Editorials from around New England

September 20, 2019

Editorials from around New England:


Tolls, groceries, vaccinations. Is Gov. Lamont the do-over governor?

Hartford Courant

Sept. 20

Gov. Ned Lamont and his administration are awash on tides of public outcry. Thursday night’s grocery tax reversal is just the latest in a series of ham-handed executions of important public policy initiatives.

In January, Mr. Lamont first broached the subject of taxing groceries as a way to balance the budget. The proposal seemed doomed within days. But months later, a new version of a grocery tax was signed into law and scheduled to go into effect Oct. 1. It would have expanded the state sales tax to “prepared food” designed for “immediate consumption.”

But once the scope of the tax became apparent — accompanied by a good deal of public and political outcry — Mr. Lamont directed the budget office and tax department to scale it back. On Thursday night, it was dead again.

Scott D. Jackson, the commissioner of the Department of Revenue Services, wrote that “when the entire statute is read as a whole, it becomes clearer that the General Assembly did not expand the applicability of the tax, but simply increased the existing tax.”

Translated into reality: “When you realize that you’ve made a colossal public policy blunder, you magically reinterpret the law and pretend it never happened.”

It’s a bewildering about-face.

Didn’t Mr. Lamont know what was in the bill he signed? Didn’t the Democrat legislators who wrote the bill? Or did they think nobody would notice? None of the possible answers inspire confidence. A strong leader would explain the changes in the laws, be transparent about the effects and stand behind them, if they are in the public’s best interest.

Take, for example, the recent back-and-forth over mandatory vaccinations for school-age children. The commissioner of the Department of Public Health, Renee Coleman-Mitchell, first said she would not release school-by-school vaccination data as the department had in the past. Just days later, Mr. Lamont said the data would be released. It might never be clear whether he overruled his commissioner or decided to change policy after hearing public outcry. In any event, it was another do-over. We hope Mr. Lamont’s recent commitment to remove the religious exemption to vaccinations doesn’t suffer a similar fate.

But the greatest do-over his administration has yet achieved is over highway tolls. What was supposed to be a cornerstone of his governorship — tolls to support infrastructure — started with a plan to toll only trucks. That changed to all vehicles, and plan after plan has been pitched until it all crumbled into an ill-defined embarrassment of public policy guesswork. Mr. Lamont claims to be ready to roll out a new plan, based on newly found sources of federal funding. But if this plan meets equal resistance, is it back to the drawing board? Another do-over, like the grocery tax and the vaccines policies?

Mr. Lamont needs to shape public policy with clear intent instead of waiting to see what floats.

Online: https://bit.ly/2ksdt81



Let’s borrow ‘Prime Minister’s Questions’ from the U.K.

The Bangor Daily News

Sept. 19

Recent Brexit uncertainty in the United Kingdom brought added international attention to that country’s parliamentary proceedings. And, notwithstanding the current chaos surrounding the suspension of Parliament, we can’t help but wonder about potentially borrowing one particular tradition from our friends across the pond: Prime Minister’s Questions.

Each Wednesday that Parliament is in session, the British prime minister — who is also a member of the legislative body — takes a series of questions from members of the House of Commons. As was on display earlier this month when new Prime Minister Boris Johnson fielded his first-ever round of questions from parliament, the exchange can be rather raucous and contentious.

American politics are contentious, but nevertheless, we wonder whether adding some sort of legislative question time with our own top government official could be a welcome addition in the name of transparency and public debate.

We certainly don’t want to throw the presidential system on its head in favor of a parliamentary one. We literally fought a war to separate ourselves from England. But we’re intrigued with the idea of allowing for some form of President’s Questions here at home.

An ordered set of questions from legislators to the president — perhaps a pre-agreed upon number of questions from both political parties and both houses of Congress following the State of the Union — could be interesting.

This is far from a unique or unprecedented thought. The late Sen. John McCain, then a presidential candidate, expressed a willingness in 2008 to institute Prime Minister’s Questions-esque sessions in which lawmakers would be able to ask questions directly to the president.

