Friday, June 29, 2012

Mostly Republican governors want to opt out of health care law's Medicaid expansion

When the U.S. Supreme Court declared yesterday that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional, it limited the federal government's power to make states expand their Medicaid programs, which will likely impact the implementation of the law in several states, especially those controlled by Republicans.

Medicaid expansion was challenged by 26 states as being "coercive" because it would have allowed the feds to take back all of a state's Medicaid funding if it refused to comply. But the court ruled that the U.S. Government can only take back funding designated specifically for expansion, and not any of a state's existing Medicaid funding. "What Congress can not do is to penalize states that choose not to participate in that new program by taking away their existing Medicaid funding," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority.

States stand to gain a lot by expanding the program, Christine Vestal of Stateline reports, because the federal government pays 100 percent of costs for the first two years, then reduces its funding to 90 percent in 2020. The Congressional Budget Office estimates this would add up to a $20 billion transfer to states over the first 10 years of expansion. But, some states say covering 10 percent of the cost of new beneficiaries would put more strain on their budgets. (Read more)

Most Republican-led states have done little to set up online exchanges which allow residents to compare private health insurance for the best price and serve as a portal for joining Medicaid expansions, The Associated Press reports. State have to tell the federal government in November whether or not they will build exchanges. The federal government will build a common exchange for states that don't build their own.

Wisconsin's Republican Governor Scott Walker denounced the law on Thursday, saying he would not implement any parts of it in Wisconsin before the presidential election. "While the court said it was legal, that doesn't make it right," Walker said. "For us to put time and effort and resources into that doesn't make a lot of sense."

GOP leaders in Mississippi say they don't have the money to expand Medicaid. Emily Wagster of AP reports Mississippi receive a large chunk of federal money for Medicaid because it has a high percentage of low-income residents. Republican Governor Phil Bryant said deep cuts in education and transportation would have to be made to cover the cost of Medicaid for more than 400,000 additional people. He said the state is looking at "some leeway in the decision to not penalize states for not complying with Medicaid requirements."

The question of Medicaid expansion is still up in the air in several other Republican-controlled states, including Nebraska, Ohio, South Carolina and Indiana, where governors say they would be hard-pressed to implement it. But Washington Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna, who joined the lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act last year, split with most of the GOP and said Congress shouldn't repeal the law, or any of its provisions, including the individual mandate. McKenna, who's currently running for governor, said he's ready to implement health-insurance exchanges and Medicaid expansion if elected, Jim Brunner of The Seattle Times reports.

Agriculture professor says land-grant schools have lost sight of "people's university" mission

The 150th anniversary of the creation of the Public Land-Grant University System through the Morrill Act is this Tuesday, July 2. Public land-grant universities have made innumerable contributions to the people in states where they exist, establishing a rich heritage that will be celebrated next week in Washington, D.C. with a convocation. The problem, says Auburn University agriculture professor C. Robert Taylor, is that "common people," which land-grant universities were created to help, are "glaringly absent from the invitation list."

"Land Grant universities were intended to be the 'People's Universities,'" Taylor writes for the Daily Yonder, "with a three part mission of teaching, research and service for common people, ordinary people, the working class, the middle class in American society. People like me." He said he thinks land-grant universities are drifting away from their mission of helping and educating "common people," and the celebration in Washington highlights "symptoms of a serious disease organism," one that he hopes isn't "incurable."

Taylor says the U.S. population has shifted from mostly agrarian to mostly urban over 150 years, and he questions whether the needs of people today are the same as then, but ultimately concludes that what matters most for next week's celebration is that none of the "new people" will be represented. It's troubling for him, he writes, because the convocation will feature discussions to help set the agenda for land-grant schools for the next 150 years.

"Truth is," Taylor writes, "that elites in government and business have been increasingly influencing and often subtly setting the agenda -- especially the research agenda -- in land-grant universities for some time." He says cuts in extension funding over the years have caused a decrease in public support for land-grant schools, which was exacerbated by faculty turning inward and only conducting research and writing papers for peers instead of connecting with the public. (Read more)

High court says inmates can be counted in home voting districts, which are mostly urban

States can now count prison inmates at their last known address instead of their prison address for election redistricting purposes, according to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. The decision upholds a districting map the Maryland General Assembly drew last year, David Hill of The Washington Times reports.

Activists had sued the state claiming the map violated the Constitution because it differed from the U.S. Census Bureau's policy of counting inmates at their prison address. “Critics of the federal policy say it has artificially inflated the populations and voting power of the often-rural districts that contain prisons, while reducing the influence of urban areas where many inmates formerly lived," Hill writes. Critics said prisoners don't use the resources of the prison's district, and should not be counted in those districts as a result. Some argued the map disenfranchised black voters and Republicans.

Maryland is one of four states that counts prisoners at their home addresses. The others are California, Deleware and New York. The ruling is expected to benefit Baltimore most since it has steadily lost residents and legislative seats, Hill reports. But, remote areas of Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore are likely to suffer because they "benefited in redistricting from numbers provided by inmates," Hill writes. (Read more)

Amazon says it will shift 1/6 of its business from USPS if Saturday delivery ends

Rural interests and others who favor continued Saturday mail delivery gained a powerful lobbying ally Wednesday when Amazon testified against the U.S. Postal Service's plan and threatened to move a sixth of its business to other carriers if Congress goes along. The company is one of the USPS's biggest customers.

Amazon Vice President for Global Public Policy Paul Misener said the company's customers have "come to expect Saturday mail delivery," reports Eric Engleman of Puget Sound Business Journal.  "While they may be able to wait until Monday or Tuesday for a bill they don't really want; an advertisement they didn't ask for; or a magazine to which they subscribed long ago; they expect the items they purchased this week to be delivered as soon as possible," Misener said. He added that ending Saturday delivery would be especially hard for Amazon's rural customers, who "simply would not be able to receive parcels on Saturday because there are no delivery alternatives to the USPS."

Five more states get No Child Left Behind waivers

Five additional states have received waivers from the federal government from key parts of the No Child Left Behind Act. They are Virginia, Arkansas, Missouri, South Dakota and Utah, making the total number of states with waivers 24, with 13 more states and Washington, D.C. waiting for approval.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said during a conference call today that "these states have joined in a nationwide movement toward state-led education reform," and that "their plans are the product of bold, forward-thinking state and local leaders who have moved beyond the tired old battle and partisan bickering to roll up their sleeves and start working together." He also said that the leadership displayed in these states has been "simply remarkable," and prove that more leaders are taking a "much more holistic and comprehensive view of college and career readiness" that is moving beyond a test-driven assessment system.

National Endowment for the Arts partners with design group to improve rural communities

The National Endowment for the Arts, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Project for Public Spaces will partner with the Citizens' Institute on Rural Design to "enhance the quality of life and economic viability of rural areas ... through design workshops that gather local leaders together with experts in planning, design and creative placemaking to assist with locally identified issues," according to a press release.

CIRD has hosted more than 60 workshops in all regions of the U.S. since its inception in 1991. It works with communities with fewer than 50,000 people and focusses on downtown revitalization, arts-based development, heritage preservation, land and agricultural conservation, growth management and transportation. The organization will develop guidelines for communities to apply to host a workshop. Application deadlines will be announced this Fall, and selected communities should be announced in January 2013. (Read more)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

If Obama is re-elected, in a sort of referendum on the health-care law, battles likely move to states

The political battle over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will continue in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail, but if President Obama keeps his current lead and is re-elected the battle seems likely to move to the states. Congressional Republicans said they would keep moving to repeal the law, but they do not have the votes to override a presidential veto. That makes the November election a sort of referendum on the law.

