayer-paid lawyers

Map shows jail time for violating state records laws. Only penalties explicitly included in those laws were included.
Maximum civil fine for a first offense of open records law. Only provisions which penalized under-disclosure were counted.
Sometimes not much happens when government officials and agencies violate a state’s open-records laws, the National Freedom of Information Coalition says in its latest white paper, “Blueprint to Transparency: Non-compliance and Lack of Enforcement of Open Records Laws in Select U.S. States.”

The paper looks at the varying enforcement mechanisms in state laws, including criminal penalties, civil penalties and "fee shifting," the disadvantage that record-seekers face in legal battles with government agencies that don't incur hourly legal fees because they have in-house attorneys.

The paper, which includes case studies of several states, makes five recommendations for improving open-records laws and policies to enforce them:
  • Strengthen fee-shifting provisions, which are paramount to ensuring compliance, by allowing any plaintiff that substantially prevails to recover attorney’s fees, or even making it mandatory.
  • Enforce civil penalties that accrue from the date of unlawful withholding of records; enact provisions to make the responding public official or agency head personally liable for civil fines; escalate penalties for repeated violations to encourage compliance.
  • Increase accountability and powers among enforcement officials and agencies tasked with these roles, like attorneys general and ombuds, while considering new roles for inspectors general, public-information officers and citizen oversight boards.
  • Initiate robust primary (alternative) dispute-resolution solutions that give requesters the ability to appeal a decision without the need to hire a lawyer.
  • Advocate for imposition of other sanctions, such as mandatory open-government training, to prevent repeat violations; institute mandatory training for all public-record stewards, public employees and officials, to prevent violations from occurring in the first place.
NFOIC is publishing a series of white papers examining how freedom of information affects citizens' lives, offering comparative analysis of laws, practices and policies across the U.S. "If you know academics, government agencies or stakeholder groups who may be interested in online public records portal administration, please share this research with them," NFOIC says. "We hope this white paper can assist in the effort for improved records administration in cities and states across the U.S and look forward to hearing your feedback:"
Map shows attorney-fee-shifting provisions. Indiana and Minnesota mandate fee-shifting only when a requester seeks enforcement after a state agency fails to release records in violation of an administrative advisory opinion. Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire and Rhode Island allow or mandate fee-shifting only when the violating agency has withheld the records knowingly, willingly, or otherwise in bad faith. (National Freedom of Information Coalition maps)

Friday, February 14, 2020

Former federal strip-mine inspector leads decades-long effort to reforest reclaimed mines in Eastern Kentucky

Patrick Angel on his farm near London,
Ky. (Post photo by Jahi Chikwendiu)
Coal companies are required to reclaim mined land when they're done with a site, but one Interior Department inspector realized that the companies' practices weren't encouraging forests to grow back. So the native of Eastern Kentucky has spent the past two decades bringing them back on his own, Gabriel Popkin reports for The Washington Post Magazine.

Patrick Angel spent his career in the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. "For 25 years, he oversaw the process that may represent humans' best attempt to date at total annihilation of land: strip-mining and mountaintop-removal mining of coal," Popkin reports. "He told coal companies to do one thing when they were done with a site: pack the remaining rubble as tightly as possible, and plant grass — the only type of plant he trusted to hold the ground in place."

But that didn't allow tree roots to take hold, so the forests that had existed on most of the nearly 1.5 million acres of mined land in Appalachia weren't growing back. In 2002, six years after foresters at Virginia Tech and the University of Kentucky tried to persuade him to try other methods, Angel saw that they were working, and his "guilt was almost overwhelming," Popkin reports. Angel told him, “The lightbulb came on. I said, ‘Oh my God, what have we done?’”

With the help of local volunteers and some bulldozers, Angel has spent the past two decades trying to reforest mined areas. The dozers rip up the ground and loosen the rubble so tree roots can take hold, then volunteers plant saplings from species native to the area: tulip poplars, oaks, pines and chestnuts, Popkin reports.

Washington Post map from U.S. Geological Survey National Land Cover Database
"Thanks in large part to Angel, now 70, more than 187 million trees have been planted on about 275,000 acres of former mines, an area more than six times the size of the District of Columbia," Popkin reports. This represents one of the most ambitious restoration efforts in one of the country’s most devastated places. It is led not by big name-brand environmental groups but by people from the mountains, operating with small budgets and with little fanfare or recognition."

Aside from an Appalachian Regional Commission grant, the federal government has helped little. As the Obama administration was ending, it issued regulations "that all but required reforestation for surface-mine reclamation," Popkin notes. "One of President Trump’s first acts, supposedly to reward the coal miners and industry leaders who supported him, was to kill the new rule."

Popkin's long-form piece delves into the history of coal and surface mining in Eastern Kentucky, and how it has affected the land and the people. It's a lovely example of national reporting that avoids parachute-style coverage. Popkin is a science writer who was born and raised in Kentucky, and chief photographer Jahi Chikwendiu and drone videographer Ron Garrison are from Kentucky too. The story was partly funded by a grant from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.

Federal appeals court strikes down Medicaid work rules

A federal appeals court ruled Friday against the work requirements that some states have tried to impose on Medicaid enrollees who are not "medically frail" and had no dependents.

The Trump administration was arbitrary and capricious when it approved plans from Kentucky and Arkansas, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled unanimously.

The Department for Health and Human Services essentially ignored the main purpose of Medicaid, which “was to provide health-care coverage to populations that otherwise could not afford it,” wrote Senior Judge David Sentelle, who was appointed to the court by Ronald Reagan. The Trump administration is expected to ask the Supreme Court to hear the case.

The decision technically applies only to Arkansas, but "is sure to set a powerful precedent for other states," writes James Romoser of Inside Health Policy. "A few of those states have already been hit with lawsuits similar to the Arkansas litigation. Two states, Michigan and Utah, currently have active Medicaid work requirements, though penalties for non-compliance do not kick in until May 1 in both states. A lawsuit challenging the Michigan waiver is pending, as are similar lawsuits challenging waivers for Indiana and New Hampshire. Arizona, Indiana and Wisconsin all have paused the implementation of work requirement waivers. Ohio and South Carolina waivers are scheduled for future implementation."

