Showing posts with label state budgets. Show all posts
Showing posts with label state budgets. Show all posts

Friday, June 13, 2014

Maine's rural nursing homes face an uncertain future

Maine, the state with the largest percentage of rural population, is also one of the country's neediest when it comes to funds for nursing homes. Of the state's 7,000 nursing-home residents, 56 percent have been diagnosed with dementia, and the state ranks fourth in the U.S. "in the number of nursing home residents who need help with tasks of daily living, such as bathing, grooming and eating," Jackie Farwell reports for the Bangor Daily News.

"Maine nursing homes also must meet some of the most stringent staffing ratios of any state, Farwell writes. "Despite the challenges, Maine’s facilities boast one of the lowest rates in the nation of deficiencies, such as mistreating patients or high infection rates, which is a reflection of nursing home quality. Without adequate funding, however, Maine seniors and their families will suffer, experts say."

MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, foots the bill for nearly 70 percent of the state's nursing home residents—above the national average of 63 percent, Farwell writes. "At some homes, particularly in poor rural areas, the program covers nearly every resident, stretching bottom lines even further." (Daily News graphic)

Medicare, which only pays a fraction of nursing home costs, has underfunded the state's nursing homes "for the last several years, reimbursing them based on their costs from 2005," Farwell reports. "The payment structure hasn’t changed since 2008, except for a 1.5 percent raise in 2012." A 52-bed nursing home in Calais closed two years, leaving 100 people without jobs, and two more nursing homes are on the brink of closure, according to independent Gov. Paul LePage.

Rick Erb, president and CEO of the Maine Health Care Association, said "The MaineCare funding crunch is affecting some families in ways they may not realize." As a result, Farwell writes, nursing homes underfunded by the state often shift the cost burden to patients with private insurance, which averages about $80 more per day than MaineCare.

Officials hope help is on the way. "The new legislation promises to give Maine nursing homes $4 million in additional state Medicaid funds in the fiscal year beginning July 1," Farwell notes. "Another $5 million is due to follow in the subsequent two years. The federal government would kick in its matching share to the tune of more than $24 million over the next three years." (Read more)

Friday, May 23, 2014

As budgets keep shrinking, some states are getting creative to increase parks' revenue and traffic

Memorial Day weekend will probably find many state parks busy, but plunging state budgets are forcing many states to get creative to attract tourists, Sandy Johnson reports for Stateline. "State general revenue for parks has plunged from a nationwide average of 59 percent of park funding in fiscal 1990 to 33 percent in fiscal 2012." (Stateline graphic)

That has led many parks to look for ways to make up the difference, often at the expense of visitors through new or increased prices and fees, such as non-refundable transaction fees on credit cards, Johnson reports. 

A model created by Michigan in 2010 has proven to not only be successful, but is saving visitors park fees while increasing the number of visitors, Johnson writes. When residents renew their vehicle registration, the state offers them an opportunity to pay an $11 fee for a passport, which allows them access to 102 state parks and 75 boat launches for the next year. The passport, which costs significantly lower than the regular season pass, has been popular, with 24.7 percent of people buying one in 2011 and 27.3 percent in 2012. The state needed only 17 percent of people to purchase a pass to break even.

Other states have followed suit, Johnson reports. Idaho replaced its $40 season pass with a $10 passport available with yearly license plate renewal. Last year 95,800 people bought the passport, compared to the 15,000 people who usually buy the pass at $40. The move has generated more than $1 million.

Kansas offers a pass with vehicle registration for $15,50, much less than the $25 if someone buys a pass at a park or a government office, Johnson writes. Washington sells a pass for $30, and lets participants make a donation to several causes, including state parks. "Texas added a line to its vehicle registration form asking people to donate $5 (or more) for upkeep of state parks; the state comptroller projects $1.6 million in revenue a year from the small donation," Stateline reports.

