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Editorials from around New England

April 19, 2019


Republican of Springfield

April 17

It’s been a quarter-century since former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld ran a successful campaign. Back then, in 1994, Weld was easily re-elected as the Bay State’s chief executive. He was a liberal Republican, libertarian-leaning, in an era when there were still such creatures walking the Earth, at least in the Northeast corner of the United States.

These days, of course, even relatively moderate Republicans holding national office are a rare breed, indeed. There’s Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. And then there’s -- well, you get the idea.

Nonetheless, Weld, 73, who had earlier said that he’d formed an exploratory committee to look at challenging President Donald Trump for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, officially jumped into the race on Monday. It was quite the leap.

Weld is still the man he’s always been: a socially liberal, fiscally conservative Republican with libertarian leanings. But with the national party having been taken over by Trump and Trumpism -- whatever that is at any given moment -- Weld isn’t merely an anachronism, but is more a museum piece.

Still, his campaign is worth cheering. Perhaps he’ll succeed in reminding voters of the myriad failings of the current head of the once-Grand Old Party. He surely endeavored to do just that in the video that accompanied his campaign kickoff. At the top, it places Weld in context. A tough, crime-fighting U.S. attorney who had been appointed by President Ronald Reagan. A tax-cutting, budget-balancing, welfare-reforming governor who got the Bay State’s then-shaky fiscal house in order. When the times called for someone to set a new course, Weld was that man.

Quickly, the campaign video then pivots to today, showing a brief montage of Trump’s ridiculousness. There’s his dismissal of the late John McCain’s heroism. His claim that Mexico would pay for his vanity wall on our nation’s southern border. His mocking imitation of a disabled news reporter. The “Access Hollywood” tape on which he boasts that his celebrity allows him to assault women. And more.

America can, and should, do better, the announcement says. And Weld is the man to lead the Republican Party out of the wilderness.

That’s quite the stretch, of course. Trump has taken over the GOP, with the opposition, such as it is, mostly having gone underground.

Weld’s only hope is to make hay in New Hampshire, which holds the nation’s first primary early next year. With independents generally making up a fair chunk of Granite State primary voters, Weld hopes he can appeal to enough of the sometimes-cranky electorate there to make some noise. Enough, he and his backers hope, to put at least a dent in Trump’s armor.

It’s still only a fantasy, of course, but it’s an awfully enjoyable one for folks who know in their hearts that Trumpism isn’t Republicanism. Weld isn’t going to wrest the GOP nomination away from Trump, but he’ll at least try to be a thorn in the president’s side along the way.

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



The Middletown Press

April 17

Attending college has always been something of a gamble. Students have to put their money on the table to get in the game, and hope to leave on a path that will cover their inevitable losses.

The stakes have gotten a lot higher in recent years. Tuition costs graduated from pricey to obscene, creating financial opportunities for those willing to stake the game.

As a result, Connecticut students these days are receiving their degrees with the highest school loan debt in the nation.

For members of the Class of 2017 in Connecticut, the average student debt was $38,510.

That was two years after our state had the foresight to create the position of student loan ombudsman to help students navigate loans and serve as watchdog to dubious lending practices and scams.

If only the General Assembly had come up with the cash to pay for the position.

In the absence of an ombudsman, Connecticut Attorney General William Tong has joined 20 of his peers from other states in pressuring the U.S. Department of Education to return to sharing information on student lenders. The feds are unyielding, claiming it’s their turf.

Just a few weeks ago, however, the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Education revealed they can’t handle the auditing of student lenders alone.

“Abruptly shutting off access to this information is an inexplicable gift to the bad actors in this industry, and a blow to students and consumers across the country,” Tong said.

That’s an understatement. Government dysfunction of this scope has led to societal implosions.

When it comes to debt, student loans are now second only to mortgages, which means it has lapped car and credit card debt.

Consequently, millennials hesitate when standing on the ledge of major life choices. So they delay buying first homes or having children. Their parents, who commonly share some of the debt, enter their golden years with less silver.

