Cuomo urges: New York needs all its renewable energy resources

ALBANY, N.Y. (Public News Service) – To reach clean energy goals, New York needs to maintain its existing baseline of renewable energy generators, according to a message clean energy advocates have sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The New York Renewables Protection Act is headed to the governor’s desk.

Supporters say the bill, which already has cleared the Assembly and Senate, would help save the jobs those power resources have created and encourage generators to sell their renewable energy credits in New York rather than out of state.

According to Zack Dufresne, director of membership services at the Alliance for Clean Energy New York (ACE-New York), it would help the state achieve its goal of 70% renewable energy by 2030 at the lowest possible cost to ratepayers.

“Meeting the 2030 target will require an all-hands-on-deck effort, and that will require a massive buildout of renewables,” he states. “But New York is not starting from scratch on its way to 70%.”

Current law doesn’t allow existing generators to participate in state renewable energy procurements, leading some suppliers to sell their clean energy to out-of-state customers.

Dufresne says ACE-New York commissioned a study of the policy options to retain existing resources.

“New York could save about $135 million between 2019 and 2030 at present value by establishing a program to keep existing generators in operation and to keep them selling their renewable-energy attributes in New York state,” he states.

Dufresne adds that existing renewable energy resources, including hydroelectric power, currently supply more than 25% of the state’s electricity and support 22,000 jobs.

Dufresne notes that the state has been talking for several years about creating a program to support existing renewable energy resources but nothing has been established.

“That’s why we want to bring attention to this and make sure the governor knows that this is a low cost, low overhead way for his departments to achieve our new, ambitious goals,” he stresses.

Once the bill has been sent to the governor’s desk, he will have 10 days to sign it.

Reporting by Andrea Sears, New York Bureau

Medical membership plan aims to help fill coverage gap

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. – Employers in expensive mountain communities now have another option for keeping workers well at competitive prices.

Mountain Family Health Centers Health Solutions allows workers to access primary medical, dental and behavioral health care with no co-pays and no deductibles, whenever they need it, for a monthly fee of $135 per worker.

Garry Schalla, development director of Mountain Family Health Centers, says the program gives employers and agencies a chance to think outside the box in the current marketplace.

“To find solutions that fit the needs of those workers up and down our valley who are really the economic driver for tourism and for hospitality and for all the other services,” he states.

Schalla says the program is not meant to be a substitute for major medical coverage, but it can reduce the costs of preventive care, which can lead to fewer sick days, improved productivity and employee engagement and retention.

Mountain Health is one of a number of federally qualified health centers across the nation piloting membership programs in an effort to get more uninsured workers access to care.

A key to offering affordable care is reducing costs. Schalla says Mountain Health’s multiple locations along the I-70 corridor and the Roaring Fork Valley have worked hard over the past decade to become leaner and fitter.

He notes assigning each patient a team creates efficiencies. Providers don’t have to reinvent the wheel; they know their patient’s history.

“That helps to bring down the cost,” he stresses. “And that whole team-based care is wrapped around with a dental team and a behavioral health team.

“So by doing a team-based care, you’re really getting much better value, and you’re getting knowledge of that patient.”

Schalla says the program provides an affordable primary care option for seasonal or part-time employees who may not be eligible for employer-based health benefits.

Employers can also extend coverage to employee dependents. Coverage for a worker, a spouse and a child costs less than $300 a month.

Reporting by Eric Galatas, Colorado Bureau

Surveys reveal troubling conditions inside Illinois prisons

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – The most recent surveys of living conditions inside some Illinois correctional facilities reveal some troubling findings.

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The John Howard Association routinely visits prisons in the state to monitor conditions of confinement, policies and practices.

In the first half of the year, nearly 4,000 surveys were collected from people locked up in seven different prisons.

The organization’s executive director, Jennifer Vollen-Katz, says many of the state’s correctional facilities were constructed decades if not centuries ago, and lack the resources needed to maintain structures of that age.

“There’s issues with ventilation, with leaking, with rodents,” she points out. “We can see when we visit that things are just crumbling around people. That’s a really unsafe and difficult way to live that just fuels the level of inhumane conditions that people are being subjected to.”

The surveys were added to the data set from 2018, which now totals more than 13,000.

Seventy-five percent of respondents said broken infrastructure is not repaired in a timely matter; 66% reported inadequate ventilation and 62% indicated the temperature is uncomfortable.

Vollen-Katz says the Illinois Department of Corrections has not commented on the survey results.

Vollen-Katz explains that the surveys are completely anonymous, and also ask about medical care, mental health treatment and other areas related to well-being.

“If we are going to set people up for success upon release, we need to be thinking about how we are treating them and what kind of skills we are providing,” she states. “And right now, the conditions that people live in in Illinois prisons are terrible and there’s simply not enough programming.”

In 2018, the organization started staff surveys at the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice’s five facilities. Of the 41 people who completed a survey, about half disagreed or strongly disagreed that the facility is in good state of repair, or that it is sanitary.

However, a majority said mental health and medical services are available to those incarcerated.

Reporting by Mary Schuermann Kuhlman, Illinois Bureau

BLM plan could open central Montana up to oil, gas drilling

LEWISTOWN, Mont. – A resource management plan (RMP) for central Montana is drawing the ire of conservation groups and former public lands officials, calling it a sell-off to the oil and gas industry.