While the Supreme Court upheld the law's individual mandate to buy health insurance or pay a penalty, starting in 2014, it struck down a key provision for expanding coverage through the Medicaid program. It said the federal government can't take away states' current Medicaid funding if they refuse to participate in the expansion. That is "a gun to the head," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the 5-4 majority opinion.

The decision means that "A state can refuse to participate in the expansion without losing all of its Medicaid funds," Kevin Russell writes on SCOTUSblog. "Instead the state will have the option of continue the its current, unexpanded plan as is." (Read more)

"The Medicaid provision is projected to add nearly 30 million more people to the insurance program for low-income Americans -- but the court’s decision left states free to opt out of the expansion if they choose," MSNBC's Tom Curry writes. The law requires states in 2014 to cover adults with incomes at or below 133 percent of the federal income threshold definition of poverty, now $14,856 a year for single adults. "Many states now cover adults with children only if their income is considerably lower, and do not cover childless adults at all," Roberts noted.

The chief justice said it is not constitutional to "penalize states that choose not to participate in that new program by taking away their existing Medicaid funding," because the law transforms Medicaid into a more general health program. "The threatened loss of over 10 percent of a state’s overall budget is economic dragooning that leaves the states with no real option but to acquiesce in the Medicaid expansion."

Liberal justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan joined conservative Roberts in that part of his opinion. The other liberals, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, said the administration does have the right to withhold Medicaid money if a state doesn't follow the new rules, and said this was the first time that the court had ever found "an exercise of Congress’ spending power unconstitutionally coercive." However, Ginsburg wrote in their concurring opinion that a majority of the court (all but Breyer and Kagan) "buys the argument that prospective withholding of funds formerly available exceeds Congress’ spending power. Given that holding, I entirely agree with the chief justice as to the appropriate remedy" — banning the withholding of Medicaid funds, "not, as the joint dissenters would have it, to scrap the expansion altogether."

While polls have never shown that a majority of American adults favored the law, majorities favor its major components, the exception being the individual mandate. Here's a graph from the Kaiser Family Foundation, via a Washington Post blog post that includes other polling data:
Will states that challenged the law as unconstitutional also refuse to expand their Medicaid programs? Not necessarily. Matthew Yglesias of Slate explains the workings of Medicaid: "The more a state spends, the more the federal government kicks in—but you get diminishing returns in terms of how much extra money you can get. So the upshot is that a stingy, conservative state can expand for cheaper at the margin than can a generous liberal state." (Read more)

John Barro of Bloomberg News notes that some reform advocates "worry that states will opt out and low-income people in conservative states will be left without coverage. But I think we will have expanded Medicaid in all 50 states in pretty short order," because the federal government will pay "100 percent of it in the early years, gradually declining to 90 percent. That’s a pretty big carrot. States that refuse to expand Medicaid will be rejecting nearly free federal money. Such a rejection would be tantamount to saying that government health insurance for low-income people is so undesirable that a state is not even willing to pay ten cents on the dollar for it." (Read more)

Stateline notes that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said his state "will not take any action to implement Obamacare," so that could play in his 2014 re-election bid, and the Birmingham Business Journal said "opting out of the Medicaid expansion seems increasingly likely for Alabama." Mary Orndorff, who covers Washington for Alabama's largest newspapers, writes that nearly 1 million people in that state "get their health care through Medicaid and the expansion could increase that by more than 500,000 people. In other words, the state would go from 21 percent of its state population eligible for Medicaid to about 40 percent. . . . Alabama officials had expressed concern that the expansion is something the state cannot afford, estimating that administrative costs alone would rise by $389 million." (Read more)

It's also likely that this year's presidential candidates will continue to spin the truth about the Affordable Care Act to suit their needs, reports The Annenburg Public Policy Center's Both Obama and Romney "wasted little time in taking to the airwaves to rehash plenty we've fast-checked before," the website writes. Obama was quoted as saying workers will be able to keep their current plans, but "at least a few million" won't be able to keep employee-sponsored plans under the new law. He was also caught exaggerating the benefits of the law. Meanwhile, Romney "repeated a number of distortions," including the law would cut Medicare by $500 billion and add trillions to the deficit.

ProPublica has a report on reactions from some states that sued to overturn the law. For a report by Tara Kaprowy of Kentucky Health News, including details on how the law will affect individuals, click here.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Two of every five eligible Native Americans not registered to vote

This week the National Congress of American Indians called the problem of access to voting a “civic emergency” requiring an immediate fix, reports Mark Trahant for the Daily Yonder. “Native people have remained one of the most disenfranchised group of voters in the United States,” said Jefferson Keel, president of NCAI, the nation’s oldest and most representative tribal advocacy organization. “Today as a result, two out of every five eligible American Indian and Alaska Native voters are not registered to vote, in 2008 over 1 million eligible Native voters were unregistered.”

One way Native Americans could be added to the voter rolls, argued Keel, is to have state-based public assistance agencies such as Indian Health Services clinics designated as registration agencies as allowed under the National Voter Registration Act. This basic idea has worked in other places where low-income voters register at public assistance agencies. When that law was applied, tens of thousands of new voters were added in North Carolina, Virginia, Missouri, Ohio and Illinois.

Effort is on to use 'white spaces' of TV channels to bring wireless broadband to rural colleges

A new partnership plans to bring wireless broadband to rural college communities over the unused spectrum between television channels that are known as "white spaces," reports Adam Masmanian of National Journal. It's called AIR.U, short for Advanced Internet Regions. “University communities will be able to significantly expand the coverage and capacity of high speed wireless communities, both on- and off-campus,” said Michael Calabrese of the New America Foundation, which is helping to lead the effort. The plan grew out of an effort led by former FCC official Blair Levin to bring super high-speed broadband to research universities. His project, called Gig.U, had attracted the interest of rural colleges that didn’t qualify to join.

Rural communities are seen as ideal for the use of white spaces for wireless broadband Internet connectivity, often called Super Wi-Fi, because they tend to have fewer licensed TV stations, and therefore more vacant spectrum in the white spaces. Further, the low frequency range of Super Wi-Fi means that a single base station can cover a radius of about 6 miles with high-speed broadband, according to Apurva Mody, Chair of the White Space Alliance.

The Federal Communications Commission authorized the use of unlicensed white space spectrum for broadband services and other applications, in September 2010. AIR.U hopes to have the first pilot networks up and running in the first quarter of 2013.

Trash-cams spotting rural dumpers; one stream is known for fly fishing and abandoned recliners

A man is caught dumping trash at an illegal site
by a hidden camera purchased by the
Juneau Parks and Recreation Department
It's not a new problem but it's an ugly one. And tranquil, open, lush rural landscapes take the biggest hit when people think they've got nowhere else to put their trash. In Southeast Alaska, law enforcement has had just about enough. So they installed hidden cameras on roads with the most popular dumpsites, reports Kyle Hopkins of the Anchorage Daily News. One of those roads, Hopkins writes, "winds through an area north of Juneau known for world-class fly fishing and abandoned recliners." Bob Dilley, lead community services officer for the Juneau Police Department, explained that officers "get tired of digging through piles hoping to find a scrap of paper with somebody's name on it." Post-trash-cams: A five-arrest spring.

Illegally dumping more than a square foot of litter is a minor offense in the Southeast Alaska city and borough, punishable by a $200 fine. Hopkins, whose story is a primer on how to do this kind of community reporting, writes: "The people cited so far look like any cross section of Alaskans. Guys in ball caps and hoodies driving big pickups. A man in a Land Rover. An SUV full of young women. The Daily News, through a public records request, obtained footage involving all the closed littering cases originating between April 9 and May 15. All five people shown in the footage had paid their fines as of June 12, according to the Juneau Police Department. Littering falls under Anchorage public-nuisance laws with fines ranging from $50 to $300 for a first offense and $200 to $600 for a second offense."