“The guys that are on my side stand up and tell me how great I am, but there’d be others that would have some very tough questions to ask,” McCain said in 2008, as reported by NPR. “I’d like to see that.”

We don’t think it needs to be done as frequently as it is in the U.K., but some form of direct, public back-and-forth between the chief executive and legislative branch would be welcome. That is particularly true at a time when successive administrations have exerted increasing power at the expense of legislative authority — most recently with President Donald Trump going around Congress to fund border wall construction with money already appropriated for other purposes. A presidential questions session could help restore a measure of constitutional power equilibrium, even if only symbolically.

Constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley in 2008 expressed support for McCain’s question session idea, noting that the practice “frankly brings the prime minister down a notch.”

“These sessions humanize a prime minister and remind him that he’s a citizen and a temporary occupant of an office,” Turley told NPR at the time.

A little humanization could go a long way in today’s American political landscape. And adding a short, organized Q & A from lawmakers after the State of the Union could add some new life to what has become an often staid, predictable recitation of carefully-planned soundbites.

Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution says that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” There’s nothing in there about a required back-and-forth with Congress about those measures. But there’s nothing in there that prevents it, either.

C-SPAN asked President George H.W. Bush about the differences between the presidential and parliamentary systems back in 1991. His answer was lighthearted, but interesting.

“I count my blessings for the fact that I don’t have to go into that pit that (former U.K. Prime Minister) John Major stands in, nose-to-nose with the opposition, all yelling at each other,” Bush said at the time.

Again, we don’t see any need to import additional yelling into our political process. But there’s something to be said about a president engaging with his or her political opponents directly, formally and consistently.

Having a president answer a few post-State of the Union questions about the vision they just espoused, and do so without the help of a teleprompter, would surely test their grasp of policies and ability to think on their feet. It does run the risk of congressional opponents using the moment for a partisan attack. But we should trust an American president to command such a situation, just as we should trust American lawmakers to seek productive dialogue rather than discord.

Which leads us to a question of our own: Isn’t that the kind of leadership we should all want?

Online: https://bit.ly/2mrnBP8



Routine business is Cannabis Commission chair’s goal

The Republican

Sept. 20

Steven Hoffman’s goal is to see the marijuana industry blend seamlessly into the business and economic fabric of Massachusetts.

That won’t be as easy as it sounds, and certainly not in the short term, but Hoffman chooses to believe.

“The way I’ll judge our success will be, will this be a normal industry?” the chairman of the state Cannabis Control Commission said during a visit with the editorial board of The Republican and Masslive.com. Hoffman wants job creation, tax revenue and community to serve as the legacy of the 2016 referendum, which legalized recreational marijuana in Massachusetts - and also of his commission, which regulates the industry as serves as both watchdog and facilitator.

The facilitating comes with Hoffman’s determination to fill the legal requirements that prioritize diversity within the industry and help for communities that were most adversely affected when marijuana was prohibited. He comes off as neither advocate nor critic of marijuana use, but rather as an administrator who accepts the expectations of the commission’s duties, and also its limits.

Marijuana is still a volatile topic in many quarters. Time and gradual acceptance could someday make this industry viewed no differently than liquor, cigarettes or other legal products. But, three years after the referendum vote, advocates think its rollout is being done too slowly. It’s being done too quickly, according to those who opposed legalizing it in the first place, and see dangers in letting it flourish now.

Nearly a dozen states have legalized marijuana, but only one, Illinois, did it through legislation. All the others passed it by public referendum, as Massachusetts did.

Many communities want as little of it as possible, or no involvement at all. Some, like Holyoke, see tremendous economic potential in this new revenue source. Hovering over the entire industry is that on the federal level, marijuana is still illegal, leaving states and investors to trust they’ll be left alone while federal officials concentrate on more serious criminal problems.

The federal prohibition makes banks leery of getting involved, and limited access to banking is a big obstacle for this cash-heavy industry. This serves to remind us that this is not just another industry, but one with intersecting and sometimes conflicting regulations and guidelines.