The Bureau of Land Management released a draft RMP for 650,000 acres of land it oversees stretching from the Missouri Breaks to the Rocky Mountain Front.

Despite the Lewistown Field Office’s preference that 200,000 acres be given special environmental protections, the agency has recommended protecting zero acres.

Dave Chadwick, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, says BLM’s preferred alternative would open up roughly 95% of the area to development.

“Oil and gas drilling, road construction, all kinds of other development that will essentially close off public access, fragment wildlife habitat and have a real long-term impact on hunting and fishing opportunity and, really, the local economies of communities that depend on hunting activity in the area,” Chadwick laments.

One former Montana and Dakotas BLM director, Mike Penfold, says he’s never seen a plan favor energy development and disregard conservation as much as this plan.

The BLM says the agency expects drilling interest in the area to be low and notes the agency hasn’t yet picked a plan. The public can comment on BLM’s plan alternatives until Aug. 15.

Chadwick says hunting’s economic boost to the area could suffer under this plan. According to a study by Headwater Economics, hunting provided nearly $4 million to Fergus and Petroleum counties in 2015.

Chadwick says Montana is a big place that can accommodate all kinds of uses, and also notes that managing public lands for multiple uses is the mandate under federal law.

“We are really looking to get the Bureau of Land Management through this RMP and through all of their activities to really go back to that multiple-use mandate and listen to local stakeholders and all the people who depend on these public lands,” he states.

Chadwick says this plan is getting a lot of attention across the West and argues it could be precedent-setting for how other resource management plans approach development on public lands.

A draft RMP also is out for BLM lands near Missoula that similarly recommends protecting zero acres for their special wilderness characteristics. The public comment period for that plan also ends on Aug. 15.

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Reporting by Eric Tegethoff, Montana Bureau

Study suggests rural students lacking career guidance in school

INDIANAPOLIS – About one-in-four public school students in Indiana attends a rural school, and new research suggests they need more assistance in career development.

A paper co-authored by Diana Quintero, a research analyst with the Brown Center on Education Policy, finds that while rural students are more likely to graduate high school than those in urban areas, rural students have lower college enrollment rates.

Quintero says one factor is that 14% of schools in rural areas do not have access to a school counselor, who can provide information to students about career or post-secondary academic options.

She says limited budgets of rural schools make it difficult for counselors to focus solely on advising students.

“They spend less time on career guidance and more time on administrative tasks,” she points out, “because they’re isolated, lots of rural schools can share a school counselor. They have to go from two different places. That makes a challenge.”

Quintero says research found the presence of one additional counselor in a school was associated with an increase of 10 percentage points in four-year college enrollment.

Indiana’s student-to-counselor ratio averaged 541-to-one between 2004 and 2015, more than double the American School Counselor Association recommendation of 250 students per school counselor.

The research calls for additional funding to allow rural schools to hire more full-time and experienced counselors.

Quintero says rural communities also could leverage the resources and knowledge of their own residents.

“Rural students are very close to their communities and they have tight connections so they might go for college and come back and help their communities,” she states. “They could provide that guidance to rural students by going to high schools.”

The research also encourages the development of community partnerships, including churches, public social service agencies and other organizations that can assist students with college applications, financial aid documents and scholarship information.

Indiana has the eighth-highest population of rural students in the U.S.

Reporting by Mary Schuermann Kuhlman, Indiana Bureau

Virginia’s sales tax holiday gives temporary boost to low-income families

RICHMOND, Va. – Virginia’s sales tax holiday begins Friday and lasts until late Sunday night.

The three-day event aims to help families save money on state and local taxes for back-to-school items, which especially will help low-income families in the Commonwealth, according to Margaret Nimmo Holland, executive director of Voices for Virginia’s Children.

Although the tax break is welcomed, Nimmo Holland says policymakers need to provide more permanent solutions to help children in poverty.

In Virginia, one in three children lives in a family that is economically disadvantaged, and Nimmo Holland says that means the parents earn less than $49,000 a year for a family of four.

“Certainly, school supplies and clothes and shoes for school are very important, and so this little bit of help this weekend is important to those families,” she states. “It’s just as important for our policymakers to put it in context and realize that it’s helpful but it’s a very small step and we need to take larger steps to impact more families.”

Nimmo Holland says one step policymakers could take that would help low-income families is to raise the rate for the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

She says the rate hasn’t kept up with inflation, and raising it could have helped parents buy more supplies during this tax-free weekend.

The sales tax holiday only happens once a year, and it lets people buy essential items for school such as supplies, clothing and footwear.

Items such as notebooks, lunch boxes and reference books are eligible to buy tax-free if they are $20 or less.

Nimmo Holland says low-income families might have a hard time being able to afford to buy everything their children need to start school in the fall.

“The added expenses of supplies and fees that are necessary for kids to participate in schools really need to be looked at,” she points out. “And I think that for some parents, it really is a burden and schools need to consider what other resources might be available in their community.”

Virginia’s tax-free holiday also helps people save money on hurricane equipment. Families can buy portable generators tax-free if they cost $1,000 or less per item.

Reporting by Diane Bernard, Virginia Bureau

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