Friday, May 09, 2014

America's federal transportation money is inside a broken system that badly needs fixing

"America has a transportation funding problem. And if Congress doesn't fix it this summer, it could start doing some real damage," especially in rural areas, Lydia Depillis reports for The Washington Post. "Most big transportation projects -- bridge repairs, new highways, intercity rail -- are paid for with a stack of local, state, and federal funds. The problem for funding is that Americans are actually using less gas than they used to -- both because they aren't driving as much, and cars are getting more efficient. Meanwhile, Congress hasn't raised the gas tax from 18.4 cents per gallon since 1994, which is now far behind what it was then when you take inflation into account."

Instead of raising the tax, or finding some other funding mechanism, Congress has "simply plugged the hole with multi-billion-dollar transfers from the general fund," financed by other taxes, Depillis writes. "The last authorization, a $19.5 billion chunk granted in 2012, expires at the end of this September -- at which point, unless Congress acts, the federal contribution for hundreds of state projects will drop to zero."

"According to calculations by the advocacy group Transportation for America, it could amount to a loss of $46.8 billion compared to current funding levels," which would lead many states to put the brakes on planned projects, Depillis writes.

The White House recently "sent Congress a $302 billion, four-year plan that shifts more money into transit over highways, and relies on corporate tax reform to create new revenue streams," Depillis writes. "But the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has announced its intention to craft a bill that essentially maintains current funding levels."

States are already experimenting with a few new ideas, including a vehicle-miles-traveled tax, which "would assess fees for the distance you drive rather than the amount of fuel you use (which is a way to make sure electric and hybrid car drivers pay their share for road wear and tear)," Depillis writes. "It's also possible to tweak the gas tax in a way that it responds to increases in transportation costs. Others think it would make more sense to devolve transportation funding to the states entirely, which would free them of the sclerotic congressional process and allow metropolitan areas to be more agile and creative with their transit projects." (Read more)

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Rural Idahoans lack access to mental health care; expanding Medicaid would have helped

Like many mostly rural states, Idaho suffers from a shortage of doctors. But Idaho's rural residents have limited, or in many cases, no access to mental health professionals, Daniel Walters reports for Boise Weekly. About 33 percent of Idaho residents live in the country, and 25 percent of the state's residents lack access to a psychologist or psychiatrist, meaning residents are forced to hit the road, sometimes driving five hours from home, to get treatment. Others receive treatment from doctors in Boise through telepsychiatry services. (Weekly photo: Dr. William Terry, left, and Dr. William Hazle meet with rural patients via a computer)

Idaho ranks last in the number of psychiatrists per person, according to 2012 Kaiser Family Foundation data, and is also last in mental health funding, Walters writes. "The state is rural and underfunded with a high incidence of mental illness. Despite its sky-high suicide rates, it was the last state in the nation to get a suicide hot line."

Of the 1.5 million Idaho residents, 72,000 suffer from mental illness, including 18,000 children, according to a 2010 report from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. In 2006 the state spent just $46 per capita on mental health agency services, which amounted to only 1.3 percent of state spending that year.

In 2006 the state allotted 59 percent of state mental health spending to community mental health services, well below the national average of 70 percent. The state also spent 33 percent on state hospital care, higher than the national average of 28 percent. The state's public mental health system only provided care to 16 percent of adults who suffer from serious mental illness. (Read more)

Financial problems stem from the recession and from the Republican-led state's decision not to expand Medicaid under federal health reform, Walters writes. From 2008 to 2012 the impact of the recession led state mental health care funding to decrease by more than 28 percent, while federal funding dropped by nearly 50 percent. Meanwhile, if Idaho has expanded Medicaid, the state would have saved more than $400 million across 10 years, according to a report from the Idaho Workgroup.

"Idaho's Health and Welfare department is intended to fill a gap, providing mental health care for those without access to insurance or Medicaid," Walters writes. "To balance the budget, Idaho eliminated redundancy. In the summer of 2010, 451 mentally ill Idahoans were kicked off state coverage and onto Medicaid or private insurance." (Read more)

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Cuts in cops, rise in crime lead communities in rural southern Oregon to form citizen patrols

Budget cuts and the end of a federal timber-payments program have depleted law enforcement in some rural southern Oregon towns. In response, citizens in towns in Josephine County are taking matters into their own hands, using citizen patrols to keep their towns safe, Liam Moriarty reports for NPR. "In rural southern Oregon, high unemployment, the growing use of meth and other drugs and the sudden lack of law enforcement has fueled an explosion of burglaries, vehicle thefts and other property crimes."