Other towns and counties around the country began experimenting with litter cams earlier this year, at about the same time as Juneau, Hopkins finds. The Delaware Natural Resources Department has used hidden cameras to catch litterers since 2009. County supervisors of Henry County, Va., population 54,000, voted this year to approve $5,000 for the purchase of game cameras to catch people illegally dumping trash.,saying the detritus is bad for tourism, bad for business. Meanwhile, notes Hopkins, the trend is growing. Lorain County, Ohio, sheriffs recently bought solar-powered litter cameras. And local news reports indicate that litterers better be on the lookout for trash cams in Stephenville, Newfoundland, and in the Municipal District of Foothills in southern Alberta.

Is a Farm Bill fight brewing in the House over conservation's link to crop insurance?

Looks like not everybody is happy with Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who last week got an amendment attached to the Senate version of the Farm Bill which linked federal crop insurance to conservation compliance. Groups such as the Environmental Working Group hailed the Georgia lawmaker at the time on the unlikely win which surprised even Senate insiders. Commodity-group leaders and members of the crop-insurance industry seemed stunned by the 52-47 vote, Agri-Pulse reports this morning. Already work has begun to overturn the move when the Farm Bill gets marked up in the House next month. ( photo)

The National Corn Growers Association is very disappointed to see passage of Senator Saxby Chambliss’ conservation compliance for crop insurance amendment in the 2012 Farm Bill,” said NCGA President Garry Niemeyer. “Our members feel this addition to the farm bill would have a negative impact toward America¹s farmers.” Agri-Pulse explains: If the provision is included in the final bill, producers who participate in most federal agricultural programs or the crop insurance program will be required to implement soil conservation plans on highly erodible cropland and refrain from draining wetlands for agricultural production.

Ferd Hoefner, with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, expects the House to allow the linkage to continue in its version of the bill. “The vast majority of producers have played by this set of rules for a long time." Even former National Resource Conservation Service Chief Bruce Knight, who previously worked as a lobbyist for NCGA, told Agri-Pulse that he thinks there will likely be little impact on 98 percent of America's farms, suggesting that "those who want to drain wetlands in the Northern Plains and perhaps some vineyards on steep hills in the Western U.S. could face the most significant changes if this provision makes its way into the final bill."

Agri-Pulse is a subscription-only weekly newsletter, but it offers a four-week trial subscription.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Farm workers face 'red tape,' fear of retaliation when reporting harm from pesticide use

Farm workers are constantly at risk from pesticides in fields where they work, and even though the Environmental Protection Agency maintains a "Worker Protection Standard" that's supposed to regulate pesticide use, "no one knows the full scope of the environmental perils in the fields," reports Ronnie Greene of iWatch News. (Associated Press photo by Luis M. Alvarez)

The Government Accountability Office said in 1993 that a "lack of data" about the health effects of pesticides "could lead to a 'significant underestimation of both the frequency and the severity of pesticide illnesses,'" Greene reports. Today, the EPA can "still only guess" about the number of pesticide-related illnesses, mostly because farm workers tend to be illegal immigrants who don't want to speak up. States, which have been given EPA-authority to enforce pesticide regulation, don't receive many complaints, according to federal records. Some state officials think the system is broken, but EPA"red tape" is keeping reforms from happening, Greene reports.

Workers fear the price for speaking up may be too great. In 2010, farm workers were fired on the spot and sent back to Mexico after complaining multiple times about pesticides sprayed near them in a tomato field. A farm worker in Florida became ill in 2009, and discovered the pesticide endosulfan, which has since been banned by the EPA, was sprayed less than 24 hours after she started working. When she went to the doctor, she said she wasn't asked about the pesticide. The crux of the issue, Green reports, is this: "Workers have little voice when it comes to pesticides." (Read more)

High court to decide whether EPA should regulate water runoff from logging like factories

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a federal appeals court ruling on regulation of water runoff from logging roads. The ruling states that logging-road runoff should be regulated the same as water discharges from factories, which changes the practice of treating it like runoff from farm fields. The ruling in Oregon could apply to roads on state, private and national forest land in the jurisdiction of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers most of the West.

Scientists have found that sediment in salmon streams, which has been clogging areas where the fish lay eggs, is coming from industrial logging roads, and is a leading cause of habitat loss, reports Jeff Barnard of The Associated Press. The Northwest Environmental Defense Center in Portland, Ore., brought the case against the state Department of Forestry. The appeals court ruled in 2010 that muddy water from logging roads requires a Clean Water Act permit from the Environmental Protection Agency. The Supreme Court was asked to take up the case from Oregon and 25 other states.

The EPA proposed revised storm-water regulations that would not require logging roads to get the same permits as factories, and regulate them under a less strict system known as "Best Management Practices," in which guidelines for design and maintenance of roads would be set up by the states. The agency has started review of these practices, and plans to issue new rules for logging roads in September. (Read more)

Rural schools still lag in installing online technology

Rural elementary and high schools have long had to be leaders in distance learning and online education to offer some courses, but they still face challenges such as small size and budgets when trying to put technology inside the classroom. States and school districts across the country are trying several initiatives to get more technology into rural classrooms to bridge a gap in rural and urban technological access.

Some states have started programs to provide technology opportunities to rural districts, reports Sarah Butrymowicz of The Hechinger Report. In Maine, every student gets a laptop, and all school districts have to offer Advanced Placement classes in Alabama through distance learning. Some districts, though, can't afford to provide such technology, and have turned to other sources for funding. In Edison, Colo., the school district supplemented its technology programs with a $10,000 grant from the Denver-based Morgridge Family Foundation.

Only 57 percent of rural households had broadband Internet access in 2010, compared to 72 percent in urban areas, Butrymowicz reports, and Alliance for Excellent Education president, and former West Virginia governor, Bob Wise, told Butrymowicz that technology "could be rural schools' saving grace" and turn them into "renewed learning centers." (Read more)

Drought forcing more farmers to irrigate crops

More farmers than ever are irrigating their crops in the wake of crippling drought, increasing demand for water-well drilling and new irrigation equipment, reports P.J. Huffstutter of Reuters. The near-record expectations for farm income -- $92 billion for 2012 -- is also fueling the increase in sales of irrigation equipment, because farmers will lose less yield if they can irrigate their crops. Manufacturers say that a large number of farmers who have never irrigated before are starting now.

Huffstutter writes that "as the trend grows, the implications will spread." Small shifts in the amount of acres irrigated could mitigate yield losses, which could throw off production outcome forecasts based on weather conditions. It could also intensify friction "over water use as expanding populations, bumper crops, ethanol production and the boom in fracking consume ever-larger volumes of the country's finite water supply," Huffstutter writes. The amount needed for dryland crop irrigation is small, but environmentalists say farmers tapping into the country's water supply could have environmental consequences. (Read more)

Farmers and fairs should work together to keep, enhance agricultural elements, experts say

Small-farm experts said during a workshop in California that fairs need to return to their agricultural roots, Tim Hearden of Capital Press reports. University of California's Small Farm Program director Penny Leff and California Department of Food and Agriculture official Diana Poluszak said during a workshop at the Shasta District Fair that regional fairs were centered around agriculture for more than 100 years, and that entertainment has only been the focus for the last 30 years.