The ruling upheld several by a judge in the D.C. District Court, which scuttled a program Arkansas had started and kept Kentucky's from taking effect. Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who defeated Republican Gov. Matt Bevin in the November election, rescinded Kentucky's plan soon after taking office in December. Republicans control the state legislature but have shown no interest in enacting Bevin's plan.

The plan had been challenged by 16 Medicaid beneficiaries in the state, who noted the Bevin administration's initial forecast that Kentucky Medicaid rolls would have 95,000 fewer people in five years than without the plan, in large measure because of noncompliance with the requirements to work, attend school or perform community service 80 hours a month and report monthly. "About 18,000 people in Arkansas lost coverage over seven months after the state’s work requirement commenced, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank," report Brent Kendall and Stephanie Armour of The Wall Street Journal.

"Friday’s decision comes as some other states have shown mounting interest in adopting work requirements," they note. "Ten states including Kentucky, Arkansas, New Hampshire, Arizona and Michigan have received approval to adopt work requirements, according to George Washington University’s Milken Institute of Public Health.

Report names states whose rural hospitals are most vulnerable to closure, and the number in each

Percentage of rural hospitals in each state deemed "most
vulnerable." Click the image to enlarge it. (Chartis Center map)
Rural hospitals have been closing at unprecedented rates over the past decade, and the trend is accelerating, according to a new report by The Chartis Center for Rural Health, part of health care analytics consultancy The Chartis Group.

In the last decade, 120 rural hospitals have closed. The closures slowed a little in 2016 and 2017, but picked back up in 2018. There have been 34 in the past two years, and 2019 was the single worst year yet, with 19.

The report digs into the reasons for the closures, and shares the metrics the researchers used to predict future closures among the 1,844 hospitals they studied. Their statistical model identifies the factors most likely to impact a hospital's ability to cope during a critical window about two years before closure. The model also identifies which rural hospitals are performing like those that have closed, and explores those vulnerable hospitals' performance.

Among the factors most likely to influence a hospital's closure: the average age of the building, percentage of occupancy, affiliation with a larger health-care system, and whether it's in a state with expanded Medicaid.

The states with the highest numbers of hospital closures since 2010 are Texas (20), Tennessee (12), Oklahoma (7) and Georgia (7). The states with the highest number of vulnerable hospitals are Texas (36), Kansas (19), Missouri (15), Nebraska (14) and Mississippi (13). And in seven states, more than 20 percent of the rural hospitals are extremely vulnerable to closure: Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

Quick hits: small churches arming themselves; firefighters must adapt to climate change

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

Houses of worship have been increasingly targeted by shooters in recent years. Some churches, too worried to go gun-free, are arming themselves. Read more here.

Wildfires are bigger and more destructive than ever because of climate change. That means firefighters and their communities need to adapt to meet the challenge, writes one firefighter. Read more here.

Texas leads the nation in the number of rural hospitals closing. But the funding cuts to hospitals in President Trump's proposed budget would threaten even more hospitals in Texas (and other states). Read more here.

Beloved Kentucky priest Father John Rausch, a passionate advocate for Appalachians, has died at 75. Read more here.

The American Farm Bureau Foundation hopes to help bridge the rural-urban divide by educating young consumers about agriculture and the role it plays in our lives. Read more here.

A new Veterans Affairs Department initiative aims to fill the shortage of rural medical practitioners. Read more here.

Two Trump-voting half-brothers in Pa. coal country, black and white, say they're on a mission to fight local racism

Andy Barrow and "Stosh" Webb Jr. (Photo by Matt Smith)
Andy Barrow and his younger half-brother Ronald Stanley "Stosh" Webb Jr. have much in common: They were born in Schuykill County, Pennsylvania, voted for President Trump, and are combat veterans and firefighters. But Barrow is white and Webb is black. And now the brothers say they're on a mission to combat local racism in their coal-country town, Jen Kinney reports for WHYY in Philadelphia.

Webb said he had overheard and seen racist behavior in Schuykill County, but had never been blatantly confronted with it until one night in July 2019. He and some buddies went to a firefighter bar for their weekly meet-up. Such bars are common in the region; they're semi-private bars that usually require a small membership fee to help fund volunteer fire departments. At the Port Clinton Fire Co. bar that night, the bartender recommended that Webb listen to a racist country music song whose title includes the N-word, Kinney reports.

Schuykill County
(Wikipedia map)
Webb and his friends left, he said, but noted that Port Clinton's volunteer fire chief was present and didn't intervene. Webb and Barrow were furious, both at the bartender and at the fire chief for not speaking up, Kinney reports. They complained, but the bartender wasn't fired.

"Now, these model 'Skooks' have become unlikely champions for so-called 'cancel culture,' on a mission to hold their neighbors accountable for racism they say has been too easily overlooked, both past and present," Kinney reports. "Their campaign has brought the issue into local public debate in an election year that feels, to many voters, like a referendum on President Trump’s treatment of non-white communities."

Thursday, February 13, 2020

States trying to create their own more accurate broadband coverage maps to better access rural funding

State agencies, frustrated with inaccurate federal broadband maps, are trying to create their own in an attempt to ensure more access to rural broadband funding, Andrea Noble reports for Route Fifty.

The Federal Communications Commission publishes a map of broadband reach, but it relies on self-reported data by internet providers who sometimes overstate their rural reach in order to qualify for funding. Also, a census block is considered "covered" as long as at least one household has broadband access. One organization, BroadbandNowmanually checked 11,000 addresses the FCC said had broadband, and found that 19 percent didn't. "While the FCC estimates that 21 million Americans, or 6.5% of the population, lack access to broadband, the BroadbandNow report put that total closer to 42 million Americans," Noble reports.

Billions of dollars in state and federal rural broadband funding hinge on the FCC map, but the agency has no immediate plans to upgrade its mapping capabilities. "FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said a detailed mapping analysis would instead be conducted in the second phase of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund," Noble reports.

