The Rural Blog

Issues, trends, events, ideas and journalism from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Monday, Feb. 28, 2005

Journalists challenged to help improve health in Central Appalachia

More than 50 journalists, health-care professionals and interested citizens from Appalachian states shared ideas about the region's health, and how to cover and improve it, on Friday in Hazard, Ky., at a conference sponsored by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

The institute's director and the health professionals challenged the region's news outlets to devote more attention to medical issues in one of the least healthy regions of the nation. "The news media in Appalachia could play a key role in improving the region's health. But all too often, most of the health care information some outlets carry is advertising from providers looking for patients," interim director Al Cross said.

The University of Kentucky Center for Rural Health hosted the gathering. Its director, Judy Jones Owens, told the audience, "Rural communities are very dependent on the local news media to act as their advocates. It's imperative in this age that someone provide a voice for people living in these rural communities. Reporters really should be that voice."

Roger Alford of The Associated Press interviewed Cross and Pat Lay, publisher of the Harlan (Ky.) Daily Enterprise, which had a reporter at the conference. Lay told Alford that newspapers in the region recognize the importance of educating the public about health issues, and that some devote sections to health and medical news. She said her newspaper routinely runs columns on health issues written by physicians. Lay said schools also play a key role in educating children about healthy lifestyles, and that health care organizations also need to step up their efforts to reach adults. Lay said, "I think we're a partner in helping educate residents, but we are only one of many partners."

Wayne Myers, former head of the U.S. Office of Rural Health Policy, told the conference that poverty crosses all racial and ethnic bounds in central Appalachia and is at the root of its health problems. He said the region's health care is no worse than anywhere else, but he and others noted that its cancer-death rates among people 35 to 64 are disproportionately higher, reflecting a shortage of screening -- which Cross said could be addressed by feature stories about cancer victims who survived because they were screened.

Cross also suggested that newspapers play up health-oriented news, citing a front-page story and editorial from the Greenup County (Ky.) News-Times about an anti-obesity grant to the local schools. He also suggested that newspapers could use their ability to "sample copy" every household in their counties to reach non-subscribers with health information, and cover the cost with ads from health-care providers.

A more detailed report on the conference appears here.

Bill Gates urges restructuring high schools; governors seek tougher standards

Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates told the nation's governors and leaders of the educational community that U. S. high schools are obsolete and need radical restructuring to raise graduation rates, prepare students for college and train a workforce that faces growing competition in the global economy. Governors of states with more than one-third of the nation's students said they are forming a coalition to improve high schools by adopting higher standards, more rigorous courses and tougher examinations.

Gates said, "Our high schools were designed 50 years ago to meet the needs of another age. Until we design them to meet the needs of this century, we will keep limiting, even ruining, the lives of millions of Americans every year," writes Dan Balz of The Washington Post. Gates was the keynoter for a two-day education summit linked to the National Governors Association meeting in Washington. It highlighted the problem of dropout rates among high school students and the schools' failure to give students adequate preparation for college, and to developing an agenda for action in the states.

Gates put his money where his mouth was. He offered $15 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- which already helps hundreds of high schools -- to help states improve high schools. Five other foundations made offers, for a total of $23 million. Gates and others cited alarming statistics to back up their argument that high schools are failing students, particularly low-income or minority children.

The U.S. is16th among 20 developed nations in the percentage of students who complete high school and 14th among the top 20 in college graduation rates, writes Balz. Just 18 of 100 students entering high school go on to complete their college degree within six years, and the nation has slipped from first to fifth internationally in the percentage of young people who hold a college degree. Math and science education poses a particular challenge, with most American students gradually slipping behind the rest of the world.

The message sent by the governors was that "Unless the nation takes drastic measures on high schools, the United States will lose its competitive position in the world economy," writes Robert Pear of The New York Times. The 13 states in the coalition to improve high schools are are Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Texas. Other states are expected to join in the next few weeks.

Oregon property-rights law spurring conflict with anti-sprawl forces

Oregon’s new property-rights law, approved as Measure 37 by voters last fall, is creating a paradox for the state as it sets out on the cutting edge of controlling urban sprawl, reports The Washington Post.

The law says the government must pay cash to longtime property owners when land-use restrictions reduce their property value, writes Blaine Harden. If the government can’t pay, the owners are allowed to develop their property as they wish. But there is little or no money to pay landowners, so the law collides with smart-growth laws that have defined living patterns, land prices, and protected the state’s open spaces.

Dale Riddle, vice president for legal affairs at Seneca Jones Timber Co., the largest donor to the campaign for Measure 37, told the paper, "If you are going to restrict what someone can do with his land, then you have to pay for it.”

Land-use restrictions triggered a nationwide backlash in the early 1990s when Florida, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi passed property-rights laws to protect owners from monetary losses from zoning. A nearly identical bill to the Oregon law has been introduced in the Montana legislature, and Washington is working to put a similar initiative on its ballot.

Mountain goes to Muhammad? No, Mt. Sinai goes to the Supreme Court

The deeply contentious debate over government-sponsored displays of The Ten Commandments, which Exodus says were given to Moses on Mount Sinai millennia ago, reaches the summit of the nation’s legal system this week – The U. S. Supreme Court.

In cases to be argued on Wednesday, involving two rural counties in Kentucky and the Texas state government, the basic question for the justices will be: What does it mean for the government to display a copy of the Ten Commandments? So writes Linda Greenhouse of The New York Times, adding:

"To those who seek removal of the displays -- a six-foot red granite monument that has sat since 1961 on the grounds of the Texas Capitol, and framed copies of the Ten Commandments that were hung five years ago on the walls of two Kentucky courthouses - the meaning is as obvious as it is impermissibly sectarian."

Erwin Chemerinsky of Duke University Law School wrote in his brief for Thomas Van Orden, an Austin resident who has so far been unsuccessful in his challenge to the Texas monument, "There is no secular purpose in placing on government property a monument declaring 'I am the Lord thy God.' " The Texas display is one of thousands placed around the country in the 1950's and 1960's by the Fraternal Order of Eagles with the support of Cecil B. DeMille, the director the movie, "The Ten Commandments."

Douglas Laycock, a professor and associate dean at the University of Texas School of Law, said in a discussion of the cases Thursday sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, "The government is not supposed to be for religion or against religion. You don't put up a sign you disagree with, and the government doesn't disagree with these," she writes.

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a law firm established by the Rev. Pat Robertson, said the Ten Commandments have acquired secular as well as religious meaning, and have come to be "uniquely symbolic of law." Sekulow noted the marble frieze in the courtroom of the Supreme Court building depicts Moses, holding the tablets, in a procession of "great lawgivers of history." (The 17 other figures in the frieze include Hammurabi, Confucius, Justinian, Napoleon, Chief Justice John Marshall and Muhammad, who holds the Koran.) Sekulow said, "Does the Supreme Court now issue an opinion that requires a sandblaster to come in? I think not," Greenhouse writes.

NFU says ag-market concentration keeps rising, calls for more competition

The National Farmers Union reported that concentration in agricultural markets has continued to rise, according to a study the NFU commissioned from Mary Hendrickson and William Heffernan from the University of Missouri Department of Rural Sociology. The NFU reported the results at its 103rd anniversary convention in Lexington, Ky.

“The study showed the top four beef packers now dominate 83.5 percent of the market, four pork packers control 64 percent of that market, and the top four poultry companies process 56 percent of the broilers in the United States,” said the organization. NFU President Dave Frederickson said that ethanol production was the only sector where concentration has steadily decreased, saying it was a direct relationship to the high number of farmer-owned ethanol cooperatives in the country.

Frederickson also said the results were more proof that Congress needs to immediately pass legislation to restore competition for U.S. farmers and ranchers. “Independent producers cannot succeed in the absence of protection from unfair and anti-competitive practices,” he said. “We need comprehensive agricultural competition and concentration policies to restore balance in the marketplace.”

Some Southern Kentucky tobacco farmers not up to speed on buyout

Tobacco farmers in many Kentucky counties don’t understand the nature of the federal tobacco buyout or how to get buyout payments, reports the Bowling Green (Ky.) Daily News.

Sign-up for the money runs March 14 through June 17, writes Greg Wells. Prior to the sign-up period, quota holders and producers should get a letter explaining the program and including Farm Service Agency records of poundage for the past years, Wells writes.

Karen Evans of the Butler County FSA office, told Wells, “It’s really sad, we have people coming into the office still wanting to lease their tobacco bases this year. I’m really concerned that some of the elderly quota owners or the out-of-town property owners may not get signed up.” Logan County farmers also have questions, said Winston Woodward, that county’s FSA director. “We’re getting quite a lot of questions and can’t tell them yet how it’s going to operate,” he said. “We’ve also had to explain to quite a few that there are no tobacco leases anymore.” The FSA is sending direct mailings in Warren and Edmonson counties to tell what days producers can come to register, Wells writes.

All of the questions are a result of the passage of last year’s Fair and Equitable Tobacco Reform Act, which ended the tobacco marketing quota and price support programs. Quota holders will be eligible for payments if they owned a farm on Oct. 22, to which a quota was assigned. Producers will receive payments per pound, based on production for crops from 2002, 2003 or 2004.

Johnstown's hard times turn to hope; ‘diamond in the rust,’ paper says

With such a bleak history, it might seem as if Johnstown, Pa. had nothing left but to become another old, depressed steel town, reports the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. But, says the newspaper, the city that was built on the backs of laborers from 23 countries has become known as a high-tech corridor.

"With its biomedical research, information technology and military subcontractors leading the new-job revolution, Johnstown developers are bringing in more needed manufacturing jobs," writes Paula Reed. "Nestled in the heart of the Laurel Mountains, Johnstown rightly earned itself a reputation as the heart of the American industrial revolution." With coal mining and steelmaking, the city hit its peak in the 1950s, when more than 40,000 people worked daily in those industries. But, Reed says the bottom fell out in the early 1980s, when interest rates climbed to 21 percent and unemployment hit levels seen only during the Great Depression. A population that once stood at 63,000 plummeted to 28,000.

Now, writes Reed, the city has embraced diversification in economic development. "It may be a catchword these days, but for the Johnstown region, diversification means everything. Economic leaders rely on it to help stimulate their economy, and to keep existing jobs in place,” she writes.

Linda R. Thomson, president of Johnstown Area Regional Industries, a local economic development agency, brags about recent announcements. Gamesa, a windmill manufacturing facility, is coming in. Conemaugh Health System is planning to turn a brownfield into a high-tech park. In a few months, International Steel Group is expected to announce a coke plant that could produce up to 800 jobs between mining and the plant. Over the next two years, Reed notes, the Johnstown area will need 2,000 people to fill new positions. Thomson tells her, "I think that's the most positive thing we've seen."

Influx of black bears leads to calls for hunting season in Kentucky

Bunches of black bears are pawing at porches, rooting through garbage and menacing pets in Central Appalachia, reports The Associated Press. Enough black bears have migrated into the hills of Eastern Kentucky that some think it's time to start hunting them down again.

"Outdoor enthusiasts believe the move would be good for hunters and would give the bears a fear of humans that would keep the animals away from homes, writes Roger Alford. Ronnie Wells, president of the Kentucky League of Sportsmen told AP, "It would make them stay wild. That's the philosophy behind it. They've been coming right down into people's porches and yards."

As recently as a century ago, bears thrived in Kentucky's mountain region, before overhunting led to their disappearance, Alford writes. But over the past 20 years, they've been venturing back through the forest of Virginia and West Virginia, once again giving Eastern Kentucky a self-sustaining bear population that has been increasingly butting up against residents.

A Whitesburg resident was ordered to pay a $250 fine for shooting a 270-pound bear that was eating from his garbage cans and frightening his dogs and horse. Neighboring Virginia and West Virginia have had bear hunts for years, but Kentucky officials say it would be premature for them to restart one because they don't yet know how many black bears live in the state.

Wild horses in the West run risk of slaughter; advocates rally to revive ban

After more than 30 years of roaming federal lands free of any threat of the slaughterhouse, wild mustangs, can now be sold and butchered for meat if the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) cannot sell them, reports The Washington Post.

"In December, Congress repealed a 34-year prohibition on the slaughter of wild horses, which have become synonymous with the spirit and heart of the American West, and required the government to sell the unwanted ones. Many ranchers complain that the horses are eating up forage needed for their cattle," writes Kimberly Edds.

More than 37,000 burros and wild horses, whose ancestors once sped Pony Express riders to their destinations, roam federal lands in 10 Western states. Arguing that the wild mustangs would starve on crowded federal lands or languish in cramped pens after being captured in government roundups aimed at thinning the population, Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) attached an amendment to the omnibus appropriations bill signed by President Bush in December, she writes.

Under the Burns amendment, BLM, must sell animals older than 10 and those that have been unsuccessfully offered for adoption at least three times. About 8,400 animals would be for sale. Betty Kelly, co-founder of the advocacy group Wild Horse Spirit in Virginia City, Nev. Told Edds, "It's an atrocity. They really don't care about these horses. They just want them off public lands."

Road builder seems to lead ‘tangled alliance’ for Kentucky truck bill

Before the Kentucky House voted to legalize overweight gravel trucks on the state's roads, joining the overweight coal trucks already allowed, lawmakers heard again dire warnings of the death of the coal and trucking industries if the higher loads are not allowed reports the Lexington Herald-Leader.

“The legislature must pass a bill to broaden the exemption in the 40-ton weight limit so it covers not only coal, but all other natural resources, such as gravel, sand, oil and natural gas,” writes John Cheves. But, because of a Pike County lawsuit filed by a jealous gravel trucker, Cheves notes, a judge is ready to kill the weight exemption for coal trucks.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Howard Cornett, R-Whitesburg, said, "They can't make a living at 80,000 pounds! Shut down the coal industry, and we'll shut the state down!" Trade groups representing the coal and trucking industries don't support Cornett's bill. Some non-coal truckers shudder at the idea of driving through the Appalachian Mountains at 60 tons, he writes. Roy Bruner, a trucker in London, said "Putting an 'overweight' decal on your windshield won't help you brake any faster with that kind of load."

Backing the fight for heavier trucks on both fronts is Leonard Lawson of Mountain Enterprises, the politically connected road builder who depends on gravel, and Terry McBrayer, lobbyist and former chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party, writes Cheves The gravel-trucking firm that sued the state over the coal exemption, D.R.T. Trucking, hauls for Lawson's various road-paving companies. It's represented in court by McBrayer's Lexington law firm.

Hollywood’s roots reach to Kansas farmer and wife; from figs came fame

Hollywood’s plumage was in full bloom last night as it picked from its crop those to be anointed with ‘Oscar” accolades, but its world famous film-empire name might be for naught if it weren’t for the choice of a fig farmer from the Sunflower State and more importantly his wife's fancy for names.

“No star exists for (that fig farmer ) H.H. Wilcox (nor for his wife) on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. In Topeka, where he began his fortune, no plaque bears his name. No statue bears his image,” writes Eric Adler in The Kansas City Star. Don Chubb, a leader of the Shawnee County Historical Society, told Adler, “I'd say you'd be lucky to find 10 people in the entire town who have ever heard of him,” said. “I thought I knew a lot about local history. I didn't know anything about him.”

In the shadow of the 77th Academy Awards ceremony, Adler writes, "Here is what there is to know: In 1883, 51-year-old Harvey Henderson Wilcox — a crippled Kansan who had made a bundle in Topeka rental property — set out for California. There, in 1886, he bought a fig orchard and 120 acres of undeveloped farmland with the idea of creating his own God-fearing community. It was his wife, Daeida, who gave the place a name: Hollywood.” (Your bloggers note that Hollywood is criticized for not giving 'a fig' for the aforementioned principle upon which the farm was founded.)

Saturday special, Feb. 26, 2005

Publishers of The Mountain Eagle receive award named for them

Tom and Pat Gish, publishers of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., accepted on Friday the first Gish Award, which the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues will give to rural journalists who demonstrate courage, tenacity and integrity often needed to render public service through journalism.

The award was presented at the Institute's first conference for journalists, on covering health care and health in Central Appalachia, at the University of Kentucky's Center for Rural Health in Hazard, Ky. (A report on the conference will appear later in The Rural Blog and remain on the Institute Web site.)

The following article is adapted from the tribute to the Gishes at the presentation of the award.

Tom and Pat Gish spoke in October at an event announcing the establishment of the award.

By Rudy Abramson, Advisory Board Chairman, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

On November 22, 1956, The Mountain Eagle carried a front page story reporting that W. P. Nolan and his wife Martha had sold the newspaper they had published since 1938 to Tom and Pat Gish.

Tom was a Whitesburg boy who had made good. Ever since graduating from journalism school at the University of Kentucky he had worked for the old United Press, mostly covering the state capital of Frankfort. Pat, a Paris, Ky., girl, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of UK and a former editor of the Kentucky Kernel, had been a reporter for the old Lexington Leader, covering a variety of beats for eight years.

The Mountain Eagle purchased by the Gishes was an unremarkable, fairly typical weekly paper. Its masthead accurately proclaimed it “A Friendly Non-Partisan Weekly Newspaper Published Every Thursday.” To give you its flavor, I will read you the lead from its story at the top of Page 1 not long before Tom and Pat bought it:

“On Thursday, March 4, the Kiwanis Club of Jenkins has the pleasure of presenting Mr. P.L. McElroy, vice president of Consolidation Coal Company, Pittsburgh, Pa., who will deliver a lecture entitled, ‘The Future of Coal.’ . . . Mr. McElroy is well versed on all phases of the coal industry and is thoroughly qualified to speak on all aspects of our most abundant natural resource.”

There was no reason for folks in Whitesburg to expect that new ownership at the Eagle portended great change. But that’s exactly what was in store.

The Gishes had put out just two issues of their paper when Whitesburg, Hazard, and other communities were devastated by the worst flooding in a generation. Their coverage was fantastic. It equaled that of the Lexington and Louisville papers and it followed up on the story long after the city papers had forgotten it.

But notwithstanding the natural disaster, there was not a lot of obvious breaking news in Whitesburg and Letcher County in the late 1950s, and the so the Gishes turned to seriously covering the business of public agencies. They had not bought the Eagle with a strategy of launching crusades, but they quickly found themselves in an inevitable role of crusaders.

In those days in Whitesburg, as in many if not most small towns of Appalachia and elsewhere, public business was conducted with little public knowledge. Tom and Pat surprised city and county officials by showing up for their meetings. They surprised them even more when they began to report what was said and done, and this went against the grain of a lot of them.

The county school board, for instance, was the biggest public employer in the county. It had its meetings in a little room with seating space only for its members. Citizens who had business with the board were called in one at a time. Often they were dismissed with their issue left to be addressed by the board in private. No doubt to the astonishment of board members, Pat Gish began standing in a corner through these meetings and reporting the proceedings in the Eagle.

It didn’t take long for the board to adopt a resolution saying press coverage of its meeting was not permitted, and it didn’t take long for other public agencies to follow suit.

But this outrage was only the beginning. There followed, as most of you know, efforts to drive the Gishes out of business with advertising boycotts, competition, and eventually even arson.

The doctor who delivered Tom Gish into the world was the school board chairman and the political boss of Letcher County, and he put out word that school board employees were not to buy the Mountain Eagle. Along Main Street in Whitesburg, word was spread that Tom was a Communist. The Eagle lost for all time its major advertiser, an automobile dealer, which had been largely responsible for keeping the paper’s books in the black.

All of this took place at an extraordinary time. Appalachia’s wartime and post-war coal boom had collapsed. Throughout the fifties, families left Whitesburg and Letcher County in droves. The population had fallen by half, and thriving communities, such as Seco where Tom Gish grew up, withered away.

Mechanization of the mines not only threw tens of thousands of miners out of work, it brought environmental havoc to the mountains.

The Gishes’ Mountain Eagle, having replaced its “Friendly Bipartisan Newspaper” label with the defiant slogan, “It Screams,” became perhaps the country’s most defiant, most consistent, and most compelling voice against strip and auger mining in Appalachia.

The Eagle pulled no punches.

In 1960, its editorial leveled scathing criticism at Bert Combs, a mountain neighbor who would long be regarded as one of Kentucky’s most progressive governors, for failing to take a stronger stand against strip mining and for doing too little to address the economic distress of the mountains.

There were times when anarchy and insurrection loomed. The National Guard had to be sent in to prevent violence in the coal fields; The Eagle reported meetings in which citizens seriously suggested withdrawing from the state.

One Mountain Eagle editorial opined, “If five or ten thousand Letcher county residents went to Frankfort and pitched tents on the governor’s lawn and stayed until he put in an appearance, Combs might pay some attention to us.” Perhaps anyone who presumes to teach journalism in Appalachia ought to require a reading of editorials in The Mountain Eagle during the bad old days of the Sixties.

It quickly became one of the first news organizations to charge the federal government itself — specifically, the Tennessee Valley Authority — with being one of the major causes of strip mining.

With the publication of Harry Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands in 1963, the ravages of strip mining, mountain poverty, and the condition of schools became national news stories, and Whitesburg became a frequent destination for magazine and newspaper reporters and television crews.

Readers of the Mountain Eagle were already familiar with places such as Beefhide Creek, which Caudill made famous. They already knew about TVA coal contracts that accelerated the spread of strip mining across Appalachia. They already knew about the deplorable condition of schools. Letcher County had nearly 70 one and two room schools when the Gishes began writing about the system, and The Eagle called most of them unfit for human habitation. Tom bitingly observed that Albert Einstein would have lacked qualification to teach algebra at Whitesburg High School.

In November 1963, shortly after the publication of Caudill’s book, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Homer Bigart traveled the hollows and mountain roads of Eastern Kentucky and wrote that Christmas would find many citizens facing serious hunger. His article brought an outpouring of food and clothing from across the country and became a landmark as the federal government considered an economic aid program for Appalachia. Interestingly, four years before Bigart’s article, a piece in the Mountain Eagle had begun with almost the same sentence: “ Many Letcher County homes will miss a visit from Santa Claus this year unless some of Santa’s helpers get to work immediately. Some may even do without a Christmas Day.”

As the national press, the White House, and Congress discovered Appalachian poverty, Tom Gish and Harry Caudill became the most prominent spokesmen for the region. Caudill’s law office and the Gishes’ newspaper office became the places outside reporters went first for tips, for information, and for quotes.

Bill Bishop, a 1970s Mountain Eagle reporter who now writes for the Austin American Statesman, remembers the day after the 1976 Scotia mine disaster when a New York Times reporter arrived in Whitesburg on deadline. The pages for the next day’s Mountain Eagle were already made up and were about to be loaded into Tom’s car and taken to the press. The Timesman grabbed and phone and dictated a story directly from the article written for the next day’s Eagle.

Not surprisingly, a great many local people deeply resented the national spotlight, and some blamed Gish and Caudill for negative portrayals. One local official threatened a BBC film crew filming citizens lined up to receive government food handouts. Later, a producer for a Canadian television crew was shot to death.

Through it all the Gishes remained stubbornly undaunted. Jim Branscome, who was the point man in pressuring TVA to open its board meetings when he was a young stringer in Knoxville for the Eagle, still recalls arriving in Whitesburg the day after an arsonist hired by a Whitesburg policeman had torched the newspaper’s offices. He went to the Gishes’ house and there sat Tom on the porch hunched over a typewriter, composing a story for the next issue. The issue appeared on schedule, with a famously altered motto on its masthead: "It still screams."

“Here he was not far away from his heart attack, having quit a five pack a day habit,” Branscome recalled recently. “And here he was determined to get out a few pages, just to let all the bastards know the Eagle was still screaming. Was it an incredible act of courage, commitment, or just plain mountain stubbornness? I still haven’t figured out the proportions of these three things, but I am leaning toward the last one as explaining a lot.”

It should also be said that The Mountain Eagle has done much more than fight for open access, expose strip mining, and expose corruption.

Every reporter and editor who came to work at the paper was instructed that the community columns by Siller Brown, Mabel Kiser and the other columnists who reported the illnesses, doings, and deaths from Millstone, Neon, and elsewhere around the county were not to be touched. Community columns continue to be an Eagle mainstay even though Mabel and others who first worked for the Gishes have gone to their rewards.

It’s very hard to sum up Tom and Pat. I have not even touched upon the things they’ve done outside the Eagle, the fine family they have reared, or their contributions such as Tom’s work on behalf of education in Kentucky, including a term on the state school board.

Others who presented awards to them have talked of many of the same things I have mentioned here. But the most cogent statement I have seen was sent to me last week by Tom Bethell, another fine editor and journalist who worked at the Eagle during the turbulent sixties, and I would like to quote him:

“They have produced week after week, nearly 3,000 times so far, a living, breathing, working definition of what good rural journalism is all about. They have always paid close attention to what could be described, wrongly, as the small stuff. In the pages of the Eagle you can count on knowing when the redbuds are blossoming and how the mist looks on Pine Mountain, who has come home for the holidays, who owes back taxes, and who has died.”

Recalling how the Eagle covered TVA, the War on Poverty, the Vietnam War, and the Watergate caper, Bethell went on: “One of the many reasons why Tom and Pat are great journalists is that they have always understood that there is almost no such thing as a strictly local story, and they have been willing to follow the story wherever it takes them. That, surely, should be a model and a mantra for rural journalists wherever they are.”

Over the past several years, the Gish team has received awards from professional associations, universities, civic organizations, and other publications, and national honors named for people from Helen Thomas to Elijah Lovejoy. Now, the fledgling Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues institutes an award — maybe we should call it a Prize — named for the Gishes.

From time to time, it will be bestowed upon a person or persons considered to have demonstrated the courage and tenacity that have made Tom and Pat icons of community journalism, and that are often necessary to render public service through journalism in rural America.

Frankly, I think this overlooks an even more important Gish trait — integrity. It has been their personal integrity that has made their courage, commitment, and tenacity so meaningful.

And so, I am honored to present the first Tom and Pat Gish Award to its namesakes — two great journalists, two fine people, and two sterling citizens of Appalachia and the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

Friday, Feb. 25, 2005

Panel backs case directed at tobacco firms; wants youth education reinstated

A group of former high-ranking public health officials who served presidents of both major parties stepped into the government's racketeering case against the tobacco industry yesterday, asking the judge to reinstate an education program that cigarette companies once financed, reports The New York Times.

“The request came from the Citizens' Commission to Protect the Truth, a group of 21 former surgeons general, secretaries of health and human services and directors of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dating to the Johnson administration," writes Michael Janofsky. The group was formed last year to protect antismoking educational programs that had been required under a 1998 settlement that ended litigation between the companies and 46 states over health-care costs from smoking.

Commission chairman Joseph A. Califano Jr., who served as heath secretary under President Jimmy Carter, old The Times the commission's request satisfied a recent appeals-court decision. The court blocked the government's request for $280 billion from the companies, calling it a "backward looking" remedy that was not permitted under civil statutes of the 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO. The ruling said that if the government did prevail in the case, any other remedy should "prevent and restrain" future illegal acts, not punish the companies for acts in the past.

Califano told the newspaper, "If you want to focus on future conduct, this is one thing the industry can do." Under the 1998 settlement, the four leading American tobacco companies - Philip Morris, Lorillard, R. J. Reynolds and Brown & Williamson - were required to pay for education programs for five years.

Tobacco tradition is bid farewell, but officials say auction is not the last

Tobacco warehouse officials in Somerset, Kentucky, protested that yesterday’s tobacco auction was not the town’s last, reports The Commonwealth Journal.

Co-owner and manager of Peoples Tobacco Warehouse, William Shotwell, told the paper, "We'll be open next season, we'll have buyers, we'll sell tobacco." A warehouse partner, Glenn Martin, also objects to reports that this is the final season for the auctions. He pointed out that the Tobacco buyout bill only ends the price support system, writes Bill Mardis, the editor emeritus of the Commonwealth Journal. The bill, which was signed into law last October, also removes restrictions on growing the crop. Any grower can produce as much tobacco as he wants, but must also find a buyer, the paper explains.

Big tobacco companies have been contracting with farmers to buy the crop, drastically reducing the amount sold at auctions. The executive director of the Farm Service Agency, Lewis Colver, said that prior to yesterday’s sale, 1,817, 493 pounds of burley were sold this season at Peoples Tobacco Warehouse and Farmers Tobacco Warehouse. Growers made an average of $195.86 per hundredweight, Mardis writes. Figures on the sales from yesterday’s auction were not available at presstime, the Journal writes.

In a separate editorial, Mardis talked about what the price support system meant to tobacco farmers: “If a basket of tobacco fails to bring a penny more than the support price for that particular grade the basket goes to the 'pool.' In other words, the support price makes sure growers get a fair pay for their leaf.”

That system and the money it brought farmers were essential to Somerset, Mardis writes, saying, “It made the mortgage payment on the farm. The money bought Christmas presents for the family. Golden burley was the chief cash crop in Pulaski County and across the Burley Belt.” And while the sales may continue, Mardis says, the tradition surrounding it “is a thing of the past.”

Smokers forced outdoors, toxic cigarette butts pile up, befoul environment

As bans on smoking in public places proliferate, laws are passed and more smokers are forced outdoors to light up, questions about the growing problem of cigarette butts piling up outside those establishments and their environmental and health impact are being asked by The Herald-Dispatch in a special report.

“Cigarette butts roll off smokers’ fingers, down roads and drains ...They’re scattered over parking lots at shopping centers. They line walking paths,”write Jim Waymer of Florida Today and Crystal Quarles of the Huntington, W.Va. newspaper. And there may be even more of them because of bans on smoking in restaurants, many workplaces and public places. It’s the unintended environmental fallout of those defiant acts that has scientists worried, Waymer and Quarles write. Kathleen Register, an adjunct professor of environmental sciences at Longwood University in Virginia told the two reporters, "It’s growing in visibility as more and more people are outdoors smoking. I think people are angry that they need to go out and smoke, so it’s almost a defiant act to litter."

The full effect is poorly understood, especially at the base of the food chain. The more visible consequences higher up the chain are obvious when field biologists witness them. Wildlife rehabilitators, for example, routinely find cigarette butts in the intestines of dead sea turtles or see them on X-rays of sick ones, write Waymer and Quarles. The cigarette butts absorb the chemicals that burnt tobacco emits, including high concentrations of nicotine and nitrogen. Some biologists suspect even trace amounts of those chemicals, especially nicotine -- a natural pesticide -- may have harmful effects. The toxins can accumulate in higher concentrations in larger animals as they move up the food chain, they write.

FedEx halts East Kentucky drug deliveries; addicts try to skirt restrictions

FedEx has stopped delivering packages from online pharmacies to portions of Eastern Kentucky where prescription drug abuse has become widespread, and where addicts have been using the service to skirt restrictions and regulation, reports The Associated Press.

"Drug dealers and abusers have increasingly turned to ordering prescriptions from unlicensed Internet pharmacies since law enforcement agencies began cracking down on local doctors, sending some to prison for prescribing pills without legitimate medical reasons," writes Alford.

The problem has become so pervasive that state legislators are pushing a bill aimed at regulating online sales of prescription drugs. Attorney General Greg Stumbo called prescription drug abuse a cancer in Kentucky, he writes. The legislation would make it a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, to distribute drugs shipped into Kentucky by unlicensed Internet pharmacies, and would allow authorities to seize prescriptions ordered from unlicensed online pharmacies.

FedEx spokesman Ryan Furby told AP he doesn't know when the company will resume drug deliveries. He said the deliveries were stopped "because of the sensitivities of where they're originating and the possible contents of the packages." People who order drugs online must now get them at a FedEx station.

Letcher County Sheriff Danny Webb told AP drivers for companies like FedEx and UPS could have dangerous jobs in parts of Eastern Kentucky if addicts think they're hauling drugs from online pharmacies. "I've had reports of at least 10 people gathered around a UPS truck picking up their packages. If a driver goes up one of these hollows and comes up on six or eight people who know he has drugs on there, they may decide to take them," he said.

Tennessee congressman has bill to clean up after meth labs, study health effects

U.S. Rep. Lincoln Davis of Pall Mall, Tenn., is pushing legislation to require the Environmental Protection Agency to formulate regulations to safeguard residents from environmental and health hazards created by the production of illegal methamphetamine, reports The Tullahoma News.

Davis, whose Middle Tennessee district is one of the antion's most rural, is a co-sponsor of a bill that calls for the development of health-based guidelines in cleaning up meth labs, which have become an epidemic in rural areas nationwide. The Methamphetamine Remediation Act would require EPA to set up the health-based guidelines, fund field-test kits to help law enforcement detect labs, and fund a study on long-term health effects from the labs on children and law enforcement officers, the paper reports.

In a recent meth-lab bust in Smyrna, Ga., federal agents told nearby residents to not eat apples from trees in their yards because of poisonous run-off from the lab, raising considerable health and environmental concerns. In 2004, Tennessee accounted for 75 percent of meth lab seizures in the Southeast.

Man tries to hide arrest for meth, buys up local newspapers, paper prints more

Jack William Pacheco of Chowchilla, Calif., was arrested for meth possession on Feb. 17. The next morning, he decided the best way to keep it secret was to buy up every copy of The Chowchilla News.

He estimated he bought 500-600 copies of the paper. By that afternoon, the circulation department reports there were no copies available anywhere in town, but 500 additional copies were printed that night, reports the News. The weekly paper costs 50 cents a copy. Pacheco denied the meth-possession charge, saying it was an embarrassment to him and to his family.

UMW head arrested near Massey plant protesting pensions, health, jobs loss

Ten United Mine Workers union members, including UMW President Cecil Roberts, were arrested yesterday after a peaceful sit-in near a Massey Energy cleaning plant in Smithers, W. Va.

“Another 200 miners and supporters lined both sides of the road as the 10 men sat in the cold rain near an entrance to the old Cannelton Coal cleaning plant on the Kanawha River. When the 10 moved onto the main road, dozens of other protestors stood near them until Kanawha County sheriff’s deputies arrived to arrest them,” writes Paul J. Nyden of The Charleston Gazette..

Some held signs that said, “Why Won’t Massey Hire Union Miners?” Those arrested also included William “Bolts” Willis, president of Cannelton UMW Local 8843; Donnie Samms, deputy director of UMW Region II in Charleston; and Bob Phalen, former UMW District 17 president, writes Nyden. Each person arrested faces a misdemeanor charge of impeding the flow of traffic. All were arraigned in Kanawha County Magistrate Court and released.

Roberts told the newspaper, “We chose to rally at the Cannelton cleaning plant because of what happened to UMWA members at this operation last year is a perfect example of the harmful economic impact America’s federal bankruptcy laws can have on good, honest, hard-working people.”

Massey Energy bought the Cannelton mining complex from bankrupt Horizon Natural Resources last summer. They bought it after U.S. Bankruptcy Judge William Howard nullified the UMW contract at the mine, ending health-care benefits the contract promised miners for the rest of their lives. More than 1,000 miners, as well as 4,000 retired miners and spouses, lost their health benefits when Howard issued his ruling. The UMW is also upset that Massey reopened the mine as a non-union operation.

Cost analysis of 'No Child' law backed; Va. study aims toward withdrawal

Virginia lawmakers want to know how much the state is paying to implement the No Child Left Behind education law, and how much Virginia would lose in federal funds if it left the law behind, reports The Washington Post, a law that has strapped many smaller rural school districts with costly requirements.

