Tax Plan not Common Sense for Nebraska

On Friday, Governor Dave Heineman delivered the details of his proposed tax plan at a press conference in Lincoln. At the Center for Rural Affairs, we believe that Nebraska should be cautious about dramatic shifts in tax policy. We are concerned that this proposal will hinder the state’s ability to invest in building a better future for all Nebraskans.

Our review of the proposed tax plan leads us to one conclusion. This is a tax shift, not a tax cut. Middle-income Nebraskans and family farmers and ranchers had better watch their wallets. They bear a greater burden of state sales taxes, and this plan would increase that burden.

Moreover, this proposal would raise taxes on hospitals, education, small businesses, and crucial community institutions. This is not progress; we can do better than this. Shifting the state’s tax burden to middle-income families, students, and seniors while under-investing in our schools, hospitals and small businesses as well as our public safety and health is not the common-sense approach that Nebraskans want and need.

With the Nebraska economy returning to solid footing, it is time to make investments that strengthen the future of our state. It is also time to renew our commitment to tax policies that preserve the high quality of living that Nebraskans work so hard to achieve. Read more about Tax Plan not Common Sense for Nebraska

  • Small Towns
Weekly column

Conservation Gets Kicked to the Curb

On January 1, Congress passed the fiscal cliff legislation that included a nine-month extension of the farm bill that slashes investment in the future of family farms, ranches and small town America.

However, the fiscal cliff farm bill extension failed to fix a mistake included in spending legislation back in the beginning of October that prevented USDA from conducting a 2013 farmer and rancher sign-up for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).

The CSP rewards farmers, ranchers and foresters for existing conservation on working lands as well as for the adoption of additional conservation measures that provide environmental benefits on and beyond the farm or ranch. CSP provides incentives for practices that preserve clean water, promote better soil management, improve habitat and energy efficiency, and provide other natural resource benefits.

Unfortunately, since the farm bill extension included in the fiscal cliff bill failed to address the funding problem, the 2013 CSP sign-up must await action later this year, meaning thousands of farmers and ranchers across the country who were considering applying for CSP got kicked to the curb.

While the Center for Rural Affairs works with Congress to fix their mistake with the program, we encourage producers to contact our Helpline - call 402.687.2100 and ask for the Farm Bill Helpline - to find out whether they have been impacted by the failure to fix this problem and fund other conservation programs in the fiscal cliff farm bill extension and join us in advocating for the program. Read more about Conservation Gets Kicked to the Curb

  • Farm PolicyFarm Bill
Weekly column

Small Farm Energy Primer

The Center's groundbreaking work in practical on-farm research began in 1976 with the Small Farm Energy Project. The goal: "Energy self-sufficient farms as the future of agriculture."

This 3-year research and demonstration effort involved 24 Nebraska farm families. The project showed how small commercial farmers could reduce purchased energy inputs and improve net farm income by using alternative energy technologies. Read more about Small Farm Energy Primer

The Health Care Tales of Two Businesses

In November, I had an opportunity to travel to Montana. There, former intern Matt Gunther and I embarked on a “storytelling road trip.” We traveled the requisite long distances in this majority-rural state to talk with and listen to people. Health care was a hot topic that we discussed from living room to living room, over coffee, and in the middle of the pasture. Over and over, people laid out their lives and their hopes for reform.

One such person was busi¬ness owner Aimee McQuilkin. Her clothing boutique is just down the street from the Center’s Missoula office. We sat down amidst stylish boots and bags and spoke with McQuilkin about why she thinks it’s smart business sense to provide her employees with health insurance. “Hiring and high turnover is expensive in time and money, and being able to offer a good position with benefits really decreases my turnover.” And she said, “More people out there not spending on health costs out of pocket means more business for you.”

She’s able to afford it in part because of a small business health care tax credit offered through a state initiative called Insure Montana. This program is the local equivalent of the Federal Healthcare Tax Credit available to small businesses. It continues to roll out with the Affordable Care Act.