Both said the state's "fiscally strapped fairs could help themselves by doing more to highlight their region's specialty crops." The story of fairs facing financial hardship could be true in other parts of the country where local and regional fairs once were a showcase of the region's agriculture. Leff and Poluszak planned the workshop, and others like it, to get ideas about how farmers can better market their products at local fairgrounds, and how both could help promote each other. (Read more)

Monday, June 25, 2012

Growers of cranberries, which need sugar for sales, fear possible exclusion from schools

The federal government is expected to propose new nutrition standards soon that worry cranberry growers from Massachusetts to Wisconsin and into Canada. The effort, urged on by first lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative, is the Department of Agriculture's likely new guidelines for what can be sold in school vending machines, stores and cafeteria lines. Sugar is the target, writes Larry Bivins of USA Today, and sweetened beverages like cranberry juice cocktail could be deemed unhealthy because the berry is not popular without some sort of sweetener added. That would be unfortunate and unfair, cranberry industry officials say, because the tart, deep-red fruit is loaded with nutrients and health benefits. But for consumers to avail themselves of those benefits, cranberries must be palatable. "Cranberries can be sweetened with anything," said Linda Prehn, a cranberry grower in Tomah, Wis., citing apple juice as an example. (Associated Press photo of Massachusetts cranberry worker Miguel Sandel)

Prehn, chairman of United Cranberry Growers Cooperative, a collective of 85 growers in Massachusetts, Oregon and Wisconsin in the U.S. and the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Quebec, was among cranberry honchos attending the recent inaugural meeting of the Congressional Cranberry Caucus on Capitol Hill. Prehn and others are hoping the bipartisan caucus led by Reps. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., and Bill Keating, D-Mass., and Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Scott Brown, R-Mass., can help persuade agriculture officials to make an exception for cranberry products in its nutrition standards for added-sugar products.

"Given the beneficial and scientifically proven health properties of cranberries, we believe there is a need to establish clear standards that recognize cranberries as a part of a healthy diet," the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The lawmakers sent a similar letter to the first lady, pointing out cranberries "contribute to whole body health, particularly urinary-tract health and the potential to fight cancer and other diseases." At stake is exclusion from an estimated $2.3 billion school vending-machine business and an image that could have a negative impact on the marketing of cranberry products worldwide, particularly cranberry juice cocktail, industry officials say.

Supreme Court to issue decision on health law Thu.; Poynter's Al Tompkins offers guide to covering it

The Rural Blog is designed mainly for rural journalists, most of whom are interested mainly in local issues. But every now and then a national issue is so broad and deep that it affects everyone, and calls for localized coverage everywhere. That is the case with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on the federal health-reform law, which is to be released at 10 a.m. EDT Thursday.

As he so often has, Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute anticipates an opportunity for coverage and provides advance help for doing it. Tompkins is a broadcaster by trade, but he's also a policy wonk and offers a rundown of the issues that almost any journalist would find helpful. "The public has said that journalists spend too much time covering the politics of the story and not enough time and space covering what the health care plan does and how it affects them, Tompkins writes. "Let’s fix that."

First, he points us to "an easy-to use tool" from The Washington Post that shows how the law affects you. Then he runs down the three big issues in the case (the individual mandate to buy health insurance, the various reforms in health insurance, and the expansion of Medicaid); Republicans' main objections to the law; what might happen under various scenarios; and fact-checking by PolitiFact, a service of the Tampa Bay Times, which is owned by the Poynter Institute. We also like and the Post's Fact Checker column.

"The decision will immediately be a national story, a legal story, a political story, a business story, a health care story and a local story," Tompkins writes. "Let’s make sure you are ready to cover it."

Midwest law schools counseling students to 'go rural' in search of jobs, where they're needed most

Kay Oskvig, second-year University of Iowa student in
Garner, where she clerks. (WSJ photo by Jenn Ackerman)
In parts of the rural Midwest, small towns are itching for lawyers, writes Ashby Jones of The Wall Street Journal. "The job market is good for lawyers in the western and more rural parts of Nebraska, in towns like Ogallala and Scottsbluff," said Susan Poser, dean of the law school at the University of Nebraska. "We're trying to make students more aware of those opportunities," she said. Last year, the University of Nebraska's law school created a special program of study for its students focused on practicing solo or in small firms after they graduate. The University of Kansas law school a few months ago launched a "rural and solo practice program," which teaches students the basics of each.

The rural areas' biggest selling point is jobs. As of February, the employment rate for students who graduated in 2011 was about 86 percent, the lowest for a class since 1994, according to the National Association for Law Placement. In many ways these law schools are following the lead of the medical profession, reports Jones, which has long encouraged students to practice in rural settings with doctor shortages, and often subsidized them to do so: "The surfeit of lawyers in the rural Midwest largely boils down to demographics: Educated young people raised in the region are fleeing for the cultural and financial opportunities of larger cities, both in their own states and farther afield."

"Twenty years ago, Chadron had 10 lawyers; Alliance had a dozen," said Scottsbluff lawyer Howard Olsen, a former president of the Nebraska Bar Association. "Now, they each just have two or three." Olsen said that clients in rural Nebraska who used to find a lawyer across the street may now drive "50, 60, sometimes 100 miles" to find one. In small towns, lawyers' annual pay tends to start in the low-to-mid-five figures, but advantages can twinkle in the eye of the beholder. "The cost of living, the pace of living and the variety of practice, to name a few," said Marianne B. Culhane, dean of the law school at Creighton University in Omaha. "Plus, no long commutes." (Read more)

Floridians worry about their springs, as algae bloom and cattle operation seeks 13 million gallons a day

Florida's freshwater springs and rivers, especially those in the central and northern parts of the state, have seen a sharp drop-off in flows and a steady rise in algae over the last decade, reports Lizette Alvarez of The New York Times. The declines have alarmed Florida environmentalists, spurring them to launch a broad campaign to bring attention to the problem and spur Gov. Rick Scott to act. Scott's office received a letter last week but has yet to respond. (Photo by Sarah Beth Glicksteen)

The culprits, according to environmentalists, "are a recent drought in north-central Florida and decades of pumping groundwater out of the aquifer to meet the demands of Florida’s population boom, its sprinklers and its agricultural industry," Alvarez writes. "To what degree the overconsumption of groundwater is to blame for the changes is being batted back and forth between environmentalists and the state’s water keepers. But, for the first time, a state with so much rain — the vast majority of it uncaptured — is beginning to seriously fret about water."

Bob Graham, a former Democratic governor and senator who assembled the Florida Conservation Coalition last year to help safeguard the state’s water, said, “We have learned that we can degrade our water supplies to the point that water becomes a limitation on the quality of life in Florida. We don’t think that is necessary. But we think it is possible, if not probable, unless there are strong policies and enforcement at the state and local level for sound water practices.”

Alvarez notes that recent attention on Silver Springs, one of the sites now under scrutiny, is the result of an application for a permit from the St. Johns River Water Management District to use 13 million gallons of water a day, about the same amount used by the city of Ocala. (The original request was for 25 million gallons.) The permit is being sought by Frank Stronach, a Canadian auto parts magnate and horse breeder who is building Adena Springs Ranch, a 25,000-acre cattle operation and slaughterhouse that will produce organic, grass-fed beef.  Stronach’s ranch is expected to provide about 150 jobs in the slaughterhouse.