"They need the information, they said, before they can consider the dramatic step of withdrawing from the federal program next year. It also signals of how seriously they take the state Board of Education's effort to win more flexibility on the law from the federal government," writes Rosaline S. Helderman.

Del. James H. Dillard II, R-Fairfax, chairman of the Virginia House's Education Committee and one of the assembly's most vocal critics of the law told Helderman, "It's going to cost us a whole lot more to stay in then to get out." The Board of Education voted last month to seek waivers from 10 detailed requirements of No Child Left Behind, citing a provision of the law that allows the U.S. education secretary to exempt states from any of its strictures. State Superintendent Jo Lynne DeMary told the newspaper there has been a meeting with federal regulators since that vote but that they have yet to comment on the their request.

Dillard told Helderman, "We have to stand up and assert our rightful prerogative to control education in the state." Negotiations now occur against a backdrop of escalating rhetoric about the law's impact on education, nationally and in Virginia, she writes.

Minnesota bill asks more flexibility on 'No Child Left Behind' testing

Minnesota should be granted the flexibility to reach the goals of the No Child Left Behind law the way it sees fit or it will opt out of the federal program, leaving federal public school funding behind as well, under a proposal introduced yesterday by a state senator, reports the Pioneer Press

State Senator Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, “also wants the (Minnesota) legislature to pass a resolution asking Congress to amend the No Child Left Behind law by adopting the recommendations of the National Conference of State Legislatures' task force,” writes Toni Coleman of the Minneapolis – St. Paul, Minnesota newspaper.

Kelley, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, told the newspaper, "I personally believe it's a moral and economic imperative to close the achievement gap. But we also believe that states and local districts know best how to accomplish the goal set out in No Child Left Behind and that the federal government has gone too far in prescribing the methods by which states and schools would achieve those goals."

Bill Walsh, Minnesota Department of Education spokesman, told the newspaper, "We certainly agree that No Child Left Behind needs some tweaking. We're working every day to get more flexibility out of the federal government and we're having success." Unless the federal Education Department agrees to changes in the implementation of the federal education law by July 1, 2006, the state would opt out and forgo up to $250 million a year in federal funding, under Kelley's proposal, writes Coleman.

Democratic strategists still fussing about how to appeal to rural voters

"More than a few Democrats are suggesting that, just as the party informally decided to downplay the gun issue after their 2000 loss, Dems should now do the same with abortion (because) it might help them win downscale, small-town and rural voters who have been defecting from the party with increasing frequency," nonpartisan political analyst Charles Cook writes in his latest National Journal column. "Others warn that the abortion/choice issue has become so ingrained in the Democratic Party doctrine that to suddenly clam up would be seen as politically craven and actually counterproductive."

Cook lays out the debate among Democratic pollsters, beginning with Brad Bannon, who says the party should "emphasize an agenda of economic populism over social issues," because while conservatives outnumber liberals, "There are more populists than elitists." He notes that John Kerry won by only 1 percentage point among voters with annual household incomes between $30,000 and $50,000, showing that "the traditional Democratic message of economic populism just didn't penetrate with this struggling group of voters, whom he describes as 'barely middle class' and who make up just over a fifth of the electorate," Cook writes. Our guess is that a disproportionate share of those voters are rural.

On the other side is Kerry pollster Mark Mellman, who argued in a memo to a women's group that supports abortion rights that the issue "played little role in the election, though to the extent that the issue was engaged, it appears to have been a net positive for Democrats," Cook says. Mellman also argues that "moral values" were not a key factor in the race, "that this conventional wisdom is an incorrect interpretation of flawed wording in an exit-poll question," and that a majority of Americans support some abortion rights.

"More intriguing," Cook continues, "Mellman suggests that 'the country is moving from a class-based political alignment to an alignment based on culture' . . . that the lines are increasingly drawn between those who have a more traditional cultural stance (who are aligning more with Republicans), and those who are more progressive in terms of cultural values (who are siding with Democrats)." Mellman's memo says "cultural progressives tend to be pro-choice, while traditionalists are often anti-choice," but "there is no evidence that the issue of choice itself caused the cultural alignment or that changing positions on choice would undo the current alignment."

Pollster Mark Blumenthal tells Cook that abortion is a "double-edged sword," because "there were certainly gains (for Democrats) during the 1990's in non-southern, upscale suburbs" and "long-term losses in rural areas." Another pollster who "preferred to go unnamed" told Cook that "a party should not have a position on abortion -- it is a personal decision and when a candidate has a personal conviction, our party should not have a litmus test for support. This pollster said "many urban and suburban voters lean pro-choice, but not militantly," and "abhor extremism in politics from either side, but they are more concerned with privacy than rural voters" Most voters, he says, don't want to talk about the issue.

A fifth pollster, also anonymous, told Cook that "a cluster of social issues" such as abortion, gay rights and gun control have mobilized liberal Democratic activists "and, along with opposition to the Iraq War, define "progressive" politics." This pollster says Sen. Hillary Clinton has the perfect position for a "pro-choice" Democrat: "Stay pro-choice but speak to those in the middle who want abortion to remain legal as it is now, but have strong moral qualms."

Gun-control debate has taken a breather, reports Minnesota newspaper

The national debate over gun rights, for decades among the most searing and divisive of political issues, appears to be all but over in Congress, reports Matt Stearns of The Kansas City Star.

That means that the assault weapons ban, a signature achievement of gun control advocates that expired last year, probably will not resurface anytime soon. Conversely, congressional leaders and the Bush administration haven't put a priority on efforts to expand gun rights, Stears writes from Washington.

Saul Cornell, a historian who is director of the Second Amendment Research Center at The Ohio State University, told Stearns, “There's a perception that Washington is not the place to take the debate at this moment.” Cornell said politicians on both sides see little advantage in pressing the issue. Stearns notes that “Democrats, desperate to regain their appeal to middle America, are moving away from the party's long identification with gun control, much to the relief of many beleaguered Democrats in states like Missouri.”

Missouri Democratic Rep. Ike Skelton said of the issue, “It's a loser. Many in the Democratic leadership know that small-town and rural America is very pro-gun. It's part of our rural society, and people have to respect that. I think Democratic leadership is understanding that and reflecting that obligation to respect rural values,” he told Stearns.

Republicans, however, have become wary of boasting about their long and profitable alliance with the National Rifle Association, the nation's leading gun rights group, he writes. In the 2004 election cycle, the NRA's political action committee spent more than $12 million, mostly to aid Republicans. Included was $1.2 million backing President Bush and more than $1.5 million against Democratic nominee John Kerry.

Untaxed cell towers multiply; county fails to collect property levies on structures

Richland County, S.C., has a problem that many other rural counties might share. It could be missing out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax revenue because property taxes haven’t been collected on dozens of cell phone towers, reports The State newspaper of Columbia..

“County officials know of 105 existing or planned cell phone towers in unincorporated Richland County. But only about 40 are being taxed, said Harry Huntley, Richland County auditor. There could be even more untaxed towers, county officials acknowledge,” writes Gina Smith.

Because the county doesn’t know for sure how many towers are untaxed, it’s not clear how much money — revenue that could go to schools, libraries, the Sheriff’s Department and other county agencies — has been lost, she writes. An $84,000 tower, which Huntley cited as a typical example, would bring the county $3,200 in personal property taxes annually. Towers can cost between $75,000 and $300,000 to build.

Jonathon Yates, a Charleston attorney who represents Cingular Wireless, told the newspaper he was surprised to hear the county hadn’t taxed some towers. Yates told Smith it would be hard for a company to skirt the county’s process. He said Cingular is being taxed.

Virginia community newspaper group switches editors for 'fresh perspectives'

Three of the six editors at Community Newspapers of Southwest Virginia will be moving on to other roles, announced the newspaper group this week, as part of its plan to better utilize the editors’ strengths and freshen the papers' outlook, reports the Smyth County News & Messenger.

The editor of the Wytheville Enterprise, Stephanie Porter-Nichols; the editor of the News & Messenger, Dan Kegley; and the editor of the Washington County News, Mark Sage, will take on new roles, said the newspaper group’s publisher, Samuel Cooper. Porter-Nichols will become editor of the News & Messenger, Kegley will become general manager and editor of the County News, and Sage will take over editorial responsibilities at the Enterprise, Cooper said.

Cooper said the changes are to allow "fresh perspectives and approaches," to make a news product that is more responsive to its readers. “Every few years an organization needs to rethink how it does business and then reinvent itself in a way that will show progress. We think this is what we’ve done,” Cooper said.

Porter-Nichols told the paper, “Words can’t express how much I will miss working with the people of Wythe County. I have come to believe that its community members are all part of my extended family ... I’ve had the chance to observe many exciting opportunities that Smyth County is pursuing and I look forward to learning more about those and getting to know the people that make it a unique community.”

Thursday, Feb. 24, 2005

Bank regulators propose new requirements for community lending

A little over six months ago, The Rural Blog published its first story, about a proposed change in federal rules that would exempt most banks from strict requirements that they support their communities through local lending and direct financial support of local causes. This week, the two big bank regulators offered a new Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) plan that affordable-housing advocates found more palatable.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC) and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) announced that the threshhold for a "small bank," the type that have less stringent regulations, would be raised to $1 billion from $250 million. In some states, most of them rural, that would apply to all or almost all banks. Banks getting this break would have a new "community development test" allowing them to "allocate their resources for CRA purposes among community development loans, investments and services based on the needs of their community," the two agencies' joint press release said.

"The proposal would also expand the definition of community development to include activities such as affordable housing in underserved rural areas and designated disaster areas." the release continued. "The agencies seek comment on the best way to identify 'underserved' rural areas to ensure that CRA activities are targeted to the rural communities and persons in those communities most in need of community development and affordable housing."

“Small” banks are examined only for their record of making loans in the areas that they serve, while “large” banks undergo a stricter, more complex test of their patterns of providing service and investment in those areas. Banks say the current rules are too costly and thus inhibit investment.

The National Association of Affordable Housing Lenders, which was critical of various regulators' plan to raise the small-bank threshhold to $1 billion, said the new plan "is a much-improved proposal and an important first step toward updating CRA regulations." It said the Federal Reserve Board, which regulates national banks and had expressed concern about the original plan's effect on rural areas, is expected to follow suit, and called on the Office of Thrift Supervision, which regulates savings banks, to do likewise. OTS raised its small-bank threshhold to $1 billion last summer withour adding a new test.

The Independent Community Bankers of America contains banks of all sizes and charter types, dedicated to the interests of community banking, the group says. The ICBA President and CEO, Camden R. Fine, issued a statement praising the FDIC/OCC CRA small bank proposal.

Fine said, "Relieving larger community banks of unnecessarily burdensome data collection, and expanding the definition of community development to foster needed rural economic and infrastructure development, will allow community banks to refocus their efforts on meeting local needs." For more see ICBA website.

Broad, bipartsan group of state officials seek change in No Child Left Behind

A bipartisan group representing 50 state legislatures has called for major changes in President Bush's landmark education initiative which it lambasted as "unconstitutional and impractical," reports The Washington Post. Many smaller rural communities find themselves especially hard-pressed to meet the 'No Child Left Behind' requirement to have a qualified teacher in the subject in every classroom.

"The ... report from the National Conference on State Legislatures "reflected widespread local unhappiness with the ... law, which sets out federal requirements designed to ensure every student is proficient in reading and math by 2014," writes Michael Dobbs. The report also said states should be given much greater latitude in interpreting the law and opting out of provisions that undermine local initiatives. Republican state Sen. Steve Saland of New York, who co-chaired a task force that took 10 months to review implementation of the intiative, said the law imposes an impractical "one size fits all" education accountability system across the country that stifles local initiatives, Dobbs writes.

The report complained the federal government provides less than 8 percent of the nation's education funds and seeks to impose an "unworkable accountability system in return." The task force said the federal government's role has become "excessively intrusive" in an areas states have traditionally controlled. The report contends the law leads to lower academic standards, has increased segregation, and has driven away top teachers from needy schools. It alleges the government is violating the Constitution by coercing state compliance.

The Washington Times reports the Utah Legislature is poised to repudiate the law and spurn $116 million in federal aid tied to it because state policy-makers are fed up with federal control of education and dictates. State Rep. Margaret Dayton, a Republican and mother of 12 who has led the rebellion to make Utah the first state to opt out of the law, told writer George Archibald, "This is not a partisan issue; this is a states' rights issue. We share the same passion President Bush has for quality education, but there is not one opponent [to opting out] in the entire Legislature, which is 2-to-1 Republican." Her bill and another giving primacy to state education standards, won unanimous House approval last week.

Subsidy debate reveals a truth: Much farming is a government enterprise

The big political and economic questions about President Bush's proposal to cut farm subsidies continue to get much attention in major mainstream media. Adam Nossiter of The Associated Press writes: "If there is a more loyal group of Bush supporters than Louisiana's cotton farmers, it is unknown. Perhaps to a man, they supported him in the recent election, say those who know," and their votes were "in line with the President's overwhelming rural vote across the nation. That's why news that Bush is seeking the most radical cuts in payments to farmers in years is provoking not only anguish across Louisiana's cotton and rice belts. You can hear the hurt as well."

"None use the word betrayal," Nossiter continues. "And all proclaim patriotic willingness to do their bit for deficit reduction, suck it up, and 'take the hit,' as one farmer put it. . . . But the pain is real. These farmers feel that, collectively, they have become a convenient whipping-boy, sacrificed for a public that doesn't understand and politicians looking to score points.

"I'm not happy," farmer John Rife told Nossiter. "I voted for George Bush. I know the Red States got him in there." Rife says "I'm a broke son-of-a-bitch," and says he's not alone. " Like others, he is irked by the popular notion that farmers like himself sit back taking government checks, getting rich all the while," Nossiter writes. "It goes against the grain, apart from being wrong. A study three years ago found 37,000 Louisiana farms received $590 million a year from the government -- most of them small operations getting less than $50,000, but three took in more than $1 million."

"Cotton is the king of subsidy-dependent American agribusiness," Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, told Tim Egan for a story in The New York Times. EWG " advocates an overhaul of the farm subsidy system and publishes a list of every payment in every county."

Egan, writing from California, the No. 1 agriculture state, takes a broader, national look: "Why the federal government rewards one grower and ignores the other has long been one of the more contentious arguments in rural America. But now that Mr. Bush has proposed a curb on billions of dollars in subsidy payments for crops like cotton and rice over the next decade, the question has roiled the industry, setting off a lobbying struggle in Washington and threatening to pit one type of farmer against the other."

Egan's point of departure is fruit grower Joan Lundquist, an example of those "who grow fruits, nuts and vegetables -- nearly half of all American crops -- (and) generally get little or nothing from the government, because they have been viewed as self-sustaining. But growers of wheat, corn, cotton, rice, soybeans -- the big commodity crops in the world market -- received the bulk of more than $130 billion given to farmers in the last nine years, a record. The rationale for the payments has been to keep domestic agriculture, or at least one segment of it, stable and competitive."

Critics such as EWG say that sustains megafarms "at the expense of the family farm. The administration has now proposed a cap of $250,000 a year per farmer on government payments, and wants to close loopholes that let hundreds of individual farmers get more than a million dollars a year in subsidies while claiming ownership in multiple operations. In response, some of the big growers are threatening to enter the unsubsidized segment, possibly driving down prices for those farmers."

Nossiter says the outcry "points up an unacknowledged truth: American farming is essentially a government enterprise. Of course that runs counter to the mythic notion of farmer as rugged individualist. . . . But other societies have decided that protecting national agriculture is a cultural necessity. You can easily find villages in rural France that would be depopulated shells if the state had not, for practical purposes, taken over the farming sector. An entire economy and way of life has been preserved, thanks to the taxpayers. That country would be much the poorer without it. American farmers say no different in defending their government checks (though they rarely make the connection directly)."

From catfish and shrimp to grass seed, tobacco alternatives yield mixed results

A number of Kentucky tobacco farmers have been preparing for years for the end of the tobacco price support program, but are finding their efforts somewhat offset by market forces they could not predict and over which they have little control, reports The Courier-Journal.

The Louisville newspaper’s Jim Malone profiles several farmers who have put their economic eggs into new production baskets; alternative crops for cash and co-ops for market safety in numbers. Some have found how frail family farming is in world competition, while others are finding modest success.

"Joey Green believes fish will play a big role in the future of his family's tobacco farm, but netting a profit has proved elusive so far. The Graves County grower and other tobacco farmers in far Western Kentucky dug ponds and established the Purchase Area Aquaculture Cooperative five years ago to fatten, harvest and market catfish," Malone writes. Green told Malone, "There have been days when I ask myself, 'Why did I do it -- and how can I get out of it?' " Green has spent about $34,000 to dig and equip his pond, bought 26,000 young fish for $3,640, and this year he will use 15 tons of feed costing $4,800.

Dan Bonk, a marketing manager, told Malone a consultant has recommended drastic changes in the way his catfish co-op does business, including doubling pond acreage, obtaining $4 million to $5 million in additional financing and overhauling the board of directors. But the recommendation to dig more ponds comes at a time when the state, demanding more stringent budget and financial controls, has balked at pumping in more money," writes Malone. So the catfish farmers are in a holding pattern.

Another farmer told Malone he will raise about 25 acres of tobacco this year, but has made money on some vegetable crops nearly every year, investing about $25,000 to $50,000 to buy equipment, build an irrigation pond and upgrade housing for migrant workers who harvest the crops. He told the newspaper he has recovered his investment and overall has made a profit, enough to keep going and expand this year.

State officials told the C-J the 36 members of the Roundstone Native Seed LLC co-op in Upton have made money by growing and marketing grass seed native to Kentucky. Randy Seymour, 62, told Malone, "Our co-op has been profitable from day one." Seymour told Malone the co-op had about $1.25 million in sales last year, and is the largest native seed producer in the Southeast.

N.C. Senate leader wants oyster hatcheries at aquariums to boost fishing trade

The leader of the North Carolina Senate has said he would support a program to build hatcheries at one of the state's three aquariums to help revive the flagging oyster population, a move experts say would boost the state's entire fishing industry, reports The Associated Press.

"A century ago, 1.8 million bushels of oysters each year were harvested from North Carolina's waters. By 1988, the harvest had fallen to 138,000 bushels. In more recent years, the harvest has measured about 40,000 bushels, writes AP. Marc Basnight, D-Dare, said during an oyster summit in Raleigh, "The Carolina oyster needs a comeback. The aquariums have the expertise, and it would mean that the people could see it." Marine biologists believe that a healthy oyster population encourages the health of other fish species and improves water quality. More oysters would also improve the economy of some coastal communities.

Nevada town sets up its own department store when a national chain leaves

When J.C. Penney closed its store in Ely, Nev., a town of 5,000 pretty much in the middle of nowhere, folks in the area were "faced with the prospect of a vacant storefront on Main Street, a hole in the local economy, and a 200-mile drive to buy socks and underwear," so they got busy, Tom Rowley writes in his latest column for the Rural Policy Research Institute.

"When big chain retailers said the market was just too small, they decided to set up their own shop. With help from a similar effort in Powell, Wyoming, citizens formed a community-owned corporation, sold shares in it at $500 a pop, raised the $400,000 start-up capital needed, and opened their own store--Garnet Mercantile," and hired the former Penney's manager to run it, Rowley writes.

"The Mercantile employs eight people, keeps shopping dollars in the community, helps other local businesses by bringing shoppers past their doors, and generates much-needed tax revenues. On top of all that, the mere presence of the store makes Ely a more attractive place to live and work," Rowley says. Oh, yes, the store is making money, and investors are still buying shares.

Dan Leoni, the manager, told Rowley that a big reason Penney’s left was that the company made too many decisions at headquarters, leading to a “cookie-cutter approach” that doesn't fit small, rural stores -- "a situation thrust on small rural towns time and time again by governments and corporations far removed from local reality," Rowley contends. "As a result, his little Ely location was forced to buy too much inventory and then sell the excess at huge discounts just to get rid of it."

Kentucky town sees little change after four years of alcohol in restaurants

"Little has changed," read the headline in the Georgetown News-Graphic, over stories about the Kentucky town's experience with alcohol sales limited to restaurants, under a state law passed in 2000.

"Like modern-day Chicken Littles," both sides forecast "monumental changes" in the town just north of Lexington, reporter Kevin Hall wrote. "Supporters of alcohol sales in restaurants foretold a boom in the food industry," but only two restaurant openings "can be directly traced to the vote" of residents to allow alcohol sales in establishments that seat at least 100 and get at least half their income from food.

Likewise, forecasts of more drunken driving do not seem to have panned out, Erica Osborne wrote. There was a spike in DUI arrests in 2001, but they have declined each year since, and last year were at their lowest level in at least eight years. "The statistics also reflect harsher DUI penalties," Osborne reports.

The package, which dominated the top half of Sunday's front page, was accompanied by a color photograph of fraternity brothers from Georgetown College, a Baptist institution, drinking beer at Applebee's, one of the restaurants that came to town as a result of the partial lifting of prohibition.

About 60 Kentucky localities have voted on limited alcohol sales at restaurants, golf courses and wineries since the legislature authorized such referenda in 2000, and about 40 have voted for sales. "Before the law changed in 2000, most votes on alcohol sales had to include entire cities or counties, and the question residents faced was whether to allow allow a full range of sales, including package stores and taverns. That was a tough sell in many places," Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader reported last fall.

Complaint filed against Social Security for failure to comply with FOIA

An ethics group has filed a complaint against the Social Security Administration for failing to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests, which asked for any records related to contracts between SSA and public relations firms.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a request in January after learning that the Department of Education had paid Armstrong Williams to promote the No Child Left Behind Act. CREW wants to know if SSA has hired any other public relations firms to help promote social security reform. So far CREW has filed requests with 22 agencies for copies of contracts with PR firms, including Fleischman-Hillard. For a complete copy of the complaint, click here.

CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said “although we know that the Social Security Administration has been actively promoting the idea that Social Security is facing a crisis and we know that SSA has paid Fleischman-Hillard nearly $1.8 million since September 2003, we don’t know what role, if any, Fleischman-Hillard has played in manufacturing that crisis. This is what we first tried to learn by filing the FOIA request and what we are now trying to learn by filing a lawsuit.”


Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2005

Series on rural growth from new sewer devices wins Tenn. paper big award

Brian Harville's stories for The Lebanon Democrat on the impact of decentralized sewer service in rural areas of fast-growing Middle Tennessee won him and his newspaper the award for small-circulation papers in the American Planning Association’s Journalism Awards Competition. “Little Pink Houses,” a three-day series in December, focused on Wilson, Williamson and Rutherford counties, the paper reports.

The series began, "Across Tennessee's three grand divisions, a silent housing boom is dotting the countryside with thousands of new rooftops, shifting the population growth from urbanized areas to outlying rural lands once thought unsuitable for widespread residential development. Newfound methods for treating residential wastewater known as decentralized or “on-site” sewer systems are enabling much of the explosion in rural development. . . . The decentralized systems are replacing the traditional use of septic tanks, serving in some instances more than 1,000 homes on one free-standing, on-site system."

While the systems are approved at the state level, "The on-site sewer phenomenon may hold an unwelcome irony for taxpayers in still rural counties," Harville wrote. "A small amount of federal and state funding for the fledgling decentralized sewer industry is at least in part driving a residential growth boom that may eventually bring tax increases and other revenue measures to pay for infrastructure to support the new rural subdivision explosion."

Another story said the systems are "prone to catastrophic failures." Another listed the main players in the industry, led by one family. For Harville's local statistics, click here. For other stories in the series, about turf battles and other political infighting caused by the phenomenon, click here and here

The series was picked up by The Associated Press and ran in newspapers across Tennessee. Harville thanked and gave credit to others who worked on the series, such as Night News Editor J.K. Devine, Chief Photographer Bill Cook and Managing Editor Clint Brewer. Other winners in the APA contest, which is in its 45th year, were the Green Bay Press-Gazette, which APA said exposed "myths about downtown development," and the Rocky Mountain News, which examined Colorado water shortages.

The end of a 65-year era: The last tobacco auction in Maysville, Ky.

As the federal program of price supports and quotas for tobacco is ending, so is the economically and culturally significant phenomenon of selling tobacco at a warehouse. Betty Coutant of The Ledger Independent in Maysville, Ky., a big tobacco town, chronicles the end of the era in today's paper.

"The decline in burley tobacco has been on the horizon for at least seven years," Coutant writes. "For the last five you could clearly see it coming. Two years ago it became a shell of what it once was, and Tuesday, in Maysville anyway, tobacco auction sales ended in less than a fizzle. There was no fanfare. There were no speeches. There were precious few growers and the buyers didn't even show. Not one. No politicians or busybodies. No tradesmen hoping to be paid accounts owed by burley growers."

No, but there was a journalist who knows her community and what tobacco has meant to it: "Cigarette makers insisted the plan was not to break the system of government price supports when they announced intentions to leave the auction system, but that's how it ended anyway. Every ounce of tobacco sold in Maysville Tuesday went to the pool," which has been used for 65 years to stabilize tobacco prices.

"It should have ended with something more, the small group at the warehouse thought. A eulogy of some sort, but the 15-minute sale was quiet and without fanfare," Coutant concluded, quoting sales supervisor Bette Phillips: "It's just over. I'm going to miss it."

There was one bright note in the coverage, a picture from photographer Brian Hitch, with this cutline: "Billy Ratliff with the USDA grading office holds the last official grading ticket from the Maysville tobacco market Tuesday morning. Ratliff said the tobacco on he last ticket graded the highest grade you can get."

Today may mark the last of the auctions, in Danville, Harrodsburg, Lexington and Somerset, Ky. Peoples Tobacco Warehouse in Somerset is supposed to have the last sale, starting around 1 p.m. The Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association may have one more in mid-March if there is demand.

Virginia hospital's new owners drop Health Wagon that served rural areas

The new owners of a hospital in rural southwest Virginia will drop a 25-year-old "Health Wagon" service that has been delivering health care to local people who can't afford to pay for it.

A nun who helped establish the Health Wagon, "Sister Bernadette Kenny, got the news Friday in a meeting with hospital decision-makers, exactly 18 days after the for-profit Health Management Associates group assumed official ownership of the former St. Mary's Hospital," now called Mountain View Regional Medical Center, Coalfield Progress Editor and Publisher Jenay Tate reports.

The wagon serves about 7,000 patients a year, mainly in Dickenson and Wise counties, plus parts of Buchanan and Russell counties. Kenny and the Health Wagon won the Virginia Rural Health Association's Best Practices Award in 2004. ""I thought that institutions were directed to consumers. I was naive," she told the Coalfield Progress. The new owners "are directed to the money," she said.

The new owners "will provide funding for the health wagon through April 30 and pledged a $20,000 donation on May 1 to a new organization that will continue to operate it, according to Teresa Gardner, a nurse practitioner who has worked with the health wagon for 12 years," the newspaper reported.

Today is deadline to register for conference on covering health in Appalachia

National leaders in rural health care will join university experts and Appalachian journalists at a free conference, Covering Health Care and Health in Mid-Appalachia, this Friday at the University of Kentucky’s Center for Rural Health in Hazard, Ky.

This conference is offered at no cost to participants, but advance registration is required by today . To sign up, send an e-mail to or call 859-257-3744. For the full program, click here.

The conference is the first sponsored by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog. "The news media in Appalachia could play a key role in improving the region’s health, but all too often most of the health-care information some outlets carry is advertising from providers looking for patients," said Al Cross, interim director of the Institute. "We want to help their readers, listeners and viewers live healthier lives, and make more informed choices about their health care."

The middle part of Appalachia – Eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, and the mountain counties of Virginia and Tennessee – is one of the least healthy areas of the nation. Rates of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and smoking are among the nation’s highest. Meanwhile, the nation’s health-care system is becoming more complex and harder to navigate, and that task is more difficult in a region that ranks low in income, education and certain health-care providers. At the same time, the need for health care in the region, and its relative lack of other economic opportunities, has made health care a major employer.

This day-long conference will explore the condition of the region’s health, the reasons for it, the many institutions and agencies that try to improve it, their economic impact, and ways that journalists in the region can cover all these subjects – including asking tough questions like, “Why is health care so expensive, and why is it so ineffective in Central Appalachia?”

Major presenters will include Wayne Myers, former head of the federal Office of Rural Health Policy; Bruce Behringer, assistant vice president for rural health at East Tennessee State University and former president of the National Rural Health Association; Rice Leach, former Kentucky state health commissioner; Judy Jones, director of the Center for Rural Health and a former reporter for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader; Daniel Mongiardo, Hazard physician, state senator and 2004 nominee for the U.S. Senate; Eric Scorsone, University of Kentucky economist; and Bonnie Tanner of UK’s Health Education through Extension Leadership program, which works county by county to improve individuals’ health.

The conference luncheon will feature presentation of the first Tom and Pat Gish Award to the Gishes themselves, in recognition of the tenacity and courage they have shown as publishers of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., for the last 47 years. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which announced the award in October, will continue to make it in honor of the Gishes.

Television stations take issue with study faulting their political coverage

Some television news directors are disputing the methodology and findings of a study, which was the top item in The Rural Blog last Wednesday, that faulted their political coverage. Their complaints have been featured this week in Al's Morning Meeting, published by Al Tompkins of The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, who says the study now seems to have "some pretty serious omissions."

The news directors complained that the study failed to pick up much of their political coverage because it was limited to broadcasts between 5 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. "The decision to exclude Sunday daytime arbitrarily excludes a time period where viewers expect to see politics," wrote Peter O'Connell, executive director of special projects at KING-TV in Seattle. "\We do a weekly political show that airs at 4:30 p.m. on Sundays, just ahead of the local news. The show also airs at 10:30 p.m. on our duopoly station, right after the top rated 10 p.m. newscast in the market, which was also excluded from the study. In October, this political show featured a debate for Congress, a debate for state attorney general, an Ad Watch special, and a special examining the issues in the most significant state and local races."

O'Connell said the study also failed to pick up other coverage and free time it gave to candidates during newscasts, and mischaracterized some coverage. For example, he said the study called "horse-race" coverage a story that dealt overwhelmingly with substantive issues discussed by candidates in a debate. Other news directors made similar complaints. The study looked at 11 major TV markets.

The report was prepared by researchers from the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communications; the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Seton Hall University in New Jersey. Martin Kaplan, director of the Lear Center, told O'Connell in a letter published by Tompkins that any mistakes in the data would be corrected. He said the time frame for the study was dictated by limited resources and was a standard used by the TV news industry.

Cattle raisers mount efforts to stop reopening of U.S. to Canadian beef

Two groups of cattle farmers have redoubled their efforts to stop the planned March 7 reopening of the United States to Canadian beef from cattle less than 30 months old.

The Organization for Competitive Markets, which opposes packer ownership of livestock, asked Congress to overrule the Department of Agriculture’s plan, quoting "industry experts" who say the move could drop cattle prices by as much as $20 per hundredweight, or an average of $240 per head.

The expert cited was "Schwieterman Marketing LLC, a firm specializing in risk management and cash grain and livestock marketing plans," OCM said. The firm " estimates that a minimum of 100,000 cattle per month will pour over U.S. borders if USDA’s rule is implemented, increasing weekly slaughter by four to five percent. In typically normal livestock markets, a one percent change in supply results in a two percent change in price. With Asian export markets still closed, the firm is forecasting a 10 percent break in August live cattle prices that could easily grow to 20 percent unless export markets are opened."

Meanwhile, the Ranchers-Cattlemen's Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF USA) is asking consumers "to tell their grocery store managers, butchers, mayors, governors, members of Congress and local health officials" to "Keep U.S. Beef Safe." The group cites concerns over four Canadian cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad-cow disease. USDA and the American Meat Institute say Canada is taking sufficient precautions to prevent the disease.

Kentucky House panel wants to let officials meet away from home territories

Local government bodies in Kentucky could meet outside their jurisdictions once a year, under a bill that a state House committee approved yesterday.

House Bill 418 "is intended to permit yearly retreats, its sponsor, Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, told the State Government Committee," The Associated Press reported. "Such meetings could be for any reason, however. They'd be open to the public and no final action could be taken at them, said Simpson. They must be in-state and not last more than two days."

The Kentucky Press Association and the new Kentucky Citizens for Open Government are fighting the bill. KPA Executive Director David Thompson said the committee "just about turned the Open Meetings Law on its head." He cited a Northern Kentucky court ruling which said the law is intended to make meetings "convenient to the public, and holding those meetings outside of the jurisdictional area of the agency is not necessarily a convenience for the public."

Thompson called on KCOG members to ask their legislators to vote against the bill, and asked Kentucky newspapers to editorialize against it. Al Cross, interim director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky, seconded the motion. "This legislation would work a special hardship on rural news outlets that would find it difficult to pay travel expenses for staff members to cover such meetings," said Cross, a former editor and manager of weekly newspapers.

Rural areas would be hardest hit by pending health-care cuts in Tennessee

If and when Tennessee cuts 323,000 people from TennCare, its version of the Medicaid program, "Rural West Tennessee, the Cumberland Plateau and upper East Tennessee are the areas likely to be most severely affected," the Governor’s Task Force on Health Care Safety Net said yesterday.

"Gov. Phil Bredesen installed the new task force at the end of last month to study ways in which the state could strengthen its health care safety net," Judith Tackett of Nashville City Paper reports today. Bredesen says the progress of the state depends on reducing costs of the program, which has extended health coverage to hundreds of thousands of the working poor.

“This information shows that we have some major challenges in some regions and some great opportunities for targeted expansion in others,” said the task force chairman, Health Commissioner Kenneth Robinson. “Clearly, all regions of the state will feel the impact of this disenrollment, but some are better-equipped to deal with it than others.”

Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2005

Treatment for narcotic addiction needs stricter dose control, weekly suggests

A controversial treatment for narcotic withdrawal symptoms has gained popularity over recent years, but it doesn’t have solid dosage supervision and patients can overdose, reports the Princeton Times, a weekly newspaper in Mercer County in southern West Virginia.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy says the drug has been used for over 30 years and when taken once a day, it can reduce narcotic cravings without extreme highs. Methadone clinics were designed to supervise addicts, who report regularly to the clinics to obtain their dose. Over time, writes Tammie Toler, the clients may be allowed to take several doses home.

Princeton Police Detective T.A. Bailey told Toler that clients were often required to bring the medicine bottles back before receiving more doses, but a local under-cover officer says that doesn’t keep the doses secure. "We've been buying quite a bit on the street," he said. "I know they're not taking those bottles back, because I've got them."

The clinics need much more regulation, said Baily, who is also a member of the Southern Regional Drug and Violent Crime Task Force. "If they were capable of taking the doses like they were supposed to, they wouldn't need the methadone clinic anyway," he said. "They're not reliable people."

West Virginia ambulances facing problems with transporting obese patients

Emergency services in West Virginia are dealing with a unique strain on their equipment: the state leads the nation in obesity, and their ambulances cannot accommodate some over-sized patients.