Three hours away and across the Continental Divide is Twin Bridges, Montana, home of Sweetgrass Rods.

Jerry Kustich is the co-owner of the shop that produces high-end bamboo fly-fishing rods. They import the raw material from a special bamboo grove in China and hand-make each rod in the town of 400 people. He employs six people in a beautiful sun-lit workshop.

When Matt first heard Jerry’s story, he said he was blown away by Jerry’s personal involvement with the health of his employees. Although he wants to provide insurance to his employees, he is unable to find an affordable plan because several of them have pre-existing conditions. In the meantime, he’s organized several fundraisers for his uninsured employees with medical expenses.

He also talked with us about his wife’s long battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease and the high-deductible insurance plan that he says he was never able to use, despite decades of “paying in.” 
Unlike Aimee, Jerry’s advocacy is driven by frustration.

“After all I’ve gone through and after all the people I’ve seen struggling with it ... the fear of what this disease means to their pocketbook. In America that shouldn’t be an issue,” he said.

But the good news is that in 2014 it will be illegal for insurance companies to deny somebody health insurance because of a pre-existing condition.

“The Affordable Care Act goes a long way in making health care possible for people who are already sick,” said my traveling companion Matt Gunther.

Touring around Montana I was fortunate to see some of our health care organizing work in action. It was obvious that rural people and small businesses need more information about the new law and the changes that will make a difference in their lives. Our work is a start. Read more about The Health Care Tales of Two Businesses

  • Rural Health
Your stories

Farm Bill Extension Debacle

In the waning hours of 2012, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Vice President Joe Biden negotiated a nine-month extension of the Farm Bill. The extension, which was attached to the fiscal cliff legislation passed by Congress on January 1, slashes investment in the future of family farms, ranches and rural small towns.

Many smaller, targeted programs that invest in proven strategies to create rural jobs and revitalize rural communities as well as initiatives to foster a new generation of family farmers and ranchers were completely left out of the final farm bill extension. The eleventh hour deal also prevents farmers and ranchers from improving soil and water conservation through enrollment in the Conservation Stewardship Program in 2013.

Senate Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and House Agriculture Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) negotiated an agreement over the final weekend of 2012 that addressed many of the most crucial shortcomings in the extension. Unfortunately, their efforts were set aside in final negotiations over the fiscal cliff bill.

The message is clear - despite high market prices, virtually unlimited commodity and crop insurance premium subsidies to mega-farms remain uncapped and untouchable, but beginning farmers and rural communities are left twisting in the wind. And conservation of precious land and water gets put on hold. Writing a new farm bill that invests in the future of family farmers, ranchers and rural communities will be a long row to hoe. But America, rural America in particular, deserves nothing less. Read more about Farm Bill Extension Debacle

  • Farm PolicyFarm Bill
Weekly column

Medicaid Expansion Strengthens Rural Communities

With the Nebraska Unicameral beginning their 2013 session January 9, it is crucial to recognize that expanding Medicaid as allowed in the Affordable Care Act could reduce - by half - the discouragingly high rural uninsured rates that research at the Center for Rural Affairs reveals.

Many rural Nebraskans face stern challenges in accessing adequate health care coverage. In Nebraska, as in most Midwest and Great Plains states, rural counties have lower health insurance rates than urban counties. Generally, as county population decreases, uninsured rates rise. The only Nebraska counties with uninsured rates at 21 percent or higher are rural.

These differences between urban and rural counties stem from the unique structural barriers and economic challenges that exist in rural Nebraska. And the consequent higher rates of uninsured individuals weaken our rural communities and lead to a less healthy rural Nebraska.