So, some states are trying to augment the map with their own data, sometimes obtained directly from service providers, some even from door-to-door surveys. States that find more data can submit it to the FCC when applying for a grant to challenge the FCC version, Noble reports.

Jeff Sural, director of the Broadband Infrastructure Office in the North Carolina Department of Information Technology, said it's critical to get better data because "there is so much money on the table," he told Noble. "We want to make sure North Carolina gets its fair share and we think the current approach does not address the granularity needed to adequately distribute these funds."

Study: Younger, rural people more likely to die by suicide using a long gun than a handgun; easy access is key

A newly published study from Johns Hopkins University highlights the prevalence of rifles and shotguns (long guns) used in rural suicides in Maryland.

Firearms are used in most fatal suicides in the U.S., mostly because they're accessible and lethal. Because long guns are less regulated than handguns and ubiquitous in rural areas, they're the weapon of choice for suicide in young and rural populations in Maryland, the authors write.

The study examined all 3,931 Maryland gun suicides from 2003 to 2018. In that time frame, 28.4% of gun suicides overall used long guns. In urban counties, long guns were used in 16.8% of gun suicides, but in rural counties the figure was 51.6%. After adjusting for demographics, intoxication and hunting seasons, suicide decedents from the most rural counties were 3.74 times more likely to use long guns than those in the most urban counties.

Long guns were also disproportionately used by the young in Maryland. Among those who died by suicide at age 18 or younger, 44.6% used long guns, compared to 20.2% among those 65 or older.

Because almost three-quarters of suicide attempts are made on impulse, easy access to firearms is a key factor. State laws that have reduced access to firearms by high-risk individuals have been shown to reduce suicide rates. Such measures include mandatory background checks and waiting periods as well as laws to keep guns at home locked away from children. "Long guns must be considered as part of access to lethal means or policy strategies in efforts to reduce the burden of firearm suicide," the authors write.

Top 100 rural and critical-access hospitals announced

At the Rural Health Policy Institute's annual conference today, the Chartis Center for Rural Health revealed this year's top 100 critical-access hospitals, as well as the top 100 rural and community hospitals. The RHPI is part of the National Rural Health Association. The Chartis Group, which operates the Chartis Center, is a health care analytics consultancy.

The hospitals on each list are grouped by state, but not ranked, so there is no single "best" hospital. The rankings are based on Chartis' Hospital Strength Index, which considers performance based on 50 rural-relevant factors in eight broad market-, value-, and finance-based categories.

At the RHPI's annual Rural Health Conference in May, Chartis will recognize the top 20 rural and community hospitals on the list.

Southern states, feds step up campaign against Asian carp

Photo from Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee
State and federal fish and wildlife agencies have spent about $607 million altogether to stop the spread of Asian carp since 2004. As more Southern states try to stop the invasive species, that total is expected to hit about $1.5 billion over the next decade.

"That’s more than five times the amount predicted in 2007 when a national carp management plan was crafted, and no end is in sight. Programs aim to reduce established populations and prevent further spreading, but wildlife officials concede they may never be able to eradicate the prolific fish," Travis Loller and John Flesher report for ABC News.

The invaders reproduce rapidly, and can kill off native species by eating or outcompeting them. That endangers fishing industries, habitats and tourism. Most of the money so far has been spent on apparently successful efforts at keeping them out of the Great Lakes, but "less money and attention have been paid to the carp’s virtually unchecked spread east and west into the Missouri and Ohio rivers, among others," Loller and Flesher report. But as the fish become increasingly well-established in the Mississippi River watershed, more Southern states are trying to keep them out of lakes.

In late November, state and federal officials began testing some creative tactics to keep carp out of Lake Barkley and nearby Kentucky Lake, including using electric pulses and huge nets to capture them, along with flashing white lights, low-level noises and streams of bubbles to scare the fish away.
Kentucky officials have been especially proactive in trying to get the carp out of the twin lakes, a major tourist destination near the Mississippi River. Last year the state partnered with a processor, Two Rivers Fisheries, to sell Asian carp abroad since the species are popular menu items in China. The program pays local fishers for their Asian carp catches. Kentucky anglers brought in 6 million pounds last year, Loller and Flesher report.

Selling the fish has had limited success, since Chinese buyers like them fresh. Angie Yu, president of Two Rivers, said she's trying to sell in Europe and the Middle East, Loller and Flesher report.

Study: Rural distrust of government helps fuel views on environmental and conservation policies

Duke University chart; click the image to enlarge it.
Distrust of the government helps fuel the rural-urban divide on environmental and conservation policies, according to a newly published study from the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University in North Carolina.

Rural Americans have an outsized impact on environmental policy, because farmers, ranchers, and forest owners manage large portions of the nation's lands and watersheds. But rural Americans are less likely to support federal environmental policies. It isn't that they don't care: more than 70 percent of rural, urban and suburban residents surveyed said that environmental and conservation issues were important to them. Rather, distrust of the government—and scientists who may be funded by the government—was the key motivator in respondents' views on climate change and environmental policy. Even rural residents who were younger, Democrats, or highly educated tended to be more skeptical of government intervention than their suburban and urban counterparts.

The study relied on diverse data-gathering strategies, including focus groups, telephone surveys, and in-depth interviews. Among the researchers' other findings:
  • Clean water is the highest priority among all voters, but rural voters care more about farmland conservation than climate change.
  • Rural residents tend to view environmental and conservation issues through the lenses of community, environmental stewardship and a strong connection to nature.
  • Rural voters do not consider it a contradiction to identify as "pro-environment" while opposing or having strong reservations about existing environmental policies.
  • Rural voters prefer state or local action to address environmental issues because they feel their voices will be better heard.
  • The level of knowledge about the environment doesn't necessarily correlate with support of environmental laws.
  • Many rural voters may doubt the science that supports climate change because they worry about the implications of accepting it; increased environmental regulations might harm rural residents, they believe.
  • Rural residents generally see conservation groups more positively than environmental advocacy groups.
The researchers write that the rural-urban divide will not easily be bridged, and cannot be done with better talking points. It will require engagement, new partnerships with rural stakeholders, and better communication strategies.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Database tracks Catholic priests accused of abuse; some names may not appear in your local diocese's list

When Catholic priests sexually abuse parishioners, too often the church transfers them to another diocese instead of defrocking them, and their crimes are rarely publicized. That can endanger the priests' new flock. So, ProPublica has created the first central, searchable database of 6,000-plus priests who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse or misconduct, Lexi Churchill reports.