It’s not helping with income parity either. As we noted last week, women must work an additional 92 days to earn on average as much as men. While trying to catch up, women are burdened with the weight of carrying two-thirds of the student loan debt in the United States.

President Barack Obama cut out the middleman (aka, the banks), by allowing the government to make loans directly. The U.S. Department of Education pays to service $1.4 trillion in student loan debt.

Nine years later, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is resisting a federal order to provide relief to defrauded student loan borrowers and President Donald Trump is looking to cap the size of loans, which would only hurt the working class.

All this while affluent families are getting caught cheating to sneak their kids into elite colleges.

Tong is right to try to fight for Connecticut students, but it’s going to take a lot more to fix this problem. For the next generation of students, the game is already rigged.

Online: https://bit.ly/2IwG5Y3



April 18

An eruption of irresponsibility over the operation of the Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls has led to a massive lawsuit and the intervention of the federal courts. Let’s hope that process can restore some sanity.

Some background: In 1991, Central Falls officials decided to make some money (desperately needed in a city that later went bankrupt and still relies on state taxpayers to fund its schools) from a detention facility.

Over the last 25 years, the private prison, governed by a board whose members are appointed by the mayor, has pumped some $5.5 million into the city.

But activists this year became outraged that the facility’s warden, who has a responsibility to make the facility pay for itself, struck a deal with the U.S. Department of Justice to house detainees from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Wyatt received some 133 of them on March 10.

Protesters took to the streets, calling the housing of ICE detainees “racist, classist and xenophobic” and an assault on the ideals of “diversity and inclusion.” City leaders began calling for the closure of the facility, and bills were introduced in the legislature authorizing Central Falls to do so.

With Mayor James Diossa joining in the criticism, the facility’s governing board ordered the removal of the detainees on April 5.

“The change in prisoner composition at the Wyatt was not approved by the board of the corporation and communicated to the city in a false light,” city lawyer Nicholas Hemond wrote to lawyers representing bondholders on April 8.

“The detention of these recent arrivals at the Wyatt is abhorrent to the ethos of the city, a predominantly immigrant and first-generation American city,” Mr. Hemond wrote.

Unfortunately for Central Falls, there is something called fiduciary responsibility that may trump such political activism.

Bondholders struck back with a $130-million, 300-plus-page lawsuit against Mayor Diossa and Central Falls, challenging whether “the ethos of the city” permits it to bankrupt the facility.

The board of governors, sufficiently awoken, held an emergency meeting last Sunday and decided to put the suspension of ICE detainees on hold. A federal judge is now trying to mediate this mess.

While this battle was unfolding, the mayor was, rather unhelpfully, off in Taiwan on a junket with some of his Rhode Island friends, including Lt. Gov. Daniel McKee.

Meanwhile, the state attorney general’s office ruled on April 12 that the facility’s board of directors violated the law when it approved a $1.5-million loan on Jan. 22 without posting its meeting properly. The state’s Superior Court could declare votes taken at that illegal meeting null and void.

And the board now faces a second illegal meeting charge, this one about last Sunday’s emergency session.

As they say: only in Rhode Island.

You have to wonder, watching this play out, whether city officials have a clear understanding of their responsibilities.

Certainly, Central Falls, a poor city that remains to some extent a ward of the state, seems to be in a weak position to scorn the bondholders that have funded the facility. City leaders are probably going to have to look more carefully at the legal grounds for their actions affecting the Wyatt Detention Facility, however abhorrent the federal government’s enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws may be to the ethos of the city.

(Editor’s note: This was updated to correct the name of the Central Falls lawyer who sent the letter to lawyers representing bondholders on April 8.)

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



The Brattleboro Reformer

April 18

Southern Vermont, especially the Bennington region, has paid a high price for the release of PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances), such as PFOA, into its environment. A bill approved by the state House this week to assure the chemicals are kept out of our drinking water will hopefully begin to address that legacy statewide.

