AP NEWS

Editorials from around New England

February 15, 2019

Editorials from around New England:

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VERMONT

Valley News

Feb. 12

Want to move to Vermont? The state will welcome you not only with open arms but also an open wallet.

As of Jan. 1, the state began accepting applications for its new remote-worker program, under which people who work remotely for out-of-state companies will get $10,000 to move to Vermont. The money will be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis until a one-time $500,000 appropriation made by the Legislature is exhausted. To qualify, applicants must be a full-time employee of an out-of-state company and be able to perform most of their duties remotely from a home office or from a co-working space in Vermont.

Gov. Phil Scott, thrilled by the international buzz generated when the remote-worker program was announced last summer, now wants to expand it by paying out-of-staters $5,000 to move to Vermont and take a job, any job. With a state unemployment rate of 2.8 percent, there are many of them available.

And if you are an entrepreneurial type, the Woodstock Economic Development Commission is offering commercial rent subsidies to open retail outlets or restaurants in the town’s central village district.

The backdrop for offering these incentives is the well-documented challenge posed by the state’s rapidly aging population and declining worker-age cohort. Vermont has the nation’s third-highest median age at 42.7 years, according to census figures. Scott’s office says that there are now 23,000 fewer Vermonters under the age of 20 than in 2000 and nearly 30,000 more over the age of 65.

Despite the incentives on offer, attracting lots of newcomers might prove to be a tough sell. For one thing, out-of-staters could well wonder why, if Vermont is such a great place to live and work, it has to pay people to move there. Plus, geographic mobility among Americans is at or near an all-time low. (When the Census Bureau began tracking migration in 1948, about 20 percent of the population moved within the year; in 2015-2016, just 11.2 percent did.) And then there’s the climate, which is harsh by the standards of many who live in warmer places.

More than that, native Vermonters as well as some of those who moved to the state on their own initiative might reasonably resent the taxpayers’ largesse being lavished on people from distant places.

So here’s a modest proposal: Let’s cut out the middleman in this population transaction. Why not take the available money and make grants to Vermont couples with one or fewer children who are willing to have a baby, or have another? The state could put the money in individual investment accounts managed by the state treasurer. When the child reaches age 21, if still a resident of Vermont, there would be a nest egg to collect that could be used as a down-payment on a house or to pay down student-loan debt or any other demonstrably worthy endeavor.

Admittedly, this smacks of government intrusion into highly personal decisions, and we are also well aware that Japan’s finance minister recently ran into a hornet’s nest by suggesting that the country’s childless couples were to blame for its aging-demographic woes.

So if not baby steps, then what? Well, the state could invest heavily in developing more affordable housing; providing cheaper, high-quality child care; fostering job training opportunities; and bolstering state aid for higher education to help curb student-loan debt — in other words, do the things that help young families thrive and prosper. That’s a story that could sell itself anywhere.

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

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NEW HAMPSHIRE

The Concord Monitor

Feb. 9

When it comes to raising revenue, an old aphorism credited to the late Louisiana Sen. Russell Long, longtime chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, generally applies: “Don’t tax you. Don’t tax me. Tax that fellow behind the tree.”

In New Hampshire, the fellow behind the tree is usually the property-tax payer, so watch your wallet.

Earlier this month, Monitor State House reporter Ethan DeWitt described the difficulties mental health care providers face when hiring and keeping staff. The next day, Brendan Williams, president of the association that represents nursing homes, said the same problem afflicts the institutions, public and private, that provide long-term care for elderly residents who’ve exhausted their financial resources.

New Hampshire’s reimbursement rates under Medicaid, the federal health care program that covers the poor and the indigent, are the lowest in the land. Neither class of institutions can afford to pay what it takes to attract and keep employees. Licensed nurse assistants in nursing homes, for example, make $12 per hour. That’s not a livable wage. Mental health workers, once trained, soon leave for better paying jobs.

Senate Bill 308, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, would increase the state’s Medicaid reimbursement rate for mental health care, which is matched 50-50 by the federal government, by 12 percent. The price tag, if fully funded, is $115 million. It deserves to pass, but her bill does not address nursing home funding.

Inadequate state funding of mental health care centers and nursing homes transfers costs to property owners in the form of higher law enforcement and incarceration costs at county jails and higher taxes to keep nursing homes afloat. And then there’s the state’s gross underfunding of public education, which unconstitutionally transfers costs to local taxpayers, virtually guaranteeing another school funding lawsuit.

A 2018 study by the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute highlights the unfairness of relying on property taxes to pay for things the state should fund. Under the state’s constitution taxes must be “reasonable and proportional,” so the disparities in the burden inflicted on property-rich and property-poor communities is unconstitutional.