Despite all of this, Hoffman thinks the industry will grow exponentially in the next several years. He defends the pace of the rollout, saying truthfully that this is one enterprise which must be done right the first time - as other states, which ran into problems after hasty rollouts, found out the hard way.

Time has a way of calming the waters on hot-button issues. Gay marriage was hugely controversial for decades, and in some quarters, still is. But when skeptics saw the sky didn’t fall with its passage, it became routine in the eyes of many who had once opposed it.

The same may happen with legal marijuana, but for now, it garners headlines with every morsel of news and remains not just an economic topic, but an emotional social one. It’s unlike other industries, whose trends and regulatory actions go unnoticed by all but those directly affected.

Will marijuana ever be “just another business?” Most probably, yes. That’s what Steven Hoffman says will validate his commission’s work, but he knows enough not to expect it to happen tomorrow.

Online: https://bit.ly/2mrq0cC



Legal pot in Mass. still illegal in NH

Foster’s Daily Democrat

Sept. 19

A new retail marijuana store has opened just across the New Hampshire border in Salisbury, Massachusetts.

As a public service, we remind our readers in New Hampshire that while they may buy weed legally in Massachusetts, once they bring it across the border into the Granite State, possession of that marijuana becomes illegal.

While New Hampshire has decriminalized possession of three-quarters of an ounce or less, possession will still result in confiscation and fines. Possession of more than three-quarters of an ounce could result in criminal charges.

We know our readers will be shocked, shocked, to hear that despite pot not being legal in New Hampshire, people are still crossing the border to buy it.

“You may be interested to know we’ve seen a lot of New Hampshire (license) plates,” Salisbury, Mass., Police Chief Thomas Fowler told Seacoast Media Group. “Yes, you can legally buy recreational marijuana in Massachusetts, but you cross the border to go back home at your own peril.”

Acting Seabrook Police Chief Brett Walker said some marijuana users are running afoul of the law because they don’t realize they have crossed from one state into the other.

“And then we explain that Salisbury is about 1,000 yards away,” Walker said. “People need to know where they are geographically if they are in possession of marijuana because any amount is illegal in New Hampshire.”

Readers also should not be surprised if New Hampshire police officers are not receptive to their explanations that the marijuana was legal when they bought it.

Lt. John Hennessey, of New Hampshire State Police Troop A, said police don’t care how people came to possess their pot, if you are found in possession you will be subject to prosecution.

It is also important for visitors from Massachusetts to understand that even though marijuana is legal in their state, Massachusetts law doesn’t protect them from New Hampshire law.

Finally, public use of marijuana is not legal in either state and you cannot operate a vehicle under the influence of marijuana.

“You can’t use marijuana in your car, on the shuttle bus, in the parking lot, at Salisbury Beach or anywhere at all in public in Massachusetts,” Chief Fowler said. “People leave the store with their purchases in sealed envelopes and they should stay sealed.”

To save our readers the heartache and expense of legal entanglements, here are some helpful hints from our friends in law enforcement.

What NH pot buyers in Mass. should know:

- Shoppers must be 21 or older to visit a marijuana dispensary and a government-issued ID is required.

- Entrance into the dispensary showroom comes only after two security guards check IDs, including passage through a machine to detect fakes.

- Once buzzed into the showroom, customers are met by store personnel and escorted through the shopping and purchasing process.

- All purchases are in cash, no checks, money orders or credit cards are accepted.

- According to Massachusetts state law, retailers can only sell up to an ounce of marijuana or five grams of concentrate in any given transaction. That’s the same amount a person can legally possess in public in the Bay State.

- In Massachusetts, marijuana cannot be used in any way in public or on federal land (smoking, vaping, eating, whatever).

- It’s illegal to drive under the influence of marijuana.

- Once leaving Massachusetts and entering New Hampshire, possession of marijuana is unlawful for everyone, everywhere.

Online: https://bit.ly/2mnPtU8



The threat from mosquitoes

Providence Journal

Sept. 19

When the sun is shining and the weather is glorious, most of us enjoy being outside. This is particularly true of young children, who love to play in their backyards or in parks with their friends and families.

