New Deficit Projection A Sign Connecticut's Troubles Aren't Over

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Editorials from around New England:

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VERMONT

The Burlington Free Press, Dec. 8

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The Scott administration's decision to remove certain recommendations by the state Natural Resources Board from a report on overhauling Vermont's main land-use law raises questions about the governor's commitment to preparing the state for the impact of climate change.

The move also raises the prospect of an administration that might be seeking to set policy by deleting competing ideas, rather than debating them on their merits in a public forum.

The Scott administration prepared the report as part of a legislative review of Vermont's 50-year-old development control law, known as Act 250.

As the Free Press reported ("Governor's staff struck climate change language from Act 250 report," Dec. 4), "The governor's office edited the draft report in September, emphasizing economic concerns while deleting much of the language about climate change."

Tayt Brooks, Gov. Scott's director of affordability and economic initiatives, called the cuts an editing decisions, rather than a policy statement.

The administration says the governor's Vermont Climate Change Commission is responsible for recommendations for addressing climate change through Act 250, but the sections remained deleted when the report was finalized and sent to lawmakers in October.

Land use policies must be developed with the longest view possible that include weighing immediate benefits against costs that might come due only years from today.

One of the lessons of Tropical Storm Irene is that the increased likelihood of more frequent and more severe weather events magnify the risk to sites for settlements, roadways and bridges, even those that might have existed for generations.

In moving forward with a review of Act 250, Vermont must recognize there is a clear economic cost to failing to consider the long-term effects of climate change.

Gov. Scott has publicly supported a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by Vermont businesses despite the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. But urging voluntary action by private companies is far different than addressing climate change through meaningful and direct action.

The question is, will Scott be a leader in making sure Vermont is prepared for the impact of climate change or merely a cheerleader on the sidelines.

Whether Vermont's land use policies are skewed too heavily toward environmental and climate impact concerns at the expense of a thriving economy is an important and worthy debate.

But reducing the profile of climate change in the administration's official report to the Legislature is no way to make sure state policy serves the best interest of Vermonters.

Online: http://bfpne.ws/2j3beUm

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NEW HAMPSHIRE

Foster's Daily Democrat, Dec. 14

This year, we've heard too much about the widening racial divide in our country and local communities, and the headlines have not been heartening.

But there is some good news locally. Folks in mostly white South Berwick, Maine, aren't running away from the problem. They are taking action against racism by establishing a sister-city relationship with Tuskegee, Alabama.

It may seem like a small gesture compared to the scope of the problem. Racial justice seems more elusive than ever in our country and communities. This year saw more shootings of unarmed black men by white police officers. NFL player Colin Kaepernick famously took a knee during the national anthem to protest racial inequality in America. Many NFL players followed Kaepernick while politicians, talk radio hosts and the president, himself, condemned their actions as un-American.

The national headlines filtered down to local athletes, too. Girl soccer players at Traip Academy in Kittery, Maine, followed Kaepernick's lead and took a knee to show their solidarity and support for racial justice.

There was plenty of racial hatred on display in other local communities, too. The University of New Hampshire in Durham had a spate of racial incidents that prompted the university to hold a forum to address some ugly behavior.

The Oyster River School system had several racist incidents, including one in which an elementary school boy was the target of racial taunts on the school bus and a middle school student reported racial jokes at school. Those incidents galvanized the community and led to a school-sponsored forum to address racism in the community.

South Berwick also had a racial incident on the school bus this year. During a community forum on racism in October, a Marshwood High School student told the audience of about 100 that she had repeatedly been the victim of racial slurs and threats by her peers on the bus. Sixteen-year-old Jalion McLean urged parents to teach their children to call out those using racial slurs.

"Teach your kids to stand up. That bus ride still sucks every day and it gets worse," McLean told parents at the forum. "Teach them that they will get a lot of backlash, people are not going to be happy if they are standing up for someone, but it has to be done."

The forum is only one of the ways South Berwick residents are working to combat racism and promote understanding. Nine South Berwick residents recently traveled to Tuskegee for the first face-to-face meeting as sister cities.

The two communities couldn't be more different. South Berwick is 95 percent white, while Tuskegee is 95 percent African-American. The northern contingent met with Tuskegee Mayor Lawrence "Tony" Hapgood, visited schools, toured museums and participated in dialogues about race.

Members of the South Berwick group were Sister City Steering Committee Chair David McDermott; South Berwick Public Library librarian Karen Eger; School Administrative District 35 gifted education specialist Grace Jacobs; First Baptist Church of South Berwick Pastor Scott McPhedran; Heidi Early-Hersy, SAD 35 director of teaching and learning; Vicki Stewart, district director of communications; Julia Ouellette, representing the First Parish Federated Church; Rachel Martin, a board member of the community nonprofit SoBo Central; and, freelance writer Amy Miller.