Local tax rates per $1,000 valuation depend on local spending, of course, but the biggest factor is the amount of taxable property per capita. Cities like Manchester, Nashua and Concord have high total property values but relatively low property values per capita.

Communities with resort and lakefront property or a major taxpayer like a power plant or regional shopping mall and relatively small population have very low tax rates. Communities with many people and fewer assets to tax, think places like Franklin and Pittsfield, have very high tax rates.

Newington led the state, in the institute’s report, with $1,376,078 of valuation per capita. It was followed by Waterville Valley, where Gov. Sununu’s family and associates own a ski area, at $1,333,676. Those communities are outliers. New Castle, with $748,201 per person, came in third.

Contrast those values with $64,132 in property value per capita in Pittsfield, $60,721 in Boscawen, $52,514 in Claremont and Berlin, in last place, at $39,816. Berlin’s 2017 tax rate was $39.19. New Castle’s tax rate was $5.85. The gaps show up in other ways. More than half of Franklin’s students were eligible for reduced-price lunches in 2017. In Bow the figure was 5 percent. Communities with the highest tax rates also tend to have the highest poverty rate as well.

New Hampshire, the nation’s second oldest state, needs fully staffed nursing homes. It sorely needs fully staffed community mental health centers. It needs quality teachers and schools for every student. What it doesn’t need, especially its poorest residents, is higher property taxes.

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

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MAINE

The Portland Press Herald

Feb. 14

There’s a reason that a set of scales is often the symbol of our courts. The search for justice should always be a balance, making sure that punishments are proportionate to the offense.

That can’t always be done in a courtroom. A convicted felon can serve a sentence, complete probation and pay restitution, but still pay the price when they fill out a job application and check the box asking if they have ever been convicted of a crime.

Judges don’t permanently exclude people from the workforce, but unemployability is one of the collateral punishments that dog people long after their debt to society has been paid.

A measure before the Maine Legislature takes a step toward balancing that scale. It’s a bill that would prohibit the state from asking about criminal history in its initial application. A job candidate would be asked the question later in the process, but at a point where they could present a more complete picture of who they are and what they learned from their experience.

It’s about time Maine did something about this serious problem. The Justice Department estimates that 65 percent to 75 percent of former prisoners look for work but fail to find it in the first year after their release. People who are at high risk to re-offend and go back to prison are denied a chance to develop the structure and feelings of self-worth that come from holding a job.

Maine would be far from a pioneer in taking this step to make it easier for people to reintegrate into society after a criminal conviction. As part of a movement known as “Ban the Box,” 33 states already do what is being proposed in Maine: They don’t ask applicants for state jobs to indicate if they have a criminal history in their initial application. Eleven states also prohibit private employers from asking the question on the first application.

A bill like this was passed by the Legislature last year, but could not survive a veto by then-Gov. Paul LePage. With a change of administrations, it’s a good idea to bring the issue forward again.

Many of our actions have lifelong consequences, and people who have been convicted of a crime should be ready to answer questions about why they did what they did and why they should be trusted now.

But checking a box on a job application does not create an opportunity for that to happen. It just gives someone processing paperwork an excuse to cull the pile.

Lawmakers should support this reasonable attempt to better balance the scales of justice

Online: https://bit.ly/2N9aLyd

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CONNECTICUT

The Record-Journal

Feb. 14

A bipartisan bill before the state legislature aims to protect personal information by restricting the disclosure of voter registration data. The bill, somewhat similar to one proposed by Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, can be seen as well-meaning but more likely could do more harm than good.

House bill 5507, now before the Joint Committee on Government Administration and Elections, would protect what’s considered sensitive voter information from hackers and commercial users in the interest of keeping it from those who would sell the data.

“One of the main ideas is to protect people’s birthday,” said Josh Elliott, a Hamden Democrat who co-sponsored the bill with Darien Republican Terrie Woode.

“Political parties can have access,” he said. “We don’t want various commercial entities having that information. We want to find that balance to protect voters.”

What protects voters, however, is not limiting information, but transparency.

Consider the situation that led to an elections enforcement investigation involving state Rep. Christana Ayala, a Bridgeport Democrat. Coverage by the Connecticut Post into election law violations depended on the use of public records.

As Mike Savino, a Record-Journal editor who is president of the Connecticut Council for Freedom of Information, has pointed out, transparency is essential to defending election results against those who would question the integrity of the election system.

“In reality,” said Savino, “this bill will do little to protect personal data but will hamper the public’s ability to monitor elections.”

Limiting information does not protect individuals and instead feeds criticisms of the election process.

Transparency is what protects, and it is in the interests of transparency that this bill should go no further.