Josephine County (Wikipedia map), population 82,000, had an unemployment rate of 10.8 percent in August 2013, Moriarty notes. "For decades, revenue from timber sales on the federal land that makes up 70 percent of Josephine County kept property taxes low and county government functioning. As logging dramatically declined, those payments dried up. After two failed property tax levies, the sheriff's department's budget was cut by more than half. Two-thirds of the staff was laid off. A single deputy was left to patrol the entire county."

That led to the formation of at least four citizen-based safety groups in the county, including Citizens Against Crime in O'Brien, pop. 546, and the North Valley Community Watch Responder Team in Merlin, pop. 2,100, Moriarty writes. The groups do anything from patrolling the area looking for suspicious activity to training exercises, such as one to teach how to search a building where an intruder could be hiding.

Alan Cress, who volunteers in Citizens Against Crime, told Moriarty, "We're not trying to take the place of law enforcement. In fact, we have a great deal of respect for what law enforcement does. We recognize the limited resources they have, and we're just trying to keep a presence out there." (Read more)

Thursday, April 10, 2014

States look to unload local roads in rural areas; localities want states to keep sending road money

A battle over responsibilty for roads is brewing in some states, especially West Virginia, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, where states own a large percentage of roads, some of which they want to transfer to local communities because they are getting too expensive to maintain, Daniel Vock reports for Stateline. Nationally, state governments own about 19 percent of roads, but the number is 89 percent in West Virginia, 84 percent in Delaware, 78 percent in Virginia, 75 percent in North Carolina and 63 percent in South Carolina.

"Each state amassed its huge network in a different way. But generally, state officials took over county roads and other farm-to-market routes because localities did not build enough of them or failed to maintain them adequately," Vock reports. "Decades later, states that gobbled up local roads no longer have the appetite to keep them. In growing areas, highways that once linked distant towns are now major local arteries."

"States increasingly see their shorter, less-traveled roads as a drain on resources at a time when resources are increasingly scarce. Inflation and fuel efficiency are sapping revenues from state and federal gas taxes," Vock writes. "The federal government, which provides a third of the money that states spend on transportation, expects to run short of road money as early as July. This year’s brutal winter, which added expenses for snow plowing and pothole repair, further strained state transportation budgets."

Some local communities are more than willing to take over the roads, and want the freedom to control their fate, as long as they keep receiving assistance, Vock writes. Beaufort, S.C., city manager told Vock, "Our council feels there should be some quid pro quo. If we take the roads, we should be able to do what we want with them in a reasonable and responsible manner. Secondly, we should have funds that come with it.”

Leslie Wollack of the National League of Cities told Vock that designating federal money for maintenance is another concern. Federal laws channel more transportation money through states, which then decide how much to turn over to their cities. “That creates a very large problem for the local governments, because they’re not getting the money,” she said. “They may not have chosen to build these roads in the first place, yet they are suddenly being given the responsibility to spend a lot of money.” (Read more)

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Oregon budget cuts depleting rural police forces, leaving some counties without 24-hour services

A drop in timber sales in Oregon has resulted in federal and state budget cuts and left some rural towns without enough police officers to provide 24-hour services. As a result, 911 calls are going unanswered, and some residents are turning to the local fire department when an emergency arises.

"Many of Oregon’s rural counties have long depended on timber sales to support funding for public safety services," with 33 of 36 counties receiving timber payments, reports Oregon Public Broadcasting. With timber sales down, some police units have been depleted, and residents are left helpless in an emergency. Michael McArthur, executive director of the Association of Oregon Counties, told OPB, "If you call 911 in rural Oregon it may be quite a while before someone comes, if they come at all. We have inadequate public safety in a number of regions of the state.” (Read more)

