ST. PAUL (FNS) — Infrastructure is becoming a Washington, D.C. hot topic.
And no one is discussing it more than rural America’s lawmakers.
“A strong rural infrastructure is necessary for our rural areas to remain vital but our rural economy faces unique infrastructure challenges,” U.S.
Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said as the House Agriculture Committee discussed the topic on Wednesday, July 19.
Added committee Chairman K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas: “America’s heartland deserves to be front-and-center as we look to upgrade our aging infrastructure. From rural broadband to ag research to transportation, rural America faces its own set of challenges and considerations and today’s hearing highlighted some of those.”
Transportation always comes to mind when infrastructure is mentioned, and it is important to rural America. But it is not just highway transportation for rural residents. Farmers also depend on water transportation to get their products to market, and more and more they need better high-speed internet connections, known as broadband, to compete.
“It’s surprising to a lot of folks but broadband access is lacking in many of these areas,” Peterson said.
As someone who serves the Red River Valley, Peterson also reminded the committee that flood control is vital in many areas.
“Access to clean water, reliable electricity, state of the art health care services and affordable housing are all necessary for farmers and ranchers to do their jobs and to maintain a certain quality of life in our rural areas,” Peterson said.
It is not clear how much say congressional agriculture committees will have in infrastructure plans. It also is not clear what President Donald Trump wants.
He called for a $1 trillion infrastructure effort, with both public and private funds. He said he wants $200 billion spent on transportation in the next 10 years, but details on that and other parts of his plan are scarce.
Minnesotans get a chance to express their views on agriculture-related topics that may be in the next farm bill on April 3, when the committee holds a hearing at Farmfest, near Redwood Falls. The hearing begins at 9:30 a.m.
Rural courts bolstered
Minnesota’s Supreme Court chief justice, from rural Minnesota, has announced a plan to keep enough workers in rural parts of the state to allow court offices to remain open.
Chief Justice Lorie S.
Gildea said some duties are being moved to rural court offices, which in some cases deal with few local cases. For instance:
Lincoln and Pipestone county court offices will take over supporting the Judicial Branch Central Appeals Unit, which now is housed in Hennepin County. The unit is liaison between trial courts and the St. Paul-based Supreme and Appeals courts.
Processing some child support orders from all 87 counties will move to western Minnesota offices.
Northwestern Minnesota offices will assume work related to jury qualification and summoning for all 87 district courts.
Some work in northeastern Minnesota is moving from other courthouses to Lake County, where staff will receive and process all document copy requests for four county courts.
The changes are being made over a few months.
“Through this initiative, we are leveraging new technologies that will allow us to do our work more efficiently, while also making sure all Minnesotans have access to the help they need when facing a legal issue,” Gildea said.
Differences among counties are vast. The courts system reports that nearly 500,000 cases were filed in Hennepin County District Court in 2016, and those cases were heard by 62 judges, 16 referees, and five child support magistrates, and processed by hundreds of staff. In many rural counties, court is in session once or twice a week. In 17 county courthouses, there are fewer than two full-time workers.
The changes will ensure “that each courthouse has enough workload to justify at least two full-time staff,” the courts reported.
Republican reaction is mixed over whether it is proper for state Republican Chairman Jennifer Carnahan and GOP congressional candidate Jim Hagedorn to be dating.
Heather Carlson of the Post-Bulletin of Rochester reports that “some potential Republican congressional candidates say they are hesitant to run for the 1st District seat” after learning about the news. Others say it does not matter to them.
Hagedorn confirmed the relationship, while the party chairwoman did not, at least not to Carlson. Some party leaders said she told them about it.
“Carnahan said the state party does not play a role in endorsements for congressional district seats,” Carlson reported.
At least 10 others, from both parties, are thinking about getting into the race for the seat being vacated by U.S.
Tim Walz, a Democratic governor candidate.
The Federal Communications Commission’s Connect2Health Task Force announced updates to its Mapping Broadband Health in America platform1. The 2017 platform now reflects the latest complete annual fixed broadband dataset from the Commission and updated health data from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s County Health Rankings. As telehealth, telemedicine, and other cutting-edge mHealth initiatives gain momentum across the country, this web-based mapping platform enables more efficient, data-driven decision making at the intersection of broadband and health, according to the FCC.
The FCC’s Connect2Health Task Force launched the web-based mapping tool last August, and the tool visualizes and overlays broadband and health data to enable further study of the connection of health outcomes and broadband availability. The data-driven tool, which is available online at https://www.fcc.gov/health/maps,2 was designed to enable data-driven decision making on broadband health policies and connected health solutions and to help the public and private sector, and local communities, identify opportunities and gaps in connectivity and care, according to FCC officials. Some of the key findings from the latest data update include:
- The number of people living in “double burden” counties has increased. Almost half of U.S.
counties have high burdens of chronic disease (e.g., diabetes) as well as a need for greater broadband connectivity. That translates to over 36 million people who live in counties with a “double burden” of need–an increase of 1 million between 2014 and 2015.
- Over 60 percent of rural Americans live in “double burden” counties, while less than 5 percent of urban America falls into the same category. The rural/urban gap holds true even if the benchmarks are set at 80 percent, 70 percent, or 60 percent broadband access.
- There are 214 counties-175 of which are majority rural – that have broadband access below 50 percent and diabetes and obesity rates above the national average. These digitally-isolated counties are home to nearly 7 million people.
- Preventable hospitalizations (i.e., hospital stays that could have been avoided with appropriate care) are 150 percent higher in the least connected counties compared to other counties.
According to the FCC’s Connect2Health, understanding the data is the first step in better leveraging broadband to help manage chronic health conditions for seniors in Giles County, Tennessee, access lifesaving specialty care in Harlan County, Kentucky, reduce post-surgical pain through Virtual Reality applications in Barbour County, West Virginia, or connect a veteran to virtual rehab in Warren County, Pennsylvania. “The data update reinforces many of last year’s key findings, including sizeable and persistent rural/urban gaps. Notably, counties that need broadband for health the most, tend to have it the least. Forty-two percent of rural “critical need” counties, representing over 2 million people, had worsening broadband and health metrics,” FCC officials said.
“We recognize that the upturn in closures of rural hospitals and medical facilities, highlighted in recent research at the University of North Carolina, is of great concern to many,” Michele Ellison, chair of the Connect2HealthFCC Task Force, said in a statement. “The mapping platform shines a critical spotlight on the need for broadband health solutions in rural and digitally-isolated counties where physician shortages are more than double the national average. It also demonstrates the importance of initiatives to promote broadband infrastructure deployment.”
Along with the data update, the Task Force has released new priority lists of “critical need” counties in broadband and health–the Priority 2017 and Rural Priority 2017. The Task Force also introduced a new analytical product-the Positive Trend Counties inventory–that compares broadband and health data year on year (e.g., comparing broadband data from December 2014 to December 2015). This new inventory identifies priority counties that the data shows have made progress on broadband and/or health measures to a greater or lesser extent, no longer meeting the thresholds as “critical need” counties in broadband and health.