Bonnie Hitt, administrator for Holbrook on the Hill, asked the Upshur County Commission to purchase equipment and/or ambulances to serve obese patients in the five counties covered by Holbrook, reports Paul Fallon of The Record Delta, a weekly in Buckhannon. She related a story about a 31-year-old male patient, who needed to be transported to St. Joseph’s Hospital but the ambulance could not move him.

"It was a horrible experience to go through," she said. "In emergency situations, we don't want somebody to lose their life or have employees get hurt because of lack of equipment."

Mississippi farmers say cuts in subsidies could put them out of business

President Bush’s proposed budget would dramatically change farm subsidies determined by the Farm Bill of 2002, and some Mississippi farmers say the changes could put them out of business.

Nolen Canon owns a 7,000-acre farm, which has received $4.3 million in subsides from 1995-2003, writes Arnold Linsday of The Clarion-Ledger. Canon said that without the money, production would be nearly impossible. "Subsidies are important. If you took away the farm support in the Farm Bill, you would have a depression of the '30s style in rural America," Canon said. "They're not just numbers drawn out of the air. These farm programs are developed after hours and days of debate and analysis by economists."

The Environmental Working Group, which maintains a database of farm subsidies, said Mississippi farmers got $4.3 billion in subsidies in 1995-2003, Lindsay writes. The money helps farmers stay in business during price fluctuations. Bush proposes trimming $5.7 billion from the bill over the next decade, and eliminating what farmers call “the three entity rule,” which farmers can use to get the maximum payment under one program if they use their name and two partial payments from other programs.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., will try to reach a compromise with Bush. "I think the Senate will work with the President to control the deficit, but we will insist that reductions in farm programs be fair to all producers,” he said in a prepared statement.

FFA Week is still news to a daily paper and its readers in Mason County, Ky.

Fifty-five years after it was formed, the Future Farmers of America is still an integral and productive part of rural agrarian-based towns and cities nationwide, but nowhere more so than Maysville, Ky., reports The Ledger Independent in a feature on National FFA week.

As part of National FFA week, Mason County High School senior Landon Garrison is driving his farm tractor to school, writes Danetta Barker. Garrison told Barker, “I like my shop class. We build and work on different pieces of equipment like calf feeders and wagon flats." Garrison lives and works on the family farm in Minerva. He plans to own his own farm in the future.

"A member of Garrison's shop class, Nathan Applegate, also drove a tractor to school Monday, "from their farm on Pole Cat Pike," writes Barker. Like Garrison, Applegate plans to be a farmer one day. He told Barker, "I like farming. I like working outside with my dad." Mike Ross teaches the shop class where Garrison and Applegate learn about building and maintaining farming equipment. FFA also offers accounting, planting, animal husbandry and much more, she writes.

Ross told Barker, "A farmer is a jack of all trades. He has to know how to plant (crops) and manage the books and work on equipment. . . . I teach grades nine through 12. It is fascinating to watch the kids come in as freshman and see how they really do change by the time they make it to their senior year.".

FFA operates on local, state and national levels and its agricultural education program provides students with "a well-rounded, practical approach to learning through classroom education," Barker writes. Nationally, there are some 444,497 members ranging from the ages of 12-21. FFA helps students develop their leadership skills by participating in public speaking, skill contests, chapter meetings, award and recognition programs, committees and community projects.

Bird flu may turn into human pandemic, head of disease-control center warns

A federal health official yesterday warned of a worldwide epidemic from a bird flu virus, which could mutate to become as deadly and infectious as viruses that killed millions during three influenza pandemics of the 20th century, reports The Associated Press.

The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, said at a national meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that scientists expect a flu virus, which swept through chickens and other poultry in Asia, will genetically change into a flu that can be transmitted from person to person, writes Paul Recer. The genes of the avian flu change rapidly, she said, and experts think it is likely the virus will evolve into a pathogen deadly for humans.

In Asia, there have already been a number of deaths among people who caught the flu from chickens or ducks. The mortality rate is high -- about 72 percent of identified patients, said Gerberding. There also have been documented cases of this strain of flu being transferred from person to person, but the outbreak was not sustained, she said. "We are expecting more human cases over the next few weeks because this is high season for avian influenza in that part of the world," said Gerberding. Although cases of human-to-human transmission have been rare, "our assessment is that this is a very high threat."

The avian flu now spreading in Asia is part of what is called the H1 family of flu viruses. It is a pathogen that is notorious in human history. "Each time we see a new H1 antigen emerge, we experience a pandemic of influenza," said Gerberding.

Meth lab's residue casts pall; Georgia neighbors fear possible contamination

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents have removed methamphetamine confiscated in a recent bust, along with manufacturing supplies and meth ingredients, but there is still plenty to do for cleanup — and uncertainty remains high among neighbors in Smyrna, Ga., says The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“Tests of soil samples are incomplete, and the homeowner could be forced to remove the soil, if it's contaminated, as well as anything else, such as plumbing fixtures and pipes used to dispose of the toxic waste. If the homeowner fails to clean it up, the job would fall to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which then would bill the property owner,” writes Don Plummer. “That could take years. In the meantime, neighbors are left to wonder — and worry,” he writes.

Federal officials say they have notified the owner of the house and the Cobb County Health Department, and a warning to potential purchasers will be placed on property records. Tammy Atwood, who lives in her mother's house adjacent to the lab site, told Plummer she was visited by federal agents shortly after the bust. "They told my brother we shouldn't eat the apples from our tree this spring. It's scary. You wonder what else might be over there." The U.S. attorney for northern Georgia, David Nahmias, told the newspaper he is concerned that the lab was found in a residential neighborhood.

DEA officials said that, in addition to pseudoephedrine, the meth process requires toxic materials that include acetone, ethyl alcohol, freon, ammonia, iodine and acids. Many of those substances can cause cancer and, in combination, may cause respiratory problems and birth defects. Large meth labs also pose huge risks when they are being operated. When the highly flammable materials explode, they explode big.

Winn-Dixie, a big advertiser, files for protection under bankruptcy laws

Winn-Dixie Stores, which "long had a lock on the South, announced early Tuesday that it had filed for bankruptcy protection," but would keep its remaining 920 stores in eight states and the Bahamas open, Constance Hays of The New York Times reports this morning.

"The filing came after a long struggle to stay even with competitors like Wal-Mart. Over the last decade, Wal-Mart blanketed crucial Winn-Dixie markets, like Florida, with its supercenters which include full-line supermarkets as well as general merchandise," the Times notes. "Wal-Mart's reputation for low prices drove other chains to stake out their own territory with shoppers. Initially, Winn-Dixie fought back on price but then tried to make its stores more upscale, along the lines of Publix, another grocery chain based in the Southeast. In both cases, it was struggling against nimbler, more experienced foes."

Winn-Dixie said in release that it would use the reorganization to move ahead with new sales and merchandising initiatives, while looking at the additional sale of assets and ways to reduce expenses. The company's chief executive, Peter Lynch, said the chain will improve its offerings of perishable goods.

"The seeds for Wal-Mart's domination of Winn-Dixie were sown in the 1980's, when Sam Walton, the Wal-Mart founder, won a seat on Winn-Dixie's board. He served for five years, from 1981 to 1986, and shortly after he stepped down Wal-Mart opened its first-ever supercenter," Hays wrote. "In the 1980's, both Wal-Mart and Winn-Dixie had a fair amount in common. Both were founded and closely controlled by families, and both professed a folksiness that appealed to shoppers in their home regions. But as Wal-Mart expanded, the Jacksonville, Fla.-based Winn-Dixie all but shriveled. Since 1998, the chain has closed more than 200 stores and sales have dropped to $12 billion from $2 billion."

Federal appeals court rejects plan to improve national parks' air quality

A federal appeals court has rejected a government-approved program used by five Western states to improve air quality in national parks and wilderness areas. Siding with an industry coalition, the court said the program used by the states was based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency methods that the court previously had found to be "inconsistent with the Clean Air Act," reports The Associated Press..

The decision deals with efforts by Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming to cut sulfur dioxide pollution, which contributes to regional haze, particularly at the Grand Canyon. Secretary of health and human services and formerly administrator of the environmental agency Michael O. Leavitt, had helped lead those efforts as governor of Utah, AP writes.

The United States Court of Appeals said the similarity between methods previously rejected by the court and adopted for the haze program "fatally taints E.P.A.'s rule." The panel's decision came in a challenge from the Center for Energy and Economic Development, a coalition of coal, utility, rail and other companies, based in Alexandria, Va.

EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman told AP, "We are disappointed. We will continue to work with the ...states that seek to use such trading programs to achieve these goals." A lawyer for Environmental Defense,Vickie Patton, called the court's decision "another chapter in the coal industries' efforts both in the courts and in the Congress to weaken clean air protections for our national parks."

New group to preserve region's rich history of Appalachia's blacks

A newly formed organization, African Americans of Appalachia and Blount County, is in the earlystages of trying to find profiles, interviews, artifacts and more from the area to preserve them for future generations, reports The Knoxville News-Sentinel.

The heritage of blacks in Southern Appalachia is a rich field just ready for cultivation, says Shirley Carr Clowney. Clowney is a native of Alcoa, writes Robert Wilson. Clowney and her husband, Cato, formerly lived in New Jersey, where she taught "basic life skills" to high school juniors and seniors. She told Wilson those skills help students "understand who they are, how to get a job, buy a home" and more.

The Clowneys retired and moved to Blount County in 1991 where their interest in art, history, culture and black heritage have put them in touch with a growing network of people. Their efforts have drawn attention from Maryville College and Berea College in Kentucky. Students at Berea, Clowney told Wilson, are examining census records, and Maryville College students are conducting interviews. Those involved with the organization’s endeavor are professors, librarians, ministers, teachers and community activists. The hope is to publish a book on the subject, though no timetable has been set nor a writer identified, he writes.

New River Gorge development proposal violates land plan, report says

A report by the National Park Service indicates a proposal to build a 2,200-home development along the New River Gorge near Charleston,W. Va. violates the county’s long-term land management plans, reports The Charleston Gazette.

The Park Service report says the 4,300-acre proposal “is not consistent with” the county’s comprehensive plan or its land use management plan. Under those plans, large-scale housing development is only allowed in “development service districts” along U.S. 19 and U.S. 60. “Atlanta-based Land Resource Cos. wants to build its Roaring River development along a 10-miles stretch of the New River Gorge National River between Thurmond and Kaymoor,” writes Ken Ward Jr.

“The Roaring River land is not in, nor even near, a Development Service District,” the park service report found. Today, Fayette County officials will hold the first of two public meetings on a zoning change requested by the developers. Land Resource wants a zoning change aimed at allowing construction on parcels of less than 2 acres.

County zoning officer Tim Richardson told Ward about 3,800 acres of the project area is zoned as “private land conservation.” This limits construction to lots of no less than 3 acres. Developers want the area rezoned as “planned unit development.” If the county approves that change, developers can build on smaller lots and on a total area of more than 50 acres. But, the Park Service report says, West Virginia law requires zoning changes to be “consistent with” a county’s comprehensive land-use plans, writes Ward.

Virginia's cabinet-level agriculture secretary wants marketing boost for farmers

Virginia’s first secretary of agriculture, Robert S. Bloxom, has promised farmers he will try to boost sales of their products by increasing state marketing efforts, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Speaking at the Virginia Agriculture Summit, Bloxom said, "We expect to be able to expand our outreach and identify new opportunities for the sale of products. These are exciting and encouraging times for those of us involved in agriculture." Despite Virginia's increasingly urban look, agriculture is still the state's top industry, contributing about $47 billion to its economy every year, writes Rex Bowman.

Until December, though, when Bloxom was appointed, farmers had no one at the cabinet level to bend Gov. Mark Warner's ear on agricultural issues, writes Bowman He told farmers the state is committed to keeping farmers in business by attending to research, education, farmland preservation and marketing. His position, Bloxom said, will allow the state to tout its advantages -- easy access to its products via ports, for example -- as it tries to find more buyers for both its traditional and specialty products.

Virginia Farm Bureau spokesman Greg Hicks said farmers would welcome any increased marketing activity by the state, and are happy they now have an agriculture secretary "to put agriculture issues on the table." The Dean of Virginia Tech's agriculture department, Sharron Quisenberry, told attendees that, in addition to needing more innovation and entrepreneurship, the farm industry could benefit from better marketing strategies that speak to consumer behavior. Other sponsors of the summit were the state and federal agriculture departments, the Cooperative Extension Service and Virginia State University.

Mississippi college student to continue studies while hiking Appalachian Trail

Five million steps, five months and the most innovative academic experience he's ever had are among challenges facing a Mississippi State University sophomore as he prepares later this month to hike the entire Appalachian Trail, while continuing his university honors studies, reports The Clarion-Ledger.

"Alan D. Lovett of Brandon, a mechanical engineering major, embarks later this month to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. The 19-year-old has been preparing for months for the more than 2,000-mile journey from Springer, Ga., to Katahdin Mountain, Maine," reports the Jackson newspaper. To maintain his academic standing he will take along course assignments. Lovett is in the University Honors Program. UHP director Nancy McCarley told the newspaper, "He's proposed an innovative way to integrate his academic and personal goals." The former Boy Scout acknowledged "nothing about this will be easy," but he added, "If it were easy, I wouldn't want to do it."

Lovett spends at least two hours daily running between 8 and 16 miles to prepare for the trip. He also rides 20-30 miles on a road bike, and he has built a climbing wall at his Rankin County home. He has already hiked 400 miles of the trail. "I started in the eighth grade and did 50 miles," he told the newspaper. While trekking, McCarley said Lovett will complete a demanding range of assigned essays culminating in what she describes as "one of the rarest of term papers."

Lovett also is working through MSU's kinesiology department to document all aspects of the trip — from the weather to his daily physical condition.

Monday, Feb. 21, 2005

Bills in two states would keep secret names of farms with diseased animals

Bills moving through the Maryland and Utah legislatures would allow the names of farms with confirmed cases of animal disease to remain secret, reports The Associated Press. The Maryland House of Delegates unanimously passed a bill to withold the names of such farms, and Utah’s House likewise approved a bill to make records secret on livestock populations and tracking diseased animals.

Utah's Department of Agriculture said that making the farms' names public invites trespassers, mainly reporters and photographers, and in turn risks spreading the disease. When agriculture officials discovered they couldn’t keep the farm names secret, they moved to tighten the reporting law.

“Wouldn't other neighbors and the community need to know if there was an infected farm near them?” asks Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, whose Morning Meeting today carried a link to the First Amendment Center’s posting of the AP story.

The Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Association lobbied against the Maryland bill, saying the information needs to be available to the public. Former Executive Director and Government Affairs Coordinator Jim Donahue said, "This may be a legitimate problem, but is that the best way to deal with it, to keep it all secret?”

Free conference Friday for journalists on health in Central Appalachia

National leaders in rural health care will join university experts and Appalachian journalists at a free conference, Covering Health Care and Health in Mid-Appalachia, this Friday, Feb. 25, at the University of Kentucky’s Center for Rural Health in Hazard, Ky.

The conference is the first sponsored by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog. "The news media in Appalachia could play a key role in improving the region’s health, but all too often most of the health-care information some outlets carry is advertising from providers looking for patients," said Al Cross, interim director of the Institute. "We want to help their readers, listeners and viewers live healthier lives, and make more informed choices about their health care."

The middle part of Appalachia – Eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, and the mountain counties of Virginia and Tennessee – is one of the least healthy areas of the nation. Rates of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and smoking are among the nation’s highest. Meanwhile, the nation’s health-care system is becoming more complex and harder to navigate, and that task is more difficult in a region that ranks low in income, education and certain health-care providers. At the same time, the need for health care in the region, and its relative lack of other economic opportunities, has made health care a major employer.

This day-long conference will explore the condition of the region’s health, the reasons for it, the many institutions and agencies that try to improve it, their economic impact, and ways that journalists in the region can cover all these subjects – including asking tough questions like, “Why is health care so expensive, and why is it so ineffective in Central Appalachia?”

Major presenters will include Wayne Myers, former head of the federal Office of Rural Health Policy; Bruce Behringer, assistant vice president for rural health at East Tennessee State University and former president of the National Rural Health Association; Rice Leach, former Kentucky state health commissioner; Judy Jones, director of the Center for Rural Health and a former reporter for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader; Daniel Mongiardo, Hazard physician, state senator and 2004 nominee for the U.S. Senate; Eric Scorsone, University of Kentucky economist; and Denise Rennekamp, project coordinator of UK’s Health Education through Extension Leadership program, which works county by county to improve individuals’ health.

The conference luncheon will feature presentation of the first Tom and Pat Gish Award to the Gishes themselves, in recognition of the tenacity and courage they have shown as publishers of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., for the last 47 years. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which announced the award in October, will continue to make it in honor of the Gishes.

This conference is offered at no cost to participants, but advance registration is required. To sign up, send an e-mai to or call 859-257-3744. For the full program, click here.

Labor Dept. inspector general to probe agency's heads-up deal with Wal-Mart

"The inspector general of the Labor Department has decided to investigate its agreement to give Wal-Mart Stores 15 days' notice before investigating any stores facing complaints of child labor violations, according to department officials," Steven Greenhouse reports in this morning's New York Times.

"The inspector general's decision comes after lawmakers and children's advocacy groups criticized the department's settlement of child labor complaints against 24 Wal-Mart stores in Connecticut, New Hampshire and Arkansas," Greenhouse writes. "Without admitting any wrongdoing, Wal-Mart agreed to pay $135,540 to settle complaints involving 85 youths."

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the ranking minority member on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, asked for the probe, "saying that the department was wrong to give Wal-Mart advance notice before investigating complaints," the Times says. "Noting that Wal-Mart executives had contributed heavily to President Bush's re-election, Mr. Miller said that Wal-Mart had received special treatment and that the department had acted suspiciously in not making the settlement public for more than a month."

Greenhouse wrote that he spoke with "several investigators for the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division who insisted on anonymity for fear of retaliation" and told him that the 15-day notice would delay invetsigations of young people using hazardous machinery.

Top Labor Department lawyer Howard M. Radzely told the Times that the notice would help ensure fast correction of child-labor violations at Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart spokesman Gus Whitcomb said the company "was focused on full compliance with child labor laws," Greenhouse wrote.

Commandments on trial: High court to hear case March 2 on public displays

The U.S. Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments March 2 in what some attorneys and constitutional experts consider the most important religious liberty case of our time, reports The Des Moines Register.

"The high court will take up the constitutionality of Ten Commandments displays on government property, an issue that has caused divisions among the public and with the lower courts for years," writes Jennifer Dukes Lee. The cases involve displays in Texas and two rural counties in Kentucky, "but the court's decision could clarify similar cases in lower courts across the nation, observers predict," Lee writes.

Mathew Staver, who will argue the case for Liberty Counsel, a conservative law group, told Lee, "Either America will be able to acknowledge God, or it won't. Our heritage and future are riding on this case." Some scholars and civil-liberties advocates contend that Staver is exaggerating, writes Lee. Lake Lambert, an associate professor of religion at Wartburg College, told the newspaper, "I don't think our civilization will collapse if the Ten Commandments are removed." R. Ben Stone, executive director of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union, told The Register, "That is nothing but pure fear-mongering by religious-right extremists."

Chuck Hurley, president of the Iowa Family Policy Center in Pleasant Hill, helped place a Ten Commandments display in the state Capitol. He told Lee, "It's disingenuous not to acknowledge our Judeo-Christian legal principles." Staver said the case could set the course for interpretation on matters ranging from the Pledge of Allegiance, the national "In God We Trust" motto, and thousands of religious symbols in city halls, cemeteries and courthouses nationwide.

Homeless lawyer with suspended license takes on religious display in Texas

A Ten Commandments monument outside the Texas state Capitol violates the constitutional ban on the establishment of religion, according to plaintiff Thomas Van Orden, who is homeless, destitute and his law license is suspended, reports The Washington Post.

"Surely one of the most unusual plaintiffs to get a case to the highest court in the land, Van Orden, sued the state and argued the case himself," writes Sylvia Moreno. What is important, Van Orden tells Moreno, is "I wrote myself to the Supreme Court." That he did, she writes, and with a case that involves an issue that has divided liberals and conservatives as well as lower federal courts for decades: the display of a Ten Commandments monument on government property, she writes.

Van Orden's case will be argued by constitutional law scholar Erwin Chemerinsky of Duke University. Van Orden called Chemerinsky shortly after the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against him in late 2003, and Chemerinsky agreed to take the case at no charge. Last October, the court announced it would hear the Texas and Kentucky cases together.

Army strains to meet recruiting goals; fewer in pipeline, rushed into service

The active-duty Army, which draws disproportionately from the nation’s rural areas, is in danger of failing to meet its recruiting goals, and is beginning to suffer from manpower strains like those that have dropped the National Guard and Reserves below full strength, reports The Washington Post. Army officials tell The Post they're seeing growing reluctance to join the service because of Iraq and Afghanistan.

”For the first time since 2001, the Army began the fiscal year in October with only 18.4 percent of the year's target of 80,000 active-duty recruits already in the pipeline. That amounts to less than half of last year's figure and falls well below the Army's goal of 25 percent,” writes Ann Scott Tyson. The Army has cut by 50 percent the average number of days between the time a recruit signs up and enters boot camp. It is adding more than 800 active-duty recruiters, Tyson writes.

Driving the manpower crunch, The Post reports, is the Army's goal of boosting the number of combat brigades needed to rotate into Iraq and handle other commitments worldwide. Lt. Gen. Franklin L. Hagenbeck, the Army's personnel chief, told the newspaper, "Very frankly, in a couple of places our recruiting pool is getting soft. For the active duty for '05 it's going to be tough to meet our goal, but I think we can. I think the telling year for us is going to be '06."

The military plans to keep about 120,000 troops in Iraq through 2006. Col. Joseph Anderson, who until this month served as chief of staff of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., told Tyson, "The priority fill goes to deploying units to make sure they are at full strength before they go overseas."

Military base closings expected to hit Georgia; equal to past four altogether

A chilling warning is about to go out to communities that are home to Georgia's 13 military installations: Prepare for your base to be closed, reports The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“State officials responsible for monitoring this year's round of base closings are confident the Pentagon will not deal a devastating blow to an industry worth $20 billion annually to Georgia," writes Ron Martz, but the 2005 closure list is expected to equal the total of the previous four rounds combined. Army Brigadier Gen. Phil Browning Jr., executive director of the state Military Affairs Coordinating Committee told the newspaper it is unlikely the state will avoid the chopping block this time.

At least one and possibly two Georgia facilities could be shuttered, Browning told Martz. Georgia did not lose a single facility through the first four rounds of cuts that began in 1988 as the Cold War wound down and the military was down-sized. In fact, most have added missions and personnel. Foremost among those are the Army's Fort Benning in Columbus and Fort Stewart in Hinesville.

ATVs take record toll on Kentucky children; advocates call for safety measures

Thirteen children died in ATV crashes in Kentucky last year, the most in any year since officials began keeping records two decades ago, reports the Lexington Herald-Leader.

A review by Kentucky Youth Advocates, "Children and ATVs: Riding in Harm's Way," being released today, also says 105 Kentucky children have died in all-terrain vehicle crashes, writes Andy Mead. "That's nearly a third of the 326 people who have died in ATV-related incidents in the state since 1984. And the rate of deaths is increasing -- 41 children have died in just the last five years," he writes.

No one keeps official statistics on the number of children injured on ATVs, writes Mead, but the report says there probably have been thousands over 20 years and Kentucky Youth Advocates say the state needs to toughen restrictions on riders younger than 18.

Lacey McNary, a policy analyst for the group, told Mead, "We're not against using ATVs. We just want to make sure children are safe and don't get hurt or killed." The children who died last year ranged in age from 4 to 16. The advocacy group said children most often get into trouble for not wearing helmets, riding double, or trying to handle machines designed for adults.

Mike Cavanah, of the state Department for Public Health, told Meade, "In all, 36 people died in ATV crashes last year. In 2003, six of the 39 killed were children. In 2002, it was seven of 40. Cavanah said, "People who are interested in ATVs thought we were seeing a fall in the number of pediatric fatalities, then it seems like all of a sudden this last year, we've had a big jump."

The Center for Rural Emergency Medicine at West Virginia University has studied the safety issues surrounding ATVs, which it says kill an average of 20 people per year in that state. It says, "For the last seven years, the West Virginia state legislature has reviewed plans for ATV legislation, but questions about enforcement and regulation have spawned heated debate and hindered full consideration by either chamber. West Virginia still remains one of only six states without ATV safety legislation."

Tennessee alcohol abuse, pot use down, lowest in nation; meth problem persists

Tennesseans had the lowest rates in the nation for both alcohol abuse and marijuana use, according to a new two-year federal study, but production of illegal methanphetamine still plagues the state, reports the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

“The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study showed about 6 percent of Tennessee residents 12 and older had abused alcohol in the past year, and about 7.4 percent had used marijuana in the same period. North Dakota had the highest alcohol abuse rate, 10.8 percent, and Alaska the highest percentage (16.6) using marijuana,” writes Richard Powelson.

U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, an East Tennessee Republican, told the News-Sentinel, "values, morals, religious convictions and upbringing of children have a whole lot to do with these outcomes." Wamp said he quit drinking 21 years ago to improve his health, he writes.

Despite the good news for Tennessee in the survey, Wamp noted that methamphetamine remains a big illegal drug problem hurting users and their families. "It's clearly on the increase." He told the newspaper Congress must better address prevention of methamphetamine use.

The federal statisticians, who obtained the results from about 125,000 representative home interviews in 2002 and 2003, did not offer reasons why Tennessee and other states had the lowest alcohol and marijuana-use rankings. Dr. Stephanie Perry, of the state's Department of Health, told the newspaper, "We try to target what is needed most in each community,” emphasizing after-school programs to address teen issues, including self-esteem, team building and family focus.

Leah Young, a spokesperson for the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which conducted the two-year survey, told Powelson the lowest alcohol and marijuana use rates in states could be a reflection of a state's prevention and treatment programs. "Our data ... will enable states to try and figure out why."

Navajo reservation has new legal tool to fight meth, but lacks jail space

Authorities say the optimism generated by the Navajo Nation Tribal Council's vote to criminalize the sale, possession and manufacture of methamphetamine on their reservation in Arizona may be tempered by a lack of jail space to handle the expected increase in arrests, reports The New York Times.

Hope MacDonald-LoneTree, the chairwoman of the council's Public Safety Committee and sponsor of the methamphetamine legislation, told writer Joseph Kolb data showed that 40 percent to 90 percent of violent crime on the 25,000-square-mile Navajo Reservation involved the drug. "We've seen users as young as 9 years old using meth."

Authorities said gangs from Phoenix and the West Coast have organized the distribution of drugs on the reservation. Armed with the new law, officials said they expected an increase in arrests, which would further strain an overwhelmed justice system. The tribal police force of 192 officiers patrols an area about the size of West Virginia. The reservation has seven jails, with a total capacity of 103 spaces.

Greg Adair, a Navajo police criminal investigator from Tuba City, a community that has fallen deeply into the grasp of the methamphetamine problem, told Kolb, "This is probably one of the most important laws enacted by the tribe in years. This is now a tool for every officer to fight this problem on the tribal level."

Before the approval of the legislation, the sale, possession and manufacture of methamphetamine on the reservation was still illegal under federal law. When tribal officers discovered the drug on a suspect, they would have to decide whether the amount justified detaining the person, then contact the United States attorney and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and travel to the Magistrate Court in Flagstaff to seek an indictment.

The law sets the penalty for a conviction at up to one year in prison; or a fine of up to $5,000, the maximum allowed by tribal law; or both. The council would still have to consult with the United States attorney in Phoenix to determine penalties for various amounts of the drug.

Opposition mounts to alcohol inhalers; Iowa bill would prohibit them

An Iowa lawmaker is among those nationwide looking to ban a device that allows people to inhale alcohol instead of drinking it, reports The Des Moines Register.

Rep. Rob Hogg, a Cedar Rapids Democrat and lawyer who has drafted but not yet introduced the legislation to ban the device, told Lynn Campbell, "I'm trying to assess whether it's a passing fad or something that has the potential to hit Iowa. My instinct is that we ought to prohibit it until it's been shown not to cause . . . problems." Legislation introduced this year in at least 13 states would make vaporized alcohol illegal, and a similar bill was introduced earlier this month in Congress.

The device -- billed as "the ultimate party toy" by promoter Spirit Partners Inc. of North Carolina -- arrived at a Clive, Iowa bar in mid-November. Miss Kitty's Dance Hall & Cyber Saloon was set to become the first in Iowa to let people inhale alcohol instead of drinking it. But owner J. Michael McKoy said he shipped the machine back to the manufacturer before anyone could try it.

Alcohol Without Liquid mixes oxygen with alcohol to produce a mist that's inhaled with a hand-held vaporizer. Promoters tout it as a low-calorie, low-carbohydrate way to consume alcohol without a hangover. Opponents say it's 10 times more potent than drinking the same amount of alcohol and can cause a person to get drunk faster, creating greater potential for addiction and overdose.

'Gonzo journalist' and rural Coloradan Hunter S. Thompson dead at 67

"Hunter S. Thompson, the acerbic counterculture writer who personified 'gonzo journalism,' died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Woody Creek on Sunday night. He was 67," the Aspen Daily News reported this morning, calling him "one of the most legendary writers of the 20th Century."

In "gonzo journalism,"The Associated Press reported, "the writer makes himself an essential component of the story,” writes Catherine Tsai. Thompson said in a 2003 interview, "Fiction is based on reality unless you're a fairy-tale artist. You have to get your knowledge of life from somewhere. You have to know the material you're writing about before you alter it."

Thompson was honored in his hometown of Louisville in 1996 on the 25th anniversary of his book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The book used an alter ego of Raoul Duke, which was the source of nomenclature for Garry Trudeau's balding "Uncle Duke" in the comic strip "Doonesbury."

"Hunter was not only a national treasure, but the conscience of this little village," Aspen lawyer and family friend Gerry Goldstein told the Daily News. "He kept us all honest. It didn't matter who you were, whether you were his friend or someone he didn't even know. He didn't mind grading your paper. He was righteous. He was part of a literary nobility." Thompson's first book was Hell's Angels.

Also from the Daily News story by Troy Hooper (who also was the lead writer for The Denver Post's story, with contributions to the Daily News article from Lynn Burton): "Pitkin County Commissioner Dorothea Farris, who moved to Carbondale in the late 1980s after living in Woody Creek, called Thompson a fine neighbor despite the fact it was common for her to hear gunfire from his property. As much as he was a defender of the First Amendment, he was also a champion of the Second Amendment. Firearms were abundant at Owl Farm, where he had his own shooting range."

Footnote: We've always thought the Aspen Daily News has a motto that's hard to beat: "If you don't want it printed, don't let it happen."

Sunday Special, Feb. 20, 2005

Local officials, media picking up on rural impact of proposed federal budget

Rural law-enforcement agencies "would have a harder time fighting an escalating methamphetamine problem and dealing with other emergencies under proposed federal budget cuts," Colorado sheriffs are telling The Associated Press and The Durango Herald.

"La Plata County Sheriff Duke Schirard said he could understand the reasoning behind the proposed cuts, but his department likely will miss out on funding for equipment," Herald reporter Dominic Weilminster wrote, adding a local angle to the AP story. "In terms of homeland security, it seems to be the mood of things that most funds be focused on more populated areas," Schirard told Weilminster.

"Bush's 2006 budget proposal calls for eliminating or reducing 154 programs seen as inefficient, duplicated or failed. He recommended an overall 6.8 percent increase for the Homeland Security Department but a reduction of 11 percent -- or $420 million -- in state and local coordination efforts," the story said.

"This really kind of cuts them off at the knees," former Boulder County sheriff George Epp, who heads the County Sheriffs of Colorado, told AP's Judith Kohler.

Looming problem in rural America: Who will care for the cows?

That was the headline in the Detroit Free Press Saturday over an Associated Press story datelined Bear Creek Township, Michigan. "In northern Michigan and many rural areas across the nation, the availability of veterinarians willing to treat large farm animals is increasingly uncertain," the story said.

"As older practitioners retire, younger vets show less interest in large-animal care, creating what some in the profession describe as a growing shortage. Farm organizations are worried, and agriculture experts say the problem could affect the nation's ability to handle outbreaks of catastrophic animal diseases."

"We do see a trend and it's quite alarming," Ray Stock, a lobbyist for the American Veterinary Medical Association, told AP's John Flesher. The AVMA and other groups are sponsoring a Kansas State University study to see how bad the problem really is. The group says 22 percent of its members treated large farm animals such as cattle, pigs and sheep last year, down from more than 45 percent in 1986.

"In part, the shortfall reflects the decline of the traditional rural lifestyle. As the number of farms shrinks, so does the pool of veterinarians who grew up in the country around cows and pigs," AP reported, quoting Janver Krehbiel, a senior associate dean at the vet school at Michigan State University, as saying most veterinary students now come from urban areas.

In 2003, Congress passed a law to forgive college loans for "newer veterinarians and students willing to work in underserved areas and disciplines such as large animal care," the story said, "but the program hasn't been funded -- and President Bush included no money for it in his recently released 2006 budget."

Post looks at efforts by daily papers, including a small one, for readership

It's not news to newpaper people, but The Washington Post reports today, "The venerable newspaper is in trouble. Under sustained assault from cable television, the Internet, all-news radio and lifestyles so cram-packed they leave little time for the daily paper, the industry is struggling to remake itself."

The long story by Frank Ahrens focuses on large dailies, but does cite one example of a small, rural daily trying to keep and attract readers: "Several papers have launched special sections that are driven not by news but by a hope of capturing advertisers and certain groups of readers. Hoping to attract female readers, the Shawnee (Okla.) News-Star, for instance, prints a magazine featuring articles about Oklahoma women 10 times a year. It has a snappy title: She's OK!"

Ahrens also explores a question vexing editors and publishers of papers of all sizes, how much of their content to offer free on the Internet: "General-interest papers such as The Post and The New York Times are playing a sort of game of chicken with each other: None wants to be the first to charge to use the Web site, fearing that users will refuse and simply migrate to a competitor whose site still is free. Papers, however, have begun using their Web sites to provide Internet-only content that gives in-depth information on everything from football to politics beyond what is available in the newspaper. In future scenarios, such content may require a paid subscription. A potential model is ESPN's Web site, which includes a great deal of free content but charges $6.95 a month for its premium 'Insider' reports."

Pikeville hopes for better result from call center of Appalachian-oriented firm

Five years ago, after an announcement by President Clinton, $4 million in state funding and a property-tax break, a center to handle service calls opened in Pikeville, Ky., offering hope for diversification of jobs in a poverty-plagued region long dominated by the coal industry, which keeps mining about as much coal with fewer and fewer people. The center and one in Hazard closed last year, just before the tax break expired.

Now another center is coming to the same building, to answer service calls from customers of a wireless service provider, and attracting applications from some of the people who worked at the first one, reports Alan Maimon in today's Courier-Journal. "It's the best kind of job around here," Donna Halsey, 24, told Maimon, the Louisville paper's Eastern Kentucky reporter.