However, Nebraska can reduce the number of rural residents that lack health insurance by working to ensure that the new health insurance marketplaces, or exchanges, meet the unique needs of rural Nebraskans. And for those working adults whose income falls below 138 percent of the federal poverty level - $26,344 for a family of three - our state can make them eligible for the new Medicaid initiative, which would provide them access to healthcare at no cost to the state for three years.

It’s time to make the best choice for all Nebraskans, urban and rural, by moving the expansion of Medicaid to working adults forward. Read more about Medicaid Expansion Strengthens Rural Communities

  • Rural Health
Weekly column

What Could Medicaid Expansion Mean to Your State?

If given the opportunity to save money and also help their residents be healthier, should state governments take it?

When the Supreme Court ruled on the Affordable Care Act earlier this summer, it decided that states could choose whether to expand their Medicaid program to more uninsured people. You might be curious how this choice could impact your state and community.

Medicaid is a partnership between individual states and the federal government to provide health care for uninsured people living in poverty. Costs are split between state and federal governments, depending on the income levels of the state. The average federal share of Medicaid cost is 57 percent. About 50 percent of Medicaid participants are children. Low-income elderly, people with disabilities, and pregnant women make up the rest.

Medicaid is especially important for rural communities for several reasons. Incomes in rural places are lower than urban counterparts, and fewer workers have employer-provided health insurance. We also have more elderly in our communities, many of whom need long-term care in nursing homes.

Did you know that right now, 40 percent of all costs for long-term care come from Medicaid? This will only grow in rural communities as our population ages.

There are a few important points to consider about the Medicaid expansion. One is that the federal government covers the vast majority of the cost increase. In fact, the first 3 years of the expansion is 100 percent covered at no cost to states.

Another point is that right now, states pay substantial costs because of uninsured patients. If you go to the doctor but can’t pay, state governments pay some of that cost. Taken together, states would spend an estimated $18 billion in the next 10 years on care that patients can’t pay if they don’t adopt the Medicaid expansion. Expanding Medicaid will reduce the number of uninsured patients by as many as 14.3 million by 2022. That saves us about $10 billion.

According to a recent report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, some states would actually save money by expanding Medicaid. Others could see their costs increase by up to 11 percent. About half the states would see Medicaid costs increase by less than 5 percent. Rural states, because of our aging population and lower incomes, could see substantial benefits.

Reducing the number of uninsured rural Americans is good for all of us. Expanding Medicaid is a good way to do this with a minimal cost to states.

You can find out more in our report, Medicaid and Rural America. Read more about What Could Medicaid Expansion Mean to Your State?

  • Rural Health

Time to “Get Real” with Washington

“It’s time for us to have an adult conversation with folks in rural America,” said Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack in a recent speech. “Rural America with a shrinking population is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country, and we had better recognize that, and we better begin to reverse it.”

The secretary made some valid points. But we think it goes both ways. It’s also time for rural folks to have an adult conversation with those who are supposed to represent them. The politics of Washington are also becoming less and less relevant to our real problems.

Secretary Vilsack is right in suggesting a proactive approach that attracts young people to rural America. He is right when he says the opposite approach—fighting an imaginary proposal to regulate farm dust—is a poor use of our energy.

We appreciate the secretary’s work to beef up support for organic farming, which expands opportunities for smaller farms. And we support his efforts for local foods, though the benefits are limited in the most rural parts of America far from metropolitan markets.

But in many respects the debate in Washington is missing the real issues in rural America. The big farm bill fight in Washington is over the exact form of farm payment. But the perfect program won’t help rural America if we don’t have family farmers left to use it. And as long as Washington continues to provide unlimited farm and crop insurance subsidies to the biggest farms, it will keep subsidizing mega farms to drive their neighbors out of business.>

That is the farm issue that matters most. It will shape farm life and farm communities for generations to come. President Obama won the pivotal 2008 Iowa caucuses in part by promising to cap mega farm subsidies. But the administration, like most elected officials, now rarely addresses the issue. Until we get that right, we’ll keep losing family farms and bleeding the lifeblood out of rural communities.