In 2018, a grand jury report in Pennsylvania named a lot of names, and prompted at least 178 Catholic community leaders across the nation to publish their own lists. ProPublica spent more than a year cataloguing those lists, resulting in a database with over 6,600 names, Churchill reports.

There was no central standard for who and what should be included in those lists, which led to incomplete and inconsistent reports that sometimes lack important details. "Several categories of clergy members are frequently left off lists. At least three dozen lists exclude members of religious order who were accused within their jurisdiction," Churchill reports. "Similarly, your diocese may leave off extern priests, who came to serve from another diocese or country, and priests who died before accusations were reported."

If your local diocese hasn't released a list, you can search state, city or nearby parishes and see if there is any overlap. You can also conduct your own public records searches for lawsuits against local Catholic churches and look into other resources. " gathers information from a wide range of sources beyond official lists. It can be a useful resource as you try to figure out who may be on an unreleased list," Churchill writes.

Reporters can also pressure local church leaders on whether and when they plan to release a list. Of the 41 dioceses that haven't published a list, many have said they plan to publish one soon, but many have gone long past their initial deadlines. If your diocese has released a list, it may still be missing names, so keep digging, Churchill advises.

Essay explores whether reporters should not vote in primaries, in order to keep their personal politics private

As primary elections kick off, a Poynter Institute essay wonders: should journalists stop voting in primaries in order to keep their politics private?

Voting in a primary generally involves registering with the Republican or Democratic party, which is publicly accessible knowledge. Registering with a party compromises a journalist's neutrality, many believe. "Every four years the journalism profession has this argument," writes Kelly McBride, Poynter's senior vice president and chair of Poynter's Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership. Who's right? The short answer: it's complicated. Read more here.

Large dairies experiment with creating biofuel from cow manure, a prospect made profitable by carbon tax credits

How manure is turned into natural gas (StarTribune graphic; click on it to enlarge)
When you think renewable energy sources, you're probably thinking of wind, sun, or even corn. You're probably not thinking of cow manure though. But policies California and Oregon have passed to fight climate change have created a nationwide market for biogas produced from cow manure, Adam Belz reports for the Minneapolis StarTribune.

"Farmers who capture the methane, a greenhouse gas more immediately potent than carbon dioxide, can earn lucrative low-carbon credits. Dairies across the country, especially large ones, are investigating the prospect," Belz reports. "Two large dairies in northwest Indiana are already certified for credits in California. Three Wisconsin dairies are producing biogas for transportation fuel and three more projects there are under construction, according to the Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas."

Participating farmers pump the manure into an airtight chamber that captures the gas, which bubbles up within a few weeks. After the gas is collected, carbon dioxide and other impurities are filtered out and the methane is injected into a nearby interstate gas pipeline. "The carbon-credit systems in California and Oregon reward methane that’s captured and directed at the niche market of natural-gas-fueled vehicles," Belz reports. "Fuel producers in those states, such as refiners, must meet annual targets for greenhouse gas emission reduction. If they don’t, they can purchase low-carbon credits to help them meet the target."

How much money does that work out to? A 2017 study looked at the Fair Oaks dairy in northwest Indiana, which has 10,500 cows and can produce about 221,000 dekatherms of pipeline-ready gas per year. (A dekatherm is 1 million British thermal units, or BTU.) Since biogas credits in California are about $68 per dekatherm, the farm could bring in $15 million in revenue per year. Production costs for such biogas are between $15 and $30 per dekatherm, Belz reports, which would work out to between $3.3 million and $6.6 million per year for Fair Oaks. That means the farm could get between $8.4 and $11.7 million in profit.

Though environmentalists are generally glad to see any industry reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, "some worry that government incentives prodding farmers to produce biomethane will reward only very large operations," Belz reports.

Webinar on Friday, Feb. 20, will discuss federal research and resources on rural education

A Feb. 20 webinar aims to give you more information about federal research and resources on rural education in the U.S. The Federal Depository Library Program will host the free webinar, which will begin at 2 p.m. ET and last for about an hour.

U.S. Department of Education official Liz Eisner will lead the webinar. If you are not able to attend the webinar, a recording will be made available later. Click here to register for the webinar.

Barrage of complaints about drift of dicamba herbicide overwhelm state agencies that probe pesticide damage

State agencies responsible for investigating pesticide-misuse reports have been overwhelmed by complaints about the herbicide dicamba for the past three years, and many are asking the Environmental Protection Agency for help, Dan Charles reports for NPR.

Dicamba is notorious for drifting into nearby fields, damaging crops that aren't genetically engineered to be resistant to it. It was once sprayed only before crops sprouted, but in 2016 EPA allowed farmers to spray it on genetically modified soybean plants. Then came a large increase in complaints from farmers who say their non-GMO crops were damaged, Charles reports.

State agencies have to investigate each complaint of pesticide drift and decide whether it happened because someone broke the law, "but many have struggled to keep up," Charles reports. "In Illinois, the number of complaints soared from about 120 in the pre-dicamba era to more than 700 in 2019. In Indiana, it went from about 60 to 200. Meanwhile, because they're fully occupied with dicamba complaints, inspectors don't have time for all their other work, such as routine inspections of pesticide use at schools, golf courses or businesses."

The complaints aren't likely going away any time soon. Several states have banned or restricted dicamba use over the past few years, but in November of 2018 EPA extended its approval through 2020. "The agency decided the problems could be addressed with a few new restrictions on how and where dicamba can be sprayed, along with more training for people who use it," Charles reports. 