Pike County Judge-Executive Bill Deskins told the paper that he has more faith in the new company, Affiliated Computer Services, than in Tampa-based Sykes Enterprises, which had the first center. "I think they're for real," Deskins said. "Sykes disappointed me, but I have no fears about this company." Maimon writes, "The state has given the company a $3 million state income-tax credit over 10 years, and Deskins said the county plans to apply for a state grant to offer more economic incentives."

ACS, a successor to the old Applachian Computer Services, is a Dallas-based Fortune 500 firm with 10 other call centers in Kentucky, in the Appalachian towns of Beattyville, Liberty, London, Monticello and Richmond, as well as Lexington and Louisville. They have about 1,600 employees; the Pikeville center is to employ about 700. East Kentucky Corp., an economic-development agency, told Maimon it has recruited eight call centers, and seven remain in business, employing about 1,500.

Extending coal-haul limits to other heavy loads worries some in Kentucky

"Road builders and other companies that haul heavy cargo in Kentucky are pushing hard behind the scenes in Frankfort for legislation that would let them use trucks with 50-percent larger payloads," John Cheves and Brandon Ortiz report in today's Lexington Herald-Leader.

A special limit of 60 tons for coal was passed in 1986 at the behest of that industry. House Bill 8 would extend it to "similar trucks carrying other natural resources, including sand, gravel, rock, oil and natural gas," the paper reports. "Politically powerful road builders, who give hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations, are leading the charge. They win huge state contracts to repair the roads damaged by, among other things, legally overweight trucks. They also carry tons of gravel in their own trucks."

Cheves and Ortiz also report that the bill's sponsor, Rep. Howard Cornett, R-Whitesburg. "took the fight into the traditionally off-limits and non-partisan offices of the legislature's research staff. Faced with a potentially fatal staff analysis of his measure," Cornett challenged its original estumate, "a deal-killing $385 million in the first year. Three days later, that quietly dropped to a much more palatable $15 million a year." Cornett denied applying undue pressure, and said his bill is about fairness to the entire mineral industry.

The state got about $725,000 in fees for higher-weight permits last year, but that fell about $10 million short of the estimated cost of repairing road damaged by heavy trucks, the Herald-Leader reports. Opponenst also cite the himan and financial cost of wrecks involving such trucks.

New land-use restrictions in Seattle's county prompt rural secession movement

A new ordiannce "that imposes strict clearing limits, wider stream buffers and other environmental regulations" has sparked a movement among rural residents of King County, Washington, for their own county, reports Steve Maynard of The News Tribune of Tacoma, which is in the county with Seattle.

The council member who wrote the final version of the ordinance “says the county has done a poor job communicating the land-use limits,” Maynard writes. Dow Constantine tells him that failure has allowed “a small group of property-rights ideologues to scare the heck out of people.”

But Maynard reports, "Rural rage has been building for years. It started with clashes over strict enforcement of county codes. Now the anger is boiling over into action," with rural landowners asking the state Supreme Court to make the ordinance subject to a referendum. Failing that, they want the legislature to authorize a new Cascade County, named for the mountains that run through eastern King County.

"An effort to form a new government, called Cedar County, failed in 1998 when the state Supreme Court ruled the Legislature can’t be forced to create a new county," The News-Tribune reports. Opponents say Cascade County wouldn't have the tax base needed to support necessary services. "About 120,000 of King County’s 1.8 million residents live in unincorporated rural areas," Maynard notes. Secession would be “like cutting off your rich uncle,” state Rep. Geoff Simpson, D-Covington, told the reporter.

Friday, Feb. 18, 2005

Cost oversight ‘spotty’ on rail-crossing safety projects; costs reduce number

A review of railroad spending of government money to install warning signals at grade crossings, conducted by Missouri, found more than a few problems, reports The New York Times. The audit found significant overcharges that drive up construction costs and reduce the number of safety improvements.

”According to audit reports, Kansas City Southern had submitted overcharges of nearly 100 percent, or almost $60,000, on one project. Another, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, also had an overcharge of nearly 100 percent,” write Walt Bogdanich and Jenny Nordberg.

BNSF overcharged on more than a dozen other signal projects. In 2000, Missouri asked BNSF to repay$670,000 in overcharges on 43 earlier signal projects, all financed mostly by the Federal Highway Administration, the Times reports:"When it comes to catching sizable overcharges in the federally financed lights-and-gates program, Missouri stands out. Other states audit only a few signal projects or none. These construction contracts are almost always awarded to railroads without competitive bids."

"Rail safety advocates say (as a result) signals often cost more than they should, which means fewer of these life-saving warning devices are installed," they write. Safety experts say warning lights and gates are a major reason why crossing deaths declined in recent years, though they jumped in 2004. 150,000 rail crossings on public roads, many in rural areas, have no lights or gates.

Nearly 900 people have died at crossings that lack lights or gates since 2000. Just this week, separate fatal accidents occurred at two crossings with no lights or gates in Louisiana killing six people. But while up to 700 crossings in Louisiana need warning lights and gates, Mark Lambert, a state transportation official, told the newspaper there is not enough federal money to pay for them. Last year, however, Louisiana auditors found possible overcharges of more than 10 percent, about $1.1 million.

Steven L. Schooner, co-director of the Government Procurement Law Program at George Washington University Law School told Bogdanich and Nordbert, "If you are spending the public's money, you would rather see a competitive situation." The Federa l Highway Administration agrees, but only up to a point. When building a road, the agency calls competitive bidding "a basic fundamental principle of federal procurement law." But that does not hold for the lights-and-gates program, where federal highway officials have spent $1.7 billion since 1973 to make grade crossings safer.

D.C. ban on hazardous trains could heighten risks in nearby states, railroads say

Railroad officials say a newly passed ordinance barring rail shipments of hazardous materials through the District of Columbia raises the risk of a catastrophic accident or terrorist attack in Maryland and other nearby states as the dangerous cargo is rerouted around the nation's capital.

CSX Corp., the train operator most affected by the law, said it would likely cause backups and bunching of chemical tank cars carrying hazardous cargo at its rail yards in Baltimore, Cumberland, Philadelphia and Richmond, Va., writes David Dishneau of The Associated Press.

CSX warned in its petition to the federal Surface Transportation Board, "Such an aggregation of standing tank cars may very well present a greater security risk." The emergency ordinance bans "ultra-hazardous shipments" within 2.2 miles of the Capitol for at least 90 days. The Association of American Railroads and the National Industrial Transportation League concurred with CSX and added the eed for emergency preparedness would increase in small cities along hundreds of miles of alternate, less suitable rail lines, writes Dishneau

The Association of American Railroads said "These consequences of forcing traffic over alternate routes are likely to actually increase exposure and therefore reduce safety and security."

Tennessee governor tells press: Call me if you can’t get records

Locked in a records lawsuit with the big paper in the state capital, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen told members of the Tennessee Press Association last night that if they have problems getting records from his administration, they should call him personally.

Bredesen, a Democrat who plans to seek re-election next year and has been mentioned as a potential candidate for president in 2008, spoke hours after state officials testified in a lawsuit by The Tennessean that they have not answered the Nashville newspaper’s request for records on TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program, because the paper is seeking data that cannot be generated without writing expensive computer programs.

At the conclusion of his speech to the TPA convention banquet, Bredesen said the Tennessean and other organizations “absolutely (have) . . . the right to use the courts to enforce openness and accountability in government, and I have no hard feelings about this. But I do want each of you to know that I value my relationship with you, and if you are having difficulty in any area of accessing information – this is a big government – you also have the option of contacting me directly.” At that point, Bredesen departed from his prepared text and said he would return a call from anyone in the room.

Bredesen’s remarks were “disingenuous,” said Everett J. Mitchell III, vice president of news and editor of The Tennessean, who was at the banquet. He told his reporter, Sheila Burke, ”The governor is fully aware of our request. And we still don't have the records,” and added that any citizen “should be able to get these records. I shouldn't have to call and work it out with the governor.”

The Tennessean also reported, “After his speech, Bredesen indicated that some of the problems related to the TennCare records could have been an overworked staff that allowed ‘this stuff to get pushed to the back of the pile.’” To view Bresden's speech click here.

EPA may require states to reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants

The government has agreed to decide by this summer whether it should force coal-fired power plants in 13 states to reduce unhealthy air pollution that also is blamed for obscuring views of the Smoky Mountains. The EPA ruling could effect Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, reports The Associated Press.

North Carolina's attorney general, Roy Cooper, asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to find that pollution coming from outside North Carolina was preventing the state from meeting federal health-based standards for smog and soot in metropolitan areas, writes John Heilprin.The EPA reached a settlement with Cooper and the New York-based Environmental Defense.

The state and the environmental group contend that pollution from the out-of-state plants is affecting North Carolina by harming people's health, damaging farmers' crops and detracting from mountain views that are part of its $12.6 billion-a-year tourist industry, Heilprin writes. Cooper told AP, "This is a win for all of us who want to stop these out-of-state polluters from damaging the air we breathe. North Carolina is working hard to clean up our own air, but those efforts alone won't stop the dirty air we inherit from other states."

The court must approve the proposed timetable, under which the EPA would make a preliminary decision by August and a final ruling by March 2006. If the EPA agrees with North Carolina, coal-burning power plants upwind would have three years to cut pollution. But agency spokeswoman, Cynthia Bergman, said "it's an absolute certainty" that the case will drag on for years because some party probably will challenge the EPA's decision, Heilprin writes.

Are free papers enough like paid papers to join the club? Tennessee ponders

The growing presence of free-circulation newspapers was felt in Nashville this week at the convention of the Tennessee Press Association, where directors and members vigorously debated a proposal to admit such newspapers to the association as non-voting members.

“We are in a world of great change right now,” Gregg Jones, co-publisher of the Greeneville Sun and chairman of the Newspaper Association of America, told his colleagues. Alluding to recent admissions of circulation overstatements by major dailies, he said the proposal “is a very strong recognition of the fact that the world increasingly cares less and less about whether your circulation or readership is paid or unpaid. It cares terribly about whether it is real.” Jones said he would probably vote for the proposal.

The proposal would require a free-circulation paper to provide an audit from “an official circulation auditing firm,” a valid bulk-mailing statement or a notarized statement from the printer. It was tabled and sent back to committee after several speakers said it should require audited circulation numbers. Approval of the proposal requires a two-thirds vote by TPA’s 15 directors and a two-thirds vote by the membership.

Advocates of the proposal, which has been debated in the association for many years and would follow the lead of adjoining states, said TPA needs free-circulation members to increase its influence with legislators and other policymakers. “Free newspapers have a lot of the same goals, a lot of the same issues that our paid newspapers have,” said Jay Albrecht, publisher of the Covington Leader and vice president of Albrecht Newspapers. He was chairman of the committee that submitted the proposal.

Opponents of the proposal said no one knows who really reads free newspapers, and one referred to “a shopper rag in my county.” The proposal would require papers to have at least 25 percent annual editorial content, to be published at least weekly, and for at least three consecutive years before being admitted.

“We have three of these things in our county,” said Clint Brewer, managing editor of The Lebanon Democrat, just east of Nashville. “Of course, we print two of them.” After the laughter subsided, Brewer said, “We need to think about embracing this part of the journalism industry, because it’s not going away.”

Iowa newspaper editor resigns after publisher fires controversial columnist

The Pella Chronicle’s editor has resigned in protest of the new publisher’s order to fire a controversial liberal columnist, reports columnist Rekha Basu of The Des Moines Register.

Hal Hatfield, formerly with the Iowa newspaper, said that publisher Sandy Selvy is trying to sway conservative advertising but Selvy denied that, Basu writes. Instead, claimed Selvy, the move was made because she felt the Chronicle needed more local content and increased circulation. She also said, "no one cares about what [columnist Mike Corum] thinks about Bush and what's going on in the war."

Selvy said about two of the 500 people she’s heard from like Corum's columns. Corum said he logs all private conversations about his columns and 62 people like his opinions but refrain from saying so because they are unpopular views. Hatfield said some readers canceled subscriptions over the column but others love it and complain when it’s not in the paper, one such reader is the mayor, Basu writes.

Hatfield has been an editor of the Chronicle and the Knoxville Journal-Express. Selvy is publisher of those papers along with the Marion County Reminder. When Selvy first came to the paper as publisher, she asked for feedback from readers and announced she wanted to continue the paper’s tradition, reported the Chronicle."Marion County has a newspaper tradition that dates back for 150 years," Selvy said. "The newspapers have a great past. They have a great future. I want to be part of it,” she said.

Developer may back off part of New River Gorge plan, not build within park

An Atlanta company may drop a controversial part of its plan to build a 2,200-acre housing development along the rim of the New River Gorge National River in West Virginia, reports the Charleston Gazette. Officials from Land Resource Cos. may back off their proposal to put 613 acres of their development within the boundary of the river’s national park, writes Ken Ward Jr. Land Resource officials told National Park Service representatives that they were looking at eliminating that part of their project.

New River park superintendent Cal Hite told Ward, “They have talked about the possibility of not developing the 613 acres, and selling that property to the park service.” Hite said that Land Resource officials did not make any promises, but asked to meet again with park officials about the subject.

Hite told the newspaper, “There’s nothing in writing. It was just their verbal statement that that was something they were thinking about doing.” If Land Resource dropped the portion of their project within park boundaries, it might help them avoid a fight with state Rep. Nick J. Rahall, writes Ward.

W. Va. Senate okays ethics bill corrections; gag order subdued in new version

An expedited bill intended to correct two problems in a newly passed law toughening the West Virignia ethics act has passed the state Senate. The measure now goes to the House of Delegates, reports the Charleston Gazette.

"The Manchin administration introduced the new bill after an outcry over a so-called gag order in the ethics law passed during the January special session," writes Phil Kabler. That provision prevents persons who file complaints with the Ethics Commission from publicly disclosing the complaint or commenting on it. The “gag order” would be in effect from the time the complaint is filed until a newly created three-person Review Board determines whether there is probable cause to send the complaint to the full commission.

The new bill gives the Ethics Commission authority to impose the same confidentiality provisions if there is reason to believe publicity surrounding the complaint would “interfere with a fair hearing or otherwise prejudice the due administration of justice.” In both versions, violators could be fined up to $5,000, and have their complaints summarily dismissed, Kabler writes.

Davidson College in N.C. reverses policy banning non-Christians as trustees

North Carolina’s Davidson College has agreed to allow non-Christians to serve as trustees for the first time in its nearly 170-year history, reports The Associated Press.

“The college's governing board made the decision earlier this month, after a debate that has simmered for more than a decade at the liberal arts institution about 20 miles north of Charlotte,” writes the wire service.

Davidson President Bobby Vagt compared the decision to admitting the first blacks and women in the 1960s and '70s. The trustees rejected a similar move in 1996. This time more than 80 percent of trustees voted to remove a requirement in the bylaws that all trustees be "active members of a Christian church."

Trustee Tom Ross told AP, "There are times in the history of an institution when you make a decision because it's the right thing to do," said. "We felt this was the right thing for Davidson." The new bylaws say at least 80 percent of the 45 voting trustees for the Presbyterian-founded school must be Christian.

S.C. commission votes to give Native Americans tribes formal recognition

A state commission moved to formally recognize the Waccamaws as a Native American tribe in South Carolina, reports The State newspaper in the state capital of Columbia.

"As the members of the Commission for Minority Affairs voted one by one, tears spread throughout the audience. The last “yes” vote prompted a raucous cheer and hugs all around. Dozens of people who legally... had been denied their birthright suddenly had reclaimed it," writes Joey Holleman.

One of those whose tears streamed down was Linda Hatcher Atkinson. She told Holleman after the meeting, “It means, in a sense, freedom. I’m 59 years old. It was so hard to claim what I was growing up. We were called a negative name, and we weren’t allowed to say we were Indians.” Now they legally can label their work as Native American art and can apply for some grants targeted for Native Americans.

Spiritually, it means even more, writes Holleman. Will Goins, chief executive officer of the Eastern Cherokee, Southern Iroquois and United Tribes of S.C. told him, “It is the most significant thing South Carolina has done for Native American Indian people in 300 years. For the first time, this state is going to embrace their people who happen to be Indian.”

ACLU says bill to protect trademarks will water down free speech guarantees

The American Civil Liberties Union has expressed concerns over a bill that would make it easier for trademark holders to prove trademark violations, which the ACLU fears could clutter free speech.

ACLU legislative counsel Marvin Johnson told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet, and Intellectual Property that critical commentary which incorporates trademarks and logos generates public awareness about certain issues, which the First Amendment protects. The bill, The Trademark Dilution Revision Act of 2005, could seriously water down these protections, Johnson said. "Our country’s commitment to open ideas and open criticism demands that those freedoms be protected," Johnson said.

One example he gave is the lawsuit by the Farmers Group insurance giant against a man named Guerrero, who developed a Web site critical of the group. He used the logo and name of the group on the site so people would know they were the target of his criticism, but the Farmers Group is now suing for "dilution of the trademark and service mark," the ACLU said.

Pols stumped by TV pop quiz; S.C.’s top farm product? Don’t ask the guv!

A‘pop-quiz’ of sorts on a national political talk show that aired this week stumped governors from two states when asked questions about their top agricultural products. One of those stumped was the governor of South Carolina, reports The State.

"It could have been South Carolina’s version of the popular television quiz show “Jeopardy,” writes Lee Bandy. The host was Chris Matthews of MSNBC’s “Hardball.” The contestants were Govs. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., and Ed Rendell, D-Pa. The topic: agricultural products.

“What’s your biggest agricultural product in South Carolina, governor?” Matthews asked. “Uh ... timber is the biggest one,” Sanford responded. Wrong, writes Bandy. The correct answer, she writes, is Tomatoes. "Sanford is not alone," Bandy notes, serving up questions to other South Carolina politicians the following day. “Legislators questioned Tuesday didn’t know, either,” she writes. "South Carolina House Agriculture Committee chairman William Witherspoon said it was, “Vegetables.” Rep. Robert “Skipper” Perry, R-Aiken, insisted it is tobacco. No one gave the correct answer, notes Bandy.

Becky Walton of the S.C. Agriculture Department told the newspaper, “Tobacco ranks fourth ...while the state is the nation’s No. 1 producer of tomatoes, (although, she said, tomatoes) are not much of a cash crop.” And what about timber, asked Bandy. “It’s not an agricultural product,” Walton said. “It’s a forest product.” (Your bloggers note, sometimes it’s hard to see the tomatoes for the forest.)

Thursday, Feb. 17, 2005

'Red-state’ Bush supporters angry over budget; hits reds harder than blues

'Red-state' America is a bit red-in-the-face over President Bush's new budget, reports The Washington Post. ”Within a few hours of the release of the president's proposal last week, Rep. John E. Peterson (R-Pa.), co-chairman of the Congressional Rural Caucus, fired off a statement criticizing the president he typically supports,” writes Dana Milbank.

Peterson told the newspaper, "We expected to fight cuts to rural programs under the Clinton administration. But those who are currently advocating these draconian cuts would not be in office today if it weren't for rural America." The Pennsylvania Republican has a 91 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, writes Milbank. But, he realized quickly the budget Bush proposed would hit hardest some of (Bush's) most loyal supporters, the red states that tipped the election balance.

Under the Bush budget, reports The Post, agricultural programs would be cut 17 percent by 2010. Cuts in farm subsidies would hit solidly Republican southern states that produce cotton and rice. Veterans' programs would be cut 16 percent. Help for rural airports would be cut in half. Money for first responders would shift to urban areas, Milbank writes.

Bush states would experience cuts in federal grants in 2006 equal to 2.33 percent of their budgets on average. But "blue" states, won by John Kerry, would lose federal grant money equal to only 1.74 percent of their budgets on average. These averages were compiled using an analysis of Bush's budget proposal by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal advocacy group.

Iraq war exerts potent pull and toll on rural Hispanic youths in Colorado

With its twin pull of patriotism and gainful employment, military service has been a tradition ever since the Spanish-settled San Luis Valley near Denver, Colorado became part of the United States, a tradition that is drawing Hispanic recruits disporportionately for service Iraq, reports the Rocky Mountain News.

"The all-volunteer Army of the past few decades draws heavily from such rural areas, according to a study by University of Texas sociologist Robert Cushing," writes Gwen Florio.Cushing, who also works as a consultant for the Austin American-Statesman, told Florio 20 percent of the Valley's 46,000 residents are poor, more than double the statewide rate, (so) the military offers a way up and out.

Cushing said, "What we're hearing from people is that some of (the enthusiasm for the military) is they're just more patriotic, but you have to ask what do these rural kids have in common with inner-city blacks and (inner-city) Hispanics? . . . Limited opportunities."

Elsewhere, the unexpectedly long and bloody conflict in Iraq has caused a drop in military recruitments. That's not happening with Hispanics in rural Colorado, writes Florio. Guidance Counselor Elden Ruybal told the newspaper at least two or three students from Antonito High School in the San Luis Valley community of Conejos enlist each year. "(The) senior classes average fewer than 30 students," she writes.

Sociologist Cushing's survey found rural members of the military die in disproportionate numbers. Small-town residents make up 19 percent of the military, but 30 percent of its casualties. "It's a hell of a way to get an education, particularly if you come back (home) in a body bag," Cushing said.

Has train safety gone far enough? Charlotte newspaper probes 'lax oversight'

A handful of deadly railroad accidents throughout the United States has focused attention on hazardous cargos and is fueling a cross-country push to improve safety and security in an industry where, critics say, safety has been largely overlooked, reports The Charlotte Observer.

“A(recent) federal audit said despite increased fines against railroads, ‘significant safety problems persist’ that raise questions about regulators' oversight,” write Scott Dodd, Bruce Henderson and Heather Vogell in a special report focusing on rail traffic in the Charlotte area. Richard Falkenrath, a former White House homeland security adviser, told Congress last month "I'm sorry to say, since 9-11 we have essentially done nothing in this area."

An Observer analysis found in the Charlotte region alone, nearly 800,000 people live within a mile of a major rail line. That's 90,000 more than a decade ago. The study says, at the same time, rail shipments of gases, including chlorine, jumped 63 percent nationwide during a five year period, write Dodd, Henderson and Vogell. Scott Bullard with the state emergency management agency told the newspaper, N.C. manufacturing is "just inundated" with chlorine and ammonia, two deadly chemicals shipped by rail.

Yet emergency planners don't know how much hazardous material passes daily through Charlotte and the region's small towns. Federal, state and local agencies told the Observer they don't keep track, and the railroads won't provide that information for security reasons, they write.

Edd Hauser, who studies transportation and homeland security at the University of North Carolina- Charlotte, told the Observer, "We don't know on any given route, at any given time of the day, what's on those trains.” The railroads, citing security risks and practical difficulties, have fought proposals that would require them to tell local officials when, where and what kinds of toxic chemicals move through their communities, and to reroute the most hazardous shipments around major cities, they write.

Virginia eyes stricter drinking limits on hunters; gun enthusiasts object

The Virginia General Assembly is considering a bill to impose stricter blood alcohol limits on hunters, angering gun enthusiasts who say the legislation unjustly targets their right to bear arms, reports The Washington Post.

”It is illegal in Virginia to "hunt with firearms" when under the influence of alcohol or drugs,” writes Chris L. Jenkins. But under a senate bill, a hunter who had a blood alcohol content of .02 would be guilty of a misdemeanor. That's tougher than the state's drunken driving standard, which is .08.

The bill passed unanimously in the Senate, and is scheduled to be heard by a House committee this week. Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, the bill's sponsor and an avid hunter, told the Post, "Obviously everyone wants those who hunt to be safe at all times . . . That's really the only purpose of this bill."

Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City, successfully proposed the lower level. Norment said there should be a "zero tolerance" alcohol level for hunting. State officials at the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries requested the legislation because the code regarding alcohol and hunting is vague.

The right to hunt is guaranteed by the Virginia constitution, and some lawmakers said the state cannot impose such "implied consent" on hunters in the same way it is applied to drivers and boaters to take a breathalyzer test. Delegate David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), who sits on the committee scheduled to review the bill, told the newspaper, "It could be a problem if the bill says that by merely hunting you're consenting to be searched. Philosophically, that would be tough for me to overcome."

Journalists and political groups support better Freedom of Information Act

Groups spanning the political spectrum have joined forces behind the proposed Open Government Act, introduced by two U.S. senators, which would expand the accessibility of federal government records under the Freedom of Information Act and other statutes.

The Society for Professional Journalists summarized the proposal by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). The bill has received support from the Newspaper Association of America, the Radio-Television News Directors Association, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The act would close FOIA loopholes and prevent new ones, restore deadlines to act on FOIA requests, create a FOIA obmudsman to make it easier for the public to access government information, create FOIA hotlines and tracking systems for requests, said the NAA. The act would also review the new exemption for critical infrastructure information in the Homeland Security Act, said the ACLU. The ACLU obtained through the FOIA documents detailing abuses in Abu Ghraib and Afghanistan.

NAA President and CEO John F. Sturm said, “Since passage of the Freedom of Information Act nearly 40 years ago, newspapers have carried the mantle for keeping the public informed of important news and information about government actions that otherwise would go unnoticed.”

In letters to the bill’s sponsors, RTNDA president Barbara Cochran said, “RTNDA has long worked to preserve the free flow of information and open access that is essential to government accountability. We believe The Open Government Act will strengthen the Freedom of Information Act and will renew focus on one of the bedrock principles of our democracy—an informed citizenry.”

News organizations fight to have Utah counties group open its records

Several news organizations have mounted a legal effort to force the Utah Association of Counties to open its records. The lawsuit argues that since the UAC is funded with taxpayer money and conducts public business, it is a "government entity" under the state's open records law, The Associated Press reports.

The Society of Professional Journalists, that group's Utah Headliners Chapter, the Utah Press Association, the AP and the Deseret Morning News have asked to become co-plaintiffs with the Salt Lake Tribune, which sued after the association refused to give the Tribune its operating budget.

Utah law requires that a "public association," one that gets money from the government and is made up mainly of public officials, to reveal its finances. "UAC is funded almost entirely with taxpayer money, but officials have balked at discussing its member rolls," AP reports. The association argues that it is not a "governmental entity," which Utah law defines as one that is "funded or established by the government to carry out the public's business." AP says, "There are at least 14 state laws that give UAC considerable influence to affect public policy, primarily through the power to appoint people to state committees."

West Virginia local merger laws may build boom; some fear identity loss

If some state legislators get their wish, West Virginia’s governor will sign into law in the next month three bills outlining how governments in the state can merge, reports The Herald-Dispatch.

“This comes as welcome news for some residents who say they want their areas to attract more business. Others are concerned about possible loss of identity for the state’s small towns,” writes Scott Wartman of the Huntington newspaper. The bills outline the process for multiple cities and counties to merge and for city and county governments to combine and form one large metro government.

These bills come after a year when leaders of business and politics rallied across the state to promote regionalism and cooperative efforts between West Virginia communities, writes Wartman. Many legislators are optimistic of the bills’ passage, but say convincing communities to actually merge will be a tough sale.

Wal-Mart zoning reversed; Civil War soldiers’ graves believed on site

Often rural communities, caught in the crunch between preservation and economic development, give in to the lure of Wal-Mart “super-stores.” But, a circuit judge in West Virginia has reversed a decision that rezoned about 60 acres in the town of Fayetteville, land rezoned to help bring a Wal-Mart to town, reports the Charleston Gazette.

“Raleigh Circuit Judge Robert A. Burnside Jr. said the public never got a chance to review a completed rezoning application, and did not have a chance to adequately prepare a response to the Wal-Mart project. He sent the rezoning back to the town,” writes Susan Williams.

Many people believe that at least 24 soldiers who fought in the Civil War are buried on the rezoned property. Joe Paramore, president of Paramount Development Corp., of South Carolina had said he would place a buffer around the graves and provide public access to them. Fayetteville officials rezoned the property at the request of the corporation, which wants to build a shopping center on the property. After several public hearings, the town’s zoning board voted unanimously for the rezoning, writes Williams.

A woman who owns a home next to the rezoned property, filed a lawsuit against the town's rezoning. She said the shopping center would adversely affect her property. Her attorney also alleged the zoning application process was flawed.

Kentucky to host Rural Telecommunications Congress; broadband on agenda

Kentucky has been selected to host the 2005 Rural Telecommunications Congress, from October 9th - 12th in Lexington, in a conference to highlight the latest efforts to bring faster internet service to rural communities, PRNewswire reports.

A news release from ConnectKentucky states, “The ...congress convenes hundreds of small and rural business owners, officials from local, state, and federal agencies, as well as professionals from the fields of tele-health, distance learning, community economic development, e-government and public policy.” ConnectKentucky is described as, "Kentucky's technology-based economic development partnership."

Gov. Ernie Fletcher said, in the release, "This conference will bring international technology experts to Kentucky to exchange ideas ...for broadband and technology development." The congress works to help rural communities have access to advanced telecommunications services, particularly broadband digital communications, for community and economic development.

Additional information on the conference may be obtained by clicking here, or by calling 1-877-781-4320. Click here for more information regarding the Rural Telecommunications Congress.

Amorous amphibians rendezvous for romantic rite of spring; crowds watch

The calendar might say winter, but the biological clocks of some belly-crawling 'squishy' creatures in Virginia say it's spring. And, that means it's time for the annual march of the 'South Side salamanders,' reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“On rainy nights between mid-February and mid-March, cigar-sized amphibians called spotted salamanders emerge from underground and migrate up to half a mile to small ponds to breed,” writes Rex Springston. Despite cars, dogs and other perils, a tiny population of salamanders clings to life in South Richmond. For the past three years, Ralph White, manager of Richmond's James River Park system, has closed part of a nearby road to allow the animals to get to their pool without being run over.

White asks of Springston, "Isn't it a wonderful thing for a city to regulate traffic around the needs of a squishy little animal? How many cities in Virginia do this?" The salamander migration has become an annual event. Dozens of adults and children turn out to watch the animals perform their sensuous courtship dance in the pool, which is basically a roadside ditch, he writes.

Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2005

Local politics garners less TV coverage; stations don't want to spend money

Researchers say in the month leading up to last Election Day, just 8 percent of the local evening newscasts in 11 of the nation's largest TV markets devoted time to local races and issues, reports USA Today.

The study found, "Over the same period, 55 percent of the newscasts included reports about the presidential race." And, "eight times more coverage went to stories about accidental injuries" than to local races and issues, writes Mark Memmott. Al Tompkins, group leader of the broadcast/online unit at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., told USA Today the findings highlight "a really serious issue."

Other studies show that most people — about 60 percent — get more of their news from local TV than from any other single source. But, Tompkins told Memmott, "If local news doesn't include much coverage of local political issues, then the electorate is obviously trying to make decisions about things it just doesn't have enough information about." The report was prepared by researchers from the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communications; the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Seton Hall University in New Jersey. Tompkins says local stations have scaled back coverage of local politics because they're trying to save money by using fewer reporters.

COMMENTARY, from blogger Bill Griffin: As a veteran of 22 years in television reporting working in Florida, West Virginia, Indiana, Texas, North Carolina and Kentucky covering politics, it has been my experience -- and I've also seen considerable anecdotal evidence -- that this trend of less political coverage is pervasive beyond the major television markets and in some instances began as early as the late 1980s. But, I'm not certain whether it leads or follows a national problem.

Television news departments, like it or not, make content and coverage decisions based on what interests and stimulates viewers. They have cut back on politics because it doesn't sizzle with enough of their audience. I don't know which is the chicken and which is the egg -- less knowledge of politics leads to less coverage, or less coverage leads to less knowledge. I do know from my own experience that more and more people seem to know less and care less about government and our politcal system. If knowledge and interest went up, I'm certain stations would respond, likewise.

Sinclair Broadcasting declares a loss, mainly from decline of good will

Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc., which was involved in several journalism controversies last year, "reported a fourth-quarter loss that it attributed to a $44.1 million write-down of goodwill," The Associated Press reported. " The Baltimore-based television broadcast company on Feb. 10 said it lost $2.59 million, or 6 cents a share, on revenue of $188.1 million in the fourth quarter, Dow Jones reported."

Analysts had expected Sinclair to earn 11 cents a share. For the entire year, it earned $24 million, or 16 cents a share, on revenue of $708.3 million, about the same as in 2003. That year was nowhere near as controversial for the Baltimore-based company, which has a strong rural viewership, as was 2004.

"The company refused to air an episode of the ABC News show 'Nightline' because anchorman Ted Koppel planned to read the names of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq," AP reported. "Sinclair also created a furor when it announced plans to show a special devoted to allegations against presidential candidate and Vietnam veteran John Kerry from . . . Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Also, Sinclair joined other station owners in refusing to air the movie 'Saving Private Ryan,' explaining that a few swearwords in the Oscar-winning film might get it in trouble with the Federal Communications Commission."

Two on FCC seek open-meetings exemption so a quorum can talk in secret

Two members of the five-member Federal Communications Commission say Congress should allow more than two FCC members to discuss issues in private "in appropriate circumstances."

Departing Chairman Michael Powell, a Republican, and Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat, "said the law hinders communication between individuals" on the FCC because only two "can talk face-to-face outside the confines of a commission meeting," The Associated Press reported. "Otherwise, commissioners must communicate via their staffers, or through letters and e-mails."

"These indirect methods of communicating clearly do not foster frank, open discussion, and they are less efficient than in-person interchange among three or more commissioners would be," Powell and Copps told Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, in a letter early this month.

"Newspaper groups and free speech advocates bristled at the request and said it would lead to less transparency," AP reported. "It is inconvenient to operate in the public eye, but it is a good thing. Inconvenience isn't a good reason," said Steve Sidlo, managing editor of the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News, and chair of the First Amendment Committee for the Associated Press Managing Editors.

Virginia Senate panel trims eminent-domain bill; farmers object to weakening

Two bills to put more bite into protections for landowners faced with loss of their property for the public good came out of a Virginia Senate subcommittee yesterday missing some teeth, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "In a meeting room overflowing with local-government and utility lobbyists and sprinkled with a few land-owning residents, the ...subcommittee ...pulled key provisions from both bills after hours of discussion," writes Greg Edwards.

Susan Rubin, a lobbyist for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, told the newspaper "[Lawmakers] had an opportunity to strengthen the rights of property owners and fell far short." The bills had the support of the Farm Bureau and the Virginia Property Rights Coalition, a group that has been working for several years to make eminent-domain laws more landowner-friendly. Representatives for local governments, utilities and the Virginia Department of Transportation opposed the legislation. Their big concern: Requirements in both bills for paying landowners' court costs would prompt (them) to reject damage settlements and purchase offers and go to court more often, wrties Edwards.

But Delegate Robert F. McDonnell, R-Virginia Beach, told the newspaper, "The whole idea is to encourage settlements and discussion before the legal fees heat up," adding, the bills aim to protect landowners who get offers that are too low. Eminent-domain lawyer Joseph Waldo said farmers have had tires and harvesting equipment damaged after survey crews placed metal survey stakes on their cropland without proper notice. The crews have damaged crops and refused to pay, writes Edwards.