Wal-Mart's 'green wheat' efforts have potential to transform U.S. agriculture, some crops' sustainability

The commercial behemoth Wal-Mart Stores might be looking to transform, yet again, the marketplace. It might be starting this time with American wheat, reports Michael Hirtzer of Reuters.  "As part of efforts to reduce its carbon footprint and burnish its image as an environmentally responsible company, the huge retailer is sending senior employees into the fields for the first time ever, looking for ways to help farmers reduce their use of carbon-intensive fertilizer or improve logistics, writes Hirtzer. "We don't have a lot of visibility in the supply chain, so we started in the field," says Robert Kaplan, a Wal-Mart sustainability manager. "I hadn't seen a wheat field before and I wanted to find out how we go from a green crop in the fields to flour on our shelves."

This May, Hirtzler writes, Kaplan and a colleague were the first Wal-Mart employees ever to attend the annual crop tour across Kansas, the nation's No. 1 winter-wheat state. "The tour has been a rite of passage for traders, analysts, academics and buyers for the past half-century. The aim is simple: Use Wal-Mart's commercial muscle to get its Great Value-branded flour and wheat products from field to shelf more efficiently, using less carbon. In the process, however, Wal-Mart may end up initiating transformative changes in the way U.S. farmers grow wheat, lowering costs and improving yields for a crop that has failed to keep pace with the dramatic improvements in sustainability of other commodities such as corn and cotton."

The point is won, of course, with leverage and the net is an environmental wallop. "As it continues to buy more and more wheat to support its in-house brand, Wal-Mart believes it can use its muscle to bring changes to the agricultural landscape by getting farmers to adopt more progressive techniques and labeling the flour they sell as a sustainable product. In 2010, Wal-Mart's store brands had a 4.4 percent share of the $14.35 billion U.S. packaged and industrial bread market, up from a 3.7 percent market share in 2006, according to research firm Euromonitor International." (Read more)

Author says coal industry in southern W. Va. is 'Godzilla . . . thrashing around before death'

 Denise Giardina
A West Virginia author who wrote a fictional retelling of West Virginia's mine wars believes that "coal is dying," reports Lori Kersey of The Charleston Gazette. "It's clear it's dying," Denise Giardina said Sunday. "Probably not in my lifetime, but it's dying. And Southern West Virginia is dying. And it's not going to come back. Those mountains are not going to come back." Giardina's comments came during the final installment of the 2012 Little Lecture Series by the West Virginia Humanities Council.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Giardina's award-winning novel, Storming Heaven, which tells the story of life in the state's southern coalfield and the events leading up to and culminating with the Battle of Blair Mountain, between unionists and coal forces backed by federal troops and air support.

Her novel and a sequel, The Unquiet Earth, were fictional, she said, but based on truth. Their point, said the author, was simple: "The coal company giveth and the coal company taketh away." In her lecture Sunday, Giardina described the coal industry today "as Godzilla suffering a wound and thrashing around before death. . . .What do we have left?" she asked. "We have a community that's ravished by drugs, where there are no jobs."

As local governments picked up more of school tab, gap between poor and rich districts widened

The Great Recession has changed state formulas for funding education, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's annual Public Education Finances report released last week. According to Ben Wieder, reporting in Stateline, the news service of the Pew Center for the States: For the first time in 16 years, local governments picked up a higher share of the education bill than the states, while the federal government picked up more than 10 percent of the tab. Data was from the 2009-10 school year. State funding did decrease by 6.5 percent from the previous year, according to the bureau, the biggest decrease since reporting began in 1977. That drop was accompanied by an unprecedented increase in federal funding, largely stimulus dollars, that in many cases propped up state spending. Taken together, this means that education funding across the country increased by a half percent, while per-pupil funding increased by 1.1 percent.

Michael Griffith, senior school finance analyst at the Education Commission of the States, says local funding wasn't hurt early by the recession, but it declined as lower property assessments translated into lower local property tax collections. That decline came as state budgets were starting to recover, compensating for some of the losses in local revenue. Griffith expects that the next couple of census reports will show a fuller picture of the impact of the recession, particularly numbers for the past school year, in which federal stimulus dollars expired, Wieder writes. Declining state revenues increased the distance between the haves and the have-nots, Griffith says, because wealthier districts in many parts of the country were better able to make up for fewer state dollars.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Ala. agencies can circumvent open meeting law via serial meetings with less than quorum, court rules

The Alabama Supreme Court ruled narrowly this month that public agencies could circumvent the state open-meetings law by holding a series of meetings with less than a quorum of members -- a familiar ploy that can be hard to prevent and discover, even when state law forbids it, as the Kentucky New Era of Hopkinsville wrote today.

In a lawsuit against the Montgomery Public Schools, the Alabama high court voted 5-4 to uphold a lower court ruling. "The court ruled that although the Board of Education formed three special committees covered by the Open Meetings Act, no meeting of the committee occurred because what they discussed was going to be voted upon later by the entire Board and not the committee," reports the June issue of AlaPressa, the newsletter of the Alabama Press Association. For a PDF of the court's decision, click here.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Justice Department lawyer orders reporter not to quote her as she conducts a public meeting

A U.S. Department of Justice attorney conducting a public hearing in New Iberia, La., told local newspaper reporter Matthew Beaton that he could not quote her. When he and others questioned her authority to issue such an edict, the lawyer "grew belligerent and threatening," demanded that Beaton leave and said "You don’t want to get on the Department of Justice’s bad side," Beaton reported. Beaton initially agreed not to quote her, but she persisted in her demand, then let him stay.

Rachel Hranitzky's "demeanor softened" after the meeting and she told Beaton she "had gotten into big trouble" being quoted. "She said if she was quoted she could lose her job and that was the reason for her demands," he wrote. The hearing was about alleged discrimination in the city fire department. (Read more)

"When a public hearing is announced, the expectation is that whatever is discussed is to be talked about in a public forum," Daily Iberian Managing Editor Jeff Zeringue wrote in an editorial. "The threats of not wanting 'to get on the Department of Justice’s bad side' are unbelievable. Why would any government agency threaten its citizens at all, much less on an issue that is clearly no concern of national security?" (Read more)

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press sent the department a letter today saying RCFP was "gravely concerned" about the episode and any such policy or practice, and asking to what extent it has been adopted, when and who was responsible for it, along with relevant documents. (Read more)

Once assumed safe, chemical waste is leaking from injection wells and sometimes polluting aquifers

Over the past few decades, U.S. industries have injected more than 30 trillion gallons of toxic liquid deep into the earth, using broad expanses of the nation's geology as an invisible dumping ground, writes Abrahm Lustgarten, who won awards for his reporting on the fracking industry, which disposes vast amounts of drilling wastewater in such wells.

"No company would be allowed to pour such dangerous chemicals into the rivers or onto the soil," Lustgarten writes. "But until recently, scientists and environmental officials have assumed that deep layers of rock beneath the earth would safely entomb the waste for millennia. There are growing signs they were mistaken. Records from disparate corners of the United States show that wells drilled to bury this waste deep beneath the ground have repeatedly leaked, sending dangerous chemicals and waste gurgling to the surface or, on occasion, seeping into shallow aquifers that store a significant portion of the nation's drinking water." Recent examples include contaminants from oil and gas drilling wells bubbling up, fountain-like, in Oklahoma and Louisiana, as well as in a dog park in Los Angeles.

Thus begins a fascinating and exhaustive piece by Lustgarten that covers "the more than 680,000 underground waste and injection wells nationwide, more than 150,000 of which shoot industrial fluids thousands of feet below the surface. Scientists and federal regulators acknowledge they do not know how many of the sites are leaking. Federal officials and many geologists insist that the risks posed by all this dumping are minimal. Accidents are uncommon, they say, and groundwater reserves — from which most Americans get their drinking water — remain safe and far exceed any plausible threat posed by injecting toxic chemicals into the ground. But in interviews, several key experts acknowledged that the idea that injection is safe rests on science that has not kept pace with reality, and on oversight that doesn't always work."