PFAS represents a family of chemicals which were used in a wide variety of products including non-stick cookware, stain-resistant fabrics and carpets, and cosmetics. They are suspected of a number of adverse health risks, including an increased risk of cancer, at relatively low concentrations.

The trouble is that these substances don’t easily break down in the environment, but dissolve easily in water.

That’s been the experience in Bennington, where years of lackluster enforcement of environmental regulations under governors of both parties, along with a shortage of any scientific knowledge about the effects of these common chemicals, led to the wide-spread airborne release of PFOA by ChemFabCorp.

PFOA was used in the manufacture of liquid Teflon, which ChemFab used to coat fiberglass and other fabrics, drying those at high temperature. After the chemical settled to earth from the factory stacks, it seeped into the groundwater and contaminated private wells.

Contamination around two former ChemFab Corp. factories in Bennington was determined by the state to be the source of widespread pollution in groundwater and several hundred local wells. Earlier this month, Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, which assumed ChemFab’s assets just before closing the Bennington plant in 2002, finalized a settlement with the state in which it agreed to pay the cost of connecting PFOA-impacted property owners to clean sources of drinking water.

The total cost is of this work is estimated at $40 million to $50 million, almost of which the company has agreed to pay.

The bill, S.49, establishes regulatory monitoring of drinking water and the establishment of allowable maximum levels. It also requires leachate from landfills to be tested and treated for polyfluoroalkyl substances before discharge into the waters of the state.

With the numerous complaints about stack emissions and odors around the North Bennington ChemFab plant when in operation, state officials in the late 1990s knew or should have known that ChemFab wasn’t meeting its regulatory mandate for testing and reducing emissions. But the steady employment ChemFab provided in a region where blue-collar jobs had grown scarce seems to have taken precedence over protecting the environment and the health of Vermonters.

The state missed opportunity after opportunity to make things right, until widespread damage was done to the environment and to those who drank contaminated well water.

The residents as well as the state and the company are paying today for that regulatory timidity, and will continue to pay for some time to come.

The newly passed bill can help eliminate such mistakes in the future. A group statement from S.49′s supporters, including state Sen. Brian Campion, has it right: “Vermonters have the right to expect government to protect them from poisons in our public waters, especially those poisons that are invisible, odorless, and tasteless — and that’s what S.49 does.”

Online: https://bit.ly/2UOz6An



The Concord Monitor

April 18

New Hampshire is not a home rule state. Its cities and towns, particularly when it comes to raising the revenue needed to fund government, have only the power the governor and Legislature grant them.

Though communities may charge assorted fees, that authority consists primarily of the right to levy a tax on property. Recently, the House voted to change that with House Bill 641, legislation that would allow communities to tack a $2 per night occupancy surcharge on the lodging component of the state’s rooms and meals tax.

Given the burden that ever-escalating local property taxes inflict, it’s easy to understand why communities are seeking other forms of revenue. But the Senate and governor should carefully consider the precedent that permitting local taxation would set. What might it lead to? Given the great disparity in property wealth and per-capita incomes among the state’s cities and towns, would a local rather than a state tax be fair?

The lodging tax bill, unsurprisingly, was sponsored by representatives from so-called tourist towns like Hampton and Portsmouth, where much of the revenue from the rooms and meals tax is raised. The tax brought in $314 million in 2017.

To balance the state’s budget, the Legislature has filched all it can from cities and towns over the years. It stopped contributing to the retirement costs of municipal employees, virtually eliminated school building aid, reduced revenue sharing and shrank the percentage of the take from the rooms and meals tax that’s shared with towns from 40 percent to 28 percent. The loss meant higher local property taxes for all communities.

There is a superficial logic behind the request to impose a local lodging surcharge. The lion’s share of the revenue from the tax comes from communities with lots of resorts, restaurants and hotels, places like Portsmouth and Lebanon. The state returns a portion of the tax to communities, but the formula long used is based not on where the money was raised but population. Tourist towns have unsuccessfully fought to change the formula.