Our small towns are also fighting for their lives. There is real hope. There are promising entrepreneurial opportunities that work in small towns. As the secretary rightly stresses, broadband provides small rural enterprises new opportunities to sell to national and international markets.

But federal investments in rural business and community developing are shrinking – falling by half over the last decade (inflation adjusted). We have to invest in our future, if we are going to have a future.

But you rarely hear a peep about the issue in the farm bill debate. It’s time for the debate in Washington to get relevant to the challenges confronting rural people working to create a future in family farming and small communities. Read more about Time to “Get Real” with Washington

  • Farm Policy

Get Your Advocacy On!

A new year brings new opportunities, as well as challenges. At the Center for Rural Affairs, you know we’re dedicated to creating genuine opportunity for rural people and communities. By successfully engaging lots of you in the public policy decisions that impact your lives and your communities, the odds of success skyrocket.

Over the next several months, it’s especially critical for Nebraskans to engage in decisions being made in the legislature. There will likely be bold proposals introduced that we believe will harm rural Nebraskans and their communities.

October’s newsletter shared our perspective on a proposal to eliminate the state income tax and replace the revenue by abolishing an array of sales tax exemptions. It would impose heavy costs on most Nebraskans to benefit a small percentage of the richest people in the state. And it would immediately cut 56 percent of Nebraska’s general fund revenues. Another concern is an attempt to cut funding that helps create and strengthen small rural businesses.

Strong grassroots voices can sway the upcoming debates. So we’re planning a series of advocacy trainings across the state. We’ll engage new constituencies along the way by partnering with Nebraska’s Community Action Agencies. Through these trainings, participants will learn how to work with policymakers, build relationships and influence their thinking; work with the media to tell your story; and much more.

And we must also engage in upcoming federal policy debates. With a new Congress, newly elected members of the Senate and House of Representatives arrive in Washington. These men and women are ripe for relationship-building right out of the gate. It’s a perfect opportunity for you to influence their decision making.

Please let me know if you have any questions. I can’t wait to get started! Read more about Get Your Advocacy On!

  • Farm Policy

Your Opinion: Clean Energy and Rural America

Your thoughts are important to us. They shape our work, shape our positions, and tell us where we need to improve and what we need to do better.

Ultimately, we’re an organization that relies heavily on our supporters, the average citizens of rural America, to let us know where we can be most effective and where we can make the biggest difference. It’s this partnership that makes the Center for Rural Affairs the best organization it can be.

With this in mind, we asked each and every one of you to tell us how you feel about clean energy in rural America. We offered questions of varying length, covering a wide swath of issues important to those of us who reside in rural areas. While we focused primarily on climate change and clean energy transmission, each query gave responders ample latitude to touch on topics important to them.

The survey was open for one month, and results were submitted evenly over this period. Many of you responded with thoughtful, informed insight and provided better feedback than any of us could have expected. We were impressed with the results, and think you will be too.

Climate Change

Climate change is an important aspect of our energy work. Sometimes we address this indirectly, through work on renewable energy or opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. Other times we take a more direct route, such as holding community workshops that explore the relationship between climate change and agriculture. As our energy focus expands, we wanted to know how you felt about this issue and how we can best engage in research and analysis most relevant to you.

The vast majority of responders, 76 percent, believe that climate change is occurring mostly because of human activity such as burning fossil fuels.

Fewer than 3 percent believe that climate change isn’t occurring at all. While 18 percent of respondents suggested that climate change can only be attributed to natural patterns, an overwhelming number of you left comments indicating that you would have chosen an answer that points to both human and natural causes, an option we did not offer.

Staying on that topic, we found out that 65 percent of you know “some” about climate change, and recognize that there is room to learn more. Over 30 percent of you consider yourselves as having advanced knowledge with respect to this topic.