"In 10 to 100 years we are going to find out that most of our groundwater is polluted," said Mario Salazar, an engineer who worked for 25 years as a technical expert with the Environmental Protection Agency's underground injection program. "A lot of people are going to get sick, and a lot of people may die." The boom in oil and natural gas drilling is only making matters worse, geologists say. (Read more.)

Midwest bankers survey: International economic situation dampening growth in region

A monthly survey of bankers has indicated a slowing of economic growth in rural areas of 10 Midwestern and Western states, according to a Bloomberg News report. The reason: The problems in Europe and elsewhere, according to a report released Thursday. "International economic problems are affecting us here," said Dale Bradley, CEO of Citizens State Bank in Miltonvale, Kan. The survey covers rural areas of Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming, most of the Great Plains and the Corn Belt.

Creighton University economist Ernie Goss oversees the survey. He said the results suggest that areas dependent on agriculture and energy will generally continue growing, but more slowly. The overall index on the monthly survey of bankers declined to 56.7 in June, from May's 58.5. That's the lowest level for the index in 2012, but any score above 50 still suggests growth in the months ahead. 

Senate passes bipartisan Farm Bill; House faces split between Midwestern and Southern farmers

The Senate approved a wide-ranging, bipartisan-pleasing Farm Bill Thursday that would expand crop insurance, eliminate direct payments to farmers -- the backbone of farm subsidies since the mid-90s," notes David Rogers of Politico -- and make other cuts for a projected savings of more than $23 billion over its five-year lifespan. The bill passed on an unusual bipartisan vote of 64-35, after senators defeated most of the 73 amendments on a list agreed to by party leaders. The deal was brokered largely by Sens. Pat Roberts of Kansas and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, top Republican and chairman of the Agriculture Committee, right (Associated Press photo).

One amendment that didn't make the list would have prevented meatpackers from owning livestock, reversing the trend in the industry. It was worth a vote, the Daily Yonder opines. Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee blocked "implementation of regulations meant to bring a little market fairness into the lives of poultry and hog producers," the Yonder says. "What a lively week for the nation's livestock raisers!"

"In the final hours Thursday, exhausted Democrats only narrowly beat back two anti-regulatory proposals — each of which got a solid majority but fell short of a 60-vote threshold," reports Rogers. "On a 56-43 vote, Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) came surprisingly close to winning a flat ban" on aerial surveillance of agricultural operations by the Environmental Protection Agency and Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) "came even closer, 58-41, on his proposal" to let rural water companies forgo mailing annual reports to customers if no violations had been found.

The new emphasis on crop insurance created "a real and lasting split" between corn and soybean farmers in the Midwest and "Southern rice, peanuts and wheat growers," Rogers notes, pointing to the roll call (which is available from the Yonder). Bridging that split will be high on the agenda in the House, where Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) "is open to keeping some target price supports" to help Southern farmers, "a heavier government hand than some tea party Republicans may want," Rogers writes. "At the same time, Lucas is shooting for greater savings than the Senate, meaning he will have to cut more from food stamps, straining his bipartisan coalition with farm state Democrats." The bill passed Thursday would cut about $4.5 billion from food stamps. The House Republican budget introduced earlier this year by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., would turn the nutrition program into block grants for the states.

The House is scheduled to start work on its own Farm Bill July 11, but before then it will consider an agriculture appropriations bill. "The fact that the Agriculture and Appropriations committees should be thrown together on the floor next week has its own irony," Rogers writes. "Both committees have a tradition of bipartisanship, which has earned them the scorn of many in the House Republican leadership. But that same history of working together is what the Senate was celebrating Thursday in Stabenow and Roberts’ performance." (Read more)

Arch Coal to lay off 650 Appalachian miners, mostly in E.Ky.; blame game begins

Blaming market conditions and regulatory obstacles, Arch Coal announced its intent to lay off about 650 miners -- 500 of those in Eastern Kentucky, 125 in West Virginia and 25 in Virgina. “You’ve got people that are going to lose their homes, lose their livelihood,” Perry County Judge-Executive Denny Ray Noble of Hazard, Ky., said of the decision, terming it "a disaster" for the region.

"Some Kentucky officials directly blamed the layoffs on recent actions by the Obama administration and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which have taken a more aggressive stance in recent years to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants and to crack down on water pollution from surface mining," Mike Wynn of The Courier-Journal reportsBut Matt Wasson of the environmental group Appalachian Voices challenged those assertions, saying while Kentucky mining operations have laid off more than 900 workers in recent months, coal companies have attributed nearly all of those cuts to market conditions. “It’s really unfortunate that is how some of the local officials are going to play this,” he said. “That is all about politics. . . . The reality is that four years ago coal supplied half of our electricity. Today it supplies a third. That has enormous consequences."

Growers debate how Obama's lifting of deportation threat from young immigrants affects them

With President Obama's executive order to halt the deportation of young, illegal immigrants announced late last week, Agri-Pulse reports that U.S. agriculture is wrestling with its possible impact on the labor force. The executive order, which incorporates part of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, a measure pending in Congress that, while not granting citizenship to children who came to the United States as illegal immigrants, would remove the threat of deportation and grant them the right to work in the United States. The move may provide work permits to as many as 800,000 young immigrants.

"While this might be a step in the right direction, it could set back efforts by the agricultural industry to get a new guest worker program or other needed immigration reform legislation passed in Congress," said Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers. West Mathison, president of Stemilt Growers, a fruit producing company based in Washington state that relies on immigrant labor for a portion of its workforce, told Agri-Pulse that, "We're trying to understand how this is going to work and how we're going to work with our people who might be in this category. It's going to create hope in the lives of many young people who under no fault of their own have come to know the U.S. as their own, yet that don't have legitimate documentation."

However, Western Growers chief lobbyist, Ken Barbic, said the measure "is as at best short-term relief to something that Congress needs to act on, whether we are talking about the DREAM Act specificially, or larger immigration issues." Barbic noted that the industry has been waiting a long time for some kind of congressional solution.

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NEA honors rural craftsman with annual Heritage Awards; 2012's best -- snowshoes, baskets, gospel

National Endowment for the ArtsSnowshoes made from ash wood and rawhide by Paul and Darlene Bergren of Minot, North Dakota -- the Begrens' craftsmanship and teaching have been honored by the National Endowment for the Arts.
The Daily Yonder reminds that The National Endowment for the Arts has announced its National Heritage Awards for 2012. And that Paul and Darlene Bergren -- dog-sled and snowshoe makers from Minot, North Dakota -- are among them. "The awards honor artists who are preserving traditional crafts, music, and visual arts through teaching and the excellence of their own work. Over the past 30 years, hundreds of rural makers and musicians have been recognized, from woodcarver George Lopez (Cordova, New Mexico) to zydeco accordionist Clifton Chenier (Opelousas, LA) to weaver Teri Rofkar (Sitka, Alaska). Many folk expressions originated as the practical arts of rural life (saddlery, quilting,..making snowshoes)." A list of the 2012 winners and past winners is available here.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Rural states do poorly on higher education report card

Public higher education is failing when it comes to preparing students for the workforce, a new study by the Institute for a Competitive Workforce has found. It graded each state on how well its public colleges and universities prepare students. Sonali Kohli of The Ithaca Journal reports that the states with the worst grades trend rural: Alaska, Nevada, Idaho and Louisiana.

The report used data from different sources from 2008 to 2012 and graded four-year and two-year schools separately. Among the findings: Washington state, California and Florida scored the highest grades; 12 states scored D's for student success at four-year schools: seven in the Great Plains, five in Appalachia and the South; the Dakotas' two-year schools out-performed all other states; and, completion rates at four-year schools were close to 50 percent in 47 states.

