Editorials from around New England
Editorials from around New England:
State choking on ‘clean air’ rules
The Middletown Press
Connecticut has for decades faced a no-win situation on air pollution. No matter how much this state tightens up its regulations and no matter how many power plants are retired, we are hurt by emissions from facilities hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
Thanks to air patterns that leave Connecticut particularly vulnerable, fossil-fuel-burning plants in the Midwest and the South have a disproportionate impact on our air, and there’s little that can be done about it on the state level.
The situation had improved on the federal level, but all that changed on Inauguration Day 2017 when a new president took office saying that he would end what he called a “war on coal.” There is no such thing — coal plants are closing nationwide because they don’t make economic sense and people would prefer to breathe clean air, all things considered. Just the same, the president has reversed any number of policies enacted by his predecessor that aimed to improve the air quality throughout the nation, with specific importance for Connecticut.
Last week brought an announcement by the Trump administration of a final rule to replace the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan with what’s being called the Affordable Clean Energy Plan. The effects go far beyond air quality and go toward nothing less than the survival of human habitation on this planet. That might sound dramatic, but scientists are continually stunned at how quickly the climate is warming and how soon the worst-case scenarios may become unavoidable.
Unnecessary federal rules changes designed to please power companies are not just ill-advised, they’re dangerous to everyone’s well-being.
Connecticut Attorney General William Tong quickly joined with other officials around the country to object to the rules change. “The Trump Administration is taking another giant step backwards in protecting our planet,” he said in a statement. “They are trampling on the Clean Air Act and ignoring administrative law to finalize this outrageous rule.”
He is correct, but whether the objection goes anywhere is uncertain. Still, it was the right move, and shows that Connecticut continues to do what it can to improve air quality and limit harmful emissions. The last coal-fired power plant in the state is scheduled to shut down in the next few years, and though natural gas plants — which the state continues to build — cause serious problems of their own, the state at least appears to recognize the scope of the problem.
The federal government, on the other hand, is either willfully ignoring the science or simply doesn’t care about the consequences of its environmental policies. Neither possibility is heartening.
The nation needs an environmental policy that takes the science seriously, that makes concrete, enforceable goals toward converting to renewable energy within a specific time frame. Far from being a job-killer, such a plan could bring an economic boom as a next-generation workforce grows to meet our greatest challenge of coming decades.
As the 2020 election gets underway in earnest, it’s worth keeping in mind who is treating this issue with the seriousness it deserves.
Court cops out on election rigging
The Berkshire Eagle
While the Supreme Court’s decision on a citizenship census question was a partial triumph for depoliticizing the election process the Court Thursday made an unequivocally destructive call on the issue of gerrymandering, or the designing of districts for political advantage.
Once again by the familiar 5-4 vote, and once again with a majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court ruled in two cases that worked their way through lower courts that voters and state officials should be the arbiters of what are political disputes, not the federal government. This cop-out by the Court’s conservative wing ignores the reality that through gerrymandering, it is elected officials who are introducing politics into what should be the apolitical process of establishing voting districts, and the voters are unable to resolve those disputes when gerrymandering successfully negates their votes. Justice Roberts even went so far as to note that gerrymandering “is incompatible with Democratic principles,” yet he and the other justices declined to remedy the situation.
In a withering dissent, Justice Elena Kagan called the decision “tragically wrong,” adding that “for the first time ever, this court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities.” A Court that has been activist in nature in recent years did indeed pick a tragically wrong time to throw its hands up and walk away.
This decision will allow the strategies of the late Republican master of redistricting Thomas Hofeller to be advanced. His objectives were to realign districts to the greatest political advantage of whites, and with Texas, for example, expected to gain congressional seats after the 2020 census. The Republican governor and Legislature have now been given license to freely gerrymander those districts to assure that their party benefits.
Some states have made efforts to address gerrymandering, but for the most part they are not the worst offenders. The Court’s dereliction of duty will be felt for many election years to come.
Promises not kept after closure of the Augusta Mental Health Institute
The Portland Press Herald
When the Augusta Mental Health Institute was finally closed, 15 years ago this month, it was because the misery and horror of that crowded, neglected place finally became too much to ignore.
Following the closure of the state-run psychiatric hospital, people with severe mental illness were promised that help would follow them to their communities. The resulting system, an underfunded mishmash of services, has been an improvement, but that’s not saying much. For many Mainers struggling with mental illness, and their loved ones, the misery has been only slightly abated.
Further, it has been spread around - to jails and prisons, hospital emergency departments and wherever homeless people eke out an existence.
That’s because AMHI was closed under promises that have not been kept. And we are all worse off for it.
As detailed by Staff Writer Eric Russell on June 16, the closure came as the result of a class action lawsuit brought on behalf of about 300 AMHI patients following a series of deaths in 1988 - 10, to be exact, including five in one month during a heat wave.