Unfortunately, there is a threat to our safety during the summer and early fall. That would be the mosquito, perhaps the most dangerous creature known to humans.

It is heartbreaking that a 6-year-old girl from Coventry has suffered terribly from a bite.

In a moving Sept. 17 news story by Journal Staff Writer Mark Reynolds, we learned that the girl, Star Jackman, “felt the early pangs of what would turn into an excruciating headache” two days before the start of school.

She slept through the next 24 hours, worrying her loving parents and Rhode Island public officials. The latter were concerned this could be a case of Eastern Equine Encephalitis, “a life-threatening mosquito-borne virus that swells a person’s brain.”

Star ran a temperature, which led her father, Reginald, to take her to a clinic. A half hour later, she was in an ambulance heading to Hasbro Children’s Hospital.

It was confirmed she had contracted EEE. She remained at the hospital for several days, dealing with tremors and seizures. She wasn’t strong enough to lift her head at times, was in severe pain, and didn’t initially recognize her mother and father. Her heart rate dropped at points to levels where the medical team had to intervene to save her life.

One can only imagine how painful this has been for this family.

Fortunately, Star was discharged from hospital on Sept. 9 and has started on the road to recovery. She now recognizes her parents, family and friends. “She wobbles when she walks,” her mother, Jessica, said, “but her muscle memory is improving slowly.”

In a few weeks, further tests will be performed to assess whether EEE has permanently affected her health and way of life.

It is frightening that a mere mosquito bite could have life-altering consequences. As of last week, three people in Rhode Island had been diagnosed with EEE this year. One had died. In Massachusetts, there were eight cases diagnosed this summer, one fatal. Those who survive often suffer mild to severe brain issues.

That makes this an unusually dangerous year. The Centers for Disease Control say that seven cases are typically reported nationwide each year. Both states have sprayed pesticides in areas deemed to pose a critical risk.

But the government can only do so much. It is important for all people, both big and small, to take extra precautions and be safe when walking or playing outside in the nice weather, and to avoid outdoor activities at dusk and early morning, when mosquitoes are out in large numbers.

Star’s mother noted to the Journal that mosquitoes “have always liked her daughter.” Her warning to others is simple and straightforward: “Make sure you’re putting bug spray on yourself and your children.”

We offer our sincere sympathies to those who have been afflicted with this very rare disease. We extend our thoughts and prayers, in particular, to the Jackmans, and thank them for speaking out, warning other parents about the dangers. They have no doubt helped to protect other children.

Online: https://bit.ly/2kUuBDy



When in doubt, hand it out

Caledonian Record

Sept. 17

Last week the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that the Burlington Police Department could not charge a citizen for staff time dedicated to fulfilling a public record request.

The ruling resolves a years-old effort by a Burlington man (Reed Doyle) who says he witnessed a public incident of excessive force against a child by a city police officer in June 2017. He wanted the police to cue the video.

As is often the government custom, the police department first flatly refused his request. When he didn’t go away, they said he could inspect the video but it would cost him a few hundred bucks. That money would pay for the staff time necessary to redact the video, they said.

In a terrible ruling, a lower court agreed with BPD Chief Brandon Del Pozo.

Backed by the ACLU, Vermont Press Association, New England First Amendment Coalition, the Vermont Journalism Trust and Secretary of State Jim Condos, Doyle fought the police obstruction effort. They all argued that the examination of public records is the lifeblood of an open society.

The High Court agreed.

“Based on the plain language of the (Public Records Act), we hold that the BPD cannot charge for staff time spent in complying with requests to inspect public records,” Chief Justice Paul Rieber wrote for the majority.

The Public Records Act “represents a strong policy favoring access to public documents and records,” the High Court explains. “Given this legislative policy, we should ‘resolve any doubt in favor of disclosure.’”

Or, as Vermont journalism legend Mike Donoghue says, “When in doubt, hand it out.”

It’s a crying shame that more agents of government refuse to embrace that simple, yet wise, approach.

Online: https://bit.ly/2lYoi2f