However, dicamba complaints have continued to increase, and where they have decreased, there is evidence that most people aren't filing complaints because they don't think it will do any good, Charles reports.

The states' heavy workload has resulted in high staff turnover. In the past year and a half, all but one of Missouri's eight pesticide inspectors left their jobs, Charles reports. And, frustratingly, EPA may not be paying much attention to the state reports anyway. The EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs stopped asking for routine updates on state regulators' injury reports last year.

The herbicide is under increased scrutiny right now as dicamba makers Bayer (which bought the originator Monsanto) and BASF face allegations in a lawsuit that they deliberately sold a product known to hurt non-resistant crops in order to increase their sales. The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting has an in-depth package on the trial.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Trump budget calls for steep cuts to many programs that benefit rural areas

President Trump's proposed $4.89 trillion budget for Fiscal Year 2021 won't get passed as-is, especially in the Democrat-led House, but it's instructive to see what his priorities are as he attempts to woo rural voters for his reelection campaign. Here are some of the details with rural resonance:

The proposed budget "once again calls for steep cuts to federal spending that supports rural communities," Bryce Oates reports for The Daily Yonder. That includes an 8 percent cut in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's discretionary budget—a $2 billion cut that mostly targets nutrition and food security programs, though farming, conservation and rural economic development programs are also cut.

Specifically, Trump proposes cutting funding for the Economic Research Service by 35%, from this year's $84 million to $62 million. The Rural Business and Cooperative Programs would lose 97% of funding, from $94 million to $3 million. The budget would also eliminate the USDA Single Family Housing Direct Loans program, funded this year at $90 million, and would provide the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network only $2 million for local farm financial stress counseling—$8 million less than the 2018 Farm Bill's minimum, Oates reports.

"The budget proposes $44 million in distance learning and telemedicine grants, with 20% dedicated to projects that 'combat the opioid crisis and keep rural communities safe,''' Oates reports. "It provides $614 million in funding for water and wastewater grants and loans, $5.5 billion in electric loans, and $690 million in telecommunications loans, $2.5 billion for community facility direct loans and $500 million for guaranteed loans. The budget also provides $1.5 billion for business and industry guaranteed loans, a $500 million increase over current levels paid for by increased lending fees."

The budget calls for spending reductions over the next decade by cutting spending on school meal programs for the poor, large cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program through work requirements, more than $9 billion in cuts to farm conservation programs, and increasing user fees for food safety inspections, Oates reports.

The Department of Education would lose nearly 8%, or $5.6 billion, under the budget. Trump proposes cutting student loan spending by $170 billion and ending subsidized loans, in which the government covers interest for borrowers who are still in school or experiencing economic hardship. "It would also reduce the number of repayment options for borrowers and nix the popular, if challenged, public service loan forgiveness program," Annie Nova reports for CNBC. Losing the forgiveness program could make it harder for rural areas to attract doctors and teachers.

The budget aims to reduce Social Security spending by $75 billion over the next decade. Some of the savings would come from terminating more people from the Social Security Disability Insurance program. And "$10 billion of this reduction comes from reducing the amount of retroactive benefits someone can receive after they’ve been found to be disabled," Elena Botella reports for Forbes.

The budget isn't clear where much of the proposed Social Security savings over the next decade will come from. Over the next 10 years, $47 billion in savings is meant to come from an Office of Management and Budget proposal to "test new approaches to labor force participation," which essentially amounts to experimenting with policy until they save money, Botella reports.

Trump hopes to cut Medicare spending by 7%, or $756 billion, over the next decade. "Part of this reduction in spending comes from initiatives that the White House says are intended to reduce Medicare fraud," Botella reports. "For example, they've proposed requiring patients and doctors to ask for prior authorization from Medicare before certain procedures could be performed. And the budget hopes to lower Medicare spending through changes that would encourage more seniors to see nurse practitioners or physician’s assistants as their primary care providers. Medicaid spending would be cut by 16% over the next 10 years, possibly by shifting program funding to block grants.

The administration also wants to "cut down on reimbursement rates to healthcare providers, reducing how much doctors, hospitals, and hospices are paid for providing healthcare," Botella reports. The administration "highlights specific instances where they believe reimbursement rates for doctors are excessive: for example, they cite the fact that doctor’s offices owned by hospitals are often paid more for performing the same procedures than independent physicians."

The budget seeks to save $135 billion over the next decade by enacting comprehensive drug pricing reform. "The Trump budget does not include specific policies to reduce costs, but rather states the administration is supportive of capping out-of-pocket pharmacy drug costs for Medicare recipients, and improving incentives to reduce costs," Andrea Noble reports for Route Fifty.

The budget also eliminates the Department of Housing and Urban Development's HOME Investment Partnerships Program, which provided $1.3 billion in grants last year to 600 state and local governments to help pay for affordable housing for the poor, Noble reports. For the third year in a row, Trump has proposed eliminating most USDA rural affordable housing programs and many of its HUD programs, though the budget aims to fund some efforts to repair existing affordable properties, according to the Housing Assistance Council, a nonprofit that offers low-cost rural housing development loans.

The proposed budget would cut overall domestic federal spending by 5% and forecasts $4.6 trillion in deficit reduction over the next decade as long as the economy continues growing at around 3% per year, Jeff Mason and Richard Cowan report for Reuters.

However, the Congressional Budget Office projects the economy will grow 2.2% in the current fiscal year and will grow less than 2.0% per year afterward. "While Trump campaigned on a promise of eventually eliminating the country’s huge debt, each year of his plan projects significant budget deficits that actually would add to the $22 trillion debt," Mason and Cowan report.

Judge OKs merger of Sprint, T-Mobile; big farm lender's report says rural wireless operators could be hurt

Today a federal judge ruled in favor of a proposed $26 billion merger of Sprint and T-Mobile that would also introduce Dish Network as a wireless provider. However, the deal can't proceed until the California Public Utilities Commission approves it, Lauren Feiner reports for CNBC.