Kentucky bill could require $100,000 bond for appeals of cases on zoning

Kentuckians who want to appeal a circuit court decision in a land-use planning case could have to obtain bonds of $25,000 to $100,000 to take the case to the state Court of Appeals, under a bill pending in the state Senate. The requirement would not apply to owners of the property, including developers.


"The chilling effect on meritorious appeals is apparent, since the bill creates a financial barrier to seeking appellate review regardless of the strength of the appeal," Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council said in an e-mail message asking his allies to call senators and oppose the bill. FitzGerald also said the bill could lower the standard for an award of costs to the appellee -- the winner in circuit court -- if the appeal fails. Currently, a judge can award costs only by ruling the appeal was frivolous or in bad faith.

FitzGerald said the bill "presupposes that appellants seeking review of a trial court decision upholding the proposed rezoning are presumptively or more likely to be frivolous and that there is a need to constrain the right to seek review for all appellants, regardless of the strength of or merits of the appeal. KRC rejects this premise as unfounded and unfair."


The bill's sponsor, Sen. Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, did not return a call seeking comment.


Iowa legislature split on cold-drug sales restrictions in war on meth

Key members of the Iowa legislature have agreed most cold and allergy medicines should be sold through pharmacies to foil illegal makers of methamphetamine. But, reports The Des Moines Register, they remain divided over whether grocery stores and gas stations should continue selling even small amounts.

"The Senate judiciary committee voted unanimously to put products made with higher doses of pseudoephedrine - meth's main ingredient - in pharmacies. Under the proposal, stores could sell up to two packages of smaller-dose products, provided they track inventory and lock up the medicines or keep them behind store counters," writes Lee Rood.

A house committee has decided against acting on similar legislation, as large numbers of Democrats and some Republicans balk at any sales outside of pharmacies, insisting they could better restrict sales, he writes. Kevin McCarthy, a Des Moines Democrat, told Rood, "From my perspective, there will be no way that bill (the Senate's) will come out of the House. But I am not in control of the Legislature."

Another committee may press for a pharmacy-only approach or to go with a compromise that would allow other stores to sell one, 240-milligram package of products containing pseudoephedrine per day to consumers. Sen. Keith Kreiman, a Democrat who co-wrote the Senate legislation, told the newspaper, "If we pass the bill ...we will have a dramatic decline in the labs that we have because of the meth scourge."

In the past year, roughly two dozen Iowa cities and counties have moved toward strict controls on pseudoephedrine products in retail outlets. Iowa lawmakers hope to pass a measure that would supersede those ordinances to make the law uniform.

Rigorous school program could help N.C. meet court order, opines judge

A Wake County, North Carolina, judge says expanding a program that helps struggling students prepare for college could help the state meet its court-ordered obligation to improve educational opportunities.

North Carolina is under a court order to increase the share of education money spent on the poorest school districts. Poor districts sued the state in 1994, saying urban school systems were getting too big a share of the state's education resources, writes Steve Hartsoe of The Associated Press..

A Superior Court judge has ruled all North Carolina students have the right to a "sound basic education." The state Supreme Court has affirmed nearly all of the ruling and sent the case back to the judge so he could oversee a reform plan. The special program, which started in California in 1980 and is now used in about 30 states, began in North Carolina about eight years ago.

Communities battling school consolidation plan; fear larger unified schools

Two Harlan County, Kentucky communities are pushing for independent school districts because they don't want their children attending a large consolidated high school, reports WYMT-TV of Hazard: "Local residents . . . have been circulating petitions, which nearly 2,000 people signed in just four days.” State education officials doubt the proposals for independent districts could succeed because it would require an act of the state legislature. Kentucky Department of Education spokesperson Lisa Gross says no new districts have formed in Kentucky in recent history. And, she says there are lots of statutes that apply to existing school districts, but none are set up for new school districts. Local education leaders are moving ahead with plans to build the consolidated school despite the opposition, the station reports.

Campaign launched to preserve Tennessee's Civil War battlefields

The Tennessee Civil War Preservation Association kicks off a campaign today to raise money to save Civil War battlefields across the state, reports The Associated Press.

State Rep. Steve McDaniel, who is also president of the group, told the wire service, "Tennessee is pretty far behind . . . Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia in battlefield preservation. (It) is second to Virginia in the number of Civil War battle sites." There are more than 1,500 Civil War battle sites in Tennessee.

Mary Ann Peckham, executive director of the association, told Gary Tanner fund-raising efforts begin at 5:30 p.m. at the Tennessee State Museum with an invitation-only reception, including legislators, members of the Tennessee Press Association and people from across the state that are interested in historic preservation. Rep. McDaniel told AP whatever money is raised will also be used to help other preservation groups across the state. Peckham told Tanner, "It's the first statewide drive to further those efforts."

Farming magazine names top 'progressive' places to live in rural America

The Progressive Farmer, a magazine devoted to farm and country living, released its first best-places list this month, ranking the 100 best places to live in rural America.

Number one was Fauquier County, Virginia, which the issue said “has something to suit almost everyone’s tastes,” with more than 238,000 agricultural areas and $45 million in farm production, reports Donnie Johnston of The Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg, Va . The county has wineries, a dairy and beef cattle industry, corn and horses, Johnston writes. The county also tries to maintain its agricultural heritage. For example, it offered a program for landowners to sell development rights to the county for $20,000 for each potential lot. The magazine looked at these ideas when considering its rankings.

Numbers two through five were Oconee County, Georgia; McPherson County, Kansas; Callaway County, Missouri; and Grafton County, New Hampshire. “Grafton’s 87,000 inhabitants have access to good schools, superior health care facilities and the cultural influences of Dartmouth College. On top of that, that county has a very low crime rate, clean air and water and no overdevelopment,” said Stephen Taylor, commissioner of New Hampshire’s Department of Agriculture, Markets & Food.

Dog nicknamed 'Veeta’ brings home the big cheese; Coonhound glorified!

“Clover Creek Velvet Touch,” a 3-year-old female black and tan coonhound owned by Karen Winn, of Lexington, Ky., took "Best of Opposite Sex" in breed judging yesterday at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, the nation's most prestigious canine showcase, reports the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The champion dog is known affectionately as 'Veeta.” The owner had put 'Veeta on a diet of one cup of dog food a day to "get her into bathing-suit shape for the competition," writes Amy Wilson. Winn, on the phone from the show floor in New York's Madison Square Garden, told the newspaper, "(Veeta) looked really good, and she handled very well. I was proud because it is so chaotic here."

Veeta and Winn are to return home today "swathed in dog glory" and toting "a big red and white ribbon and a medal." 'Veeta also was generously rewarded with fistfuls of summer sausage, her favorite treat, writes Wilson. (Your bloggers note the connection between the name Velvet and the nickname Veeta… but obviously there’s nothing cheesy about this dog.)

Nationally known veteran Iowa radio news director dies; on air four decades

Several broadcasting veterans who are frequent readers of the Rural Blog have brought to our attention the passing in January of a veteran Iowa radio news director, the widely respected Dick Petrik.We provide part of the following obituary written by Elwin Huffman of KOEL-AM, Oelwein.

"A legendary northeast Iowa radio broadcaster has died. Dick Petrik, who spent his entire 41-year career at KOEL-AM, died after a long illness. Petrik took the job as KOEL's first news director in April of 1952, nearly two years after the station went on the air. He held the record for longest tenure of any news director in the nation. In 1972, he was the first recipient of the Jack Shelley Award, the highest honor given annually by the Iowa Broadcast News Association.

The IBNA later named another award in Petrik's honor. The Dick Petrik Outstanding Student Award is given annually to a college student whose work shows outstanding potential for a career in electronic media journalism. Petrik retired in 1992, but stayed with the station part-time another year. Petrik, who was 76, is survived by his wife and five children. He became known to many broadcasters nationwide for his work with and for the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA).

Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2005

Vt. paper publishes data showing rural states have greater share of Iraq deaths

The Valley News of White River Junction, Vt., is the latest newspaper to do a story about rural states bearing a greater burden of American military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has done it in a way that makes the story easy for other papers to delve into the subject.

Vermont, North Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota and Arkansas lead the nation in Iraq deaths, and Vermont's was more than three times the national average, the newspaper reported. It also has made available on its Web site charts showing the number of service personnel deployed from each state, the number killed and the death rate; each state's death and injury rates per capita, as opposed to the number deployed; and percentage of each state's population in the National Guard, 40 percent of forces in Iraq.

"Lt. Col. Joe Richard, the Pentagon spokesman who provided deployment figures used in the analysis, said parsing out deaths in a state-by-state breakdown did not adequately account for statistical variables and amounted to saying 'one state is sacrificing more than another state. It's not an accurate depiction, and it does a disservice. To place it in some kind of geographical context doesn't serve anything'," the News said.

The prevalence of Guard troops could be responsible for widely varying rates from state to state. "While a traditional Army or Marine combat unit might draw on men and women from around the nation, a National Guard unit draws heavily from one geographic region," reporter Jodie Tillman wrote."When a unit sees multiple deaths during a particular mission, that state's rate soars."

A word of caution to journalists exploring this subject, from a National Journal story by Sydney Freedberg Jr. in May 2004: "The only readily available data on origins is 'home of record,' which is not only imprecise -- identifying a town rather than a demographically definable neighborhood -- but also potentially inaccurate. Young people often move away from home before enlisting, for example, and long-serving reservists often settle somewhere entirely different from where they lived at first enlistment. In a National Journal spot check of newspaper and wire-service obituaries for dead troops from seven states, 13 percent were found as having grown up somewhere other than in their official . . . home of record."

New education secretary seems more flexible on No Child Left Behind Act

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has begun her tenure by displaying "a willingness to work with state and local officials on what they consider to be some of the toughest requirements of President Bush's signature education law, No Child Left Behind," Sam Dillon of The New York Times reported yesterday, picking up on a story and interview by Education Week last week.

Dillon reports that Spellings ended disputes with New York and North Dakota, in the latter case "approving the qualifications of 4,000 teachers who believed federal officials had previously declared them insufficiently qualified." She told the Times the dispute was based on a misunderstanding, but "She appears to be striking a more conciliatory tone than did her predecessor, Rod Paige, whose rigid interpretation of the law led 31 state legislatures last year to offer an array of challenges to it," Dillon wrote.

The North Dakota case could have implications for many rural school districts that have difficulty meeting the law's requirement for a "highly qualified" teacher in every classroom. "Under the law, teachers already in the classroom can demonstrate that they are highly qualified either by having a major or passing a test in their subject, or by meeting alternative standards developed by each state based on broad federal guidelines. Studies have shown those standards vary widely across states," Education Week reported.

Spellings and North Dakota officials "agreed that veteran elementary teachers in that state" will meet the requirement "if they have an elementary education major and are fully licensed," EW reported, noting that state officials established that elementary-education majors take more than 40 hours of courses in core academic subjects, "sufficient to demonstrate subject-matter competency." Spellings also noted to EW that the state had put in place a process to evaluate elemenatry-school teachers. "I think where we started out, as I understand it, is they wanted to basically grandfather each and every teacher that was currently in the classroom," she said.

Education Week reported that Spellings expressed no desire to amend the law, as many in Congress would like to do. "I hope that the Department of Education will be the first place that people seek a solution," she told Senior Editor Lynn Olson and Assistant Editor Erik W. Robelen. To read their full interview with Spellings, click here. (Free registration required.)

Meth, Part 1: Feds in Georgia raid meth 'super lab,' say such labs spreading

Federal Drug Officials have discovered a methamphetamine laboratory in a Smyrna home, Georgia's first illegal "super lab," reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Sherri Strange, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent, told the newspaper a super lab is one capable of producing more than 10 pounds of meth a day, writes Don Plummer.

Law enforcement agents confiscated more than 39 pounds of meth and 11 pounds of its highly refined crystal form, with a combined street value of $2.8 million. About 250 gallons of the drug in other forms also were confiscated. Three illegal Mexican immigrants were arrested. Each is charged with manufacturing and distributing meth. Strange said, “The evolution from stove-top meth cooks, mostly addicts scrounging to feed their own habit, to high-tech, well-funded labs illustrates the growing demand for meth in Georgia.”

Meth, Part 2: N.C. joins parade of states sequestering meth ingredients

Common cold medicines might move behind the counter in N.C. stores as part of Attorney General Roy Cooper's push to shut down methamphetamine labs in that state, reports The Charlotte Observer. Cooper says he'll ask lawmakers to regulate the sale of pseudoephedrine -- a key ingredient in meth that's found in nasal decongestants, such as Sudafed.

“The attorney general's stance could put him at odds with grocery and convenience store owners and other retailers for the first time in his yearlong push to control meth's spread,” writes Sharif Durhams, of the Observer’s Raleigh Bureau. Durhams reports that Cooper hasn't sketched out exactly what restrictions he wants, but has looked to an Oklahoma law passed last year. Prosecutors there say the law has cut meth lab busts by 81 percent. Oklahoma also limits the amount customers can purchase each month. Cooper told the newspaper, "I'd like to see as strict a limit as we can get. We're in the infancy of this problem in North Carolina," adding he wants to stop the problem before it grows.

So far, the state and shop owners have worked together. State agents have trained salespeople to report anyone buying large quantities of pseudoephedrine and other meth ingredients, such as charcoal lighter fluid, gasoline, kerosene and paint thinner. Fran Preston, president of the N.C. Retail Merchants Association, questioned whether the restrictions would help, noting there's a black market for the drug, telling Durhams, "You can get all you want on (the online auction site) eBay."

Meth, Part 3: Kentucky students, lawmakers join to support ingredients bill

A leading member of the Kentucky House of Representatives vowed swift passage of a bill to tighten access to methamphetamine ingredients during an anti-drug rally yesterday in Frankfort attended by about 1,000 people, reports The Courier-Journal. House Majority Leader Rocky Adkins told those at the rally House leaders plan to "immediately" start moving the bill. Adkins said, "We're going to do everything we can to eradicate this terrible problem." After the event, Adkins told reporters he expects to pass similar legislation by early next month.

The bill "would make it easier to convict alleged makers of the drug and curb access to a key ingredient,” writes Elisabeth J. Beardsley of the Louisville newspaper. It would restrict the sale of many cold and allergy medicines with pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in meth. The bill also requires buyers to show a photo ID and sign a log. Anyone caught with at least two meth ingredients or pieces of equipment to make it, and a demonstrated intent to make the drug, could face a meth-manufacturing conviction. Current law requires all items necessary for the drug's manufacture to be present.

For the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues' report on coveing meth, click here.

Rural Sourcing keeping outsourced jobs down home in rural America

Factories and call centers across America are emptying, with much of the exodus of jobs going to off-shore outsourcing. But companies like Rural Sourcing are trying to move these jobs into rural America, as reported in previous editions of The Rural Blog.

Rural Affairs Correspondent Howard Berkes of National Public Radio went in-depth and on location to delve into the phenomenon. Rural Sourcing is the brainchild of Kathy Brittain White, who grew up in Oxford, Ark., population 642. The former chief information officer for Cardinal Health started Rural Sourcing to get large corporations to keep their job outsourcing in the U.S.. Her firm targets small towns and universities and now has a handful of clients, 24 employees and four offices in two states, Berkes reports. The company’s goal is to have 2,500 workers in 50 offices in 30 states. White knows she won’t stop off-shore outsourcing, but she hopes it will help areas adapt to larger economic shifts, Berkes reports.

Rural Sourcing may offer hope to areas that have been or remain dependent on agriculture, mining and manufacturing, Mark Drabenstott of the Center for the Study of Rural America told Berkes: "In a global marketplace those commodities operate with ever thinner margins, so the real challenge for most rural areas is how do we go from a commodity economy to a knowledge-driven economy."

Terry Stinson, business dean at Southern Arkansas University, told Berkes, "Many jobs could fit that model.  And we’re, we’re starting with the ones that were the best fit. The technology area was the best place to start, but I don’t  think there’s any limit to what we can do." Then Berkes noted this caveat from Drabenstott: " The marketplace doesn’t rest for anyone, and no niche is guaranteed forever."

Prison spending doubles in W.Va.; money better spent on early intervention?

In the last decade, West Virginia saw its prison population and budget double without seeing an increase in crime or population, and now advocates say the money for corrections can be better spent, reports The Charleston Gazette. Three advocacy groups are to release a report today that says the state can cap its prison population, limit its spending on prisons, and spend the savings on higher education and social services without putting citizens at risk, writes Toby Coleman.

Si Kahn of Grassroots Leadership, a Charlotte, N.C., group that produced the report with the Appalachian Institute at Wheeling Jesuit University and the West Virginia Council of Churches, told Coleman, “What we’re trying to say is you’ve got a system that’s just not working and it is costing the state an arm and leg. Put that money into early-childhood programs, put it into social services, put it into early childhood development, put it into business development.”

The groups are the latest to call for a change in the way the state puts people in prison, Coleman writes. Recently, policymakers, judges and corrections officials have become concerned about the growth of the state’s prisons. In the last decade, the state's prison system has been the fastest-growing in the South.

Virginia public schools' Bible lessons stay; board acknowledges concerns

Staunton, Va., school-board members have voted to keep school-day Bible lessons for elementary students intact while improving instruction for children who don't participate.

“Chairman James Harrington said the School Board seemed to take seriously concerns some parents raised about the loss of instruction time and possible harassment of students who choose not to attend the Weekday Religious Education program,” writes Calvin R. Trice of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Harrington said before the vote, "We're not going to fall asleep at the switch if we pass this."

Board member Edward Scott, the lone dissenting vote, told Trice, "We are not responsible for religious education." He said the board's action "fails to deal adequately with the education needs of the children who are left behind." Staunton is one of 20 public school districts, mainly in western and southwestern Virginia, where children receive Bible instruction off school grounds for a half-hour each week.

The Staunton board began re-evaluating the longstanding program after some parents proposed ending it or turning it into an after-school activity. The program takes away from instruction time while schools are under increased demands to meet standardized testing goals, opponents say. Supporters of the program said its emphasis on character and dealing with adversity need to be part of the regular school day.

Activists say TVA land swap bad idea; island rich in Native American history

American Indian activists contend a proposed trade of Tennessee Valley Authority land is a bad deal, no matter what a hired archaeologists finds on an island a developer wants to swap.

Archaeologist Lawrence Alexander said his research on privately owned Burns Island in Marion County, Tennessee, will show as rich a heritage as Moccasin Bend, which is in a national park. A Chattanooga developer, who is paying for Alexander's research, has proposed exchanging the island and two other properties for TVA-owned riverfront land adjacent to Little Cedar Mountain, reports The Associated Press. Thornton wants to build a $250 million resort and residential development on the land.

The TVA board is tentatively scheduled to decide on Thornton's proposal at its May meeting. Preliminary archaeological surveys of Burns Island turned up artifacts dating back 2,400 years. Records show 19 significant sites on the island. ''The archaeology of Burns Island deserves further protection from cultivation, erosion and unauthorized excavation,'' Alexander wrote in a previous report.

Becky Gregory, a Shawnee American Indian, said the island may be rich in history but says that doesn't justify desecrating the land, which she said exudes a special feeling. ''You feel a spirit, a difference when you're there. There is a peace and comfort there.''

Judge rules libel suit against Durham Herald-Sun may go to trial

A Durham, N.C., judge has ruled a former county commissioner’s libel lawsuit against The Herald-Sun may go to trial, reports the newspaper that is the subject of the lawsuit.

The former commissioner, Joe Bowser, “sued the newspaper last summer saying a May 21, 2004, article was false and defamatory,” writes Mark Schultz. The suit alleges the newspaper acted recklessly when it reported a letter from an assistant county health director claimed that Bowser had tried to pressure her into helping a friend of his, a county employee who alleged mistreatment by the county manager. The article appeared before the newspaper was purchased by Paxton Media Group of Paducah, Ky.

“The Herald-Sun was seeking a summary judgment . . . that would have dismissed the case. But Judge Michael Rivers Morgan rejected the motion, sending the case to trial,” Schultz writes. John Bussian, attorney for The Herald-Sun, said the judge's ruling did not suggest any opinion about the merits of the case, just about who should decide them. He said the article accurately reported what the letter said.

Bussian is also First Amendment counsel for the North Carolina Press Association. "If the press were unable to translate what politicians are really saying and doing, then there would be precious little freedom in reporting on official proceedings," he said. Herald-Sun Editor Bob Ashley said the newspaper is "disappointed the court didn't see the merit in dismissing the case at this stage."

Is environmentalism dead? Is some evangelicals' term, 'Creation care,' better?

While traditionally liberal environmentalists are debating the direction of their movement, some evangelical Christians, often liberals' nemeses, have begun to express their concerns for the environment, according to separate articles last week in The New York Times and The Washington Post.

The Times' Felicity Barringer reports that two little-known but apparently well-credentialed young environmentalists have written a 12,000-word treatise declaring "the death of environmentalism." To support their claims, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus offer the evidence that while a significant amount of Americans support some vague concern for the environment, most Americans voted for President Bush, "whose support for oil drilling and logging, and opposition to regulating greenhouse gases have made him anathema to environmental groups," Barringer writes.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus advocate few tactical steps to revive environmentalism. Rather, the duo suggest a shift in strategic re-thinking of the movement to "release the power of progressivism" and to change the focus from "environmentalism" to "conservation," a term that the American electorate appears to be more favorably disposed toward.

Meanwhile, some evangelical Christians are embracing environmentalism and new terminology for it, reports the Post's Blaine Harden. He says they have begun to "view stewardship of the environment as a responsibility mandated by God in the Bible." Evangelicals prefer the term "creation care" to "environmentalism" or even "conservation." Rev. Leroy Hedman, who coined the term, told Harden he says "creation care" because "It does not annoy conservative Christians, for whom the word 'environmentalism' connotes liberals, secularists and Democrats."

While it is encouraging to see both honest debate and support from unexpected sources on an issue as integral to rurality as the environment, a more cooperative approach between these two traditionally antagonistic groups would be even more beneficial to a rural constituency. However, as Rev. Hedman explains, "as creation care spreads, evangelicals will demand different behavior from politicians. The Republicans should not take us for granted." Environmentalists, dead or not, are quite likely to prefer this changed behavior from politicians to the alternative. --Josh Tucker, graduate assistant, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Monday, Feb. 14, 2005

'Culture of suicide,' social isolation, guns spur high number of rural deaths

Death by gunfire is typically thought of as an urban plague, fueled by crime, poverty and drugs, but rural America also has much the same affliction, reports The New York Times.

Writer Fox Butterfield’s point of departure is three examples in the rural Montana community of Stevensville, where guns ended lives, both young and old. “All three died of a single gunshot wound to the head in this valley below the snow-covered Bitterroot Mountains. All three pulled the trigger themselves.”

Charles Branas, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Times, "Americans in small towns and rural areas are just as likely to die from gunfire as Americans in major cities. The difference is in who does the shooting." No matter the method, suicides occur at a higher rate in rural areas than in cities or suburbs, with the rate rising steadily the more rural the community.

Data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the risk of dying by gunshot was the same in rural and urban areas from 1989 to 1999. In the most rural counties, the incidence of suicide with guns is greater than the incidence of murder with guns in major cities, he writes. People who see themselves as rugged frontiersmen are often reluctant to reach out for help. If they do, they may see a physician instead of a psychiatrist or another trained mental health expert.

Dr. Alex Crosby, an epidemiologist in the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control, told The Times suicide risk factors are, of course, prevalent in urban areas. But they are heightened in rural areas by social isolation, lack of mental health care and the easy availability of guns. Nels Sanddal, a psychologist in Bozeman, Mont., and president of the Critical Illness and Trauma Foundation, which works to prevent suicides, told Butterfield, "People say, 'How could people living in such beautiful places commit suicide?' We have a culture of suicide."

Bush budget hits rural programs hard, advocacy group tells Iowa newspaper

A rural research group says President Bush's proposed fiscal year 2006 budget is being balanced on the backs of rural Americans, reports the Daily Nonpareil of Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Jon Bailey, director of the Rural Research and Analysis Program at the Center for Rural Affairs, a nonprofit rural advocacy group located in Nebraska told reporter Tom McMahon, "The president's budget would doom many rural Americans and many rural communities to permanent status as members of America's underclass."

Bailey told the newspaper that the two agencies taking the largest hits in the president's budget are the Department of Agriculture (proposed 10 percent cut) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (11.5 percent cut), both of which focus much of their work in rural America. "Probably the biggest concern is doing away with the Community Development Block Grant program," he said. "That program is administered by the states, and money is often used for infrastructure and economic development in rural areas."

The varioius CDBG programs would be consolidated with others into a proposed new program in the Department of Commerce. Other programs to be combined include the Rural Business Enterprise Grant Program, Rural Business Opportunity Grant Program, Enterprise Zone/Enterprise Community Program and Rural Housing and Economic Development Program.

The change would weaken rural communities, said Bailey: "It would kill worthwhile programs and remove a third of the funding they provide for economic and community development. . . . Drastic cuts to programs that encourage the development of small businesses and rural housing will not allow low- and moderate-income rural Americans to become part of President Bush's Ownership Society."

Kentucky tobacco farmers heading warily into uncertain free-market era

Kentucky tobacco farmers are moving warily into a free-market system controlled by tobacco companies, replacing the bought-out federal system of quotas and price supports, reports The Associated Press.

The buyout will pay about $10 billion to the nation's tobacco farmers to give up their production quotas.
Steven Hinton, a tobacco farmer in Breckinridge County, predicts more burley will be grown this year in his county than any time since the late 1990s, which marked the start of big production cuts that contributed to the demise of the Depression-era federal tobacco program, writes Bruce Schreiner.

But Gary Carter, agricultural extension agent in Harrison County, another prime tobacco area, told Schreiner that when he asked a group of farmers redently how many planned to grow more tobacco, the response was tepid at best. "There were only three hands that went up," said Carter. The response was similar a week ago, at a meeting in Richmond for farmers from Madison and Estill counties, reports IRJCI Director Al Cross, who attended the meeting with his University of Kentucky Rural Journalism students.

UK tobacco economist Will Snell told Schreiner an uncertainty among some growers will show up in production totals across Kentucky, the nation's leading burley producer. "I think we'll be challenged to produce as much tobacco as we have this past year," Snell said. "Farmers are in a transition mode."

Tobacco companies are signing contracts with growers to guarantee adequate supplies of burley needed for cigarette production. As expected, contract prices offered by tobacco companies for the 2005 crop have dropped sharply from recent years, when prices hovered around $2 per pound, writes Schreiner. Prices appear to be $1.50 to $1.55 a pound, putting a premium on quality and per-acre yield.

Japan, U.S. agree on cattle-age verification; could reopen beef exports

A Japanese government panel studying mad cow disease has accepted a U.S. proposal on verifying the age of cattle, a move that could end Japan's near 14-month ban on U.S. beef, reports Reuters.

The panel, composed of scientists and officials from the farm and health ministries, said in a report that a method drawn up by the U.S. government provided an acceptable standard, writes Chikafumi Hodo.

How to determine the age of U.S. cattle is a crucial issue in ending the import ban that Japan imposed after the United States reported its first case of mad cow, writes Hodo. In January, U.S. experts visited Japan to submit a new system of specifying the age of an animal. The U.S. experts offered data and statistics to show that exports mainly from cattle aged 12-17 months, should be free of mad cow disease.

According to Reuters, the panel said in a report that based on evidence provided by the U.S. government, the A40 grading method could be used as a standard to prove an animal was 20 month old or younger.
But it said further monitoring and study were required to ensure the method was safe enough.

One member told Hodo more study and evidence were required to prove the U.S. program was good enough. "We would need a reliable surveillance system at the same time, if beef imports from the United States were to actually start under the system." The panel will now submit a report to the government, which has yet to finalize its own domestic policy on mad cow.

Progress in accessing Tennessee public records; officials asking how to obey law

After a survey showed about one-third of government agencies denied access to public records, some officials are now asking how to obey Tennessee's open-records law, reports The Associated Press.

"That interest ... signals progress in the eyes of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. The media coalition was organized two years ago and is dedicated to preserving the public's right to access government documents," writes AP's Bill Poovey.

Coalition Director Frank Gibson told the wire service a law enforcement association and a group affiliated with government employees have contacted him "expressing an interest in us training them." The groups had not yet committed to the training sessions and might not want to be identified.

Gibson, who cut his editing work at The Tennessean to part-time when he took the coalition job, said the board of the nonprofit group decided to provide such training for public employee associations. In early November, when more than 90 reporters, college students and volunteers conducted an audit of access to public records in Tennessee, there were 117 denials out of 356 records requested, writes Poovey.

Dr. Dorothy Bowles, a journalism professor at the University of Tennessee, and Kent Flanagan, former Tennessee bureau chief for the AP, co-chaired the project. Gibson said the "poor compliance was caused by people not understanding the law and the fact that the law is vague." One of the first things we may have to tackle is agreeing on certain things being public or not public record." The coalition president, Chattanooga Times Free Press Publisher and Executive Editor Tom Griscom, told AP the audit raised awareness that the open-records law is "in place to make sure that people who have the public trust have to keep the public aware of their actions.

Critics say Georgia GOP legislation ignores public; some fear too much secrecy

When Republicans ascended to power in Georgia, no one was surprised to see an emphasis on stronger ties with the South's business community, but some GOP legislators are seeking to slow down a legislative express fearing too much secrecy, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“Legislation began flowing that emphasized economic development and public-private partnerships — for tollways, the construction of schools, even Internet access. But critics say something is missing from this relationship with corporate Georgia: A significant role for the public,” writes Jim Galloway.

Sen. Dan Moody, R-Alpharetta, the author of a bill that would revolutionize the government bidding process across the state, told Galloway, "How is the public reassured that things aren't moving so fast that they end up feeling their future is being railroaded?" Moody noted he hasn't found an answer.

The bill is now stalled in committeee after public outcry. Moody admits his legislation may lack protections that would allow the public to watch what's happening and give it time to weigh in. "This is the kind of conversation a whole lot of people should have had before we [introduced the bill]," Moody admitted. The conflict pits the Republican fervor to haul down barriers to business against an equally conservative distrust of government, writes Galloway.

Rick Moore, a Cartersville veterinarian and community activist, told the newspaper, "It seems apparent to me — that having been a Republican and believed in the story of less government, less taxes, less intrusion into our personal lives — that maybe the Republicans are as bad as the Democrats. All I see is legislation coming out to intrude even more on people's rights."

Georgia smoking ban measure on move; next stop, full Senate

Georgia may soon be a smoke-free state, at least in public places, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A far-reaching measure to ban smoking in virtually all public, indoor areas has unanimously passed the Senate Health and Human Services Committee with little opposition from the public or business interests, writes Sonji Jacobs.

Sen. Don Thomas, R-Dalton, introduced the bill, which would prohibit lighting up in restaurants, bars, shopping malls, sports arenas — even within 25 feet of the main doorway to public buildings. The committee approved a few minor amendments, including one that would bar residents of nursing homes and long-term facilities from smoking in their rooms but allow them to smoke in designated areas. Thomas told Jacobs, "It's a strong bill. It's a much needed bill."

The bill's next stop is the full Senate, for consideration before it can move to the House. Several groups have spoken in support of the measure, from anti-smoking organizations such as the American Lung Association and the American Cancer Association to business groups such as the Georgia Restaurant Association. Several Georgia counties and municipalities already have laws restricting smoking in some way, writes Jacobs.

West Virginia considers limiting the hunting of antlerless deer

West Virginia’s Division of Natural Resources has proposed big changes to the state’s antlerless-deer hunting season. If approved by the Natural Resources Commission, the changes would close the 2005 antlerless-deer hunting season in all or part of 13 counties, reports The Charleston Gazette.

In six other counties, the season would be limited to 18 days, with restricted numbers of lottery-drawn permits. In 10 other counties, the season would be restricted to the same number of days with a one-deer bag limit. In 2004 the state allowed 22 days of unrestricted, high bag-limit antlerless-deer hunting in 47 counties, writes John McCoy.

The plan is based on the area’s overall deer population, which is used to determine how much antlerless-deer hunting is allowable, said Curtis Taylor, the DNR’s chief of wildlife. “A lot of people are going to want to believe that we were pressured into making these changes by hunters’ complaints of too few deer,” said Taylor. “That’s not the case. We’re only doing what our deer management plan tells us to do.”

Hot topics in Virginia’s General Assembly cast shadow over big budget

Virginia's Republican-controlled General Assembly has tackled many issues regarding public values, including a possible ban on displaying underwear, outlawing same-sex marriage, allowing prayer in school, prohibiting gays from adoption and tightening the regulation of abortion clinics. That’s not all the Assembly is facing, but it’s what’s getting the most ink, writes Pamela Stallsmith of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The state is also tackling its $63 billion budget, but values have become a hot topic in the legislature, especially after the 2004 presidential race, Stallsmith reports. Chris Freund, spokesman for the Family Foundation, told Stallsmith, the results of the election have sparked a public discussion of values. "It isn't frowned upon as much right now because of what happened in the election. Elected officials are responding to what people are talking about," he said.

Aimee Perron Siebert of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia says she’s seen more of a range of issues this year than in previous ones. "To me, one of the things you hear all the time about Republicans is they're the party of small government, or that they favor keeping government out of our individual space," she said. "It's a fascinating juxtaposition."

New North Carolina agriculture commissioner promises to promote farm causes

North Carolina’s new Agriculture Commissioner, Steve Troxler, has farmed soil in Guilford County his entire adult life. It’s the first year since college that he won’t plant any tobacco but he’ll continue with wheat and soybeans, reports Kristin Collins of The News & Observer.

As North Carolina’s first Republican head of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, he vows to push for farm causes, such as when he protested a ban on smoking in public buildings in 1992, or when he rode his tractor around the Capitol to demand money for farmers.

His campaign has been rocky, Collins writes. His obstacles have included losing in 2000 to Meg Scott Phipps, who was taken to a prison for illegal campaign contributions a few years later, and his controversial campaign this year dropped over 4,000 votes. His opponent conceded on Feb. 4, ending a new statewide election, Collins writes.

"This is just an extension of everything I did before," Troxler said. "I've always believed that one person could make a difference."

Wal-Mart fined in child-labor cases but wins advance notice of future probes

Wal-Mart Stores, the nation's largest retailer, has agreed to pay $135,540 to settle federal charges that it violated child labor laws in Connecticut, Arkansas and New Hampshire, reports The New York Times.

Labor Department officials said most of the 24 violations involved workers under age 18 operating dangerous machinery, including cardboard balers and chain saws. In the agreement, Wal-Mart denied any wrongdoing, and the department promised to give Wal-Mart 15 days' notice before investigating any other "wage and hour" accusations, like failure to pay minimum wage or overtime, Steven Greenhouse writes.

Meanwhile, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union charges the retail giant plans to shutter its store in Jonquiere, Quebec rather than work with its employees and their certified representative, the UFCW.

Union President Joe Hanson has announced a "major grass-roots mobilization" targeting Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott to take action in support of Wal-Mart employees, according to a union news release. The union is calling on the retail giant to "abandon plans to close its Jonqueiere store, and to "live up to the responsibilities that come with being the worlds largest corporation. Those responsibilities begin with respecting workers, consumers and communities."