Southern Oregon has been hit especially hard. Josephine County (Wikipedia map) last year voted against raising taxes to pay for sheriff's patrols, leaving most of the calls to be answered by state troopers, reports The Associated Press. "The sheriff's office has slashed its staff as the federal government cut timber subsidies and voters rejected higher taxes. After the cuts, investigations handled by troopers went from 5 to 10 cases a month to 50 to 85 cases," with state police investigating nearly 800 cases in the county, with 86 percent of them referred by the sheriff's office. (Read more)

When they don't get a response from police, callers are turning to the fire department. In Cave Junction, also in Josephine County, Illinois Valley Fire District Chief Dennis Hoke responded to a call last week for medical aid. "What he and his medics found when they arrived at the house was a man who'd been attacking a caregiver," AP writes. "The man was wearing pajama bottoms and throwing rocks through windows. The female caregiver was barricaded in the house."  Hoke said, "I had to get my concealed weapon out and contemplate, `What am I going to do?' We should never be put in that position. I didn't know if he had a gun. If we had known an assault was in progress, we never would have responded without backup." (Read more)

Les Zaitz, senior investigative reporter for The Oregonian in Portland, wonders how the safe the state's rural residents feel. "In rural parts of Oregon's Willamette Valley, one county sheriff had to drop around-the-clock coverage. In the rural south, another sheriff sends his patrol deputy home at 4 p.m., hoping other agencies handle any emergencies. And in the rural east, a sheriff laments the long time it takes for police to get to an emergency."

"Prompted by headlines about budget cuts, The Oregonian is taking an in-depth look at this issue," Zaitz writes. "I'm traveling the state to find out what is truly at stake on the coast, in the mountains and out on the desert. I'm pouring over statistics and budgets. I'm asking experts how to best evaluate a police agency, whether it's a city police department or a sheriff's office. I'd like to hear from you on this issue." (Read more)

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Rural schools in Iowa form lobbying group

Concerned that state lawmakers aren't supporting rural schools as much as urban ones, rural school leaders in Iowa have formed a new group to give them a stronger voice in the statehouse, Jill Kasparie reports for KCRG News in Cedar Rapids. The Rural School Advocates of Iowa are "pushing for legislative support that strengthens rural education."

Springville School Board President Lee Ann Grimley told Kasparie, "Our purpose is to speak up for children in rural school districts, to make sure they get a fair, quality and equal education." Springville Community Schools Supt. Brian Ney said, "I'm hoping we can get a true understanding of legislators that just because we are small doesn't mean we are an inferior school—not at all. We want enough money to fund the school is what we want to do." One of the group's main concerns is transportation costs because buses have to travel longer distances than urban schools to pick-up and drop-off students. Other concerns are operational sharing costs and flexibility in funds districts operate, Kasparie reporyts. (Read more)

Funds are often determined by enrollment size, and leftover funds from one account sometimes can't be used in another account, Audrey Ingram reports for the Daily Times Herald in Carroll. Those concerns led representatives from more than 40 districts with school enrollments under 1,250 to meet earlier this month to establish the group. Coon Rapids-Bayard Schools Board President Joel Davis said, "By the end of 2014, 24 fewer school districts will exist in rural Iowa than were present in 2008. In that same time span, the percentage of students in poverty has increased from 33 to 42, but the funding to address the needs of those at-risk students has declined by 5 percent in rural schools."

Davis said the group "would take a 'tuning fork' approach—one tine will focus on helping local school boards network and build personal relationships with their legislative representatives, while the other tine funnels membership dues into hiring a professional lobbyist to reinforce the local message," Ingram writes. (Read more)

Friday, January 24, 2014

Ky. to spend $100 million to expand broadband; Minn. state senator calls for expansion there

Kentucky lawmakers this week introduced a $100 million plan to expand high-speed Internet access in the state, stating that the early emphasis will be on rural Eastern Kentucky, John Cheves reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Also this week, state Sen. Matt Schmitt (D-Minn.) wrote an opinion piece in the Kenyon Leader in the southeastern part of the state, calling for his state to stop talking about expanding broadband and get the job done.