"Attorneys general from New York, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia and D.C. originally brought the lawsuit to block the deal following approval from the Justice Department [and the] Federal Communications Commission," Feiner reports. "The states had argued that combining the No. 3 and No. 4 U.S. carriers would limit competition and result in higher prices for consumers. The companies had argued their merger would help them compete against top players AT&T and Verizon and advance efforts to build a nationwide 5G network."

Rural and farm lender CoBank recently provided an in-depth picture of how the merger could affect rural America and made some projections. Economist Jeff Johnston wrote that it's difficult to predict how the deal will play out, but T-Mobile's lack of roaming agreements with rural operators concerns him. "According to the Rural Wireless Association, Sprint has been an important roaming partner for many rural operators as they fill Sprint’s coverage gaps," Johnston reports. The roaming deals are sometimes a significant source of revenue for rural wireless providers, but T-Mobile has not pursued such rural coverage deals as aggressively as Sprint. 

If T-Mobile's current management leads the new T-Mobile, they might abandon Sprint's roaming strategy, and rural wireless operators could take a "significant revenue hit," Johnston writes. If T-Mobile takes seriously its promises to improve rural coverage, rural residents could benefit, he writes.

Columbia Journalism Review series on 4 towns and election starts with rural Virginia county that lost its only newspaper

A fast-growing rural county that lost its only newspaper two years ago is the focus of the first in a series of articles for Columbia Journalism Review and The Delacorte Review, under the title "The Year of Fear: Four American towns on the way to November."

Caroline County, Virginia, has about 31,000 people, more than half again as many as it had 30 years ago, as it becomes a bedroom community for Richmond and Fredericksburg. It's broadly representative; 28 percent of the population is African American, and nearly 5% is Hispanic or Latino, Greg Glassner reports: "Caroline County is one of the last rural areas along the Interstate 95 corridor and has yet to be overrun by apartment complexes and commercial development." In 2016, it was one of five Virginia counties that supported Donald Trump (by 5 percentage points) after voting twice for Barack Obama (by 12 and 8 points, respectively).

The Ashland paper in 2015 (Google Maps photo via The Free Lance-Star)
"For ninety-nine years, the residents of Caroline County were served by a lively weekly newspaper, the Caroline Progress, which was family-owned and -operated for most of its existence," Glassner writes. "Staff size and page count dwindled after the paper was purchased by a Tennessee-based chain in 2007." The chain is Lakeway Publishers, based in Morristown, Tenn. The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg reported in March 2018, "The newspapers' corporate leaders determined the papers were no longer 'commercially viable.'" The company also closed the Herald-Progress in Ashland in Hanover County, closer to the state capital of Richmond.

In Caroline County, Glassner asks, "How are the residents of this county dealing with the loss of their local newspaper, and what impact will it have on their lives and political decisions in 2020? These and other issues will be explored in later dispatches." The rest of the piece is mainly a historical travelogue, giving readers background for future articles. One passage:

Caroline County (Wikipedia map)
"Bowling Green, population 1,166, is the sleepy county seat in the approximate center of the county and looks much the same as it did fifty or even 100 years ago, although a few storefronts that once housed mom and pop businesses are vacant. Most county residents drive to Hanover County to the south or suburban Fredericksburg to the north for their shopping, dining, and entertainment. This was a bustling community during World War II, when Fort A.P. Hill was quickly created to meet the training needs for a rapidly growing U.S. Army. The 77,000-acre military outpost still occupies a large chunk of the county and as many as 70,000 soldiers and airmen receive short-term training here each year, though the base’s permanent party of military and civilian employees is minuscule. While local residents are patriotic, the fact that the Army post removes 22% of the landmass from the local tax base while contributing little to the local economy is a source of friction. . . . Seventy percent of the county’s workforce commutes to jobs beyond the county’s borders. Many drive as far away as the D.C. Beltway or to Richmond." Read more here.

Rural and poorest states depend most on census counts for federal funding; census awareness campaigns may help

"West Virginia, Mississippi and Kentucky rely the most on census population counts for federal funding, according to a George Washington University study released today. That’s because they have more high-poverty and rural areas that tend to get the most funding," Tim Henderson reports for Stateline. According to the Counting for Dollars 2020 study, "Census-guided federal funding made up almost 17 percent of personal income in West Virginia in 2017, the year covered by the study, and more than 12% in Mississippi, Kentucky, Arkansas, New Mexico, Louisiana, Vermont, Delaware, Maine and Montana."

The study calculated how much states depend on federal funds by creating a ratio of funding to income. Most of the funding comes from Medicare, which makes up about 4% of personal income nationwide but about 8% in Mississippi and West Virginia, Henderson reports. In contrast, federal funds made up 7% or less of personal income in faster-growing, more prosperous states like Colorado, Connecticut, Utah, Virginia, and Washington.

The largest states got the most funding overall, but census awareness efforts may have improved some states' results. California was the most populous state in 2016 with 39.2 million people, followed by Texas with 27.8 million, Florida with 20.6 million, and New York with 19.7 million. But Texas received less federal funding than New York. "California and New York have launched census awareness campaigns with tens of millions of dollars in state funding, while Texas has had only a roundtable discussion on census coordination," Henderson reports.

Opioid maker pushed doctors to prescribe more pain pills through free diagnostic tool in 2016-19, court records show

A major opioid manufacturer pushed doctors to prescribe pain pills through a free, seemingly innocuous diagnostic tool, a government investigation has revealed. According to court documents, the unnamed opioid maker secretly paid health-care software company Practice Fusion to develop the tool, which tens of thousands of doctors' offices used about 230 million times from 2016 to 2019, Emma Court reports for Bloomberg News.

The scheme aimed to increase prescriptions for addictive opioids even though overdose deaths had almost tripled in the previous 15 years. And though the civil and criminal cases against Practice Fusion don't name the opioid manufacturer, the details in the case closely match a public research partnership between Practice Fusion and OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, Court reports. Reuters reported this week that it was Purdue, citing anonymous sources.