Crawford paper that backed Kerry recoups losses with out-of-town subscribers

The editor of the newspaper in Crawford, Tex., where President Bush has a ranch, says the paper has more than recovered from circulation losses it suffered as a result of its endorsement of Sen. John Kerry in last fall’s election. W. Leon Smith said the circulation of the Lone Star Iconoclast has risen to 2,600 from 900, because publicity about the endorsement brought in many subscriptions from out of town.

However, reports of the paper’s circulation have varied widely; Melanie Milbradt, marketing director of the Clifton Record, which Smith also publishes, in the town where he is mayor, told the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues in September that the circulation was only 425, about evenly divided between mail subscriptions and newsstand sales.

“We were swamped with people canceling subscriptions and canceling ads in our paper, and for a while, you know, it was pretty severe. But gradually we started gaining subscriptions as the editorial became known across the country. . . . The thing that bothers me the most, though, is that there are individuals that want to advertise in my paper, and they’re afraid to, because if they do they will be boycotted,” Smith told Chris Hume, who is on a “Red State Road Trip” for Truthout, a liberal news service.

Kentucky’s got goats and lots of them; sixth largest producer in nation

Kentucky's goat population has climbed to 68,412, making it the sixth largest goat producer in the nation, reports the Lexington Herald-Leader.

"The goat industry is one of the fastest-growing segments of Kentucky agriculture," said Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer said in announcing the great goat gain, writes business editor Jim Jordan. Why the increase? Goat meat is nutritious and popular among Hispanic and Muslim immigrants, he writes.

Ray Bowman, president of the Kentucky Goat Producers Association told Jordan, "Eighty percent of the world's population eats goat ...probably the healthiest meat you can eat, even better than chicken." Jordan notes: "Before you chow down, read that sentence again. He didn't say it tastes like chicken." Your rural bloggers suggest alternative state marketing slogans for Kentucky license plates; “We’ve got your goat! or 'Your should get our goats!" State marketing song; “Ain’t no mountain high enough”

Roses don’t come from Ecuador to your table in a straight line, you know…

Those dozen red roses this Valentine’s Day may have had a short trip from the shop to your desk, but the journey to the florist is one filled with worries of bad weather, break downs, and overzealous U.S. Customs agents, reports Andrew Kantor of The Roanoke Times.

About 90 percent of Valentine’s Days roses are imported, many from South America, according to The Society of American Florists, Kantor writes. The life of your roses ended their life on Wednesday, perhaps in Ecuador or Columbia, separated into groups of about 150, dry-packed into climate-controlled trucks and then taken to the airport. They were loaded into a cargo plane on Thursday where they unloaded from the plane on Friday in Miami, said Wayne Dunman, owner of Dunman Floral Supply, one of the largest florists in Virginia. “It’s a lot more than just roses,” he told Kantor.

Your friendly bloggers would like to wish you a Happy Valentine’s Day!

Friday, Feb. 11, 2005

Coal, Part 1:

Tougher Virginia safety law prompted by child's boulder death

Six months after a half-ton boulder loosened by a strip mining operation tumbled down a hill, crashed through a house and crushed a 3-year-old as he slept, Virginia has toughened its mine safety regulations, reports The Associated Press.

As the victim's family looked on, Gov. Mark R. Warner signed the tougher legislation inspired by Jeremy Kyle Davidson's death, writes Kristen Gelineau. The governor said, "There's nothing that can bring Jeremy back, but what happened was a horrible tragedy. What I hope and pray is this ...legislation will prevent this kind of tragedy from ever happening again."

The bill was expedited as an emergency measure and won unanimous passage. It requires mining companies to develop plans to protect people in any area that may be affected by "falling, sliding or other uncontrolled movement of mined material." The measure also increases the maximum civil penalty for violations resulting in injury or death from $5,000 to $70,000, writes Gelineau.

The Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy sought tougher regulations and bigger fines after Jeremy's Aug. 20 death. The agency found A&G Coal Corp. "demonstrated gross negligence" and fined the company $15,000. Jeremy's family is suing A&G for $26.5 million, and a special prosecutor opened an investigation into whether the coal company should face criminal charges.

Coal, Part 2:

Plan streamlines strip permits; critics say EPA authority eroded

The Bush administration has announced a plan to allow states to streamline the way coal operators obtain new strip mine permits, a move critics say gives government too much power while weakening the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency, reports The Charleston Gazette.

“Under the plan, state mining regulators and the Army Corps of Engineers could adopt plans for a single permit application to replace the myriad documents companies must currently submit," writes Ken Ward. Critics said it would give states and the Office of Surface Mining more power and erode the authority of EPA, which has been more critical of mountaintop-removal mining because of its effect on streams. Bush administration officials said the plan would help not only the coal industry, but also the public and citizens.

OSM Director Jeff Jarrett told the Gazette, “Our intent is to create a collaborative review process with early, close coordination among the agencies. We want to improve the timeliness and clarity of the permitting process and to enhance communication among all involved.” OSM, EPA, the corps and the Fish and Wildlife Service announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding, which allows the streamlined permit process, Ward writes.

Joan Mulhern, a lawyer with Earthjustice, a Washington-based environmental group, told the newspaper, “They are taking an action before they finish their study. It’s jumping the gun.” Currently, coal operators must obtain several permits from regulators, who enforce the federal strip mine law, and the corps, which handles fill permits under the Clean Water Act.

Coal, Part 3:

Illinois governor says $2 billion power plant proposal is 'rebirth'

Illinois Gov. Rod Blogajevich "packed the house" in a recent appearance at a high school gymnasium to tout a proposed $2 billion clean-coal power plant for Southern Illinois that could mean 450 "much needed" permanent jobs and a "rebirth" of the state's coal industry, reports The Southern Illinoisan.

“The power plant will be built in Washington County, near Marissa,” writes Jim Muir. The proposed project calls for the construction of a 1,500-megawatt electric plant that would be fueled by 6 million tons of coal each year produced from an adjacent underground mine.

Blagojevich said, "As America searches for secure, affordable energy sources to reduce our reliance on foreign energy suppliers, the search ends right here in our backyard." He said the project will provide a boon to the area's declining coal industry along with a major economic boost to all of Southern Illinois, writes Muir. Illinois Coal Association Director Phil Gonet said the project would be the biggest of its kind in the Midwest and one of the largest overall nationwide. "Most of the power plants that have been constructed in the last 10 years are running on natural gas," Gonet said. "This is a huge project for Southern Illinois in terms of jobs for coal miners and people who are going to run the power plant."

The project could inject nearly $100 million annually into the Illinois economy, create approximately 2,500 jobs at peak construction in addition to the permanent jobs. "This public-private partnership represents a milestone in our vision to create good jobs and rebuild the coal mining regions of Illinois," said Blogajevich. "Illinois coal is experiencing a rebirth," he added.

Task force makes recommendations on how to spread wireless access

The Wireless Broadband Task Force has made recommendations to the Federal Communications Commission, regarding the deployment of wireless broadband service, a growing issue in rural areas.

Chairman Michael Powel created the task force in 2004 to examine wireless broadband developments, survey its applications, and review FCC broadband policies. Local area networks, which offer access points for fixed wireless broadband service, some in rural areas, have grown to somewhere between 4,000 and 8,000, according to an overview of the report.

Powell summarized the task force’s findings in a separate statement. “The Report makes several recommendations that build upon the strong foundation the commission has already established over the last few years; including, expanding the availability of wireless broadband services offered in licensed spectrum; enhancing the success of wireless broadband via license-exempt devices and equipment; maintaining a hands off regulatory approach to IP-based services; and improving the commission’s existing outreach efforts,” he said. The FCC should be proactive in identifying new technologies and in creating innovative policies to regulate those technologies, the report said.

Droopy-drawers bill takes a hike; panel kills legislation on breeches of etiquette

A Virginia Senate committee has decided the state's dignity is more important than exposed underwear, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. In a hastily called meeting, the Senate Courts of Justice Committee voted unanimously to kill a measure that had made Virginia the butt of worldwide ridicule, writes Tyler Whitley.

The measure, introduced by Delegate Algie T. Howell, D-Norfolk, sought a $50 fine for people who display their underpants in "a lewd or indecent manner." He said he was reacting to a fashion trend in which youngsters allow their pants to droop, so their boxers, briefs or thongs show, Whitley writes.

The bill has attracted media attention in Great Britain, Germany, France and Australia. ABC News did a feature on it, as did the BBC. The London Guardian had a front-page story on the bill, and a group of Virginia senators gathered to read the story just before killing the measure. One key senator said "the international exposure -- no pun intended" had left the impression Virginia is preoccupied with low-rider pants, just as it is trying to attract visitors for the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement in 2007.

Iowa 'under-30 no-tax proposal' falters; idea caught national attention

A Republican proposal to abolish Iowa state income taxes for people under age 30, touted as a way to stave off a “brain drain” of young people, is likely to die young, reports The Des Moines Register. Senate Republican Leader Stewart Iverson told writer Tim Higgins, "I would say the under-30 proposal won't pass. (But) It has sparked discussions - that's the bottom line."

The idea made headlines across the country, from The New York Times to the Los Angeles Times, and started tongues wagging, Higgins writes. But, The Register reports, much of the attention was less than flattering. A column by Times rural columnist Verlyn Klinkenborg, an Iowa native, was headlined: "Keeping Iowa's Young Folks at Home After They've Seen Minnesota," and noted, "This proposal was front-page news in California, where most of Iowa moved in the 1960s."

A poll conducted last week for Republicans asked 500 Iowa voters to choose among proposals they thought would best encourage economic development and keep people in Iowa. Poll results showed only 6 percent supported the under-30 tax exemption. Eight percent preferred a proposal to borrow $800 million to create a program for business incentives, Higgins writes.

Mountain Eagle mavens are ‘soaring’ examples of open-government advocacy

Tom and Pat Gish bought The Mountain Eagle newspaper in Whitesburg, Ky., 47 years ago and immediately began fighting to make local government more open. They also helped push for freedom of information statewide, reports the latest installment of a four-day report on Kentucky's open-records law, being published by newspapers and other news outlets around the state.

The Gishes, who seem to have experienced every extreme possible for news stalwarts, from community ostracism to out-and-out violence against their building, are the point of departure for the article by IRJCI Interim Director Al Cross. The story highlights them as iron-willed examples of local journalism at its best.

Also in today's installment of the series are: A story on a Bowling Green man's persistence in his pursuit of payments by the city. An article on how sometimes lawsuits are needed to pry information loose. Another story on a sampling of open records requests showing varied interests of filers. A warning that E-mail open records pleas may go unanswered. And another story on how a wealth of information is available.

North Carolina AG rules police's electronic accident reports are public records

A ruling by the North Carolina attorney general says local police must create an accident report that's available to the public before they send that report electronically to the state Division of Motor Vehicles.

Chief Deputy Attorney General Grayson G. Kelley told DMV officials the accident report created by police is a public record at the time it is prepared and should be available to the public, The Associated Press reports.. Kelley wrote in his letter to DMV Commissioner George Tatum, "Law enforcement agencies should fully comply with the Public Records Act in responding to an accident report request."

Police departments cited a federal law and refused to publicly release copies of the accident reports. The Driver's Privacy Protection Act regulates how motor vehicle bureaus release motorist records and how the recipients of the records share them. The law limits release of personal information from DMV records made public. Kelley said, however, police have a different responsibility (to the public), AP reports..

Estimated number of uninsured children in Tennessee hit five-year high in '04

An estimate of uninsured children in Tennessee reached a five-year high in 2004, even before the impact of impending cuts to the state's health insurance program fully materialize, reports The Associated Press.

A University of Tennessee Center for Business and Economic Research survey found 67,772 young people in the state did not have health insurance - nearly 5 percent. The survey showed that was a 3 percent increase from the previous year. Statistics suggest a even larger jump among children of the working poor. Children without insurance in those families rose 9 percent, writes AP.

In Memphis, visits to the Church Health Center by uninsured children almost doubled between 2003 and 2004. Dr. Scott Morris, the center's founder and executive director, said many were children who once qualified for state assistance, the wire service reports. Adults are even less likely to have health insurance in the state, where about 400,000, ( or 7 percent) are uninsured. Nationally 15 percent are without insurance.

West Virginia lawmaker re-introduces prohibition on tongue-splitting

A bill to outlaw tongue-splitting, unless done by a physician, has been introduced in the West Virginia legislature, reports The Charleston Gazette.

House Majority Leader Rick Staton introduced the bill about halfway through last year’s legislative session, only to see it pass the House of Delegates and quickly die in the Senate, writes Tom Searls. Staton told Searls, “Last year, everybody made light of it and now it’s a trend that’s swept the country.”

The bill became the first of the current session to be recommended by the House Judiciary Committee. The proposal is modeled after laws in Illinois, Michigan and Kentucky, where only a licensed physician can split tongues. Staton readily admits he knows of no one with a split tongue in West Virginia, or of anyone performing such surgery. Your bloggers can't resist saying his efforts have tongues wagging.

Thursday, Feb. 10, 2005

Rural electrics say budget would raise their rates; farm objections continue

President Bush's fiscal 2006 budget, sent to Congress Monday, would be costly to rural Montanans because of provisions affecting wholesale power rates and farm subsidies, reports the Billings Gazette.

Terry Holzer, general manager of Yellowstone Valley Electric Cooperative, told Jim Gransbery, "It would increase our rates 35 to 40 percent. It would double the price of our wholesale power at a minimum." The co-op serves more than 10,000 customers, many of whom use electricity for irrigation pumps. Its concerns reflect those of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which said in a press release that the plan would be "a back-door tax on millions of Americans who happen to live in the 33 states served by the 1,180 consumer-owned electric utilities that receive all or some of their power supply from  hydropower produced at federally owned dams."

On another topic, Keith Schott, a wheat and barley grower, told the Montana newspaper that the budget would also require a 5 percent reduction across the board in price supports for crops. "It is pretty vague right now as to exact details." Schott said reductions in farm programs are better left to the next Farm Bill to be written in 2007. The current farm law covers crop years 2003 through 2007, writes Gransbery.

Schott also said changes in the crop-insurance program would hurt, requiring higher costs for minimum coverage, and crop insurance would be mandatory for a farmer to receive any direct payments for price supports. The budget plan also seeks to end ad-hoc disaster payments to farmers and ranchers.

Rural Democrats form working group, weigh in against Bush budget

The resonant rumble of rural influence that worked against them in the November election, now amplified with the proposed budget, continues to drive congressional Democrats as they try to display solidarity with and empathy for rural views and issues through their recently formed Democratic Rural Working Group. In a parade of quotes from rural representatives the group focused its political fire on the budget.

Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth, D-S.D., said, "Unfortunately, priorities for South Dakota and rural America are not represented in this budget. Rural America takes a multi-front hit, including cuts to farm programs, economic development, essential infrastructure and rural health care. These dramatic cuts will have a substantial impact on families and communities throughout South Dakota. At a time when spending is tight, this budget places rural America at the bottom of the list." For more views from the Rural Democratic Working Group, contact Burns Strider of the House Democratic leadership staff.

Iowa solons meet secretly on meth proposals; federal cuts may hurt efforts

After promising openness, Iowa legislative leaders considering counter-measures to curb illegal methanphetamine production planned to meet in secret today to begin writing the bill, and meanwhile, the president's proposed budget may hamper the state’s war on meth, reports The Des Moines Register.

State Rep. Clel Baudler, who had said the issue would be discussed in "full view of the public," told reporter Lee Rood that the private meeting would encourage frank discussion. "People will not be honest and open with their opinions if it's public," he said.

“Baudler's bipartisan group and another in the Senate ... would place tighter restrictions on retail sales of pseudoephedrine, the widely available decongestant often used in illegal labs to make methamphetamine,” writes Rood. Iowa officials have learned federal money for state drug task forces will dry up in 2007 under Bush's new budget plan. Dale Woolery of the Iowa Office of Drug Control Policy told Rood the cuts would mean the loss of nearly $7.3 million and about 110 jobs, most from local drug enforcement.

Ken Carter, chief of Iowa's narcotics bureau, told The Register the cuts would be "absolutely devastating," particularly in uncovering illegal meth production. Drug enforcement officials presently have to absorb a 45 percent federal aid cut during the 2005-06 fiscal years.

Midwest towns trying unusual strategies to stop hemorrhage of population

The Plains states are trying something new to bring people and businesses back to rural America. Some are giving away lots of land, some offer tax breaks to new businesses, and some are reaching out to high school students to encourage them to return home after college, reports John Ritter of USA Today.

The states hope this economic development strategy will reverse population loss, expand the tax base and keep schools open. About 30 towns in the Midwest have embraced this “hometown competitiveness” strategy developed by the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship in Lincoln, Neb., he says.

In Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and the Dakotas, 89% of the cities and towns have less than 3,000 residents. North Dakota lost 1.2% percent of its residents in the past few years, he writes.

Railroads have systemic safety problems, Transportation Dept. audit says

"America's four biggest railroads suffer from substantial and systemic safety problems, according to a new federal audit that raises questions about how well federal regulators are overseeing the rail industry," Walt Bogdanich of The New York Times reports in his latest effort to hold railroads' feet to the fire..

The audit is from the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general, who cited a recent string of of serious accidents and said "He was concerned that the Federal Railroad Administration's approach to regulation, which stresses 'partnership' over punishment, might be failing to fix the most persistent safety problems," Bogdanich wrote. "He asked the agency to prepare a comprehensive plan to improve its inspection of railroads and enforcement of federal safety rules," particularly important in rural areas.

Bogdanich adds, "The report also criticized the railroad agency's former acting chief, Betty Monro, saying she had failed to recognize the ethical problem of vacationing on four occasions with a Union Pacific lobbyist. The inspector general, Kenneth M. Mead, said in the report, dated Dec. 10 and obtained through the federal Freedom of Information Act, that it was wrong for Ms. Monro to have shared a house on Nantucket, Mass., with the Union Pacific lobbyist 'at the same time the agency you represent is, among other things, proposing and settling millions of dollars in fines against that railroad.' Mr. Mead said he found no evidence that Ms. Monro, a longtime friend of the lobbyist, showed any favoritism toward Union Pacific." But he noted that Union Pacific had the highest average number of accidents from 1998 through 2003, yet it was inspected "proportionally less, ranking third."

Bush again names controversial Iowa farmer to oversee rural development

President Bush has again submitted the name of Thomas Dorr, an Iowa farmer, to be undersecretary for rural development in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Senate Democrats blocked Dorr from the post in Bush’s first term, reports Andrew Martin of the Chicago Tribune.

He is a controversial choice, Martin writes, because he supports large-scale agriculture and suggested that Iowa counties have prospered because most residents are white. He was also accused of lying to the government to skirt limits on subsidy payments. Such limits are an important part of the budget that Bush proposed on Monday, Martin notes.

President of the National Family Farm Coalition, George Naylor, told Martin, “I absolutely see no qualifications in his background for this job.” But, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, supported Bush’s choice, saying, “Tom Dorr has repeatedly demonstrated his value to the Department of Agriculture over the past four years, and I'm glad the president has re-nominated.”

Lawmaker’s bill would deny college to illegal residents in Kentucky

Illegal residents of Kentucky, which has had an influx of Hispanics in rural and urban areas, would be barred from receiving state funds for scholarships under a bill filed by a Lexington lawmaker.

Rep. Stan Lee, a outspokenly conservative Republican, told Linda Blackford of the Lexington Herald-Leader he introduced his bill in reaction to an effort by Lexington Community College, as well as a private scholarship fund started by officials from LCC, the University of Kentucky and the Lexington Hispanic Association, to help undocumented students pay for higher education.

Lee has also filed a resolution to study the costs of educating children of undocumented workers in Kentucky's public schools. "I just think we need to know how much all of this is costing us," he said. He told Blackford, "It used to be that colleges had open enrollment, but now it's limited, so if that slot goes to someone who's not in the country legally, then someone else doesn't get that slot. It doesn't seem fair."

Federal law protects undocumented immigrants' rights to education, but that doesn't extend to higher education, writes Blackford. Joshua Santana, chair of the Lexington Hispanic Association, called both measures "thinly veiled attempts to discriminate. "You want these people to be here, and . . . be as productive as they can, but this would most hurt children who have no control over their circumstances."

Kentucky open-records audit finds cities best, jails worst at disclosure

Agencies that most often deal with public requests for information had the best compliance rates in the state's first public records audit. The continuing series of reports on compliance appears in newspapers statewide with contributions from Jim Hannah of The Kentucky Enquirer, Gregory A. Hall of The Courier-Journal, Herb Brock of The Advocate-Messenger and Bill Estep and Lee Mueller, both of the Lexington Herald-Leader. For the summary lead story in the C-J click here.

“Those who handle city budgets were the quickest to respond to auditors' requests for copies of that document. Travel expense records of county judge-executives were easy to get in most cases, and public school superintendents, while a slightly suspicious lot, mostly offered up their contracts for inspection,” the story said. But one agency denied requests almost three quarters of the time. Guarding records as closely as prisoners, jailers in Kentucky turned down requests to see a list of inmates seven out of 10 times.

The Oct. 21 audit was organized by the Kentucky Press Association, The Associated Press, various newspaper and professional groups and university student programs. John Nelson, immediate past president of the KPA and managing editor at The Advocate-Messenger newspaper in Danville, said names of people who have been arrested and are in jail are clearly a public record. Nelson told the newspaper, "In this country we don't arrest people or put them in jail secretly."

The press association undertook the audit to find out how officials in different government agencies would respond to citizen requests for copies of various public documents. For the report on compliance by jails, click here. For the story on top county officials' expenses, click here. For review of compliance on city budgets, click here, and on school superintendents' contracts click here. Finally, click here for a look at the procedure for inspecting a public record.

Indiana Senate panel OKs elevating gay-marriage ban to state constitution

A constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage has cleared its first legislative hurdle in the Indiana General Assembly, following lengthy passionate testimony from pastors, organizations and residents representing both sides of the issue, reports The Courier-Journal.

“The proposed amendment was approved along party lines... Democrats voted against the amendment-- over concern that it would preclude them from providing future rights to same-sex couples,” writes Lesley Stedman Weidenbener. The amendment's author, Republican Sen. Brandt Hershman, told Weidenbener, "With malice intended toward none, our effort is to protect the way (marriage) has always been throughout the course of Indiana history, U.S. history, world history and indeed the history of our civilization."

Democrats and a number of amendment's proponents said the language could actually prevent lawmakers from someday granting same-sex couples some rights that are inherent in marriage. Indiana already has a law defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman. A proposal last year to put that definition in the constitution passed the Senate but died in the House. Republicans now hold a majority in the House, some benefitting from voter interest in the issue, she writes.

Sen. John Broden, D-South Bend, said the amendment would allow same-sex couples to be granted some rights but would prohibit so-called civil unions that are simply "marriages by another name." But, he said, would not clarify how far would be too far in granting rights to same-sex couples. That, he said, would likely be for the courts to determine, something advocates of the amendment are trying in part to avoid.

Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2005

Kentucky open-records audit says: Records open most times, sometimes not

A statewide survey of Kentucky public agencies to determine whether they are allowing citizens to view government documents showed most are obeying the state's Open Records Act, but compliance is not uniform, according to the first installment of a four-day report than began today in many newspapers.

“The first audit of compliance with Kentucky's Open Records Act in 114 of the state's 120 counties drew responses that ranged from hostility and suspicion to cooperation and helpfulness,” writes Mark Chellgren of The Associated Press. “A request to inspect the city budget in Greensburg was met with a smile, a free copy and a piece of candy,” he writes. But, an inquiry about a list of prisoners at the Montgomery County Jail brought a less friendly response … a demand for identification and intimidation by jail employees." That was the greeting for a University of Kentucky student of Middle Eastern descent.

Records sought for the survey were a city budget, a county judge-executive's expense report, a school superintendent's contract and a jail log -- documents that can affect daily lives. The survey was organized by the Kentucky Press Association, AP, various newspaper and professional groups, and several university journalism programs. More than 100 students, volunteers and newspaper employees visited four local government offices on Oct. 21 seeking specific public records. They were told to act as any ordinary citizen when making their requests.

John Nelson, immediate past president of the KPA and managing editor of The Advocate-Messenger in Danville, told Chellgren, "Our hope is that this collective effort will enlighten the public, the legislature and custodians of public records across our state, and that public access to government will be strengthened." The open records law is supposed to be the window through which Kentuckians can take a hard look at how their government works -- or doesn't work, writes Chellgren. For information about the open records law click here. To read how the audit was conducted click here. Click here to view project participants.

Women making more money than men in 15 rural counties, NPR finds

Men on average make 25 percent more money than women, except in 15 rural counties in America where women are surpassing men in pay, reports National Public Radio.

Most of those counties are in the Western United States, including King County, Texas, where the gap is widest, reports Howard Berkes. An average woman makes 30 percent more money than a man. One reason for the gap is what traditionally is called “men’s work,” including punching cattle. Women, however, work in courthouses and schools, where the pay is usually better and they get more benefits.

However, that does not change the traditional gender roles. A woman may own the biggest ranch in the county, but men manage it, Berkes reports. Men still make decisions in the courthouse and a man is still school superintendent.

Transportation and food-industry groups sound off on Bush budget

Two special-interest groups have resoundingly criticized aspects of President Bush’s proposed budget--transportation funding called insufficient and a “food safety tax"-- which officials said will have negative impacts on rural areas.

The Administration's highway funding proposal falls short of the American Association of Highway and Transportation Officials’ goal of at least $245 billion by $10 billion, and the transit funding proposal, it says, falls $6 billion short of AASHTO's $55 billion transit goal.

AASHTO says other transportation programs are on the chopping block, including passenger rail, where funding drops from $1.2 billion to $360 million. "It is also hard to believe that the American public will tolerate the proposed federal abandonment of the Amtrak rail service which served 240 million passengers last year, and which also provides the only transportation linkage to many rural communities,” said the association’s president Jack Lettiere.

The American Meat Institute also took a shot at the budget. It said the funding plan’s term "user fees," to be levied on meat and poultry inspections, is actually a “food safety tax.” This additional tax proposal, says AMI, comes while farmers, producers and processors are still feeling the impact of rising production costs and unpredictable export markets. Further, the group claims, meat and poultry products would be subject to a competitive disadvantage, compared with other food products that would not be taxed.

Ky. Democrats say GOP governor's proposed cigarette tax increase too high

Democrats in the Kentucky House of Representatives will offer a counterproposal to Governor Ernie Fletcher's tax plan that will likely include a lower cigarette tax jole than Fletcher proposed, according to a key budget committee member, reports the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Rep. Harry Moberly, budget committee chairman, says his committee will be analyzing and rewriting a Republican-sponsored bill containing Fletcher's proposal over the next two weeks, writes Ryan Alessi. Moberly said many members have balked at the governor's cigarette tax proposal, which would increase the tax on a pack from 3 cents to 34 cents in 2006, to 41 cents in 2007 and to 53 cents in 2008. "I think there probably is not the votes in the House to support that high a level,” he told Alessi.

Moberly voiced concerns over the governor’s related plan to reduce the state’s income tax -- which tends to grow as the economy expands, and replacing that with increased cigarette-related revenues -- because tobacco sales are on the wane, writes Alessi. Instead, Moberly told him, "We'll be doing some personal income tax reductions, but it's just a matter of how you balance out the plan and the level of what you do.”

House Speaker Jody Richards has requested an analysis of Fletcher's plan from a group of six professors at the Georgia State University's Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. David Sjoquist, director of the Fiscal Research Center, told Alessi he hopes to send the report to Kentucky today or Thursday.

West Virginia lawmakers reject plans for poultry water-pollution permits

West Virginia lawmakers have tossed out the Department of Environmental Protection’s effort to force large poultry farms in the state to obtain water pollution permits, reports The Charleston Gazette.

“DEP officials had proposed to amend state law to require the permits and bring state rules into compliance with new federal regulations. But lobbyists for the West Virginia Farm Bureau and the West Virginia Poultry Association objected,” writes Ken Ward Jr.

The Farm Bureau’s executive director, Bob Williams, told Ward the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new rules have been challenged in court and farmers believe the new EPA permit requirements are too stringent. Environmentalists also have sued, he said, saying the EPA regulations are too weak. Marc Harman, a lobbyist for the poultry group told The Gazette, “This entire issue is in limbo. Our suggestion is not to deal with this now. Let’s wait and see what the courts do.”

Deputy DEP Director Bill Brannon, told Ward state officials wanted to get rules in place to match EPA’s regulations before the permit requirements kick in next year. Under the new rules, larger farming operations would be required to obtain actual Clean Water Act water discharge permits. Currently, most agriculture operations are not required to have permits and operate only under voluntary best management practices.

Virginia Senate ‘all but kills’ church-property bill sparked by gay-clergy debate

The Virginia Senate has effectively killed a bill that opponents said would put the state in the middle of a dispute over the consecration of gay clergy in the Episcopal Church, reports The Washington Post.

The bill would have allowed local church congregations that vote to leave their denominations to keep their buildings and property, unless a legally binding document specified otherwise, writes Rosalind S. Helderman. "Most mainline denominations now prohibit dissenting congregations from leaving the fold and taking their property -- an arrangement that has been upheld by the Supreme Court in all but a few extraordinary cases," she writes.

Opponents said the measure would have allowed congregations roiled over gay clergy and gay marriage to more easily break away. They contended it targeted the Episcopal Church, which has been especially rent over the issues since clergy voted to consecrate a gay bishop in New Hampshire in 2003. Because of existing treatment of property, however, few discontented congregations have actually left the Episcopal Church USA but instead have formed a network of dissenting churches within the denomination.

The Senate voted unanimously to send the bill back to the general laws committee for further study. The vote almost certainly ends the bill's prospects for the year, writes Helderman. The bill's sponsor, a lawyer who specializes in church law, requested the vote on sending his measure back to committee. He told colleagues the short legislative session made the senate "incapable of handling legislation that is either exceptionally complex or about which there has been exceptional confusion." But, he said the matter will be revisited next year to avoid finding current law struck down by courts.

Virginia legislators pass measure against ‘lewd’ low-riders

Wayward youths wearing boxer shorts in full ‘low-rider’ view, or possibly even ladies with visible ‘thong’ underwear …beware in Virginia. A new law could levy a fine against such ‘lewd behavior,” reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“The bill has a slim chance in the Senate," writes Tammie Smith. The measure would fine people up to $50 for “intentionally exposing their underwear in a way that is ‘lewd or indecent’ in public,” she writes. The bill has attracted attention from supporters all over the country who dislike the low-riding baggy-pants style favored by some rap-music entertainers and copied by youths everywhere, writes Smith. It was even mentioned on ABC's "Good Morning America."

Lawyers contracted by the House, legislators who are also lawyers, and American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia representatives have said the measure is unconstitutional. Gov. Mark R. Warner would have to sign the measure for it to become law.

Some legislators have said privately the bill is ridiculous and would have been labeled racist if a white House member had introduced it. Sponsor Algie Howell is black. One legislator told the Times-Dispatch the measure could lead to racial profiling, and he said the fashion trend is popular with young black males. "This is a foolish bill," charged one critic, who said in some cases the underwear, usually boxer shorts, comes already made into the pants. "This is going to be a bill that targets blacks.”

Court drops intimidation charge against Kentucky newspaper reporter

A Fleming County, Kentucky, newspaper reporter no longer faces a charge of intimidating a participant in a legal proceeding, reports The Ledger-Independent of nearby Maysville.

Nicholas Circuit Court Judge Robert McGinnis dismissed the charge against Charles E. Mattox, 37, writes Danetta Barker. The charge was filed after Mattox, a reporter with the Flemingsburg Gazette, one of three papers in the county, was earlier served a summons for criminal trespassing. Mattox's lawyer argued in court the charge required a "threat of physical harm" and she contended no such threat occured.

The charge stems from Mattox's walking into a home, apparently without permission, to seek information in the death of his ex-brother-in-law. The owner of the home, Betty Morford, filed the charges. She had thtreatened to take legal aciton against Mattox.

Durham area land rescue in peril; misfortunes rattle preservation plan

There is more bad news for a coalition of 19 suburban neighborhoods near Durham, N.C., working to prevent a tract of land from being filled with as many as 49 "executive" homes worth up to $650,000.

“First they thought the wooded tract was part of Duke Forest, which is protected from development. It isn't. Then, they thought the 42.8-acre site that straddles the Durham-Orange county line couldn't be developed because it had been identified as a priority preservation site in a greenway plan. It wasn't, writes Janell Ross of The News & Observer of Raleigh. Now a report has determined four governmental entities likely will not be able to divert the $1.5 million it will take to purchase and preserve the property.

Of those four, Chapel Hill has offered $100,000 to the project. Durham County's entire land preservation budget for the year is about $200,000. The city of Durham and Orange County have said they cannot make financial contributions because they have committed to other preservation projects, she writes.

Wendy Jacobs of the Erwin Area Neighborhood Group, which is working to preserve the property, told Ross, "I don't think that the report has a can-do, creative attitude." County Manager Mike Ruffin said the price of the property is the problem. A private group has an option to buy the land for $1.05 million.

Jeff Fisher, a professional land conservationist, found the report lacking. He told the newspaper that government bodies typically commit to preserving a piece of land, then seek grant money. So it's misleading, he said, for the report to imply grant money can't help because it will not be available when the county's stay against developing the property expires.

Wisconsin store chain cards all ages; Elderly not exempt from ID requirement

Identification checks at a large food chain's stores in Wisconsin are part of a new policy requiring cashiers to check the age of everyone buying cigarettes or alcohol - regardless of whether they look 21 or 91, writes Juliet Williams of The Associated Press.

Betty Ann Fisher, who at the age of 71 was carded before buying a bottle of wine, told AP, "The first time it was a sweet young man, and I laughed because I thought he was trying to pay me a sweet compliment. But then he said, 'No, I'm serious.' I thought he was just joshing with me."

The stores parent company, Roundy's Inc., told Williams it started its "We Card Because We Care" program at all of its stores in Wisconsin to prevent underage drinking and tobacco use and to help local law enforcement. The company has a total of 77 stores in the state.

The National Association of Beverage Retailers spokesman John Bodnovich told AP, does not know of another major chain with a similar companywide policy. The NABR represents some 20,000 bar and liquor store owners in 34 states. The spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, the country's largest grocer, Sharon Weber told the wire service their stores card anyone buying tobacco or alcohol who looks under age 27. Wall Mart set that age after consultation with attorneys general in several states. Walgreens drugstores rescinded in 2002 a short-lived policy of asking all tobacco buyers for ID after elderly customers complained. The company now checks IDs of anyone who looks under 40.

Charlotte light-rail funds okayed; development planned along proposed lines

Federal taxpayers will pay $199 million of the cost of building Charlotte, N.C.'s first light-rail line, a deal expected for two years but made official Tuesday that will also boost development along its proposed lines linking the city to suburbs, reports The Charlotte Observer. “Charlotte was one of four cities named to receive the highly competitive federal contract, along with New York, Phoenix and Pittsburgh. The money will pay 47 percent of the Charlotte line's $427 million cost,” writes Dianne Whitacre.

