Editorials from around New England
Editorials from around New England:
Close the deal on tolls, improve state ranking
The Day, May 15
The latest U.S. News & World Report rankings of the best states to live in bolsters Gov. Ned Lamont’s argument that central to getting Connecticut headed in the right direction is providing a reliable funding source to improve its transportation infrastructure. That means tolls.
Connecticut was ranked 21 among the 50 states, up three spots from a year ago. Among the strong performers for the state was a ranking of 3 for access to and quality of health care and 6 for its “natural environment.” The state’s education system — strong in many of the suburbs but still weak in its low-income, urban centers — got a 12 ranking.
What were the anchors dragging the state down to its middle-of-the-pack standing? Connecticut ranked 46th in both infrastructure and fiscal stability and 30th for its economy. These poor performers are related.
While most of its neighboring states have, to varying degrees, long utilized tolls to provide a reliable revenue source to help maintain and improve their highways and other transportation systems, Connecticut abandoned its tolls in 1985. That left it relying on a gas tax, paid largely by the residents who live and fill their tanks in Connecticut.
It has not provided enough revenue and failed to collect fees from the millions of drivers who pass through the state but never gas-up in Connecticut. The tax will continue to provide diminishing returns as car fuel efficiency improves and hybrids and electric vehicles grow in popularity.
The State Transportation Fund has also been subject to raids when money was needed to balance state budgets.
The result has been insufficient investment in transportation, leading to congested highways and roads, bridges and overpasses in poor condition, and that 46 ranking. Connecticut has much catching up to do.
To assure money raised by imposition of tolls would be used only for transportation needs, voters in 2016 approved a state constitutional amendment providing that guarantee. Having a reliable source of revenue to help pay for transportation needs, with 40 percent of it coming from out-of-state drivers, would be one part of the solution to providing greater fiscal stability.
Most significantly, finding the means to modernize the state’s transportation system is critical to improving its economy. That is why the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, the Business Council of Fairfield County, the Connecticut Building Trades Council and the Connecticut Construction Industry Association, among others, have endorsed imposition of electronic tolls.
Department of Transportation Commissioner Joe Giulietti has testified his agency needs at least $2 billion annually to maintain and improve the transportation infrastructure. As proposed, $800 million would come from toll collections and the difference from existing fuel taxes and federal matching grants.
The challenge for Lamont is to close the deal in the face of unanimous Republican opposition. With Democrats holding the governor’s seat and strong majorities in the House and Senate — with many of those candidates having run on platforms that included using tolls to meet transportation needs — it is hard to envision when there will be a better chance for the legislature to make this difficult, politically unpopular but necessary move.
The Republican alternative — “Prioritize Progress” — is bad fiscal policy. The Republican plan would combine $700 million in annual borrowing, to be repaid out of the General Fund, and combine it with the $700 million the state already takes from the State Transportation Fund to meet debt obligations, and then add in federal matching grants to hit the $2 billion target.
This would drive up state debt, when the state should be doing the opposite. It would tap little revenue from out-of-state drivers. And it depends on the legislature and governor authorizing the necessary borrowing every year, a questionable prospect. In contrast, toll collection will be reliable and likely grow.
Democratic leaders are signaling the governor what they need to secure the necessary votes. Senate President Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, says the governor needs to spell out more clearly how the state will pay for construction while awaiting the toll revenues to arrive in several years. This will likely require a short-term version of the plan pushed by Republicans.
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said his members are pressing for specifics, such as how toll discounts for state residents would be applied.
Credit the governor for taking on such a difficult issue. The next couple of weeks will demonstrate whether he has the political chops to bring it home.
To boost equity, give public loans to pot startups
The Boston Globe, May 16
Despite the best intentions of Massachusetts voters and lawmakers, the recreational marijuana industry hasn’t developed as hoped. The 2016 legalization referendum, with legislative tweaks approved in 2017, was supposed to create a framework that would economically benefit communities and individuals disproportionately impacted by marijuana prohibition and enforcement.
Instead, the nascent legal pot industry is dominated by white players and out-of-state corporations.
Enter state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz. Now the Senate’s chairwoman of the joint committee on cannabis policy, Chang-Díaz filed an innovative two-part amendment to the Senate budget that would make it easier for small-business owners and people of color to access capital for pot startups.