Gov. Steve Beshear
The plan in Kentucky, introduced by Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, and Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, "will rely on $60 million from state bonds and $40 million from federal and privately raised funds, including a portion of $10 million that Congress approved last week for rural broadband Internet expansion through the federal Appalachian Regional Commission," Cheves writes. Only 62 percent of Kentucky homes, mostly in urban areas, had access to broadband in 2012, compared to 73 percent of all U.S. homes, according to the University of Kentucky Center for Business and Economic Research.

"The first phase of broadband expansion under Beshear's plan could take as long as three years to lay nearly 3,000 miles of fiber infrastructure above and below ground, including about 600 miles in Eastern Kentucky," Cheves writes. (Read more)

Sen. Matt Schmitt
Scmitt calls broadband the "great transformative technology of the 21st Century," but says that the state has been slow in adopting it universally. He writes: "Over the past decade Minnesota has named three separate governor’s task forces on the subject. We’ve identified policy recommendations and set statewide speed goals. Our local providers and cooperatives have invested in new technology and infrastructure to meet rising demand for faster service and new applications. Yet, in many parts of the state this hasn’t been enough."

"Despite the best efforts of our local providers and cooperatives, poor broadband connectivity remains a real problem in many parts of the state; for too many of our communities and rural areas, scarce resources and limited private return-on-investment, as well as outdated and unclear state laws, serve as barriers to improved broadband connectivity; and folks are ready to do something about it," Schmitt writes. He calls on the 2014 legislative session to find a way to expand high-speed Internet, writing "many states have stepped up to meet this challenge; Minnesota should, too." (Read more)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

EPA's proposed cuts would put pressure on states

According to the Environmental Protection Agency's draft strategic plan, EPA plans conduct fewer inspections and initiate fewer cases against industrial polluters in the next five years, Neela Banerjee reports for the Los Angeles Times. These cuts in federal funding would put significant financial pressure on the states, Bernadette M. Rappold of the McGuireWoods law and lobbying firm writes on Mondaq.

EPA proposes to decrease annual federal inspections and evaluations from 20,000—what it was in 2012—to 14,000 between 2014 and 2018. It has also figures to start 2,320 civil judicial and administrative enforcement cases against violators as opposed to 3,000 in 2012 and conclude 2,000 civil and administrative enforcement cases, down from 3,000 in 2012, Laura Sesana reports for The Washington Times.

EPA's decision was part of a new emphasis on the biggest polluters to clean the country's air and water most effectively, Sesana writes. EPA spokesperson Alisha Johnson said, "From our work on the biggest enforcement cases, such as the BP Deepwater Horizon spill, to aggressively pursuing smaller cases that can reduce harmful health impacts and have the greatest environmental benefit, our enforcement work will continue to save lives and protect our environment."

Because of these federal cuts, states will have to shoulder much more financial responsibility, Rappold writes: "While the agency appears to be counting on state, local and tribal governments to pick up the slack, it may be impossible for them to do so, given the lingering effects of the Great Recession on state and local budgets. As a result, various groups are calling on the agency to find money from elsewhere to cushion the blow." Even though the plan is still a draft, it may cause uncertainty among some companies because weak federal enforcement may cause "an uneven approach to environmental enforcement," Rappold writes.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

New road plan in N.C. might be bad for rural areas

North Carolina's new Strategic Transportation Initiative will restructure funding for capital projects starting after July 1, 2015, and rural areas may have more difficulty getting funding for projects, Paige Rentz writes for McClatchy News Service.

"The program signed into law in June creates three project tiers: those with statewide impact funded solely on data and those with regional and division impact, which are both prioritized based 70 percent on data and 30 percent on local input," Rentz reports.

The data will come down to congestion, state Board of Transportation Member Ed Grannis said. "It's really hard for me to see how those folks are going to benefit and get projects in this," he said. "Places like Bladenboro and Whiteville—I think they're going to have a very difficult time competing."