Federal officials told the newspaper that plans for the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area needed more work. Charlotte riders should be able to board the electric-powered trains in just over two years, in April 2007. Trains will run 20 hours a day and arrive every 7 1/2 minutes during rush hour.

Charlotte Area Transit System sees the light-rail line as not only transportation but also a way to strengthen the area's tax base by concentrating growth around the stations and uptown, writes Whitacre. Federal Transit Administrator Jenna Dorn praised the project, saying the city is a national leader in encouraging private development. "We are seeing more and more people want to live near transit lines."

Developers have built condos, apartments and shops around the line's future stations, and transit chief Ron Tober told Whitacre he expects others will soon announce plans for new projects. Tober said, "This will give people the confidence that this thing will happen, and they can talk to their financing entities. I don't expect a landslide of development proposals, but there are a couple brewing."

Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2005

Experts say budget cuts, especially in rural-related programs, may be unrealistic

President Bush has delivered Congress a tall order with his 2006 budget, which some are calling “unrealistic” in its cuts and freezes to control the deficit, The Washington Post reports today.

“Under the president's proposal, lawmakers would have to scrap much of the farm law they passed in 2002 in order to realize the $8.2 billion in cuts Bush expects from farm subsidies over 10 years,” writes Jonathan Weisman, a Post economic reporter. Bush's other proposed cuts include rural health programs and Community Development Block Grants, which often support rural housing and infrastructure.

In an online discussion this morning, Weisman indicated that he doesn't expect Bush to push hard for many of his proposed cuts. "I get the distinct feeling that the administration has put forward its budget and now wants to return to its previously scheduled program, Social Security," Weisman said. "The White House simply cannot have Congress reopen the farm bill, change the Medicaid system, overhaul the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp, etc., etc., and oh by the way, deliver the most significant change to Social Security since its inception. There simply isn't enough time, let alone political will."

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss. and an influential member of the Agriculture Committee, has declared he would never go along with the president's agriculture proposals, which he said unfairly target cotton and rice growers in the Southeast. Congress passed the last major revision of the federal farm support system in 2002, after considerable contentious debate, and lawmakers are not about to reopen the issue before they have to, Cochran said. He told The Post, "Frankly, I don't think anyone in the administration really thought Congress would go along with this."

Similar resistance has emerged to the administration's plan to consolidate community development programs at the departments of the Treasury, Housing and Urban Development, Labor, Health and Human Services, and Commerce, all under the Commerce Department's roof. Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that funds HUD, said the proposal "makes no sense."

The National Rural Health Association says it is "dismayed" by the president's budget, calling his plan a "Super Bowl fumble." The NRHA cites specifically cuts to or elimination of Rural Health Flexibility Grants, the Small Hospital Improvement Program, the Community Access Program and Rural Health Network and Outreach Grants. For more from the NRHA click here.

Officials push Appalachian hospitals on promise to put HQ in mountains

Local leaders and state legislators from Eastern Kentucky want a major health-care entity to make good on a promise to relocate its headquarters to the mountains in exchange for financial assistance, including a free building offered by the city of Hazard, reports the Lexington Herald-Leader.

“Mountain legislators rounded up $5.3 million in coal-tax revenues for Appalachian Regional Healthcare Inc., a large, . . . Lexington-based hospital chain. The money . . . was to help ARH move its headquarters to Eastern Kentucky, where most of its nine hospitals are located,” writes Lee Mueller.

ARH president and CEO Stephen C. Hanson said at the time, in June 2000, "It's safe to say, over time, our headquarters would actually be in Eastern Kentucky." Patience in Perry County, which put up most of the coal revenues, appears to be wearing thin. County Judge-Executive Denny Ray Noble, indicating the county might want its money back, told Mueller, "I think it'll come to that point, but we're not there yet."

A top ARH official said the agreement for the $5.3 million state grant commits the hospital chain only to expanding professional employment in Eastern Kentucky. Larry Meador, ARH's new board chairman, told the newspaper it had fulfilled its commitment by creating 92.5 new jobs in Hazard and other area locations. Seven of the nine ARH hospitals are in Kentucky: West Liberty, South Williamson, McDowell, Hazard, Middlesboro, Harlan and Whitesburg. Two are in West Virginia, at Beckley and Hinton.

'Small-town writers getting it right,' Quill magazine writing columnists say

At "small to mid-sized newspapers throughout the country . . . small groups of reporters are challenging the existing culture that too often says the only way to tell a story is with an inverted pyramid and nut graph that must appear as close to the top as possible," narrative-writing coaches say in the latest Quill magazine.

"In those newsrooms, reporters are growing and pushing themselves to improve, often with too little support. As much as we look to award-winning journalists as role models, it's also important to hear -- and learn from -- writers who operate under the radar," write Kathleen Gorman and Tom Hallman Jr., an assistant team leader and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Oregonian.

The hero of their piece in the January-February issue of Quill, published by the Society of Professional Journalists, is Jenny Jones, 23, a reporter for the Madison (Ind.) Courier, who planned to write a standard feature about a guitar maker, "but as she talked with him, she realized that the story was really about a man finding his passion late in life. The best narrative stories touch on universal themes."

Here is the opening of her story: "Clint Bear looks around his workshop, his eyes shining with pride as he scans the dust-control duct system, the large woodworking machinery and the newly erected walls that occupy the space that was once a garage. At 55 years old, Bear has finally found his life's passion -- hand-crafting guitars -- and he has gone to great lengths to convert his garage and his home in ways to accommodate his desire to be a luthier. He just wishes he would have found his passion 30 years earlier."

Jones's ending takes the reader back to the opening scene and her theme: "This is where his passions are freed, and this is where eras of his life come together for the future. ' I didn't know what I wanted to do till I was 50 years old,' said Bear, who still works as a rural route carrier. 'I found it.'"

Small towns can learn from one another, says South Dakota newspaper

Ben Franklin once said in mustering Revolutionary War fervor, “If we do not hang together, we shall certainly hang separately.” Some 250 years later, rural communities around the nation are apparently learning a similar lesson in their own survival, reports the Press & Dakotan of Yankton, S.D.

“There is no quick fix for dying small towns, but there are lessons towns can learn from each other when it comes to community and economic development; one being to take pride in your hometown,” writes Rita Brhel. Mark Kasten, economic development coordinator for the community of Parker, told her, "The secret is getting the community involved. People tend to want to give more, or at least be part of a town more, if they have more pride for it. More community support equals more community success."

Kasten also told the newspaper he can't remember when residents weren't working toward something better. Parker, with a population of 1,031, is building a 72-lot housing development to accommodate newcomers. "This is an unlikely situation," writes Brhel. “A small town not only surviving but thriving in the face . . . of the changing appearance of rural America. While communities across the area struggle with declining and aging populations, high poverty rates and unemployment, and a loss of youth, Yankton and Vermillion … seem like islands in a sea of despair.” Some towns, she writes, "have become meccas for young, educated professionals and their families who seek out the quality of life not found in larger cities."

The newspaper also cites Hartington, S.D. Chris Miller, president of the city's Economic Development Corp., told the Press & Dakotan his small Cedar County seat has depended upon a group of mostly business people since the 1970s for its successful development. "We have a lot of good volunteers willing to sacrifice their time and talents to keep the community alive and thriving," he said. "These volunteers are aggressive, forward-thinking, broad-minded business people."

Debbie Redmon, city administrator for the community of Bloomfield, told Brhel, “In addition to community involvement and leadership, (her town’s) secret of success lies in supporting its existing businesses, as well as encouraging entrepreneurs to follow their dreams.”

North Carolina proposes restaurant smoking ban; one of few in the nation

Lawmakers in North Carolina, the top tobacco-producing state, have proposed a measure that would clear the cigarette smell from all eateries statewide, reports The Charlotte Observer.

“A bill introduced by Rep. Hugh Holliman would require restaurant managers to ask patrons not to smoke. Customers could face a $50 fine if they refuse,” writes Sharif Durhams of the Observer’s Raleigh Bureau. If North Carolina's ban passes, the state would become one of only a few, including California, Florida and Massachusetts, with such wide-ranging restrictions, he writes.

John Singleton, a spokesman for RJR Tobacco told the newspaper, "Certainly, there is a trend across the board." Singleton said it's hard to measure whether the bans in other states have hurt tobacco sales. RJR plans to oppose the ban, saying restaurant and bar owners can best determine what their customers want.

Philip Morris has stayed mute on the bill and is not as critical of other states' bans. Spokeswoman Jamie Drogin told Durhams, "The concerns of public health officials do warrant a degree of regulation in public places." She said states can address the health concerns without an outright ban. North Carolina's cigarette foes seem to be making headway toward boosting the cigarette tax, reports The Observer. The state now charges 5 cents a pack -- the second lowest rate in the nation, and lowest if Kentucky raises its 3-cent tax.

Student comes home to N.C. to film story about drugs in rural America

A California film student will be returning home to rural North Carolina to film his thesis, a piece about drugs in the modern rural South.

Jarvis Rooker is a 25-year-old student from Chapman University, writes Glenn Craven of The Daily Dispatch. Rooker brought his team of 20 people to North Carolina to film “The Feudalists,” a piece about character Buck Hutson, who is driven by his circumstances to kill. The film is set in today’s rural South, where many have turned to making methamphetamine to escape poverty. Some scenes will be filmed in Kentucky, Craven reported.

The film is his thesis project and combines a “contemporary Western” with “American gangster genre,” Rooker told Craven. "The film is about drugs in rural America," Rooker said, "and how people - as they have throughout history - will still kill for land."

Kentucky meth law moves toward approval; limits sale of key ingredient

A bill aimed at curbing the spread of methamphetamine by making it harder to get a key ingredient and toughening prosecutions is on its way to the Kentucky Senate floor, reports The Courier-Journal.

“Despite objections from representatives of the Kentucky Retail Federation, the Senate Judiciary Committee last night unanimously passed Senate Bill 63, which would restrict the sale of cold and allergy medicine that can be used to make the illegal drug,” writes Deborah Yetter of the Louisville newspaper.

The bill also would strengthen a law used to prosecute meth manufacturers, make it illegal to expose children to meth labs, and hold meth makers liable for cleaning up the toxic chemical waste they leave behind. Sen. Robert Stivers, the committee's chairman and the bill's sponsor said, "The destructive nature of this drug is just unbelievable. When you've seen it firsthand, as I have, in the criminal justice system, it is just unbelievable." Stivers expects the Senate to pass the bill later this week and move it to the House.

Department of Public Advocacy head Ernie Lewis told the newspaper his agency -- which represents poor people charged with crimes -- has some questions about specific provisions in the bill related to the requirements for a conviction for manufacturing meth, but supports the intent. "There's no question that there's a real serious problem with meth. Our caseloads reflect that. Our clients are ravaged by it."

Gay marriage ban passes Va. Senate; House passage expected, then referendum

The Virginia Senate has approved a measure that would elevate its ban on same-sex marriages from the laws books to the state constitution, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Critics recalled the Holocaust and Virginia's past support of segregation. Sen. Mamie Locke said Virginia would be stigmatizing gays, just as Hitler stigmatized Jews in Germany. "It is xenophobia that led to the rise of Nazism in Germany and fascism in Italy. It is homophobia that brings us to this place in time today."

Proponents argued the protection of traditional marriage needs "to be enshrined in the Virginia Constitution" to put the "full faith and credit" of the state behind a possible legal challenge, writes Whitley. Sen. Stephen D. Newman said during debate, "This is not about a particular lifestyle."

Virginia has a law banning same-sex civil unions, passed after the Massachusetts Supreme Court struck down a ban on same-sex marriages there. Amending the Virginia Constitution must be approved by two legislative sessions with an intervening election for the House before being put before voters in a referendum. The earliest such a referendum could be scheduled is November 2006, writes Whitley.

Bee parasite destroying colonies, putting California almond crops at great risk

Beekeepers across the country are catching a bug: the Varroa destructor mite, which has become resistant to poisons and is ravishing honeybee colonies.

Almond growers in California are at extreme risk. They depend on bees to pollinate their fields of the nuts, which bring the state $1.6 billion, reports Al Tompkins of The Poynter Institute. California almond farmers provide 100 percent of the nation’s almonds and 80 percent of the entire world’s supply.

The parasite attaches to the backs of bees and sucks out the insects' innards. That’s how it destroyed many of the bee colonies of Alan Mikolich, who raises bees near San Diego. He had managed over 1,000 colonies but now has 350, Tompkins writes. "I might as well have not treated the hives given the losses I've incurred,'' Mikolich said.

An extension apiculturist, Eric Mussen, with the University of California-Davis extension said the U.S. Department of Agriculture is developing a natural powdered fungus that hurts the mites, but not the bees. However, bees are known for being tidy, and have pushed the powered fungus out of the hives.

Two shareholders sue to scuttle Pulitzer Inc. sale to Lee Enterprises

Two Pulitzer Inc. shareholders are suing the St. Louis-based publishing company, seeking to unhinge its planned buyout by Lee Enterprises Inc. on claims the $1.46 billion deal is unfair to Pulitzer stockholders, reports The Associated Press.

Pulitzer, publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Arizona Daily Star, disclosed the Delaware lawsuits in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission last week, three days after announcement of the deal unanimously approved by the boards of both companies, writes AP.

Iowa-based Lee said it will pay $64 per share in cash for Pulitzer, which also owns 12 other dailies and more than 100 weekly newspapers, shoppers, and niche publications. Both companies said they expect to complete the deal, which also includes Lee assuming $306 million of Pulitzer debt.

The deal also effectively scuttled a bid by six Post-Dispatch employees who -- worried about prospects of an outside suitor -- had launched an effort to buy the company through an Employee Stock Ownership Program, under which all workers could share ownership. Pulitzer's SEC filing said both lawsuits purport to be class-action cases and ask a judge to permanently bar the sale the plaintiffs argue does not maximize shareholder value. The lawsuits seek unspecified damages.

Monday, Feb. 7, 2005

Bush's proposed budget would cut rural health, scores of other programs

Rural health efforts would be among about 150 of the programs to be ended or "radically cut back to help meet Bush's goal of shaving the budget deficit in half by 2009," under today's federal budget proposal from President Bush, The Washington Post reports this morning.

"The budget proposal would cut $94 million in grants for the Healthy Communities Access Program and phase out rural health grants," Mike Allen and Peter Baker write. But they also say, "Bush hopes to spend $304 million to build more community health centers, particularly in rural areas."

Bush's budget calls for discretionary spending, other than defense and homeland security, to fall nearly 1 percent, "the first time in many years that funding for the major part of the budget controlled by Congress would actually go down in real terms," the Post reports.

Other big cuts would come in Medicaid, the federal-state medical-assistance program for the poor and disabled; and $100 million in grants for land and water conservation. As previously reportedby the Post and The Rural Blog, 18 community-development block grant programs would be consolidated into one Commerce Department program for a savings of $1.8 billion.

The proposal faces tough sledding, the Post says: "One lawmaker involved in the negotiations said that House and Senate leaders have told the White House that no more than two dozen of the 150 proposals are likely to be accepted, although Congress might agree to reductions in some programs."

American Farm Bureau Federation and 'broad coalition' oppose farm cuts

The American Farm Bureau Federation and "a diverse coalition of more than 100 organizations" has sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns voicing concern over possible farm spending reductions in the Bush administration's budget, reports the Southwest Nebraska News.

“According to the coalition letter, reductions or restructurings of the 2002 Farm Bill would 'seriously undermine many nutrition, conservation, crop insurance and farm programs that are important to all Americans," writes the on-line newspaper. “Many of these programs already have sustained budget reductions in recent years," the letter continued, citing cuts in funding for many discretionary agriculture programs, and the trimming of $4 billion in mandatory agriculture spending.

"A budget that requires further cuts or structural weakening in these important programs will put at risk the promising environmental benefits of the bill, and the nutritional health of some of the poorest populations in our country," said the coalition. The coalition added: "Farm Bill costs through the past three years were more than $15 billion less than initially projected when Congress passed the 2002 bill."

Edwards creates poverty center at UNC, discusses issues in New Hampshire

Former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, who passed up a re-election bid to run for president then became the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, has established a Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina law school and is talking about the issue as he plots his political future.

“We don't pretend to have all the answers, but I can promise you this: We will ask the hard questions,” Edwards said Saturday night in a well-received speech to a New Hampshire Democratic Party fund-raiser. He said Democrats “know when something's right. And we know when something's wrong. It's wrong when our neighbors work full time and they still live in poverty.”

“The setting of the speech was as notable as its content. A visit to New Hampshire, the site of the first presidential primary, is often the first public sign that someone is considering a White House bid,” wrote Ron Fournier, chief political correspondent for The Associated Press. Edwards told Fournier that he had not decided whether to run for president in 2008, citing his wife’s effort to overcome breast cancer.

Edwards told Fournier, "It may seem like an impossible goal to end poverty, but that's what the skeptics said about all of our other great challenges. If we can put a man on the moon, conquer polio and put libraries of information on a chip, then we can end poverty for those who want to work for a better life.”

Dan Balz, chief political writer for The Washington Post, also interviewed Edwards beforehand, and wrote: “He resisted looking back at the reasons he and Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., lost the election but quibbled with those who have said the Democrats face a values deficit or that Democrats cannot compete in the South and in rural areas.” He told Balz, “We didn't run a campaign in the South. In the future, it's important for us to compete everywhere in the country.”

Growing methamphetamine use on Navajo land brings call for tribal action

With no law on tribal books to criminalize the sale, possession or manufacture of methamphetamine, Arizona and federal law enforcement officials are fearing an explosion of the drug's use on the largest Navajo reservation in the country, reports The New York Times.

Greg Adair, a 26-year officer with the Navajo Nation, police told Times writer Joseph J. Kolb, "We've seen more than a 100 percent increase in meth on the reservation in the past five years." The Navajo Nation Tribal Council raised the issue of criminalizing methamphetamine during its summer meeting last year, writes Kolb, but the session ended without the measure being passed. Council delegate and a co-sponsor of the legislation to criminalize the drug, Larry Anders, told the Times a special session would be planned to address the measure.

The bill would bring tribal laws in line with state and federal statutes, making the possession or sale of a controlled substance, including methamphetamine, punishable with up to a year in tribal jail and a $5,000 fine. Greg Secatero, with the Navajo Nation police told Kolb, "Right now we don't have anything to charge the person we find with meth unless we go to the feds."

U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton told the newspaper that when a tribal law-enforcement officer finds a small amount of meth, the drug is confiscated and an FBI agent from Flagstaff is called. The substance is sent to a crime laboratory for identification, a process that can take a month. If tests show it is methamphetamine, the F.B.I. will issue an arrest warrant. As a result, Officer Adair told Kolb, kids and young adults simply say, 'Hey, I can get away with this,' and the drugs spread through the communities like wildfire.

For the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues' special report on meth coverage, click here.

Iowans want deer herd thinned: Road safety key for more hunting, poll shows

A vast majority of Iowans the state to allow more deer hunting to reduce the number of them bounding onto the state's roads and into back yards, according to a poll conducted by The Des Moines Register.

Diana Fontaine, who was seriously injured in a deer-vehicle wreck, is among the 85 percent of adults who would support more deer hunting to thin the herd, writes Juli Probasco-Sowers. Support for more hunting reached across rural and urban lines, as well as people of varied incomes, gender and political parties. Fontaine said, “I used to be totally against hunting. Now I believe in it as a conservation tool."

Fifty-seven percent surveyed reported someone in their household had either been in an accident with a deer in the past two years or had a near miss. Statistics show 10 fatal crashes in 2003 related to the deer population. Hunters, on the other hand, are fearful of reducing the herds too much and they don't want to compete for hunting grounds with people from out of state. Iowa senators are working to create a bill that will assist in reducing Iowa's deer population, yet protect the natural resource.

Some are worried legislators might get carried away. Brandon McKissic, 25, of Ames, told the Register, "I don't think they should hunt deer for the sport of the game or to stop population growth." McKissic suggested deer be placed in a large holding facility where they could roam free without hurting anyone.

Internet telephoning, or VoIP, cheaper than land lines, going mainstream

Internet phone calling has leaped to mainstream. Thanks to technological innovations and low prices, Internet dialing has surged in popularity over the past two years, reports the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Yankee Group, a market research firm, reports nearly 1 million people have signed up for Internet calling, and the number is growing quickly writes Reggie Beehner. By the end of 2005, the number of subscribers is-expected to reach 3 million. "The rapid rise attributable in large part to the underlying-technology -- Voice over-Internet Protocol, known as VoIP." Early-Internet phone companies -- particularly Vonage, with more than 400,000-subscribers -- have cable companies and phone-giants taking notice.

Verizon and AT&T have launched their own-Internet calling services. Cablevision already has signed up nearly 300,000 subscribers to its Internet phone plan. Kate Griffin, a senior analyst at the Yankee Group, told Beehner, "The whole communications industry is transforming. Everybody's encroaching onto everyone else's space."

"VoIP calls are analog voice signals converted into packets of digital data, which are then compressed, routed through the Internet, and reassembled before arriving at the receiving phone," writes Beehner. One customer, who was dissatisfied with his local phone service, Richard Day, tunred to VoIP. "It gives you just about every cool feature, ...and the voice quality is pretty much comparable to a regular land line."

Gary Morgenstern, a spokes-man for AT&T, told Beehner the technology is more efficient and more cost-effective than traditional phone networks. As a result, he expects most of the major phone companies to-convert to VoIP-based networks over the next few years. "It's not a question of whether VoIP is going to-dominate the telephone calling industry," Morgenstern said. "The question really is when."

Dog thefts may be tied to fight rings, say law enforcement agencies

A number of Kentucky counties have growing concerns a recent increase in the number of missing dogs could be connected with dog-fighting rings, reports The Courier-Journal.

”Police in Hopkins and Webster counties in Western Kentucky say they are looking into tips that some of the dogs reported missing may have been stolen for use as "bait dogs" in illegal dog-fighting rings involving pit bulls,” writes Byron Crawford, Kentucky columnist for the Louisville newspaper.

Maj. Keith Stine of the Providence Police Department in Webster County told Crawford, "It's a very, very cruel thing they do. If they're training a pit bull, they'll agitate the fighting dog and throw an animal in the ring with it, and they'll let the fighting dog actually just chew this other dog up to give them that taste of blood and success. It would be like putting me in the ring with Mike Tyson." Stine says some 40 and 50 dogs have recently been stolen in the Webster County community of Clay, and his department is investigating leads that some of the animals are being used as bait dogs, writes Crawford.

Julie Siegel of the Scott County Humane Society believes most of the dogs being stolen in Kentucky are used either in breeding operations known as "puppy mills" or in fighting rings. "It seems like in this state it moves from area to area," she told Crawford. "There's quite a network to move these animals around. If they're over in Pike County picking up dogs, the fighting ring could be in Arkansas for all we know."

Increases in the number of missing or stolen dogs have also been reported in the Henry and Trimble county area. Grant County Sheriff Randy Middleton told the newspaper he believes some of the few hundred dogs stolen in his county over the past three years wound up in Ohio for dog fighting purposes.

'Podcasting' brings radio productions to masses, choice to listeners

Less than a year old, a new phenomenon called “podcasting” is enabling anyone with a PC to become a broadcaster, reports The Associated Press.

“It has the potential to do to the radio business what Web logs (or Blogs) have done to print journalism,” writes Matthew Fordahl. “By bringing the cost of broadcasting to nearly nothing, it's enabling more voices and messages to be heard than ever before.” “After getting a taste of the radio business in college, Craig Patchett never lost his interest in broadcasting. But without a job in radio, it seemed likely to remain one of those unfulfilled passions until .. "podcasting" came along,” he writes.

Patchett, 43, is among a growing number of people getting into podcasting, which is quickly becoming another of the Internet's equalizing technologies. He creates shows and sends them out to the masses over the Internet, from his personal computer. Listeners download his shows to their digital music players.

Patchett's podcasts focus on Christian and family programming, but Podcasting offers a diverse menu of programs, which can be enjoyed anywhere, anytime, writes Fordahl. Shows can paused, rewound or fast-forwarded. Listeners don’t need to be near a PC, unlike most forms of Internet radio. AP reports the number of regular podcasts is over 800 and growing daily. Many focus on gadgets, technology and podcasting itself. Others highlight new bands and music or discuss politics, movies and sports.

Fordahl writes that productions can range from stream-of-consciousness rants to highly professional shows complete with sound effects and music. Unlike radio, there's no time limit, deadlines or government oversight. Adam Curry, a former MTV personality and a driving force behind podcasting told Fordahl, "There are going to be podcast stars who are just entertaining to listen to. And, there will be Howard Sterns who can use the seven dirty words on their shows."

Dairy association opposes milk income subsidy, says program is ineffective

The Milk Income Loss Subsidy was started a few years ago to help dairy producers, but has led to lower milk prices and has cost taxpayers over $2 billion, said the International Dairy Food Association.

That’s why the association says it is urging Congress to reject legislation to double the subsidy.. The program was layered on other programs without first investigating how the programs would work together, for example, the program is at odds with the Dairy Price Support Program. As a result, its lowered prices for dairy products, the release said.

Originally the Congressional Budget Office said the program would cost less than $1 billion, but the cost is now double that, the IDFA said. IDFA Senior Vice President Chip Kunde said the legislation will not solve the problem. "Congress should examine this failed program in the light of day. Pushing forward an expensive and market-distorting government subsidy without a thorough review by Congress would be fiscally irresponsible,” he said.

New Ag secretary keeps pushing for reopening of Canadian, Asian beef trade

New Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns addressed the National Cattle Convention this Friday to outline his plan for the country’s agriculture. The budget and reopening beef trade with Asia and Canada were the focus of his address, reports Gene Johnston of Successful Farming.

His first task, Johnston writes, is reopening the beef trade with Japan and Korea. "Total exports of ruminant products was $7 billion before our one BSE case," Johanns said. " We lost 64% of that, and have since recovered about a third of that. Japan is about half of what is left to recover, and we have to continue the strong effort there.” As for the Canadian border re-opening, he didn’t set the March 7 due date but he’s pushing for it and he asked cattlemen to support it, Johnston writes.

He also wants a $596 million increase for the food and agriculture defense intitative; a $37 million increase for conservation programs to livestock farmers develop plans for nutrient management; a $34 million increase for the health forests intitative; and a $10 million increase for land restoration.

Future of Coal Conference set for March, submissions due this month

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s Future of Coal Conference will be March 10 from 2 p.m. to 5 pm. Submissions are due by 5 p.m. Feb. 16, and must be sent electronically.

The should cover one or more of the following topics, in the order given: coal consumption; environmental challenges; financial and technological improvements; and transportation. If you want to discuss a topic not listed, add it to the end of the list as a separate Word document. The response should be no more than 5 single-spaces pages per topic, in 12-point Times New Roman font. Submit your response to each question as a separate Word document and include your name and association on each page. Also write a one-page executive summary of your submission as a separate Word document and include your name and association, contact, email and phone number on the summary. For more information, visit this site.

Friday, Feb. 4, 2005

Farmers, seniors blast Bush plan; Web site maps Social Security recipients

Farmers are asking Congress not to forget their needs, after President Bush’s request for major Social Security reforms. Farmers are more dependent on Social Security benefits than other retirees, said the National Farmers Organization, because their incomes are less likely to rise with inflation.

Young farm families may be strained by the necessity of placing retirement funds in a private account.
T he farm's need for cash reserves, along with Social Security payments due on earned income may be particularly difficult when faced with cash flow requirements and equity building, said the NFO release.

The AARP also supports reforms, but without required private accounts, CEO William D. Novelli said in a statement on the organization’s web site. Such accounts drain money from the program and cut its benefits. AARP, which seeks members as young as 50 and has abandoned its original name of teh American Association for Retired Persons, supports options for investments in addition to Social Security.

Mark Schaver, computer-assisted reporting director for The Courier-Journal, provides a site that gives the percent of voters for each congressional district who get Social Security. The number of beneficiaries includes a count of the disabled and retirees, widowers, and married couples with children who receive social security. A map on the site shows where recipients are concentrated, such as in Eastern Kentucky.

Japan, boycotting U.S. and Canadian beef, has first human mad-cow death

Japan has confirmed its first death from the human variant of mad-cow disease, a fatal brain disease thought to be contracted by eating infected beef, reports Reuters.

The Japan Health Ministry said a countryman died from the variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), apparently contracting the fatal illness during a month-long stay in Britain in 1989. Tetsuyuki Kitamoto, a Tohoku University professor and head of the ministry panel, downplayed the incident. "I know this will make many people worry, but we must take note of the fact that his stay was only one month."

Japan has reported 14 cases of BSE, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, and began testing all its cattle after the first case in September 2001. Japan banned imports of Canadian and U.S. beef in 2003, after two reported cases of mad-cow disease. It is currently in drawn-out talks on when to lift the bans.

Reuters reports, more than 160 people, most of them Britons, have died worldwide from definitive or probable vCJD after eating meat contaminated with BSE. Britain has been the worst hit by BSE, which is thought to be transmitted among animals via feed containing infected bovine brains or spinal cord. About 7 million animals had been slaughtered in Britain by the end of June 2004 to prevent the spread of infection.

W.Va. legislative panel wants coal-cleanup tax extended; fund shortfall found

A legislative advisory panel has recommended extending for at least a year a special state tax funding the cleanup of abandoned coal mines in West Virginia, and to cover a cleanup fund deficit, reports The Charleston Gazette.

Members of the Special Reclamation Fund Advisory Council voted to urge lawmakers to extend the 14-cent-per-ton tax when the (legislative) session starts next week, writes Ken Ward. West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney, was the only council member to vote against the recommendation. The tax is scheduled to be reduced to 7 cents per ton starting in April. An actuary hired by the state has found that the reclamation fund has an unfunded liability of at least $35 million.

The fund’s real financial shortfall, though, is probably much greater, reports the newspaper. The actuary told Ward the estimate does not include money needed for long-term treatment of acid mine drainage. Kentucky mining engineer John Morgan, who represents environmental groups on the reclamation fund advisory panel told Ward, “We are woefully under-funded.”

Most industry experts agree water treatment costs make up the bulk of the reclamation fund’s liabilities. The U.S. Office of Surface Mining found water treatment will cost the state between $2.6 billion and $6.3 billion over the next 50 years. The actuary has not yet included in an analysis the costs of reclaiming any abandoned mines that were permitted before 1994.

N.C. Senator’s Bible eviction raises hackles; chapel items returned

A key state North Carolina senator ordered Bibles and other religious items removed from the Legislative Building's nondenominational chapel, but was overruled when his decision threatened to spark a religious, cultural and political spat, reports the News & Observer.

“State Sen. Tony Rand had staffers box up the religious material because . . . legislators complained the chapel's Christian emphasis was inappropriate in a public building used by people of different faiths,” writes Rob Christensen of the Raleigh newspaper. (site requires free registration)

Rand is Senate Rules Committee chairman and shares oversight of the building. Senate leader Marc Basnight, also a Democrat, reversed Rand's order after complaints from Republican lawmakers and inquiries from a reporter. Norma Mills, Basnight's chief of staff, told Christensen, "The cross and the Bible are going back in the chapel... (Basnight) felt those were appropriate items."

The chapel, in the Legislative Building's rotunda, is near the House and Senate chambers. Lawmakers and others use it for prayer or reflection, writes Christensen. At one time, it had a brass cross and a Star of David. Both disappeared several years ago. In recent years, lawmakers began holding weekly services and brought privately donated Bibles, hymnals, and a cross and had left them.

Some lawmakers felt uncomfortable using the chapel surrounded by so many Christian symbols. Rand noted there are lawmakers who are Christian, Jewish and Muslim. He told the newspaper that worshippers could hold Christian services in the chapel, but they have to bring their own religious material and take it away. ""It should retain its nondenominational character. It's not a church. It's a public place for whoever wants to communicate with one's maker."

Georgia school board refuses group's assistance in evolution case

The Cobb County School Board says it will not accept an offer of assistance from a powerful Christian legal group as it appeals a federal court ruling banning the school system’s textbook disclaimers about evolution, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The Alliance Defense Fund, founded 11 years ago by leaders of nationally known ministries such as Focus on the Family and Campus Crusade for Christ, made the offer . . . .in a letter to Cobb school board attorney Linwood Gunn,” writes Kristina Torres.

Board Chairwoman Kathie Johnstone also received a letter offering assistance two days before the board voted to appeal, but she told the newspaper the offer was not a consideration in the board's decision and that the board had no plans to accept it or any other offers of help. Johnstone told the newspaper, "We haven't solicited or accepted any outside help of any kind from anyone.There is no secret sugar daddy." The board may have to reimburse more than $100,000 in legal fees. The Journal-Constitution obtained, through the Georgia Open Records Act, copies of the letters making the offers.

U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper ruled that Cobb's disclaimers, which call evolution "a theory, not a fact," were an unconstitutional endorsement of religion and ordered them removed from textbooks. The board has since requested the order be put on hold as it appeals the ruling, writes Torres.

The disclaimers stem from a petition drive begun by a self-discribed creationist who believes the Bible's book of Genesis is factual. She collected 2,300 signatures, prompting the board to print the disclaimers and place them in science books used in middle and high schools. The decision brought national attention.

Virginia adoption bill barring gays, weakened, passes first committee

A House bill initially written so that gays and lesbians would be barred from adopting children was considerably weakened before clearing a committee, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Adoption advocates and gay-rights supporters say they still don't like the bill. Delegate Richard H. Black, who introduced the measure, told the newspaper, "This bill is not intended to restrict anyone's rights." He said his legislation preserves the tradition of husbands and wives as preferred adoptive couples.

“The compromise bill that cleared the House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee stated that social-services agencies may take into account sexual orientation and whether a couple is living together but not married in deciding if a home is suitable for a child,” writes Tamme Smith.

Claire Guthrie Gastaga, lobbyist for Equality Virginia, the state's leading gay-rights organization, told the newspaper, "Fundamentally, this bill is a solution in search of a problem.” She said the social-services agencies and the courts already consider a variety of factors, including morality and behavior, in deciding whether to recommend or approve an adoption.

West Virginia governor says he’ll sign ethics bill with ‘gag order,’ fix later

West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin says he will sign an ethics bill passed by the state legislature containing a controversial ‘gag order’on ethics complaints but is working with legislative leaders to remove that provision from the new law, reports The Charleston Gazette

Manchin told staff writer Phil Kabler if he vetoed the bill, measures that will strengthen the state ethics law would be in jeopardy, including those that let the Ethics Commission initiate investigations and expand financial disclosure requirements for lobbyists, writes Kabler. Manchin added, “We’ll go back in and fix it. We’re not going to destroy the bill to do it.” For The Associated Press story, click here.

Machin told the newspaper “oversensitive” legislators went overboard to come up with a way to discourage political foes from filing unfounded complaints against them, and added “If you’re falsely accused, there should be some repercussions.”

The bill, attacked by West Virginians Want to Know, imposes a gag order after a complaint is filed until a review board determines if there is probable cause for a full investigation. Under the 'gag order,' complainants could not acknowledge filing a complaint or comment during the review process. Failure to abide could bring a fine of up to $5,000, and the complaint could be summarily dismissed. Violators could also face misdemeanor criminal charges.