The numbers show the need. Of the more than 120 applicants that the Cannabis Control Commission certified as economic empowerment applicants, giving them priority status, only five have filed completed applications with the state, according to Chang-Díaz’s office. None has yet opened an establishment. Last year, the commission surveyed individuals who requested economic empowerment status and it found that nearly 44 percent of them hadn’t applied for a license yet because they’ve had difficulties raising capital for their businesses.
Because marijuana is an illegal substance at the federal level, banks cannot offer loans to finance a pot business. Cash is king in the marijuana industry, and a lot is needed: anywhere between $1 million and $5 million just in startup costs. Chang-Díaz’s amendment targets this major obstacle.
The amended bill would create a trust fund to issue interest-free loans to economic empowerment applicants and to those who participate in the state social equity program, a first-in-the-nation initiative that will provide assistance to eligible prospective business owners from certain disenfranchised communities. According to the state’s definition, these are heavily black and Latino areas that have been disproportionately impacted by high rates of arrest and incarceration for drug offenses under state and federal laws.
The fund will draw capital from both private contributions and public sources — it would redirect 10 percent of the cannabis excise tax toward the fund, which would be roughly between $8 million to $10 million in the next fiscal year if projected revenue figures hold. The Legislature would provide a one-time allocation of $1 million for startup costs to create the fund, and then “leverage private donations on a 2:1 or higher match rate.” The fund would be managed by the secretary of housing and economic development. In total, Chang-Díaz’s office estimates, the fund could reach anywhere from $20 million to $40 million in its first few years.
The commission voted on Thursday to ask the Legislature to pass Chang-Díaz’s funding amendment, and has supported similar ideas to advance equity. For instance, the commission recently voted to issue marijuana home delivery licenses exclusively (for at least two years) to applicants disproportionately affected by the war on drugs. Yet more needs to be done.
“I think the Legislature and (commission) have barely scratched the surface in terms of the support we can provide to these entrepreneurs with skills and business acumen,” commissioner Shaleen Title said in a statement. “Exclusive access to delivery licenses is a great start, along with loans and technical assistance, but we should continually be implementing more ways to provide support and repair the past harms of the drug war.”
Chang-Díaz’s amendment is a step in the right direction — it would move Massachusetts closer to reaching its goal of a truly equitable cannabis industry.
Dogs don’t get their day in court
The Kennebec Journal, May 16
A dog named Honey was not a party to the case that was argued before the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Tuesday, even though it was all about her.
Honey lived with a Bangor couple until they broke up, and both exes claimed that she belonged with them.
One partner had his name on all the adoption paperwork. The other said Honey was like a member of her family and wanted to at least negotiate a custody agreement.
What did Honey want? Well, she’s a dog, so no one asked.
If she were being abused or neglected, the state could step in to protect her, but in the eyes of the law, she’s a piece of property no different from a shared car or a living room set. At the District Court level, a judge looked past the emotional battle and determined that the member of the couple whose name appeared on the ownership documents was the dog’s owner.
And that’s where the state supreme court should land as well.
There’s no question that a pet can be part of a household. They have individual personalities and they bond with their owners. Pets appear to be happy to see you, and can seem sad when you go away.
But that’s not enough to make their emotional preferences anything that can be reliably considered in a court of law. Dogs are considered property in all 50 states, and only three states - Alaska, Illinois and California - have laws that address pet custody in a divorce. Gene Sullivan, who represents the woman who would like to get Honey back (at least part of the time), told the justices, “I’m trying to evolve part of the law.” That’s reason enough for the justices to say “no.”
The court system is one of the best ways ever devised to resolve disputes, especially when they involve money. We cannot demand that judges start considering the rights and opinions of animals, who, as far as we can tell, don’t know that we still exist when we are not in their sight. And how would a judge determine the dog’s wishes? Look deeply into her eyes? See if she wags her tail?
If dogs have legal rights in custody cases, what about other animals? Should wage-and-hour laws apply to dairy cows? Can deer sue for a shorter hunting season?
There are limits to what courts can do, and disputes between humans have created so much work for the state’s judges that we shouldn’t demand that they grapple with philosophical questions about the nature of consciousness. If the Legislature wants to pass a pet custody law, the judges can apply it. Until then, the existing laws of property will have to do.
Leonardo da Vinci, who died 500 years ago this month, wrote, “The time will come when men such as I will look on the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men.”
We’re not there yet. Dogs like Honey may have their day, but at least for now, not their day in court.