One Tuskegee experience in particular moved members of the South Berwick delegation to tears. They visited the Tuskegee History Center where the plight of those involved in the Tuskegee syphilis student study is commemorated.

For those who don't know or have forgotten this horrific piece of American history, the "Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male" began in 1932. According to the Centers for Disease Control, "The study initially involved 600 black men — 399 with syphilis, 201 who did not have the disease. The study was conducted without the benefit of patients' informed consent. Researchers told the men they were being treated for 'bad blood,' a local term used to describe several ailments, including syphilis, anemia, and fatigue. In truth, they did not receive the proper treatment needed to cure their illness. In exchange for taking part in the study, the men received free medical exams, free meals, and burial insurance. Although originally projected to last 6 months, the study actually went on for 40 years."

And, here's the real kicker: When penicillin began to be used routinely in 1947 to cure white people suffering from syphilis, researchers did not offer it to the Tuskegee men. The story is so bad, it almost sounds like fiction, if not for all the well-documented government research.

There is so much more to learn about racism in this country and in our communities. One trip to Alabama can't cure all of the ills we face surrounding racial prejudice, but it's a start.

The delegation from South Berwick deserves to be commended for starting the dialogue. Change can happen if we make connections and work toward real understanding.

Online: http://bit.ly/2oiM89q

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MAINE

The Bangor Daily News, Dec. 13

Net neutrality, the concept that aims to ensure equal access to the internet for consumers by barring internet providers from discriminating among content and applications, is a hotly debated topic.

But it seems suspicious that interest in the topic has risen more than five-fold in the last three years. It should also raise concerns that the Federal Communications Commission has received nearly 450,000 comments on the topic from Russian email addresses.

So far, the FCC has received more than 21 million comments on its proposal to end the neutrality rules. When the rules were contemplated in 2014, the commission received 4 million comments. Of this year's comments, more than half have come from temporary or duplicate emails, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center. Nearly 8 million comments appear to be fake.

Given this mess, there is good reason for the FCC to slow the process down and sort out what real American citizens think about the proposed rule change. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai seems unlikely to take this prudent path, instead holding a vote to gut net neutrality on Thursday as scheduled.

This is a mistake.

We know why large internet providers, like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T, want to do away with the neutrality rules. They want to make more money.

But the FCC doesn't just represent corporate interests. It is also supposed to ensure that the best interests of American citizens are upheld.

Given the huge volume of dubious comments filed in this case, there is no way for the commission to gauge the true sentiment of the American people. That's why sorting the fake public comments from the real should take precedence over a rushed vote.

"Given both the reports that fraudulent bots overwhelmingly participated in undermining the public comment period, and the significant weight of the FCC's upcoming decision and its potential adverse impact on the market, I strongly encourage Chairman Pai to delay this week's net neutrality vote so the American people can have their voices accurately and thoroughly heard," said Sen. Angus King, one of 27 senators who sent a letter to Pai raising concerns about the public comment process.

"This is a matter of enormous importance with significant implications for our entire economy, and therefore merits the most thorough, deliberate, and thoughtful process that can be provided. Unfortunately, the process thus far in this important matter hasn't come close to meeting that standard," King added.

Rep. Chellie Pingree has also called on the FCC to delay the vote to fully investigate the fake comments.

The FCC, under former President Barack Obama, decreed in 2015 that internet services are telecom services and therefore must be equally available to all.

The FCC earlier this year put out a notice that it intended to do away with net neutrality in exchange for a "light touch" regulatory approach. Last month, the FCC shared details of its plans, which would allow internet providers to control what content and sites their customers can access and at what cost.

Groups ranging from the Maine State Library and the American Library Association to Google and Amazon oppose the rule change. Their concerns are enough to warrant a closer look at the FCC's proposal. The flood of fake comments demands further scrutiny, before a vote is taken.

According to the Pew study, only 6 percent of the comments received by the FCC were unique, the rest were duplicates. Seven of the most submitted comments (six of which opposed net neutrality) comprised 38 percent of the total comments received. More than 7.75 million comments, with nearly identical wording, were submitted from email domains attributed to FakeMailGenerator.com. And, nearly 445,000 comments came from Russian email addresses.

The FCC owes it to the American public to fully investigate this situation to determine what went wrong with its comment process so it can reassure the public that it heard what they, and not fake commenters, had to say.

Online: http://bit.ly/2kwLq3q

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CONNECTICUT

The Day, Dec. 14

As bad as the state's fiscal troubles may be, finding savings by sharply reducing the eligibility requirements for the Medicare Savings Program was a mistake that sought to balance the budget by taking aid from the most vulnerable. The program uses Medicaid money to help elderly low-income individuals pay medical expenses that Medicare doesn't cover for premiums, co-pays and deductibles.