Iowa youth tax-exemption, stop brain-drain idea, makes worldwide waves

Iowa has landed in the worldwide media spotlight, thanks to a controversial proposal to exempt residents younger than 30 from paying state income taxes, reports The Des Moines Register.

Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Reuters news service and other major media outlets have reported on the tax break, offered by Senate Republicans as a way to stem the 'brain drain' of young, educated adults who leave Iowa. The proposal even got a mention in an Australian newspaper," writes Jonathan Roos. (And in the Rural Blog, the day the Register reported it.)

The Time headline on the exemption article is "Ah, to Be Young and in Iowa." Roos quotes from the article, which is accompanied by a cartoon with a sign saying, "Thank you for not leaving IOWA."

The Time acticle cites a 2000 Census study in which states attract the most young, single college grads where Iowa ranked 49th. Time writes, "Hawkeye [State] Republicans . . . have come up with a more effective inducement for young college grads: exempting residents under the age of 30 from state income taxes. An economic plan unveiled by GOP state senators to do just that would reduce state coffers by an estimated $200 million a year while saving the average 25-year-old about $600."

Senate Republican Co-President Jeff Lamberti was scheduled to be interviewed about the tax break by Neil Cavuto of Fox News this afternoon. Lamberti told the Register, "(The propsal) sent a buzz out there that we're serious about the issue." Meanwhile, Democrats aren't impressed with all the publicity. Sen. Bill Dotzler said, "I think the Republicans are being perceived as people who are throwing the spaghetti against the wall and seeing if it's going to stick. And so far their proposals have all slid off, but (the tax proposal) fostered a discussion by young people about what they really want."

Newspaper photographer ‘Bubba’ Warner dies; succumbs to injuries

Bobby James “Bubba” Warner, chief photographer of The Ledger-Independent of Maysville, died Wednesday of complications from injuries sustained in an automobile crash in August. He was 49.

Warner had returned home last week after months of hospitalization and rehabilitation after the crash in Eau Claire, Wis. He was injured during a trip with his wife and son to Seattle, where a stepson serves in the Navy. The wreck left Warner paralyzed. Warner was taken to the hospital Monday, apparently suffering from a virus, and died at University Hospital in Cincinnati. For the Maysville Ledger-Independent article click here. For The Associated Press article, click here.

Thursday, Feb. 3, 2005

Senate wants tougher oversight of railroad crossings; deadly rural danger

Two U. S. senators, a Republican and a Democrat, joined forces yesterday to introduce legislation to toughen federal oversight of the rail industry following a number of deadly collisions at rail crossings, many of them in rural areas, reports The New York Times.

“The bill is one of several legislative efforts after a string of derailments and grade-crossing accidents in the last year...(prompting) public officials to question how well the federal government is regulating rail safety,” write Walt Bogdanich and James Dao.

The bipartisan Senate bill would require the Federal Railroad Administration to investigate each fatal crossing accident. Federal officials now fully investigate only a handful of the hundreds of fatal accidents each year. The bill also requires railroads to file accident reports quicker. It also increases the number of inspectors focusing specifically on grade crossings and hazardous materials, and raises fines for railroads that violate safety rules, write Bogdanich and Dao.

Railroad administration spokesman Steven W. Kulm told The Times, that in some cases, railroads wait up to a month before filing fatal accident reports. The current maximum fine per violation is $11,000.Under the new bill, railroads that knowingly violate grade crossing safety rules, resulting in a fatal accident, could be fined up to $20 million if "gross negligence" is involved.

One of the sponsors, Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York, told the newspaper, "There are lots of rules and regulations ...not enforced and when they are ...the penalties have the strength of a wet noodle." Schumer and co-sponsor, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, represent states where high-profile grade-crossing accidents occurred in the last year. A recent collision and resulting poisonous gas leak in South Carolina, occurred near a crossing where a train rammed a car, killing five.

Kentucky wants stronger law in war on meth; restrict key drug ingredients

Joining the growing number of states beefing up their legal weapons in the war on meth, Kentucky officials are filing legislation to restrict sales of cold and allergy medicines that can be used to make the illegal drug methanphetamine, reports The Courier-Journal.

“The bill seeks to strengthen a law used to prosecute meth manufacturers, create a law making it illegal to make meth in the presence of children, and hold meth makers liable for the cost of cleaning up labs,” writes Deborah Yetter. Lt. Gov. Steve Pence, also the Secretary of the Justice Cabinet, said, "This fits in with the governor's vision to ...address the growing drug problem in this state." Under the bill, customers buying such medicine as Sudafed would have to show a government photo ID, and sign a log.

Pharmacists and drug retailers would have to keep such drugs behind the counter and sales would be restricted to the equivalent of 300 30-milligram Sudafed pills. Those medicines contain pseudoephedrine, used for making meth, writes Yetter. Several self-avowed meth users attended the announcement in support of the administration's efforts but said meth is such an addictive drug -- and so cheap and easy to make -- it will be hard to eradicate, reports the C-J.

The bill could go before the Senate Judiciary Committee today said Committee chairman, Sen. Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, a sponsor of the measure. Kentucky Retail Federation official Jan Gould, told Yetter he thinks the bill's restrictions go too far restricting access to legitimate products.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Gross Lindsay, D-Henderson, told the newspaper he believes lawmakers are anxious to address the problem. "I think any legislation that will facilitate stopping the spread of meth has a good chance." The Kentucky bill is modeled on Oklahoma law detailed several weeks ago in your Rural Blog.

New tobacco buyout bucks for Kentucky farmers; ag funds to cover payments

Moving to assuage fears of Kentucky tobacco farmers who feel they could lose out, state legislators want to tap a special agricultural fund to assure them the $114 million that was to come from cigarette companies last December, reports the Lexington Herald-Leader.

“About 163,000 Kentucky tobacco farmers are eligible for the Phase 2 payments under a landmark 1997 lawsuit settlement that compensates states for smoking-related health costs,” writes Ryan Alessi. But, the companies refused to pay their last installment after Congress approved a $10 billion buyout program last fall. A North Carolina judge ruled in favor of the companies. A Kentucky law requires the state to pick up the tab anytime the payments fall below $114 million.

The House bill would take $16 million from the Agricultural Development Board and another $11 million after April 15, to fund those checks. The board helps farmers diversify their operations and gets its money from a different section of the 1997 settlement. The board doesn't have all $114 million on hand. The bill would require it to borrow $86.6 million through 20-year bonds.

The governor and many others oppose using the Agriculture Development Board money to cover the payments. Republican Floor Leader Dan Kelly of Springfield told Alessi, "There's a lot of concern about robbing the Ag Development funds." Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, said interest on the bonds the Agriculture Board would have to sell could drive the state's total cost of the payout above $200 million.

Iowa group seeks crackdown on gun shows; bill requires background checks

An Iowa group fighting gun violence is supporting a bill requiring criminal background checks at gun shows at the Iowa State Fairgrounds and all other state property, reports The Des Moines Register.

Two years ago, a bill ordering checks at all gun shows was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee but failed to get to the floor for a vote, writes Frank Santiago. John Johnson, director of Iowans for the Prevention of Gun Violence, told him, "For the life of me, I don't see how any lawmakers could be opposed to this unless they are for providing criminals easy access to guns."

Group spokeswoman Leah Woodward, told reporters she wasn't asked for identification when she bought a Russian-made semiautomatic assault rifle for $250 at a fairgrounds. Holding the disarmed rifle over her head, Woodward said, "All I had to do was to give him cash and he said he'd give me the gun."

Last year, the organization asked the State Fair board to voluntarily require the checks, but the board declined. The new bill makes it a felony for anyone to sell a gun at a show to someone legally barred from having a gun, such as a felon. The charge carries a five-year prison sentence and a fine up to $7,500.

Federal statistics show 90 percent of guns used in crimes were obtained from gun shows, estates, newspaper ads and friends. The group claims it was easy to buy a gun at any of the six annual gun shows at the fairgrounds without anyone knowing who was buying the gun, writes Santiago.

Virginia move to alter church property rules prompted by gay issues

A bill before the Virginia Senate on church property rights has alarmed the Episcopal Church and other mainline Protestant denominations deeply torn over the ordination of gay ministers and the blessing of same-sex marriages, reports The Washington Post.

“Several major church groups have urged lawmakers to reject the bill, because they feel the measure would give local congregations unprecedented powers to break away from their denominations and entangle state government in church law and politics,” write Rosaline S. Helderman and Alan Cooperman.

The bill would allow congregants to vote to leave their denominations and keep church buildings and land, unless a legally binding document specified otherwise. Many denominations have long had rules that prevent dissenting congregations from leaving the parent church and taking their land, buildings and other property with them, write Helderman and Cooperman. The U.S. Supreme Court and numerous other courts have upheld those rules in all but a few exceptions.

Relatively few of the Episcopal congregations in Virginia and other states that opposed consecration of a gay bishop in New Hampshire have left the Episcopal Church USA, reports The Post. Most of those have formed a network of disenchanted parishes and have tried to pressure the U.S. Episcopal hierarchy from the worldwide Anglican Communion. Opponents of the Virginia bill said it would be an illegal intrusion of the government into that dispute.

Sen. Martin E. Williams (R-Newport News), who said he plans to vote against the bill, told The Post, "It puts us in the middle of that argument, and I think it's very inappropriate that we be there." Sen. William C. Mims (R-Loudoun), the bills sponsor and a lawyer whose practice includes settling real estate matters for church groups, said his bill is designed to distance government from church disputes, otherwise courts are forced to look to church doctrine to resolve arguments over congregational property.

Virginia aims to clean up Chesapeake Bay tributaries; federal deadline 2010

Virginia officials have released a comprehensive plan for cleaning up the state’s rivers and streams that drain into the Chesapeake Bay that’s long on ambition but short on details, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The specifics on how the action will be taken -- river-by-river and stream-by-stream -- are still pending, writes Lawrence Latane III. Assistant Secretary of Virginia Natural Resources Russ Baxter told the newspaper, "That will be more of a detail of the business of government when we go out and work with the local governments and the local Soil and Water Conservation Districts."

Total cost of the cleanup is estimated at $9.9 billion. The plan comes just as lawmakers in the General Assembly have begun looking for ways to pay for the cleanup, writes Latane. Both parties introduced bills to raise $160 million a year through taxes on sewer connections and earmarked income from sales taxes.

Virginia committed four years ago to the cleanup as part of an agreement with Maryland and Pennsylvania to restore the polluted Chesapeake Bay. Nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients from sewage treatment plants and farmland are the top threat that foul the bay and cause harmful algae blooms. Next are sediments from storm drains and construction sites, fouling streams and smothering aquatic animals and plants.

A court agreement gives the state only until 2010 to remove the bay and its tributaries from a federal list of polluted waterways. The Environmental Protection Agency has threatened to take over statewide pollution control if the deadline is not met.

Rural education lobbyists charges task force has not revealed members

The U.S. Department of Education’s rural education task force has accomplished little, claims Alan Richard of Education Week. The group’s membership is also a mystery, he said.

The task force was announced in 2003 by then-Secretary of Education Rod Paige, Richard writes. Bob Mooneyham, executive director of the National Rural Education Association, alleged the task force has yet to reveal its members. Education Department Spokesperson Susan Aspey explained in an email the task force is an internal group and doesn’t provide a member roster, Richard writes.

Mary Kusler, a rural education lobbyist, said "We are disappointed that the department has not been more proactive in trying to reach out to rural America,” Richard writes.

FOI group spreading sunshine in growing darkness; rally set for March 13

A rally to increase public awareness about the right to access government information,
Sunshine Sunday and Sunshine Week, will start March 13, 2005. The rally will focus on stories built on public records to drive dialogue about why everyone needs open records laws, not just journalists.

Sunshine Sunday was started in 2002 in Florida, by the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. The society says after the three Sunshine Sundays, some 300 exemptions to open government laws were defeated in the legislature.

“This is not just an issue for the press. It’s an issue for the public,” said Andy Alexander, the chair of ASNE Freedom of Information. “An alarming amount of public information is being kept secret from citizens and the problem is increasing by the month. Not only do citizens have a right to know, they have a need to know.”

This year’s efforts are spearheaded by the American Society of Newspaper Editors with grants from the John.S and James L. Knight Foundation. The Radio Television News Directors Association also got a grant from Knight. For more information, contact your regional/state coordinator. You can also contact Debra Gersh Hernandez, or call her at (703) 807-2100, ext. 130.

Arizona governor to boost state tourism; highlighting ‘overlooked rural gems’

Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano hopes her upcoming tour of smaller rural attractions around her state will get more people to visit those places, reports The Arizona Republic.

Future itineraries are still being finalized but are expected to include stops at the likes of Goldfield Ghost Town and Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, writes John Stearns.

Gubernatorial spokesperson Pati Urias told Stearns, "The main focus is to get out and promote little spots that (the governor) wouldn't normally get to." Napolitano told the newspaper she wants to shed attention on "little nooks and crannies" that not everyone necessarily knows about but are "points of pride,” adding, “Everybody knows about the Grand Canyon.”

The "Arizona Treasures: Governor Janet Napolitano's 2005 Tour" is being coordinated with the Arizona Office of Tourism to boost the state's $30 billion annual tourism industry. The Tourism Office hopes the governor helps raise awareness of the locations and motivates Arizonans (and possible others) to explore.

Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2005

Program finalized for health-coverage conference; free registration required

National leaders in rural health care will explore ways that journalists can cover the problems of health care and health in Central Appalachia at a free conference in Hazard, Ky., on Friday, Feb. 25.

The conference will be held at the University of Kentucky Center for Rural Health, which is co-sponsoring the meeting with the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. The national health-care leaders will be joined by local health-care providers and others interested in improving the region's health.

For details of the conference, click here for the News and Events page of the IRJCI Web site.

While the conference is free, registration is required. To sign up, e-mail IRJCI Director Al Cross or one of his part-time assistants, Krista Kimmel. If you have questions, you can call 859-257-3744.

Northern Kentucky farmers receive settlement payments reassurances

Hundreds of northern Kentucky tobacco farmers, concerned about the economic impact of a court decision on their share of tobacco settlement money, rallied in Maysville Monday to hear from state officials about efforts to assure they’ll not lose out, reports The Ledger-Independent.

“More than 700 tobacco farmers and others involved in the local burley trade crowded into the Calvert Center at Maysville Community and Technical College discuss the latest ...(about) the federal tobacco buy-out and Phase 2 settlement money,” writes Justice Story of the Maysville newspaper.

Meeting moderator and Mason County Extension agent Bill Peterson said the gathering was to relay information to local farmers and agribusinesses about the buy-out money, writes Story. Rep. Mike Denham spoke about a bill he filed last month that seeks to use funds from the Master Tobacco Settlement to pay farmers 91 percent of what (the farmers) expected to get in the 2004 Phase 2 disbursement.

Denham said his bill would pay $114 million to Kentucky farmers using Phase 1 funds the state has received, with half of the money paid upon the bill's passage and the remainder to be paid later in the year. Kentucky invests 50 percent of its Phase 1 dollars in agricultural development, 25 percent in early childhood development and 25 percent in smoking cessation and other health related programs.

Reached in Frankfort yesterday, Denham told The Ledger-Independent the Agriculture and Small Business Committee, which he co-chairs, spent much of the day reviewing the bill, and it will be presented to the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee this morning.

Government wins mining ruling ; possible property rights precedent

An appeals court has overturned a ruling that would have forced the federal government to pay millions of dollars to a Kentucky company, which argued that a 1977 law illegally stripped it of the right to mine coal under the Daniel Boone National Forest, reports The Courier-Journal.

”If left unchallenged, …(the) decision by a federal court ...would establish a national precedent in property rights cases, safeguarding the government's ability to enforce environmental rules,” writes James Bruggers of the Lousvillle newspaper. For the Lexington Herald-Leader story, click here.

The decision, “…might bring to a close a 25-year legal battle involving Robert Gable, a former head of the Republican Party in Kentucky and a two-time candidate for governor," writes Bruggers. Gable is chief executive officer of the Stearns Co., which won a 2002 ruling of $5 million, plus 20 years of interest and attorney fees. Gable estimated the total owed him under the original ruling to be about $80 million, and said he's not sure he'll appeal. "Stearns is deeply disappointed with the … decision," said Gable's Frankfort attorney, Bruce Clark. "We are reviewing our options."

Justice Department lawyers could not be reached for comment. But officials at the National Forest are pleased, said forest geologist Corey Miller. He said the forest has not banned underground mining, but seeks to minimize damage to water and other natural resources, writes Bruggers. Two environmental lawyers involved in or watching the case, called the ruling a significant victory in the national battle overproperty rights, and were not surprised because it "upholds well-established legal tenets from earlier cases, and said it could have been devastating had the ruling gone the other way." he writes.

John D. Echeverria, who had filed a friend of the court brief in the case for the Kentucky Resources Council, an environmental group, told the Louisville newspaper if the lower-court ruling had been upheld, "the surface mining law would have been gutted, and rendered unenforceable." Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky group told Bruggers such a ruling would have "dramatically impacted the ability of state, local and federal governments to protect the public."

Hybrid corn, primo for ethanol, could boost economy for Iowa farmers

Northeast Iowa is experiencing a boom in the ethanol industry that could give farmers who raise a special hybrid corn crop a more powerful economic ride, reports the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.

“Raising corn that's highly fermentable and loaded with starch can be financially beneficial to farmers and ethanol plants,” writes Matthew Wilde. Hawkeye Renewables has opened a 45-million gallon ethanol plant and is building a larger facility. Pine Lake Corn Processors is expected to start producing 20 million gallons a year of the corn-based fuel additive in March. The three plants will consume about 54 million bushels of corn a year, about two-thirds of the total corn production of the three counties, where the plants are located, writes Wilde.

These buyers are expected to greatly increase competition and purchasing prices. Ethanol producers say farmers can benefit best by planting the right kind of corn."Plants may be willing to pay premiums for corn that maximizes ethanol production ...hybrids with a high starch content, the primary ingredient of ethanol ...highly fermentable ---is also a plus," he writes.

Producers don't yet know how much extra they may pay for ethanol-friendly corn compared to conventional varieties, but say that's what they're seeking. Bruce Rastetter, CEO of Hawkeye Renewables told Wilde, "Our goal to is reward people who provide value to the plant. We're encouraging farmers to plant those varieties."

Companies are using a machine supplied by Monsanto to analyze the ethanol output of different types of corn to confirm which hybrids are best for their facilities. Producers may start offering incentive-based corn delivery contracts next fall. To guide farmers, major seed companies like Monsanto and Pioneer have conducted research in the area and have compiled lists of the corn varieties most compatible for ethanol, which emphasizes gallons per bushel and high yields.

Reid, new Senate Democratic leader, protects his state's mining interests

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid "has become a master at balancing the interests of Nevada's exploding population, which is increasingly concerned about environmental degradation; of Nevada's mining and gaming companies; and of socially liberal Democratic colleagues in the Senate whose votes have been essential to his rise in the party leadership," The Washington Post reports. "His close alliance with two major home-state industries that carry political liabilities could have hobbled a less astute politician. The mining industry has repeatedly battled pro-Democratic environmental groups, and the gambling industry has been a lightning rod for criticism by church groups and advocates for the poor in the national culture wars."

Veteran political writer Tom Edsall began his story this way: "Last August, Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry pledged to boost funding for the national park system by $600 million a year by raising fees on mining companies. The National Mining Association immediately denounced the proposal, saying it would cost Nevada, a key battleground state, 44,000 jobs. But that was before . . . Reid went to work. Two months later, Kerry pledged to steer clear of any program that would threaten mining jobs: "Let me just say clearly to Nevada while I'm here: that [the NMA] is wrong. . . . As president I'm going to work with Harry Reid and with your miners to keep mining jobs, to keep people working."

Edsall notes that while Reid has defended the mining industry, he has been a loyal supporter of environmentalists on other issues -- "especially in opposing the use of Nevada's Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste disposal site." Reid lives in rural Searchlight, on US 95 near Nevada's southern tip.

Wind and sun to save the earth, say northeast Iowans living “off the grid”

Ten Northeast Iowa families who have harnessed the wind and sun to make power say they are reducing pollution and conserving energy, reports The Associated Press One resident, Steve McCargar, 57 told AP, "We want to live in harmony with nature." McCargar started building his energy self-sufficient home in 1983. Dennis Pottratz, proprietor of Go Solar! told the wire service McCargar lives in a rural area with Iowa's highest concentration of non-Amish homes not connected to the power grid. Pottratz’s firm sells and installs alternative energy equipment. He told AP "environmental awareness appears to be flourishing in the Upper Iowa River's scenic valley."

Another resident of the off-the-grid community, Perry-O Sliwa, 66, told the wire service, "Our goal is to live as sustainably as we can." The Sliwas designed their home to maximize passive solar input The house has well-insulated walls and windows which provide "75-degree comfort on sunny winter days --- even without a fire in the wood-burning stove," AP reports.

They built their home with recycled materials. Two windmills --- one for pumping water, the other for generating electricity --- tower over an array of solar panels in the yard. "I get a real sense of peace living in this house," said Perry-O Sliwa. "We do depend on others. We just don't depend on utility companies." Iowa has no statistics on people living off the grid. About 5 percent of the 400 members of the Iowa Renewable Energy Association live off the grid, but about half say they would like to, said Michelle Kenyon Brown, the group's membership coordinator.

New River Gorge housing proposed; environmental impact questions raised

An Atlanta company wants to build a 2,200-home development along a 10-mile stretch of scenic New River Gorge near Charleston, West Virginia, to the concern of National Park Service officials, reports the Charleston Gazette.

“Parts of the development could be visible from popular overlooks on the east side of the gorge, including Diamond Point and Babcock State Park,” writes Ken Ward. "More than 600 acres of the Land Resource Company's project would be within park boundaries, but on land that has not yet been purchased by the National Park Service. Already, though, officials from the park service are raising concerns about the project’s potential effects on the river and surrounding area. Park Superintendent Cal Hite told Ward, “The scenic value that we are charged to protect is going to be compromised.”

The Roaring River development would boast twice as many housing units as a nearby community. Only Oak Hill, with 3,300 occupied homes, would have more, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the newspaper reports. Land Resource is seeking a major change in zoning for 4,300 acres on the west side of the gorge. Members of the Fayette County Planning Commission will consider the proposal at a public meeting Feb. 22. A second hearing, before the Fayette County Commission, is set for Feb. 25.

Tennessee governor's State of the State addresses plans for war on meth

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen has detailed his $7 million plan to fight the illegal production of methamphetamine, a plan that includes more money to jail offenders and keeping pseudophedrine—a key ingredient in cold medicines and in meth—behind store shelves.

The plan would require $2.95 million in recurring costs, report Leon Alligood and Natalia Mielczarek of The Tennessean. Bredesen outlined his plan for spending those recurring costs in his State of the State address: $2.4 million to increase prison sentences for offenders; $500,000 for Child Advocacy Centers in problem areas; and $50,000 to promote substance-abuse awareness in schools.

Utah senator proposes changes to gay marriage ban, legislators reject

The Utah Senate rejected a bill that would have eased restrictions imposed by the state’s gay marriage ban, voters approved by 66 percent last November. Utah is heavily rural, Mormon and Republican.

The bill, proposed by Republican Sen. Greg Bell, would have allowed domestic-partner registry for unmarried couples, regardless of sexual orientation, to have property, health-care rights, and burial rights, reports The Associated Press. The ban, as written, could deny hospital visitation and survivor’s property rights to heterosexual families, such as children living with grandparents or siblings living together, says AP.

"It addresses the need of persons who may have some relationship, other than marriage, to delegate responsibilities to each other," said Bell.

This just in: North Carolina pig challenges authority; forecasts early spring!

Updating our Rural Blog story from last week about a Lexington, North Carolina 'porcine prognosticator' named "Lil Bit," pressed in to forecasting spring's advent by town promoters; the pig 'skewered' the accepted authority to the north...can spring be far behind?

"On a day that belongs most famously to a rodent up North, this southern barbecue town turned to (L'il Bit) for its weather forecast," reports William L. Homes of The Associated Press. Lil' Bit forecast an early spring for a crowd of about 500 pork-munching people who came to watch her debut as a seasonal seer," he writes. The city of Lexington used the pig and the occasion to promote its "famed barbecue" to national attention, going aganist convention with a pig predictor instead of a ground-hog guru.

The wire service reports, "Her (Lil Bit's) forecast was at odds with that of Pennsylvania's legendary groundhog Punxsutawney Phil, who forecast another six weeks of wintry weather."About 500 people crowded into 'Barbecue Alley' - an alleyway behind City Hall where local history says barbecue first was sold in tents before the town's signature business became more established - to see the pig's performance. (The question now is: Will those betting on the pig, bring home the bacon? Only spring will tell.)

Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2005

West Virginia Ethics bill's gag order illegal, law professor says

A “gag order” provision in an ethics bill recently passed by the West Virginia legislature and possibly aimed at an activist group, is unconstitutional and violates the right to free speech, says West Virginia University law Professor Bob Bastress.

“The bill would prevent people who file ethics complaints from telling anyone about them. If they did, they could face up to $5,000 in fines and have their complaint dismissed,” writes Eric Eyre of the Charleston Gazette.

Bastress, who teaches constitutional law, told Eyre, “It’s blatantly unconstitutional. You can’t have the person making the accusation being gagged, for heaven’s sake. They have First Amendment rights.”
The bill also would prohibit anyone else, including the news media, who has “knowledge that the [Ethics] Commission is undertaking an investigation” from revealing any facts about the investigation, writes Eyre. The bill does not spell out specific penalties for reporters, witnesses and others who did not file a complaint but who violate the gag order.

Wanda Carney, co-director of the watchdog group West Virginia Wants to Know, said legislators were targeting her organization after it filed ethics complaints against a former House Education Chairman and his wife. Carney told Eyre, “If this isn’t protecting the good old boys, I don’t know what is.”

House Judiciary Chairman Jon Amores defended the bill. He told Eyre the gag order protects the integrity of investigations. “Finding out whether the allegations are true or not is what’s most important. The fact [that an ethics complaint] is being trumpeted about doesn’t help the integrity of the process.”

$50 million annual proposed in 'a priority' fight to cleanup Chesapeake Bay

Republican leaders of the Virginia House of Delegates are proposing $50 million a year to help clean-up the troubled Chesapeake Bay.

Environmentalists were pleased, saying "the proposal would provide the first steady source of state money for the bay," reports Rex Springston of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, said at a Capitol news conference yesterday "House Republicans are making the Chesapeake Bay a priority." Jeff Corbin, deputy director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Virginia office told Springston, "Without a doubt, this is a huge step forward." Howell said the bay, “a provider of seafood and a playground for boaters, suffers from pollution that flows from sewage plants and runs off farms and yards." The money would be allocated each year for at least the next 10 years, Springston writes.

Howell said the General Assembly could not commit future legislatures, but could establish the bay as a funding priority. Gov. Mark R. Warner favors spending more than the $100 million that the proposal could provide in the current two-year budget. Gubernatorial spokeswoman Ellen Qualls told Springston, beyond ten years, "Warner does not want to commit to an amount because needs and revenues can change."

Georgia joins war on meth; legislators move to ban some cold medicines

Many over-the-counter cold medicines would be pulled from store shelves in Georgia and customers would have to show a photo ID and sign to buy them under legislation before the state House and Senate.

“The bills are among the latest efforts by lawmakers to thwart the makers of the illegal drug methamphetamine, a potent stimulant that abusers cook up in dangerous makeshift labs in kitchens, trailers and sheds,” writes Jill Young Miller of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Over-the-counter medicines such as Sudafed contain pseudoephedrine, used to manufacture methamphetamine. Many cold and allergy medications contain the key ingredient used to make the drug: the stimulant ephedrine, or a derivative drug called pseudoephedrine. Senate and House bills require stores to put cold and allergy medicines containing those ingredients behind the counter or in locked cases and keep logs of transactions for one year, writes Miller. Another, more restrictive bill, says only licensed pharmacists or pharmacy technicians could sell the medicines.

A sponsor of one of the senate measures, Bill Hamrick (R-Carrollton) told Miller, "I'm not saying it's a perfect solution,” But he hopes his bill will be "a stimulus for the Legislature to get to thinking about how to solve the problem." Georgia Food Industry Association President Kathy Kuzava, who represents grocery stores, said Hamrick's legislation and companion pieces are too far reaching, and would require stores to remove from shelves some medicines that aren't used in manufacturing meth.

31-cent cigarette-tax hike; 54 cents likely in future, says Kentucky legislator

Kentucky legislators, briefed yesterday, say Gov. Ernie Fletcher is expected to ask for a 31-cent hike in the state’s three-cent-per-pack cigarette tax, with a provision to raise it to more than 50 cents in the future, reports the Courier-Journal.

The cigarette tax increase is part of an extensive tax overhaul plan the governor is to unveil, reports Tom Loftus of the Louisville newspaper. Kentucky currently has the lowest cigarette tax in the nation after Virginia recently raised it’s tax by about 20 cents. For the Lexington Herald-Leader article click here.

Fletcher is scheduled to explain the details of his tax and budget plans tonight during his State of the Commonwealth address. His tax overhaul proposal last year was met with political rancor, legislative gridlock and a state budget stalemate that has yet to be fully resolved

“Fletcher (has) said he was considering raising the current to between 34 and 40 cents. Yesterday he told lawmakers he wants a 31-cent boost,” writes Loftus. Senate Democratic leader Ed Worley told the newspaper the tax rate could rise in the future. "It's a sophisticated formula tied to rates in neighboring states and other factors ...the rate could be as high as 54 cents a pack in a few years."

House Democratic whip Joe Barrows told Loftus the plan would keep the tax below the average of those in surrounding states. "It could be bumped up to the low 40s in the second year and as much as the low 50s in the third year." Kentucky Budget Director Brad Cowgill told lawmakers the new plan would retain a provision in last year's plan to impose a new excise tax on other tobacco products.

North Carolina quarantines cattle statewide after Buncombe rabies deaths

The deaths of two cows in Buncombe County, North Carolina, reportedly killed by rabies, has prompted a statewide quarantine, reports the Asheville Citizen Times.

“Peggy Felmet has seen plenty of diseases and other problems crop up with the animals. But she had never seen a cow with rabies — until last week. Two of the brood cows she cares for became sick and died, just a few days after showing symptoms. A state lab has confirmed the cows had rabies,” writes John Boyle.

While rabies is fairly common in the mountains, it’s unusual for it to appear in cattle, writes Boyle. State records since 1960 showed only two cases of rabies in cows in Buncombe County. In 2004, North Carolina recorded four cases of rabies in cattle.

Steve Duckett, a livestock specialist with the local office of the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service told Boyle, “It’s probably been 20 years or more since we’ve had a case in cattle.” Duckett also said most farmers don’t vaccinate cattle for rabies because it’s expensive and the disease is relative rare in cows.
Officials suspect the cattle most likely were bitten by a rabid wild animal.

Dr. Carl Williams, a public health veterinarian with the state's Occupational and Environment Epidemiology division, told the newspaper rabies in cattle is “actually not that uncommon,” mainly because the viral disease has become endemic in the state’s raccoon population. “You’re going to get spillover,” Williams said, adding that cattle producers are not required by law to vaccinate cows.

Man gets 3 months, fine for donkey dragging; story catches national attention

A 78-year-old Cabell County, W.Va. man has been sentenced to three months in jail and fined $1,000 after being found guilty of misdemeanor animal cruelty for “draggin” a donkey along a rural road, reports Bob Withers of The Herald-Dispatch.

Hurston Gue was sentenced Monday but will remain free on $50,000 bail until a Cabell County Circuit Court judge decides whether to hear a planned appeal of the case, which has drawn national attention, writes Withers. The Huntington newspaper reports, “A jenny -- female donkey -- belonging to Gue suffered massive injuries to her haunches … according to one witness, she was dragged more than four-tenths of a mile by a Honda four-wheeler.”

Cabell County Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Dale Adkins said in court he was dispatched to the area where Gue told him he had tethered a donkey behind his four-wheeler and the donkey had fallen. "He told me the animal wouldn’t or couldn’t get up, so he went a little piece around a curve to get the animal out of the roadway so it wouldn’t get hit. He told me he was leading the animal because it wouldn’t follow." The incident occured last summer. The donkey had to be euthanized.

Punxsutawney Phil, Groundhog Day icon, owes fame to a newspaper editor

Tomorrow is "Groundhog Day" and "Punxatawney Phil" will again forecast the remains of winter to national attention. But, the famed furry over-sized rodent might be hunkered down in anomymity and the mid-winter tradition might never have occured if it weren't for the civic mindedness of a small town newspaper editor, reports Newswise.

According to several web sources, divined by stalwart blogger Bill Griffin, "It all began on February 2, 1886, with a terse paragraph in The Punxsutawney Spirit (The Local Newspaper): 'Today is groundhog day and up to the time of going to press the beast has not seen its shadow," wrote city editor Clymer Freas. The legendary first trek to Gobbler's Knob was reportedly made the following year, and the rest is colorful history.

Freas recalled the Pennsylvania Dutch legend of the groundhog as a weather prophet and, "claimed for the Punxsutawney Groundhog all weather rights." The tradition also has roots (no pun intended) in Roman times and a purification rite on "Candelmas Day." In more modern times, the legend and ceremony became the focus of Hollywood with the now famous film "Groundhog Day," starring Bill Murray.

The legend has grown and "Phil" has garnered considerable competition, including Ohio's "Buckeye Chuck," New York's "Dunkirk Dave," Georgia's "General Beauregard Lee," Virginia's "Rebel Robert," Mississippi's "Dixie Dan," and Indiana's "Hilary the Hedgehog." Wintry Canada has its own national prognosticator "Wiarton Willy." Clymer Freas didn't know what he had started. Fame went everywhere, and we at The Rural Blog think Freas is due some credit.

Coal-mine deaths may give false impression of record lows last year

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration may have adjusted its records of coal-mine deaths from last year, after many newspapers reported the year’s deaths at a record low.

MSHA removed one death from its Dec. 30 list and added 3, reports a Lexington Herald-Leader editorial by Wes Addington, an attorney at the Mine Safety Project in Prestonsburg and an Equal Justice Works Fellow. Two of the deaths weren’t originally added because MSHA would not call them “mining-related.” They involved timber-clearing, Addington said, which in the past was considered mining-related.

MSHA’s accident investigation policy says the responsibility for charging mining deaths is that of the agency officials, who are not normally present at the site of the accident. There were officially 28 coal-mine deaths nationwide and six were in Kentucky. While neither is a record low, the timing gave such an appearance, Addington writes.

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The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues helps non-metropolitan media define the public agenda in their communities, through strong reporting and commentary on local issues and on broader issues that have local impact. Its initial focus area is Central Appalachia, but as an arm of the University of Kentucky it has a statewide mission, and it has national scope. Cooperating institutions include Appalachian State University, East Tennesee State University, Eastern Kentucky University, Marshall University, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and West Virginia University. To get notices of Rural Blog postings and other Institute news, click here.






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Last Updated: Feb. 28, 2005