What we need is a war on trash
The Concord Monitor, May 16
A growing number of New Hampshire communities, among them Bow, Franklin and Laconia, have dumped recycling. It’s easy to see why. China once bought roughly half of America’s recyclables. It buys comparatively little today for several reasons. Single-stream recycling increased participation, but it didn’t change human nature. Bales of recyclables were often too contaminated with greasy pizza boxes, Styrofoam, plastic bags, etc., to reprocess. Then the Chinese discovered that the lax pollution laws that allowed them to process recyclables poisoned their landscape and harmed the health of nearby residents.
So, where are we now? Only a few materials are currently worth reprocessing: aluminum, tin, steel and sometimes cardboard, but not glass and newsprint. There is no “away” to throw things.
Viewing the current recycling dilemma as a short-term problem that can be fixed with better laws, technology and improved human behavior is misguided. The solution for a world awash in waste lies in producing far less stuff that needs to be recycled. Efforts to do that are underway, though they are strenuously opposed by industries dependent on a throw-away society.
In the meantime, every effort helps, from banning plastic bags and straws and composting food waste to actually sorting rather than guessing which types of plastic, based on the number impressed into them, are recyclable and which aren’t.
New Hampshire lags behind neighboring states in what should be a war on trash. Maine has banned the white Styrofoam clamshell containers used by fast food outlets, and some of its communities have banned single-use plastic bags, as have California and Hawaii. Many communities in Massachusetts and Vermont have done likewise. State bans are likely to follow, as is the imposition of per-bag fees. When England imposed a charge on every single-use bag, usage dropped by 80%.
New Hampshire should ignore industry lobbying and enact a bottle deposit bill. Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont and seven other states already do. According to an article in Scientific American, states with bottle bills have a 60% recovery rate compared to 24% in states without one.
Such efforts, however, given the scale of the problem, are virtuous window dressing. To shrink the waste stream will take enacting 21st-century, environmental and climate-friendly laws governing packaging. Like coal-fired power plants and other polluting industries, manufacturers and the packaging industry have been allowed to dump their external costs on local taxpayers. When a manufacturer encloses a product in a package many sizes larger than necessary or in a package that defies recycling, it shifts the cost of disposal to taxpayers.
Cereal rarely fills more than two-thirds of a box. A little bottle of pills comes in a cardboard container three or four times its size. Some pasta comes in boxes with a plastic window, which means that unlike a box with a picture of pasta, it can’t be recycled. Blister and clamshell packs reduce theft but cause, according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, millions of injuries each year, including some that have led to amputation. The packaging can’t be recycled. Its use should be severely restricted.
Making packaging recyclable isn’t enough. Soda bottles that become carpeting, fake lumber and clothing eventually wind up in landfills because they cannot be recycled again. Efforts on many fronts are being made to create containers that compost in weeks or months and edible containers, straws, utensils and packaging.
Consumers who care about the future of the planet should demand packaging that doesn’t end up in a landfill. The solution to recycling lies in making it unnecessary.
Gov. Raimondo betrays R.I.
The Providence Journal, May 15
The question has been raised whether Gov. Gina Raimondo deserves to be called a reformer anymore, given her proclivity since her reelection to put politics ahead of the public interest.
This week, she provided an emphatic answer. She’s no reformer.
Ms. Raimondo on Tuesday permitted two very expensive political gifts to privileged special interests to become law: evergreen contracts and mandated overtime for firefighters after 42 hours, far more generous than the federal standard of 53. Both will impose significant new burdens on local taxpayers.
Before her reelection last November, Governor Raimondo had posed as a leader who would frustrate the greasy antics of the General Assembly and serve as the last defense for the taxpayers.
She had done that two years ago in vetoing an earlier attempt to impose evergreen contracts, which lock in terms of expired contracts with teachers and other municipal employees. At the time, she cogently explained the problem.
“Current Rhode Island law protects the taxpayers from being obligated indefinitely for contract provisions that, in the future, may not be affordable,” she wrote.
“The proposed legislation before me extinguishes this existing protection, hurting the public’s position in contract negotiations, and placing taxpayers at risk of being forever locked into contractual provisions they can no longer afford.”
That is as true now as it was then. Though she says the new law is different because it affects “only” salary and benefits, the biggest thing that has changed is politics. In her reelection campaign, Ms. Raimondo managed to obtain an endorsement from the National Education Association of Rhode Island, a teachers union and the leading advocate of perpetual contracts. Ms. Raimondo has also been trying to establish a national political reputation, and teachers unions are immensely important in the national Democratic Party.
Sacrificed on the altar of her ambitions, unfortunately, are the people of Rhode Island, who already pay some of the highest property taxes in America. She bought political support at the price of making Rhode Islanders even greater slaves to the special-interest politics that plague the state.