Practice Fusion, founded in San Francisco in 2005, "became known for its unique model of providing free, ad-supported health-records software to independent doctors. The company says its cloud-based platform has grown to be used in roughly 30,000 practices," Court reports. The tool looked innocuous to doctors: when they opened up a patient's electronic records, a pop-up menu would appear, asking about the patient's pain level. Then a drop-down menu would recommend a treatment plan, which frequently included an opioid prescription.

"As deaths from opioid overdoses mounted, states and citizens accused manufacturers in lawsuits of pushing drugs while downplaying risks. Many millions of pills were dispensed at pain clinics in rural areas, fueling a vigorous street trade. The Practice Fusion case shows a more subtle method of reaching drug consumers," Court reports. "Employees estimated internally that the drug company could add almost 3,000 patients and bolster opioid sales by as much as $11.3 million through the partnership. Under the contract, the drugmaker paid Practice Fusion almost $1 million."

"Big tech companies have large-scale plans to reinvent health care, promising to revolutionize areas such as electronic records, which are a crucial source of data about consumer health. But the Practice Fusion case shows how such plans can be exploited and even provide a new avenue for financial interests to influence treatment," Court reports.

Proposals due Feb. 18 for initiative to explore changing face of small-town America through multimedia reporting

American Roundtable illustrates its pitch with this photo from Blairsburg, Iowa, by Mitch Epstein
American communities, including rural ones, are changing because of economic conditions, migration patterns, politics, climate change, racial tension and more. The Architectural League of New York, an organization devoted to architecture and design, is launching an initiative meant to provide readers with a better picture of what's happening in less-populated areas and why.

American Roundtable is meant to "bring together on-the-ground perspectives on the condition of American communities and what they need to thrive going forward," says its website. "The Architectural League will commission up to 10 editorial teams to produce reports featuring diverse voices, expressed through diverse media, creating portraits and agendas for places they know well. . . . Commissioned teams will be awarded $10,000 to support their work, which will be published digitally on and in a series of print publications."

The project is open to communities of up to 300,000 population, so The Rural Blog asked it to clarify just how rural the projects are likely to be. The response: "We very much hope to, and intend to, include truly rural regions and small towns. A major intention of the project is to hear from places that often do not reach the national conversation. We are also very conscious of and wish to avoid the situation of people from major metropolitan and coastal regions, reporting 'on' the situation in smaller locales. The hope for the project is to commission people truly from and a part of the communities under discussion. The exact spread of community size will be determined by the proposals we receive, but we fully intend to include a number of rural regions/small towns in the mix." 

Proposals are due by 11:59 p.m. ET Tuesday, Feb. 18. Those that demonstrate close ties and in-depth knowledge of their communities will be favored. Click here for more information about the project and the proposal process. American Roundtable is supported partly by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Trade bailout data and USDA farm income forecast could inform local stories about upcoming planting season

Politico map; click the image to enlarge it.
Farmers received the last tranche of trade bailout payments last week, which makes this a good time to do a local story on the coming crop season, including what local farmers plan to plant and why. Here are some new resources that could help:

Politico has created a map showing roughly how much aid each state released. "Iowa and Illinois (read: the biggest soybean-growing states) have each received more than $1 billion in total payments to producers, according to USDA data. Other top recipients include Kansas, Minnesota and Texas," Ryan McCrimmon reports.

Agricultural economists at the University of Illinois released two papers (here and here) with a wealth of data about how 2018 and 2019 trade bailout affected each county in the nation, including average payment per acre and comparisons of 2018 to 2019 payments per acre.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service has released the first Farm Income Forecast for 2020. The forecast is usually released in February, August and November, and covers a wide range of data and predictions concerning the farm economy. Net cash farm income is predicted to decrease $10.9 billion, or 9 percent, to $109.6 billion "due to rising expenses, lower government payments and ultralow prices for corn and soybeans, the nation’s biggest crops," Adam Belz reports for the StarTribune in Minnesota. "That decline will happen even though farm revenue is projected to rise 2.7%."

The small increase in cash receipts "is expected to be eclipsed by the drop in government payments, because we’re looking at a drop in government payments for the sector as a whole of almost $9 billion," USDA economist Carrie Litkowski told Belz. "On top of that, we’re forecasting an increase in cash expenses."

What's it like to take over a rural weekly newspaper whose seller said someone who’d want it would be crazy?

Carl Butz ponders what to put in his first edition of the Mountain Messenger. (New York Times photo by Jenna Schoenfeld)
Tim Arango of The New York Times went to Downieville, Calif., population 300, to tell the story of Carl Butz, who saved the Mountain Messenger, the state's oldest weekly newspaper, from closing.

"Don Russell, the hard-drinking, chain-smoking editor with a blunt writing style who had owned and run the paper for nearly three decades, was retiring, and he seemed happy enough for the paper to die with his retirement," Arango reports. "And then one night Mr. Butz was watching 'Citizen Kane' on cable and thought, 'I can do that.' He made the deal quickly, paying a price in the 'four figures,' he said, plus the assumption of some debts, without even looking at the books."

Sierra County; Plumas is to its north
(Wikipedia map)
Butz says Russell was a reluctant seller: “His position was, it’s a losing proposition and someone who’d want it would be crazy. He called me a romantic idealist and a nut case. And that’s not a paraphrase, but a direct quote.” Arango reports that Butz a still-grieving widower whose wife died in 2017, and quotes him as saying that he didn't save the paper: “It’s saving me.”

Butz told his readers in an introductory letter that he bought the paper because “The horrible thought of this venerable institution folding up and vanishing after 166 years of continuous operation was simply more than I could bear” and the paper is “something we need in order to know ourselves.” The Messenger is the only paper in Sierra County, pop. 3,240, but also serves part of Plumas County. It "relies mostly on publishing legal notices from the county and other government offices, which brings in about $50,000 a year, for the bulk of its revenue," Arango reports.