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

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MASSACHUSETTS

The Springfield Republican

Feb. 14

The collapse of our nation’s housing market in the summer of 2008 didn’t come from out of the blue. Though it surely did seem that way for many, those who were plugged in saw warning signs aplenty before all hell broke loose. One critical red flag: There were people getting home mortgages who didn’t make even a single payment on their loan. Not one. Separately, but relatedly, there were the millions of others who had fallen badly behind on their home mortgages.

For those who were looking, the red flags weren’t merely waving, but were effectively screaming, sending off a real alarm of what was just around the corner. And when it came, the economic collapse was unlike anything folks who hadn’t been alive during the Great Depression had ever before known.

Now comes news that trouble has been brewing in the auto loan market.

A new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found fully 7 million people had fallen 90 days or more behind on their car payments. This, too, should be considered a real red flag.

The report from the New York Fed did contain both good news and bad news. Some of the good news: Mortgage delinquencies are way, way down. In the fourth quarter of 2018, just a smidge more than 1 percent of mortgage-holders were 90 days or more behind on payments. Compare that to the first quarter of 2010, when that rate had spiked to nearly 9 percent.

For those who prefer the sunny side of the street, there’s good news on auto loans, too. Car sales went up and up and up after the end of the Great Recession, with auto-buyers leaving dealerships with a record $584 billion in car loans last year. And while the delinquency rate does lie below its 2010 peak, in large part that’s because the total number of new loans has so steadily increased. In real numbers, the 7 million who are at least 90 days overdue is an all-time record.

Also, a higher percentage of those with lower credit scores have been falling behind on their loans, with the delinquency rate for so-called subprime borrowers — those with a credit score below 620 — rising past 8 percent in the final quarter of last year.

Think this isn’t a red flag? Consider this: The unemployment rate stands at just 4 percent, with more job openings now than ever before. Wages are up. And millions aren’t able to make the payments on their auto loans. How might things look if the economy were to hit a speed bump?

As we all learned back in 2008, signs such as the ones contained in Tuesday’s report from the New York Fed are ignored at our peril.

Online: https://bit.ly/2V2hnkM

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RHODE ISLAND

The Providence Journal

Feb. 13

Rhode Island’s voter ID law, passed eight years ago by the state’s heavily Democratic legislature, is one of the security measures that protect our elections from fraud. The people’s representatives decided that it is important that only legitimate voters cast ballots, since elections are the means by which citizens run their government and hold the powerful accountable.

There are those who would like to scrap protections against election fraud, for reasons that are not always altruistic. Some even want America to permit all residents to vote legally, whether citizens or not.

That’s not where the nation is. As of now, Americans want those who come to the country legally and are legitimate voters to be the ones who decide how their government is run.

Still, the effort to transform our election law continues.

Recently, some at the State House hailed a new study from Brown University academics, distributed by the National Bureau of Economic Research, that purported to find that the voter ID law passed in 2011 resulted in a drop-off of voting and registration by “vulnerable groups.”

Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, an opponent of the state’s voter ID law, had worked with the group of academics, then known as the Rhode Island Innovative Policy Lab. The group was backed by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, big supporters of Gov. Gina Raimondo, another opponent of the law.

But even Ms. Gorbea could discern the serious flaws in the preposterous study, and her office pointed them out.

It only compared Rhode Islanders with a Rhode Island driver’s licenses and those without. The study did not include all of the forms of ID the state accepts for voting, including state IDs, student IDs, military ID cards, U.S. passports, tribal IDs or voter ID cards issued by the secretary of state’s office.

That’s not a small matter. The state’s Division of Motor Vehicles, for example, issues a whopping 15,000 non-drivers identification cards each year.

And the state has made a determined effort at outreach, trying to make sure that everyone eligible to vote is able to do so. While turnout in midterm elections declined somewhat since the new law was put in place, voter turnout increased in presidential-election years, from 450,030 people in 2012 to 469,589 in 2016.

It is extremely important that everyone who has a right to vote has every opportunity to do so. But it is important, too, that our elections are protected from fraud. Each fraudulent vote effectively nullifies a legitimate one.

With all of the problems Rhode Island faces — second-rate public schools, a poor business climate, looming budget deficits — it is troubling that some politicians want to focus their energies on removing an existing voting security measure.

They could do far greater public good by dramatically expanding civics education in Rhode Island, helping more potential voters understand how their government works, and why. The level of ignorance is appalling, and terribly damaging to self-government and the protection of our liberties.

People have to provide an ID to do many things in our society: cash a check, get on an airplane, buy a beer at a ballgame. There is no good reason identification should not be used to help protect our elections.

Online: https://bit.ly/2SXbc3W