Out of the lawsuit came a consent decree, which stipulated that the mentally ill should be treated in the least restrictive setting possible. It established a “court master,” former Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Daniel Wathen, to make sure the state was meeting the standard.
By that time, deinstitutionalization had already started (AMHI was designed to accommodate 1,270 patients; its replacement, Riverview Psychiatric Center, which opened in 2004, was built to house no more than 100), and the problems that continue to today had already begun to materialize. For example, with little support in the outside world, many of those released ended up homeless.
The general story has stayed the same since then. Without adequate treatment, housing and other services, Mainers with serious mental illness fall often into acute crisis. These crises cause them agony, and push them toward the most expensive health care interventions, or into the criminal justice system, which is not equipped to deal with such health issues.
As the Press Herald reports, public health spending on the problem in Maine has never been sufficient, and it even fell in recent years, as the population needing help grew.
Those who say we cannot afford the suite of community-based services necessary to help Maine’s mentally ill, and who are unmoved by the suffering of thousands of fellow residents, must recognize that we are already spending the money - just in the worst way possible.
Instead of funding community-level services, we are paying the costs of untreated mental illness. We pay through the crowded court system and incarceration, through millions of dollars of charity care, and through lost wages and human potential.
The Legislature last session passed a bill that calls for a review of the state’s mental health system and the formulation of a reform plan by December.
In a statement to the Press Herald, Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said the state needs to work on offering more preventative services, and more services in our communities.
She’s absolutely right. But it’s also the same thing officials have been saying since AMHI was closed.
It’s time to finally act on those words. Fifteen years ago, Maine made a promise. It’s time to live up to it.
The global story in every cup of coffee
The Concord Monitor
So far this year, according to the Department of Homeland Security, nearly 600,000 migrants, most of them families with children, were apprehended by agents on America’s southern border. More than 200,000 of the detainees were fleeing Guatemala, many of them coffee farmers risking their lives because of falling prices.
In Concord, White Mountain Gourmet Coffee sells a pound of Fair Trade Guatemalan coffee beans roasted on site for $12 to $14. According to an article in the Washington Post, in 2015 the commodity price of coffee was $2.20 per pound. The price this year: 86 cents. Guatemalan farmers grow premium shade-grown arabica coffee that commands a higher price, but one still well below the $1.40 average cost of production. Drought and a coffee fungus possibly fueled by climate change has afflicted farms in Central and Latin America, driving up the cost of production. Thousands of coffee farms in Guatemala alone have been abandoned.
Coffee farmers from Honduras and other Central American nations are among the migrants. Farmers in Peru are abandoning coffee in favor of coca, the source of cocaine destined for the American market. What’s behind the collapse in coffee prices?
Many factors are blamed for the oversupply. Coffee trees take four years after planting to produce a crop. More trees are planted when coffee prices are high, creating the boom-bust cycles common in agriculture.
Brazil is by far the world’s leading producer of arabica coffee. Hardier robusta coffee trees that can be grown without shade at lower elevations are used primarily for instant coffee and cheap brands. Brazil had a bumper arabica crop last year that dragged down prices. Many of its farms are large and managed so crops can be harvested by machine rather than by hand.
The small farms that produce the best quality hand-picked arabica beans in nations like Guatemala, Honduras, Kenya, Ethiopia, Costa Rica and Sumatra sell most of their crop on the open market rather than to specialty coffee companies. Connoisseurs prefer coffee made with beans roasted light or regular rather than dark or French because the latter bakes out the coffee’s subtle mix of flavors along with some of the caffeine. Dark and bitter coffee has less of a “kick” than lighter brews.
Growers, many of them organized into rural cooperatives, also blame speculators who buy futures on the New York market that sets world prices for coffee. New entrants have also become a factor. Chinese millennials are switching from tea to coffee. China is now home to nearly 4,000 Starbucks stores. A new one reportedly opens every 15 hours.
To serve that market, Starbucks (and before it Nestle) has been helping Chinese coffee growers increase the quality and quantity of their coffee. Arabica growing conditions in China’s Yunan province are ideal, and some large farms are state-supported. Half of China’s coffee crop is exported, including to the United States.
Starbucks is among the coffee industry players trying to assist small-scale coffee farmers. If they disappear because they can’t compete, the distinct and wonderful flavors of their coffee could vanish.
What can a coffee lover do? Lobby Congress to reverse the Trump administration’s counterproductive cuts in aid to Central American nations, cuts that increase rather than decrease migration.
Buy fair trade coffee or, better yet, coffee from a roaster who buys directly from a grower or cooperative at a price that will allow small farms to survive. The alternative is industrial coffee from, as in much agriculture, one of a handful of international corporations that dominate the market.
Waving away student debt
The Providence Journal
The amount that Americans owe on student loans recently surpassed total credit card debt and car loan debt. The astonishing $1.6 trillion that Americans owe for their education is blamed for any number of societal scourges, including delayed child rearing, weak consumer spending, and low home ownership rates among young people.