By national standards, Connecticut's MSP is generous. Some changes to cut its costs may be in order. Unlike most states, Connecticut does not consider a person's assets in deciding eligibility. Perhaps that should change. But the cuts passed in the most recent budget went too deep.

As they prepare for a special session to address that mistake, and at the same time work to repair problems with a budget that faces an estimated $208 million deficit, legislators need to own up to the decision they now regret.

At a meeting at the New London Senior Center on Wednesday, Rep. Chris Soto, D-New London, did just that.

"There was a bunch of things on the table, and this was one of the things that we decided to take that money from," said Soto. "We're in a tough spot in terms of money, but we recognize this was a cut we should not have made."

However, state Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, appeared to suffer from a bout of amnesia.

"This was not something we expected to face," said Formica.

The senator told us Thursday the program change was sold to the legislature as a way to match up with other states, but the severity of the cuts took him by surprise.

They shouldn't have.

Way back in February, when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy put these cuts on the table, testimony before the Appropriations Committee made it quite clear how devastating they would be. Formica is the co-chair of that committee.

Jean Mills Aranha, an attorney at Connecticut Legal Services, testified about how difficult the program cuts would make things for many poor, elderly people when it came to affording medicine and medical care.

"If this person (under the reduced eligibility standards) has to go into the hospital even for a day or so, she has to pay $1,316 deductible, that's pretty much her whole monthly income," testified Aranha, providing a tangible example.

"Somebody with $1,325 (monthly) is basically not going to have medical coverage," Aranha told the committee. "You are looking at a lot of people at the end of the day either not having medical coverage or not eating, not paying their rent, and these . are 39,000 people already on the program ... living month to month and check to check."

Kevin Brophy, director of the Elder Law Unit for Connecticut Legal Services, warned the committee that it was considering slashing "one of the most popular programs for seniors and individuals with disability. This Medicare Saving Program is a terrific program."

Yet the plan to lower income eligibility for the MSP made it into the Republican budget that won approval in mid-September after several Democrats crossed the aisle to support it. After Gov. Malloy vetoed that budget, the changes to the MSP ended up in the budget that finally won bipartisan approval and received the governor's signature.

The Office of Fiscal Analysis had detailed the changes for the legislature. Annual income limits to qualify for assistance under the program dropped from a range of $25,477-$29,668 down to $12,060-$16,281.

When thousands of older residents on low, limited incomes learned of the planned changes, they began contacting lawmakers in a panic. Now legislators appear desperate to restore the old income guidelines and the $54 million to pay for the assistance a restored program would cost.

In budgeting that $54 million, the legislature would exacerbate the estimated $208 million deficit. Malloy has suggested a combination of an increase in the sales tax and spending cuts to close the gap. In other words, there are no easy or popular alternatives. The budget passed in October did not fix things.

In a letter to Democratic leaders, Sen. Len Fasano of North Haven, the Republican Senate president in the 18-18 split body, wants to restore the MSP — which he also voted to cut — as a "stand-alone" matter and not dive into a budget fix.

Formica says he agrees. Fix the MSP now and put off deficit repair until January.

Adding in money is the easy part, we get it. But you can't put off the hard part, closing the deficit, for very long.

Online: http://bit.ly/2BurF6Q

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MASSACHUSETTS

The Cape Cod Times, Dec. 9

Neil de Grasse Tyson, the legendary author, astrophysicist, and education advocate, once said, "The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."

Unfortunately, for an ever-growing number of Americans, it seems the same can be said about fiction. Obviously, hoaxes, chicanery, and out-and-out lies are nothing new in a country where the very notion that "a sucker is born every minute" is often falsely attributed to its most famous showman. P.T. Barnum's apocryphal quote may have had more to do with consumers rather than voters, but the line between the two has eroded in the time since then.

Take as a case in point a message sent last week by the Tweeter-in-Chief to his 45 million followers. The dispatch, originally sent by the leader of a British neo-fascist right-wing political organization, contains three videos that purport to show Muslim individuals beating up innocent people and destroying Christian religious icons. Playing as he often does to his base supporters, many of whom believe that Islam is a faith of hatred, President Trump did not even bother verifying that the videos were accurate before sending them out.

In fact, when a reporter questioned White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders about the legitimacy of the videos, she said, without any apparent sense of irony, that whether or not the videos were authentic was inconsequential: "Whether it's a real video, the threat is real and that is what the president is talking about."