Frances Bisby, coordinator for the Fayettville Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, said there are still ways for rural areas to get funding. She suggests that "savings in travel time, freight traffic and connection to transportation terminals are key in prioritizing projects," Rentz writes.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

States and schools still battle over consolidation

The number of independent school districts in the U.S. shrank nearly 90 percent between 1942 and 2012—from 108,579 school districts to 12,880. But almost all the decrease occurred in the first 30 years of that period; in the last 40, there have been many fewer consolidations despite continued state incentives for districts that merge and penalties for those that don't. Maggie Clark reports for Stateline, "For states, consolidating school districts can mean fewer buildings to maintain and lower administrative costs. For communities, consolidation can mean long bus rides for students, losing budgetary control and even a loss of community history." (Heritage Foundation map; for an interactive map of school districts by state, click here)
Two weeks ago, voters in the Seneca Falls school district near the Finger Lakes in upstate New York rejected a move to consolidate with neighboring Waterloo, Clark notes. "New York offers consolidating school districts a 40 percent increase in their state aid, freezing the amount based on their aid for the 2006-2007 school year, plus money for new buildings. Had Seneca Falls and Waterloo merged, they would have seen an additional $43 million in state aid over the next 14 years." Kent Gardner, chief economist at the Center For Governmental Research in Rochester, told Clark, “The actual savings from these plans is usually just a fraction of the property-tax bill, so it’s difficult to vote for doing a radical and risky thing for something that often amounts to $20 or $30 in savings."

"Kansas guarantees that consolidating districts will get the full amount of both individual districts’ state aid for five years after a merger," Clark writes. "Consolidation in rural districts in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains region meant long bus rides and moving middle and high school students onto the same campuses." And Maine, with the highest rural population percentage in the country, has been pushed the hardest to consolidate. In 2007, then Gov. John Baldacci signed legislation ordering Maine’s 290 school districts to consolidate into just 80 districts or face penalties. From 2007-2012, the state lost 58 districts. (Read more)

The Rural School and Community Trust advocates for rural schools. Its website is here.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Per-student funding of schools has dropped in many states since the Great Recession

About 33 percent of U.S. schools began the 2013-14 school year with less state funding than last year, and "states’ new budgets are providing less per-pupil funding for kindergarten through 12th grade than they did six years ago — often far less," Michael Leachman and Chris Mai report for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "The reduced levels reflect not only the lingering effects of the 2007-09 recession but also continued austerity in many states."

The center did a study of budget documents that found "At least 34 states are providing less funding per student for the 2013-14 school year than they did before the recession hit. Thirteen of these states have cut per-student funding by more than 10 percent. At least 15 states are providing less funding per student to local school districts in the new school year than they provided a year ago. This is despite the fact that most states are experiencing modest increases in tax revenues. Where funding has increased, it has generally not increased enough to make up for cuts in past years. For example, New Mexico is increasing school funding by $72 per pupil this year. But that is too small to offset the state’s $946 per-pupil cut over the previous five years." About 44 percent of education funding comes from state funds, the center reports.

"Cuts at the state level mean that local school districts have to either scale back the educational services they provide, raise more local tax revenue to cover the gap, or both," the report states. "Given the still-weak state of many of the nation’s real estate markets, many school districts struggle to raise more money from the property tax without raising rates. Federal employment data show that school districts began reducing the overall number of teachers and other employees in July 2008, when the first round of budget cuts began taking effect. As of August 2013, local school districts had cut a total of 324,000 jobs since 2008." (Read more)

Friday, August 09, 2013

Report: Merging small school districts could save billions; rural lobby disputes that

Bigger is better when it comes to school districts, says a report by the Center for American Progress, which says consolidating districts with fewer than 1,000 students could lead to huge savings. "Many states have large percentages of small, non-remote districts that may represent hundreds of millions of dollars in lost potential capacity," Ulrich Boser writes for the center. Those districts "might represent as much as $1 billion in lost annual capacity, by which we mean money that may not have had to be spent if the district was larger." Their research found the optimal district size was 2,000 to 4,000 students. (Associated Press photo by Scott Eisen)

Ten states with 3,625 small school districts account for more than $650 million in lost potential cost, or about 68 percent of the total, Boser writes. New Jersey tops the list with an estimated loss of $105 million. New York has a loss of $99.5 million, followed by Illinois at $90.9 million, Texas at $82.7 million, California at $64.4 million, Vermont at $54.2 million, Oklahoma at $48.1 million, Missouri at $44.8 million, Montana at nearly $37.5 million and Wisconsin at just over $37 million. (Read more) To read the full report click here.