More than 44 million Americans carry student loans. Growing numbers of people believe that higher education in the United States is woefully overpriced and that something needs to be done about it.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont socialist senator and Democratic presidential candidate, believes he can make political hay from this sentiment.
Mr. Sanders proposes that the federal government — i.e., taxpayers — simply pick up the $1.6 trillion tab and let debtors walk away from their obligations. Mr. Sanders suggests that the tab can be paid with a tax on what he calls Wall Street “speculation.” What that really means is a massive tax on retirement and other forms of savings.
The truth is that there would be no way to pay for the college loan bailout without either raising a host of taxes immediately — and significantly — or with racking up huge amounts of public debt. Debt, contrary to Mr. Sanders’ promises, does not simply “disappear.” It just gets dumped on somebody else, notably including future generations already burdened with a dangerously unsustainable national debt.
The senator’s proposal is unlikely to become law, but it is already stirring up some furious public opposition.
There’s the simple issue of fairness. Mr. Sanders’ proposal would be a gift to the millions of Americans who carry student loan debt. But what about those Americans who worked hard — sometimes taking multiple jobs — to pay for their educations, and pay down their debts? Not only would bailing out those who still owe money be a slap in the face to those who worked hard to meet their obligations, they would also be taxed more to help fund Mr. Sanders’ proposal.
In other words, they would pay off their student loans twice: Once for themselves, and again for people they’ve never met.
Likewise, college graduates tend to earn more than those who did not attend. Therefore, hardworking non-college graduates would end up subsidizing the education of those who far out-earn them. How is that fair, critics ask?
Perhaps the oddest facet of Mr. Sanders’ plan is that it is only retroactive; it does not address future college costs, except that it calls for lower interest rates on future graduate student loans. But that means that, presumably, post-bailout, tuition would continue to rise and debt would start piling up again.
As Kevin Carey, an education scholar at the New America think tank, pointed out, “the plan would create a generation of student loan lottery winners, with losers on either side. People who had already paid back their loans would get nothing. People with future loans would get nothing. People with debt on the day the legislation was enacted would be rewarded.”
On a positive note, this discussion is throwing a needed spotlight on American universities, whose costs have exploded with high-priced infrastructure, vast administrative bureaus and extraordinary salaries for university presidents. It is long past time for the public to weigh whether that approach provides the best education at the best price.
Songs of summer
The Rutland Herald
The summer arts season is upon us. The days are now getting shorter, and it’s time for us to plan and act on our annual pilgrimages to the musical, visual and performing arts in the Green Mountains before the leaves start changing.
Too soon to think fall? The summer will pass before you know it, and the smorgasboard of events and attractions will pass along with it. It would be a waste to let it go by without a visit to at least a few of the venues, events and community halls where Vermont’s creative side is acting out.
The winter’s long nights encourage reflection, introspecting and curling up inside. Summer calls us outside to renew our spirits, staying up late with the sun to enjoy every moment of warmth.
Across the state, performers will set up in gazebos and rotundas, build stages at the edges of pastures and fields, or step onto the stage at fairgrounds and concert venues. Theater groups are already packing halls from Brattleboro to St. Albans, and Vermont’s visual artists and craftspeople kicked off summer with the Open Studio weekend in late May. The Vermont Symphony Orchestra has begun its annual tour of the state with fireworks, and multiple classical music festivals are starting up with abundant opportunity to hear world-class musicians.
Music in Vermont takes on many forms, from the banjo pickings at the Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival in Tunbridge and a similar setup at Brandon’s Basin Bluegrass Festival. Hard rock, heavy metal, pop music, country acts and alternative will complement classical chamber music, orchestras, quartets, chorales and the marching bands of Fourth of July parades. The music is all around us, every weekend and most weeknights of the summer, if we look.
There is possibly no more simple pleasure than spreading a blanket on the town green, opening the picnic cooler and enjoying a concert from the bandstand while children laugh and play, and grandparents smile at the newest generation.
We love our traditions in Vermont, from Town Meeting to sugar season. The summer arts season has grown into another tradition.
Vermont has long been cast as a rural state, prized for its live-and-let-live philosophy. That image was joined by the facade of visual tourism — the autumn leaves and rural landscapes — and ski tourism. Gradually, the state has added food to that list of attractions, and more recently beer, wine and spirits. Summer recreation, which for generations has meant trips to the local swimming hole, a retreat to camp, a turn in the boat on a lake or river, or a hike through the Green Mountains, now includes hundreds of miles on two wheels.
Through it all, the state has supported vibrant local theater, music festivals, opera, bluegrass, folk, live music, visual arts, crafts and much more, through a combination of dedicated local support and volunteerism blended with summer visitors who bring money, enthusiasm and new ideas.
For such a small state, there is room for all of us here, and more than enough entertainment and arts to go around. Make sure to enjoy it while the summer lasts.