The veracity of the video is not just an issue; it is the central one, especially as the most powerful person in the free world is sending it out in the same manner that he shares most of his foreign and domestic policy decisions. One would hope that the president was basing his decisions or his outrage du jour on something that at least had a semblance of being factual.

There was a time when we could, as a nation, all at least agree on what was factual. Yes, there were always those who were willing to twist the numbers or spin a quote, but there was a general consensus that incontrovertible data should be the underpinning for any major decisions.

In recent years, however, facts have merely become inconvenient truths, easily discarded if they do not support a particular world view. Consider the birther movement facilitated by Trump; the dissemination of doubt concerning Barack Obama's place of birth became so pervasive that during the 2012 presidential primaries, a poll found that more than half of Republicans casting a vote believed that Obama had not been born in this country, despite the fact that the rumor had been repeatedly repudiated.

Perhaps an even larger problem is the issue of false equivalency. This occurs when there is near consensus on a particular doctrine, but a small number of dissenters manage to control the debate. Take, for example, an issue that has played out on these pages as well as on a national scale: climate change. The facts, as noted by NASA, are that at least 97 percent of "actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century ... are extremely likely due to human activities."

Does that mean that the remaining three percent of scientists have no basis for their argument? Not necessarily, but at some point, one has to acknowledge the existence of a preponderance of facts and then make informed decisions based on those facts. Pretending that there is still room for debate on this issue is not only idiotic, it's dangerous because it is preventing substantive actions from moving forward.

In the end, however, the biggest problem is not whether we foolishly continue debating this particular issue or any other one for that matter. What is truly troubling is that this insidious approach undermines all data; that any facts that do not coincide with a particular viewpoint must be inherently wrong and should therefore be disregarded. This approach, which seems to play out time and again with the current administration, foments a sense of chaos that encourages the public to essentially doubt everything, regardless of the source.

Although the current administration may realize some short-term victories by creating this atmosphere, the long-term impact on our democratic institutions could be catastrophic. We cannot have multiple sets of facts and expect a nation divided against itself to remain strong. An informed electorate is critical to a fully function democracy. Unfortunately, we are seeing in real time just what happens when this is not the case.

Online: http://bit.ly/2BdXD4M

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RHODE ISLAND

The Providence Journal, Dec. 14

For more than a decade, the Washington-based Tax Foundation has placed Rhode Island near the bottom for its business tax policies. But in one of the categories that shapes those rankings the state has made an impressive turnaround.

Thanks to changes made by the General Assembly at the recommendation of Gov. Gina Raimondo, Rhode Island businesses are saving some $30 million this year on the unemployment tax, which businesses pay to cover state unemployment benefits. And with additional changes that take effect in January, they are expected to save $40 million during the coming year.

In the process, Rhode Island businesses are saving an average of about $77 per employee during calendar year 2017, according to the state Department of Labor and Training. And with the additional changes, businesses will save about $100 per employee in 2018.

Such a change will have a real impact on local businesses. As Governor Raimondo said: "This tax relief will help businesses, especially small- and medium-sized businesses, invest in new equipment, new training and new staff. It makes Rhode Island a more business-friendly state, and will help more Rhode Islanders to get back to work."

To be sure, Rhode Island must still do more to make business costs competitive here. There are many taxes that raise the cost of doing business in the state. Still, this cut was a step in the right direction, and it shows what can be done when elected officials shift their focus to job number one: improving the economy and increasing job opportunities for Rhode Islanders.

Rhode Island's eye-popping unemployment tax was a national embarrassment — one well-known to businesses, if not the public. The annual report on states' business tax climates produced by the Tax Foundation routinely ranked Rhode Island worst or near-worst in the category of the unemployment tax. In fact, Rhode Island was worst each year from 2006 to 2014 and again in 2017, and second-worst in 2004, 2015 and 2016.

But in the Foundation's 2018 report, released in October, Rhode Island jumped from 50th to 23rd for its unemployment tax. That helped boost the state's overall business tax climate ranking — also based on the corporate, sales, property and individual income taxes — from 44th to 41st, Rhode Island's best showing in 15 years.

Moving from 50th to 23rd for the unemployment tax was a dramatic improvement, for which Governor Raimondo and state lawmakers deserve credit.

The governor and the legislature have done a good job of luring some small outposts of well-known brand names to Rhode Island: Infosys, GE, Johnson & Johnson, Virgin Pulse, and others. But, as we have long argued, the state needs competitive taxes and regulations, as well as much better public schools, to significantly energize its economy and give its small businesses a fighting chance.

All of us should be glad that Rhode Island politicians are finally starting to listen to the long-ignored, long-forgotten people who are trying to make an honest living in the state. They pay the taxes that keep all the government services going.

Online: http://bit.ly/2jZMoG2

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