ICW President Margaret Spellings said colleges and universities are more worried about maintaining reputations than actually examining how they are performing. The report says states should "focus less on attracting new students and work harder at making sure students who are already enrolled get their degrees," Kohli reports. Spellings, a former secretary of education, said making it easier to transfer credits from community colleges to four-year schools and expanding online classes would help. Both are options that would be of particular importance in rural areas, where many attend community colleges and utilize online classes. (Read more)

Protesters to stage hunger strike to oppose postal closings and service cutbacks

Protesters will be in Washington, D.C. on Monday, June 25, to start a four-day hunger strike to bring attention to the U.S. Postal Service plan to reduce services and cut jobs, mostly in rural areas, reports Steve Hutkins of Save the Post Office. The protest will take place just days before the USPS implements changes that would end overnight delivery for about 20 percent of First Class mail.

Over 400 community groups, clergy, citizens and postal workers are endorsing the strike, and individuals can add their names to the list of endorsers. If any are from your community, that could be a local story.

Hutkins says the theme of the hunger strike is "that cuts to service will succeed only in driving business away from the Postal Service and sending it into a death spiral." Hutkins adds that alternatives to the current proposals exist to save the USPS, including repeal of the 2006 Congressional mandate that requires the USPS to pay $5.6 billion a year into its retiree health plan, which he says is the main cause of the agency's deficit (Read more)

Two Indian tribes likely to back settlement for water rights along Little Colorado River

Navajo and Hopi tribal governments are likely to support a settlement with the U.S. federal government that would allow the Navajo Nation to use as much water as they need from the Little Colorado River, right, reports Anne Minard of Indian Country Today Media Network. The Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement would allow the tribes to pull water from a river aquifer that is on the Navajo reservation in parts of Arizona and New Mexico, and close to the Hopi reservation.

Hopi Chairman LeRoy Shingoitewa and Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly say the settlement "is a boon for future generations," and would secure water supplies for three water projects to deliver drinking water to rural communities on both reservations, something they to which they previously didn't have access. It's a deal they wouldn't likely win through "protracted court battles that are the settlement's alternative," Minard reports.

A group of anti-settlement activists disagrees, saying that the 30 stakeholders in the settlement all had to agree, and they want certain terms met in return for their agreement. In particular, activists are opposed to the extension of the lease for the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Ariz. for 34 years, and the provision that states the Navajo can never sue for past or future water withdrawals from or pollution of the aquifer from coal mining on tribal land. Many activists and locals contend that Peabody Energy and the power plant have already damaged the water beyond repair.

Both the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe are faced with dueling bills on which to vote this week: one that supports the settlement, and one that opposes it. At least 22 Navajo chapters have issued resolutions opposing the settlement, and "the number is growing," Minard reports. (Read more)

Coal miner fired for whistleblowing about safety violations is reinstated to work by federal judge

A federal judge has ordered that coal miner Charles Scott Howard, 52, right, is entitled to return to work at Cumberland River Coal Co. after 13 months of alleging discrimination in federal court for his reporting on the company's violations. Administrative Law Judge Margaret Miller also ordered the company to pay Howard a $30,000 fine for discriminating against a whistleblower.

Howard was fired last year after he suffered a head injury while working. Several doctors deemed him fit to return to work, but he was fired anyway, he alleged, because the company didn't like that he brought safety violations in the mine where he worked to the attention of federal safety officials. Miller wrote in her decision that managers at Cumberland River and its parent company Arch Coal "waited until every doctor, including two neurosurgeons, two eye doctors, a psychiatrist and others found no impairment and agreed Howard could return to work" before a doctor working for the companies said Howard could no longer be a miner, The Associated Press's Brett Barrouquere reported. "I find that the mine sought out and received the opinion they were seeking and immediately upon receipt of that single opinion, terminated Howard's employment," Miller wrote.

Howard has been whistleblowing about unsafe mining conditions for years, and has been getting disciplined or fired after each occasion. This is the third time he's been reinstated by a judge. (Read more)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Some tea party lawmakers worked hard to keep federal subsidies for rural passenger service

"Tea party lawmakers from rural areas were among those fighting the hardest to preserve taxpayer subsidies for airline flights into and out of small towns last year after senior Republicans tried to eliminate the oft-criticized program," reports Andrew Taylor of The Associated Press. "Now, the House Appropriations Committee is awarding the program an 11 percent budget hike. Next year, the subsidies would reach a record $214 million under a bill the GOP-run committee approved Tuesday. The subsidies can reach hundreds of dollars per ticket -- and can exceed $1,000 in a few routes. The Essential Air Service program was established to guarantee that small communities would continue to get commercial air services even though the routes were no longer profitable.

Taylor notes, "The program awards contracts, usually worth between $1 million and $2 million a year, to subsidize airlines that serve airports in such places as Escanaba, Mich., Pueblo, Colo., and Scottsbluff, Neb. Such subsidies work out to as little as $6 per passenger for airports like Cody, Wyo., and Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. But subsidies can often reach hundreds of dollars each way on a round trip flight to and from isolated places like Kalaupapa on the island of Molokai in Hawaii or Great Bend, Kan., whose three or so passengers a day benefited from a subsidy exceeding $600 in 2010, the most recent year for which data is available."

Reps. Rick Berg, R-N.D., and Kristi Noem, R-S.D., were among those who fought to save the program. The subsidies increase approved Tuesday "came as the panel also moved to cut food aid to poor nations overseas and funding for implementing new Wall Street regulations." (Read more)

Rockefeller tells West Virginia to stop listening to 'scare tactics' of coal industry

Jay Rockefeller, the five-term Democratic senator from the nation's most coal-dependent state, told West Virginians today that they need to stop listening to the fear-mongering and scare tactics from the coal industry and told them it's time they woke up to the truth. He told them he is worried for their future and for their health.

The occasion for his passionate remarks was his refusal to go along with a coal industry-backed resolution of disapproval of the Environmental Protection Agency’s rules on mercury and air toxins, which failed to pass on Wednesday, 53 to 46.

Rockefeller said the industry's "scare tactics are a cynical waste of time, money, and, worst of all, coal miners’ hopes. But sadly, these coal operators have closed themselves off from any other opposing voices and few dared to speak out for change – even though it’s been staring them in the face for years."

The senator added that he wants West Virginians to prepare for the future in light of coal's finite quantity, the rise of natural gas, and the increasing desire for a low-carbon economy. He asked that they consider the health implications of the rule in question and remarked, "I oppose this resolution because I care so much about West Virginians." For his text, from The Charleston Gazette, go here.

A bit of background on the rule: On December 21, 2011, EPA announced the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, the first national standards on power-plant emissions of mercury and toxic air pollution such as arsenic, acid gas, nickel, selenium, and cyanide. The standards will slash emissions of these dangerous pollutants by relying on widely available, proven pollution controls that are already in use at more than half of the nation’s coal-fired power plants.  For more on the MACT rules, click here.

Rural schools struggle to bridge the digital divide

Rural schools have long been leaders in distance-learning and online education. "To offer a full slate of courses to their students, they’ve had to be. Some states, fearing a divide between rural and urban communities, have developed statewide initiatives to provide technology to rural schools," Sarah Butrymowicz writes in The Hechinger Report. Maine, she points out, gives every student a laptop, and Alabama requires all school districts "to offer advanced placement courses through distance-learning technology, where students video-conference with teachers. (Edison School in Yoder, Colo.; Butrymowicz photo)

In 2010, only 57 percent of rural households had broadband Internet access, compared to 72 percent in urban areas, according to a November 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce. Teachers in rural settings don't require students to go online to complete assignments and have to be flexible about staying after school so students can work on the computers. “The Internet can give them library resources that they might otherwise not have,” said Aimee Howley, senior associate dean in the College of Education at Ohio University, who studies technology integration in rural schools. Technology can also be used for simulations of things, she said, that “you just can’t do on site."