Of course, any pretension she had to creating a national image as a “champion of fiscal sanity” is gone. Anyone in the media who looks at recent news clips from Rhode Island will quickly discover the reality.
Making repeated trips to the State House, mayors and town managers from across Rhode Island had pleaded with her not to betray the taxpayers.
“If this passes, we may as well shut off the lights, give the unions the key and give them the checkbook,” Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena warned.
Unions can now cling to contracts that harm the taxpayers and decline to budge. A refusal to bargain in good faith would have to be taken to the state Labor Board, which is tilted heavily in favor of labor interests.
The odds may now be stacked so high against local communities that a legal case might be made that this sets up a rigged system designed to rip off taxpayers. If such a case is possible, the cities and towns should pursue it.
Rhode Island, saddled with mediocre public schools and a struggling economy, did not need this blow at this time. Though she has purchased some political support, we suspect that, in the long run, Governor Raimondo may come to rue turning her back on the taxpayers.
Bold path forward
The Times Argus, May 14
A plan to combat the growing opioid epidemic in the state is being received with mixed responses. We agree and commend the recommendations that will help scores of children in Vermont, but we are saddened the recommendations were necessary in the first place.
The leadership being taken by the state’s judiciary is a remarkable, considerate step toward answers.
The number of child abuse and neglect cases filed in Vermont’s family court has grown exponentially due, in part, to the opioid crisis. In fact, children five and under represent almost half of the children placed in the care of the Department of Children and Families, with more than half of these children in custody as a result of their parents’ opiate addiction, according to authors of the report released this week.
“Vermont’s courts are seeing more struggling families whose members are in critical need of substance use disorder treatment and services that support long-term recovery,” said Patricia Gabel, Vermont’s state court administrator, at the time the commission was announced. “Filings of abuse and neglect cases in the Judiciary’s Family Division increased 63% between FY13 and FY16. The increase in these filings has stretched existing resources to the breaking point.”
By way of tackling the daunting task of creating such a structure for Vermont, “Evidenced-based techniques used in other states may provide ways to strengthen community partnerships and expand comprehensive services to meet the needs of the entire family. These techniques may show promise in promoting family reunification and timely permanency for the children involved in Family Division child protection cases, known as the abuse and neglect docket,” the commission’s website stated.
In response, the Vermont Supreme Court created the Vermont Judicial Commission on Family Treatment Dockets. Its members represent all three branches of government, as well as the medical and business communities. As part of its charge, the commission analyzed the cases filed in Vermont’s family court that deal with child abuse and neglect and considered whether the creation of family treatment dockets would improve outcomes for both children and parents.
In its final report, the commission endorsed the use of treatment docket best practices in the abuse and neglect docket and made recommendations to the Supreme Court as to the most appropriate family treatment model for Vermont.
The commission also recommended services that should be routinely offered when an abuse and neglect case is initiated in a court where a family treatment docket is not available. The commission recommended the creation of a regional, pilot treatment docket to help offset resource challenges faced by some smaller communities, emphasized the need for a collaborative approach and recognized the importance of trauma-responsive courts.
The commission also emphasized challenges faced by potential family treatment docket participants and the need for special attention to issues such as hearing times, participant transportation issues and access to treatment.
But there are challenges in getting the structure in place. The commission members were mindful the state needs to maximize impact with limited resources, as state budgets continue to run tight.
“A lack of resources both in the courthouse environment and in smaller communities support the creation of regional Family Treatment Dockets, beginning with a pilot docket,” the commission recommended.
That could mean looking regionally for answers.
“Judge rotation and lack of available courtroom space, security personnel, judge time and attorney availability are obstacles to adding another full docket to existing court calendars,” the commission noted. “Many of the smaller counties do not have available treatment or transportation options to support a county-based Family Treatment Docket . a regional approach would ensure that specially-assigned judges and judicial masters, attorneys, and DCF representatives are all adequately trained on treatment court best practices which must be followed to achieve benefits to families.
“Initiating these services as early as possible, with oversight from the court, would increase the likelihood of more successful rehabilitative outcomes for both parents and children,” the commission noted in its report.
We commend the commission for dutifully examining the effectiveness of different treatment docket practices and thoughtfully evaluating the connection between those practices and promoting the best interests of all Vermont children. Unfortunately, times demand it.
A copy of the commission’s full report can be found at https://bit.ly/2W2N3KO