Is climate change important to you personally? Just over 49 percent said it is “very important” to you. Over 39 percent say it’s “important” and 2.5 percent of responders say it’s “not at all” important. This tells us that climate change deserves more of our focus.

We then asked which factors are most important to you when considering climate change. We offered 11 options, but also provided space for each responder to add something that may not have been listed. Overwhelmingly, the impacts of climate change on agriculture were most important, with almost 73 percent of responders indicating that this is a significant consideration. Many of you also expressed concern with the impact of climate change on future generations.

What if nothing is done to combat climate change in the future? Almost 47 percent of responders feel this would be a serious problem for your community.

Clean Energy Transmission

We’ve spent a lot of time working on clean energy transmission during the past two years. Renewable energy development – and, consequently, opportunity for rural economic development – can’t go forward unless we find a way to move energy from where it can be cost effectively produced to where it’s needed most. As our advocacy moves forward, we wanted to make sure this issue is as important to you as it is to us.

We found responses to the first two questions reassuring. How much do you feel that you know about clean energy transmission? Almost 73 percent said that they know some, and there is room to learn. Exactly 19 percent of responders consider themselves advanced in this area.

When it comes to your attitude toward clean energy transmission, we didn’t know what to expect. We were pleased to find that over 54 percent of responders have a very favorable attitude, compared to only 1.8 percent of responders who aren’t supportive at all.

How important is clean energy transmission to the rural economy? Almost 47 percent of you recognize that it’s very important. This is something that we’ll try to focus on more.

Finally, what does clean energy transmission mean to you? Over 63 percent recognize that it opens up new areas to wind development. Almost 60 percent of you recognize that it provides jobs and economic activity.

As a staff, we appreciate your participation. Understanding your opinions and perspectives are important to us. Knowing where we can improve and what we’re doing right guides our approach as we work together for a better rural America. Read more about Your Opinion: Clean Energy and Rural America

  • Clean Energy

Study Finds Diversified Crop Rotations Profitable

Iowa State University research shows diversified crop rotations can be as profitable as corn-soybean rotations, while reducing the need for purchased farm inputs and addressing challenges presented to farmers by climate change.

Most climate researchers predict more extreme weather – droughts, downpours, and hot spells – presenting profound agronomic challenges. Farmers will need healthy soils that absorb heavy rain and hold it for dry periods, and cropping systems that reduce the risk of total crop failure.

Farmers will also be asked to reduce greenhouse gas levels by cutting fossil fuel and nitrogen use and capturing more carbon as soil organic matter.

The new research suggests diverse rotations could be helpful in meeting those challenges. It compared a two-year corn-soybean rotation; a three-year rotation of corn, soybean and small grain/red clover; and a four-year rotation of corn, soybean, small grain/alfalfa and alfalfa from 2003 to 2011.

The diverse rotations received clover and alfalfa residues and composted cattle manure, so 80 to 86 percent less synthetic nitrogen was applied. The diverse rotations also limited herbicide use to 15-inch bands on corn and soybean rows, while cultivating between rows.

The corn-soybean rotation required more than twice the fossil energy inputs, primarily due to increased herbicide and fertilizer usage. The diverse rotations had higher yields and declining weed pressure.

The research did not report on soil organic matter levels in three cropping systems. However, deep-rooted forages build soil organic matter deep in the soil where it is most stable. This contributes to long-term improvements in soil quality and reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide. Between rows, cultivation would have to be managed to minimize the breakdown of crop residues.

The three systems were close in profitability. In the language of scientists, there was no statistically significant difference. Of course, profitability of different rotations varies with fluctuation in prices for corn, soybeans, hay, fertilizer, seed, and herbicides.

For the diverse systems to be widely used, forage use would need to increase in beef production. But forage-based livestock production systems have come a long way with advancing research. Many top-end restaurants now feature forage-fed beef. Read more about Study Finds Diversified Crop Rotations Profitable

  • Farm PolicyFarm and Food


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