The Rural School and Community Trust argues that research "shows that state policies that broadly push mergers of schools and districts will not save money and will likely lower the quality of education — especially for the poor."

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Budget cuts close 77 small-town Calif. courthouses; cases are sent to cities and videostreamed

Small-town courthouses are disappearing in California, forcing police, lawyers, defendants, plaintiffs, and anyone else involved in a case to shell out cash to travel to courts in nearby cities. State budget cuts are closing 77 courthouses, and many courts have already reduced hours at public service counters, Emily Green reports for NPR. (Photo by KFSN, Fresno: Seven courthouses in the Fresno area closed last week)

The small Northern California town of Coalinga once had a full-time judge and held jury hearings in town, but the judge was replaced by visiting judges, then eventually that stopped. "Now, in the wood-paneled courtroom, a large flat-screen television hangs where the podium used to be," Green reports. The television is used for video streaming for traffic court. Most cases are held an hour away in Fresno, and last year travel expenses cost the Coalinga Police Department around $25,000.

Gary Hoff, presiding judge of Fresno County Superior Court, told Green, "We knew that closing the courts would deny people in outlying jurisdictions the availability of going to a local courthouse to take care of their business. I know others have disagreed with our choice, but financially we could not do anything else but close those courts. We have to live within our budget." (Read more)

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

With no vet school and lots of animals, Arkansas looks for a way to fund veterinary training

Like many states, Arkansas and its most rural areas are in need of veterinarians. But no state university offers a veterinary program, forcing aspiring vets to leave the state to obtain their degree. Through grants, 12 veterinary students each year can earn in-state tuition at Louisiana State University, the University of Missouri, Tuskegee University and Oklahoma State University. "But a premature depletion of the program’s funds has left the state unable to support the veterinary grants," Julie Scheidegger reports for DVM360, a news source for veterinary medical information. (Photo by DVM360)

"In 2008, the state Legislature moved $20 million from the program’s reserves to offset lottery revenue shortcomings, exhausting the fund much earlier than expected," Scheidegger reports. Shane Broadway, interim director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, told Scheidegger, “Instead of running out in 2017, it runs out now." In 2011 and 2013, higher education officials requested lawmakers to act to help the program, but they were not unsuccessful, Scheidegger reports.

Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe wants the Legislature to move $1.1 million from the "rainy day fund" to the program. Approval, which is expected, "would guarantee one year of financial assistance for the dozen students set to begin programs this fall," Scheidegger reports. But it is only one-time money, meaning students attending LSU in 2013-14 for about $21,500 will be responsible for about $48,350 the following year, if the program is not continued. (Read more)

Friday, July 05, 2013

State parks suffer from budget cuts; situation worsens as facilities deteriorate

Budget cuts across the country are having a big impact on the nation's 7,975 state parks. In 1990, general tax dollars covered, on average, about 60 percent of a state park’s budget, but by 2011, the number had dropped to 34 percent, Brad Cooper reports for the Kansas City Star. The cutbacks are hampering basic repairs and maintenance. (Star photo by Keith Myers: Clinton State Park in Lawrence, Kan.)

State parks are facing mushrooming backlogs of repairs, ranging from $1 billion in California to $750 million in Illinois to $400 million in Missouri, Cooper reports. Without proper funding, the condition of state parks has suffered. The American Society of Civil Engineers this year gave the U.S. a C-minus for the condition of its park infrastructure, saying "states and local governments can’t keep up with recreational needs because of shrinking budgets."

The group says the amount of money states need just isn't available, with federal data showing states are asking for $18.5 billion for outdoor recreational facilities, Cooper writes. As a result, states are trying to make up the money by increasing fees. Illinois, which has a park-repair backlog of $750 million, has raised license-plate renewals by $2. Kansas, which has a backlog of $26 million and a state park budget of $10.6 million for this fiscal year, is offering discounts on annual state-park passes when drivers register their cars.