For schools facing shrinking budgets and consolidation, technology could be rural schools’ saving grace, said Bob Wise, a former governor of West Virginia who now serves as president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a national advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., that has studied the challenges facing rural schools. “We’re encouraging every district to develop a systematic strategy for employing technology,” he said. “My guess is you will see a number of rural schools actually saved and renewed as learning centers.”

Natural gas industry's rapid growth putting strain on states' efforts to properly inspect wells

Advocates whose job it is to watch the natural-gas industry have been impressed by Ohio's example: The state has hired as many as 70 new field inspectors to keep track of the work being done by drillers of 250 more wells this year in their state alone. But, reports Jim Malewitz of Stateline, the news agency of the Pew Center on the States, there is concern that other states are falling way behind in their mandated inspections of the gas wells that have appeared on their landscapes. (Photo by Amy Sancetti)

Gwen Lachelt of Washington, D.C.-based Earthworks, which advocates more oversight of the gas industry, "notes that in other states with surging natural gas production, there has been no effort to beef up oversight of the oil and gas industry. 'No one is minding the store,' Lachelt says. 'The states are simply not enforcing what regulations they do have on the books…They don’t have enough inspectors, and wells are going uninspected."

Because of a lack of manpower, most wells across the U.S. are not inspected in a given year.  Malewitz notes that, for example, New Mexico has roughly the same number of oil and gas wells as Ohio, but it employs only 12 inspectors to oversee them. That small crew made between 25,000 and 30,000 inspections last year. In Colorado, home to 47,651 wells, a team of 15 performed 12,000 inspections in 2011, according to the state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.  (Read more)

House panel votes for new ban on horse slaughter

Horse slaughterhouses would again be effectively banned in the U.S. if the House Appropriations Committee has its way. The panel voted Tuesday to bar the Department of Agriculture from spending any money on inspection of horse abattoirs, thus preventing their operation. Such a ban was imposed several years ago but was dropped in a House-Senate conference committee last year.

No horse slaughterhouses have opened since then, partly because of the uncertainty about federal policy, and clues were scant Tuesday about the future of the amendment by Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., to the USDA appropriations bill. Sara Gonzalez of Agri-Pulse reports that the amendment passed on a voice vote after Moran said, “Industrial slaughter of horses should not be condoned by the U.S. government. We have to put an end once and for all to this practice.”

Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said "It is more inhumane to let a horse die by the side of the road" than to kill it in a slaughterhouse. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., chairman of the agriculture appropriations subcommittee, said the government needs to allow U.S. producers to meet demand for horse meat in Asia and Europe. "This is a 100 percent emotional issue," he said. Agri-Pulse notes that the ban "is a long-standing priority of the Humane Society of the United States."

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Southern Baptists enthusiastically elect first African-American president

Fred Luter Jr., left, and outgoing SBC
President Bryant Wright (AP photo)
Rev. Fred Luter Jr. has been chosen to lead the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, the first time that an African-American pastor has been so honored. Travis Loller of the Associated Press writes that it is "an important step for a denomination that was formed on the wrong side of slavery before the Civil War and had a reputation for supporting segregation and racism during much of the last century. In a news conference after the vote, Luter said he doesn't think his election is some kind of token gesture. 'If we stop appointing African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics to leadership positions after this, we've failed ... I promise you I'm going to do all that I can to make sure this is not just a one-and-done deal.' " Luter was unopposed when he was elected by thousands of enthusiastic delegates at the SBC annual meeting in his hometown of New Orleans.

At that meeting, a controversial proposal was also put forth for the organization to adopt the alternative name of Great Commission Baptists, a move that was made in hopes of bringing in more believers. The organization, acknowledging a recent decline in membership,  its desire for greater diversity and the belief that some may have a negative associations with the current name, has put the optional name to vote. The result was set to be announced Wednesday.

Luter did speak Tuesday about the decline in SBC membership and his own efforts to grow his church, reports AP's Loller, "which included intensive outreach to men, and his concern that men in his inner-city neighborhood were not taking responsibility for their children."  (Read more)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Senate votes mandatory funding for some Rural Development programs in Farm Bill

The U.S. Senate voted this afternoon to amend the 2012-17 Farm Bill to include $150 million mandatory funding for certain Rural Development programs in the Department of Agriculture, rather than leave them at the mercy of appropriators and administration officials.

The amendment would secure funding for non-farm microenterprise development, which advocates said is in danger, guarantee funding for water and sewer projects for which applications have already been filed; and avoid cuts in programs for beginning and minority farmers.

The vote, 55-44, was almost entirely along party lines, with Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri voting no and Republican Susan Collins of Maine voting yes. Collins' seatmate, Republican Olympia Snowe, voted no. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, another moderate Republican, switched from no to yes near the end of the vote.

Debate was limited to one minute on each side by the agreement governing consideration of 73 amendments to the bill. Democrats Sherrod Brown of Ohio, left, who sponsored the amendment, and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, chair of the Agriculture Committee, spoke for it. She implicitly defended her committee's decision to leave the usual Rural Development title out of the bill, saying the move eliminated 16 specific spending authorizations. For Brown's press release on the amendment, click here.

Republican Pat Roberts of Kansas opposed the amendment, saying it reduces the five-year savings in the bill to an estimated $23.2 billion, and "If we're going to achieve savings we've got to hold the line."

Final Senate approval of the bill is expected next week. UPDATE, June 20: Agri-Pulse reports that it could pass this week. The early consideration of the Rural Development amendment, because of its financial implications, may have helped secure its passage.

Meredith Shiner of Roll Call reported that "Sources were cautiously optimistic that the Senate will approve a bill that received a bipartisan 16-5 vote out of committee. But it is also clear that certain regional disputes will be tougher to bridge and that even if the Senate does pass the bill, the road to the president’s desk likely will be difficult, if not impossible, with a Republican-controlled House."

Shiner wrote that the agreement on the amendments was a "massive" deal that was passed by unanimous consent and includes some measures that are not germane to the bill Reuters reports several of the amendments, including those about debt reduction, subsidies and soil erosion, "are meant to put lawmakers on the record on hot-button spending issues."

David Rogers of Politico reports that crop insurance, sugar price supports and food stamps "will all likely be subject to multiple challenges testing their political support." Rogers also reports that Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was promised a vote on his RAISE Act, which amends labor laws to give employers more ability to reward performance bonuses. The Associated Press notes the bill, which financially is mainly about nutrition, will provide $80 billion a year for the food-stamp program.

The Rural Development amendment was "hanging by a thread," Chuck Hassebrook of the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs wrote earlier for the Daily Yonder. He asked, "Why is the political system unresponsive to the more than 95 percent of rural people who do not farm but need jobs, opportunity and community development?" He offered these answers: "Rural Development gains little mention in the news media. It’s not on the list of concerns that pundits say must be resolved before the Farm Bill can muster enough support to pass the Senate. Rather, all eyes are on the dispute between Midwestern and Southern agriculture interests on how commodity payments are structured. Rural development scarcely prompts a mention. . . . Our organizations are not presumed, individually or collectively, to represent the rural masses. And there is little fear that ignoring our pleas will prompt dire electoral consequences with rural voters generally."