Webinar tomorrow will cover application requirements for ReConnect rural broadband loan and grant program

The Rural Development office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture will host a free webinar on Feb. 11 to cover application requirements for its ReConnect Program, which offers grants and loans for rural broadband buildout. The webinar will last about an hour and begins at 1 p.m. ET. Registration is required. Click here to register.

The program will provide up to $200 million in grants, $200 million in low-interest loans, and up to $200 million for 50/50 loan/grant combinations. The USDA announced a second round of ReConnect funding on Dec. 12 and began accepting applications on Jan. 31. Applications must be submitted by March 16.

Telecommunications companies, rural electric cooperatives and utilities, internet service providers and municipal governments are eligible to receive the funding. The agency will award funds to projects with financially sustainable business models that will bring high-speed internet to rural homes, businesses, farms and community facilities such as health care sites and schools.

USDA will also host regional workshops for those who want to learn more about the program. Click here for more information about upcoming workshops.

Great Backyard Bird Count will be Friday through Sunday

Red-breasted nuthatch
(Photo by Karen E. Brown)
The Great Backyard Bird Count returns for its 22nd year this coming weekend, Feb. 14-17. Count birds anywhere in the world, and help scientists get a snapshot of global bird populations. Volunteers from around the world count the birds they see for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count, and then enter their checklists at In 2019, an estimated 225,000 people counted some 6,850 species.

The count is sponsored by the ornithology lab at New York state's Cornell University, the National Audubon Society and Birds Canada. ""are important because they're excellent indicators of the health of our ecosystems," Audubon scientist Chad Wilsey says in a news release. "Participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count is one of the easiest and best ways to help scientists understand how our changing climate may be affecting the world’s birdlife. All over the world people are paying more attention to our environment and how it's changing. There’s a lot of bad news out there, but in just 15 minutes you can be part of a global solution to the crises birds and people are facing."

The sponsors say counting birds has become more important. They note that scientists recently reported a decline of more than one in four breeding birds in the U.S. and Canada since 1970. "In addition to these steep declines, Audubon scientists projected a grim future for birds in Survival By Degrees, a report showing nearly two-thirds of North America’s bird species could disappear due to climate change. Birds from around the world are facing similar challenges and declines," the Great Backyard Bird Count website says. To sign up, click here.

Proposed changes to Social Security disability determinations would hurt rural residents, researchers write

Map shows the percentage of the population in each county that receives Social Security Disability Insurance payments;
click on the image to enlarge it; click on the story to view an interactive version with data for each county.
"Changes to the Social Security Disability Insurance program proposed in January by the Trump administration could make it harder for over 8 million Americans with disabilities to maintain federal benefits. That’s particularly true for those in rural communities, where we have worked and studied for the past 35 years," Lillie Greiman and Catherine Ipsen write for The Conversation.

Almost 8.4 million people receive an average of $1,200 a month in Social Security disability benefits. In each case, a judge has ruled that the person is unable to hold a job because of a mental or physical impairment, but they must undergo periodic reviews to prove that they're still unable to work. Reviewers classify recipients into one of three groups: Medical Improvement Expected, Medical Improvement Possible, and Medical Improvement Not Expected. Recipients deemed more likely to improve get more frequent reviews, Greiman and Ipsen write.

The Trump administration is proposing a fourth category, which would be called "Medical Improvement Likely." The government expects that about 1 million now categorized "Medical Improvement Possible" would probably move to the new category and get more frequent reviews, leading to more benefit terminations and saving about $200 million a year. "These proposed changes are based on research from the Office of Research, Demonstration and Employment Support showing that, after losing benefits based on a review, 70 percent of people had some earnings within the next five years. However, this research also shows that a majority continue to live below the poverty line," Greiman and Ipsen write.

They say adding the fourth category would disproportionately affect rural residents, who would have a harder time appealing terminations and finding work. Appealing a benefit termination is a lengthy process that often requires travel to a Social Security office or court. That can be a barrier for those without access to transportation, especially for in rural areas, where there are fewer offices.

Rural residents who lose benefits are more economically vulnerable than their urban counterparts overall, Greiman and Ipsen write. Not only are rural residents 5 percentage points more likely to be disabled than urban residents, but they tend to develop disabilities at a younger age. On top of that, "access to economic opportunity is not equally distributed across the U.S. Our research group’s work shows that rural Americans with disabilities are still trying to recover from the recession," they write. "Overall, fewer rural people with disabilities have jobs now than did in 2008 – this at a time when the U.S. unemployment rate is at historic lows. The drop in employment is particularly pronounced across a few geographic areas, including the Mid-Atlantic, Southern, Mountain and Pacific regions."

Census Bureau's attempt to keep data anonymous could mess with small-town counts

Small towns might end up with an inaccurate population count because of the Census Bureau's attempts to keep private individual data from the decennial census, Gus Wezerek and David Van Riper report for The New York Times. Wezerek is a writer and graphics editor for the Times' opinion section; Van Riper is a population data scientist at the University of Minnesota.

"The law requires individual census records to be kept confidential for 72 years," they explain. "Fearing that data brokers using new statistical techniques could de-anonymize the published population totals, the bureau is testing an algorithm that will scramble the final numbers. Imaginary people will be added to some locations and real people will be removed from others. The more the algorithm muddles the results, the more difficult it will be, for example, for a data scientist to combine a set of addresses and credit scores with census results to learn the age and race of people living on a certain block."

However, a test in the 2010 census produced "wildly inaccurate numbers" for rural areas and minority populations, Wezerek and Van Riper write. "To size up the threat of so-called re-identification attacks, the Census Bureau tried to reverse-engineer the 2010 census results. Officials were able to correctly identify just 17 percent of the original 309 million records." 

Congressional apportionment will not be affected, since Census officials have exempted state population totals from the algorithm's effects, but there could be other issues: Localities shortchanged by number scrambling could have a hard time accessing their fair share of state and federal spending. "There is still time to modify the algorithm," Wezerek and Van Riper write. "The bureau has more than a year before it releases results to the states for redistricting."