As Portsmouth’s city manager argued recently, 312 local businesses contributed more than $27 million to the state in rooms and meals tax payments but the city of 21,500 received just $1.1 million back from the state. Meanwhile a community of similar size with relatively few hotels and restaurants received $1.2 million. That’s unfair, so the argument goes, because tourist towns have to spend heavily on police protection and other services to accommodate hoards of visitors, an expense borne by local taxpayers.

The bill’s sponsors, however, look at only one side of the ledger. Property values in places attractive to tourists are far higher than elsewhere and assessments of hotels are based in part on occupancy rates and revenues. That’s why Portsmouth’s 2017 tax rate was $15.38 per $1,000 valuation while the rate was $28.24 in Concord, $37.32 in Keene, and $39.19 in Berlin, which has virtually no local lodging industry.

The lodging bill reminds us of the still unresolved school funding battle over so-called donor towns that briefly paid more in statewide education property taxes than they got back. In the end, such debates serve only to obscure the fundamental inequities of our tax system.

And where would the fees stop? Should Concord, which as the capital has more tax-exempt property than any other city, be allowed to offset some of its expenses by charging lawmakers for parking? Should Allenstown, half of whose land area consists of Bear Brook State Park, be permitting to add a buck or two to the park’s admission fee?

House Bill 641 should not become law.

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



The Kennebec Journal

April 19

Maybe it’s the night sky, how it’s so clear you can see our solar system and beyond in all its celestial glory. Whatever it is, something’s drawing Mainers toward the stars.

Since Yuri Gagarin in 1961 became the first human to enter into orbit, fewer than 600 people have gone to space. Fewer still - just 224, plus those who have walked on the moon - have gone outside their space craft, floating into one of the most unforgiving environs imaginable.

Even on that short list, there are two Mainers. And if all goes well in the next year, we could add a third.

Jessica Meir, valedictorian of the Caribou High School class of 1995, will take part in the next mission to the International Space Station, NASA announced this week. Along with an astronaut from Russia and another from the United Arab Emirates, the 41-year-old Meir is scheduled to leave in September for what is initially a six-month mission.

Meir told the Press Herald she will “most likely” have the opportunity to conduct a spacewalk. There is a chance too she will do so with Christina Koch, an American astronaut now in the middle of a 328-day stay at the space station; it would be the first all-female spacewalk.

To get to the chance to make history, Meir has had to shine. She has earned a bachelor’s degree in biology, a master’s in space science and a doctorate in marine biology. Among other research, she has studied animal survival and behavior in extreme conditions - emperor penguins in the Antarctic, elephant seals in Northern California. To see how bar-headed geese survive in the high altitudes over the Himalayas, Meir trained them to fly in a wind tunnel.

She was chosen in 2013 for astronaut training, just one of eight selected out of 6,000 applicants for NASA’s 21st astronaut class. Now, after training - including learning the Russian she’ll need to communicate with fellow astronauts at the space station - Meir will get the opportunity to conduct research in the world’s most unique laboratory.

The space station was launched in 1998 and got its first crew in 2000. More than 230 people from 18 countries have since visited.

At the size of a football field, the space station is the largest structure ever put in space. It flies above Earth at around 248 miles and orbits the planet every 90 minutes, flying at 17,500 mph.

The space station is largely used to study how the extreme conditions of space affect humans as well as materials. Among other things, the results will guide efforts to propel humans farther into space, with the space station used as a base of operations for future far-flung missions.

Meir will join Charles O. Hobaugh, of Bar Harbor, and Christopher Cassidy, of York, as Mainers who have been to space. Both men also conducted spacewalks while at the space station, with Cassidy famously taking a “space selfie” while on a walk in 2013.

All three have reached the pinnacle of their profession. By this time next year, all three will have reached space.

And all three started their lives right here in Maine, looking up at the same night sky.

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

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