"South Carolina lists $155 million in deferred park maintenance," Cooper writes. "Texas estimates its backlog at somewhere between $400 million and $700 million, needing roughly $64 million every two-year budget cycle to maintain its system of more than 90 parks. This year, the state received $11 million from the Texas Legislature for capital improvements. New York officials last year identified more than $1 billion in needed park work, including some sites where conditions were so bad that areas had to be roped off to protect the public. In some cases, amenities were closed off completely to ensure safety." (Read more)
Read more here:

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Wisconsin program gives first responders hazard information from farms; continued funding in doubt

Wisconsin farmers have teamed up with researchers and firefighters to create an online pilot program that maps farm hazards, a move that will provide first responders immediate information of any stored chemicals and other hazards at the scene, reports M.L. Johnson for The Associated Press. Maps will also show where to disconnect power, and provide areas for potential sources of water.

Firefighters look at a tablet with a digital map
showing hazards on a farm near Pittsvile, Wis.

National Farm Medicine Center photo
Pittsville Fire Chief Jerry Minor told Johnson, "We don't have a lot of incidents on farms. But when we do, they pose a real high threat to rescue personnel because of unfamiliarity with farms and all the hazards that are present."

Although similar programs exist in states such as Illinois, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, the project's future is up in the air, after President Obama's proposed budget eliminated money for the National Farm Medicine Center, which runs the program for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. (Read more)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Education researcher says Obama's proposed budget doesn't do enough for rural schools

President Obama's proposed 2014 budget isn't distributed equally between rural and urban schools, and features several programs that favor urban schools but could be bad for rural schools, Caitlin Howley, an education researcher and technical assistant in West Virginia, writes for the Daily Yonder.

"Serving areas more sparsely populated, with smaller tax bases, and often poorer than urban or suburban districts, rural districts must conduct all the work of educating their students, implementing new initiatives and complying with state and federal policies that other districts must, but with fewer resources," Howley writes. "Rural district budgets are often further constrained by the high cost of transporting students across long distances. Stressed budgets in turn affect the number of staff that districts can hire and the number of higher-level courses they can offer."

The budget includes several programs that are designed to help rural areas, but instead do little to address the concerns of rural schools, such as post-secondary programs, when some rural students might not be going to college, or required programs that reward money based on number of students, which could hurt a rural school that has to hire a teacher for one class with a small amount of students, while receiving little money for the program, Howley writes. "With limited resources and overworked staff, it’s practically a miracle that rural schools and districts accomplish what they do." (Read more)

Monday, December 17, 2012

Western fires stretch state, federal budgets; they're both an effect and a cause of climate change

"Wildfires have scorched almost 9.2 million acres of U.S. land this year, the third largest one-year burn in the country’s recorded history. They’ve claimed lives, destroyed homes, killed animals and ravaged their habitats, spewing toxins that settle in water and on land. The fires have pushed government resources to their limits, and in some cases beyond them," Jim Malewitz of Stateline reports. Officials in the hot, arid West are trying to figure out how to fight these increasingly devastating fires with less and less dollars. (Getty Images photo: Homes destroyed by forest fire in Colorado Springs)

The federal government has spent $1.45 billion fighting fires in the West this year, outpacing the $950 million budget for the work. Most of the money is spent on fire suppression, leaving little for fire prevention efforts, Malewitz writes. As many as 82 million acres of the 193 million acres managed by the U.S. Forest Service need to be treated to lower fire risk. That can cost as much as $2,000 an acre. States are far outspending their firefighting budgets, prompting Western governors to ask the federal government for help. They want the "Flame Fund," set up in 2009 to make sure the USFS had enough money to fight fires without reducing prevention funds.

Researchers expect Western forest fires to become worse as the climate continues to get warmer and drier. A University of California study found that hotter temperatures will likely cause more forest fires in most of North America over the next 30 years. "What's more, wildfires, at least in some part, are contributing to climate change," Malewitz writes. Wildfires release as much as 1.3 percent of the greenhouse gas emitted from burning fossil fuels, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Those emissions are expected to increase by 80 percent over the next 40 years. "But more worrisome are the carbon-storing forests, grasslands and shrub lands that are being burned away," Malewitz writes. (Read more)