Editorial Roundup: New England

Rutland Herald. July 22, 2021.

Editorial: Heads above water

It sounds like the plot of a movie. Maine Sen. Angus King urged government and private-sector officials to do more to be prepared because “the next Pearl Harbor, the next 9/11 will be cyber.”

The two-term Maine independent said this week at a hearing that the nation faces “an extremely dangerous situation” because so much of its critical infrastructure can be targeted by hackers and intruders.

One of the vulnerable areas is our water systems.

“We are facing a vulnerability in all of our systems, but water is one of the most critical, and I think one of the most vulnerable,” King said at the start of a hearing before the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee. In fact, U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat and the committee chair, reiterated “we face threats from unscrupulous individuals, criminal enterprises and antagonistic state actors 24 hours a day and seven days a week. … It’s clear that many of our nation’s vital transportation and water systems face especially serious challenges in dealing with cybersecurity vulnerabilities.”

“There is an incipient nightmare here,” King warned. Cyber threats have soared in recent years, including recent ransomware attacks on critical infrastructure such as Colonial Pipeline. The water sector has not been immune.

It does not seem as if it could be an issue in rural New England and yet water systems of any size pose an especially tempting target for domestic terrorism.

A hacker unsuccessfully attempted to poison the water supply of Oldsmar, Fla., earlier this year by breaching city systems that control chemical balances. Another hacker breached a water treatment plant in San Francisco in January. The Justice Department in March indicted an individual on a charge of hacking into and tampering with water systems in a rural Kansas county.

Closer to home, John Sullivan, chief engineer of the Boston Water and Sewer Commission, testified Wednesday that his organization was hit by a ransomware attack last year. While it was able to recover without any operations being compromised, Sullivan stressed that many of the nation’s 50,000 drinking water systems and 16,000 wastewater systems lack the resources and knowledge to respond to a cyberattack.

“We have seen a growing number of these systems fall victim to these attacks, which can have significant implications on public health and safety,” said U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican and vice chair of the committee. “These attacks are very scary for the public when they occur and can leave us questioning the safety of our water systems.”

A 2019 report by the American Water Works Association called the cyber risk the top threat facing the U.S. water sector after hearing the year before from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI warning operators “that the Russian government was specifically targeting the water sector and other critical infrastructure as part of a multi-stage intrusion campaign.”

Lawmakers in the committee warned a major breach in our water infrastructure system could jeopardize the safety of our drinking water and impair communities’ ability to safely dispose of harmful waste.

For King, that is most definitely a threat to human health. He has been pushing for more attention to cybersecurity for years and remains unsatisfied with the nation’s progress toward beefing up its defenses.

“We’ve been a cheap date in cyber where we’ve been attacked repeatedly in a variety of ways and no real serious response,” King said, pointing to mild sanctions.

“Cyber is cheap,” King told the committee, adding that Russian President Vladimir Putin “can hire 8,000 hackers for the cost of one jet fighter. Think of that for a second, and that means cost is not really any kind of deterrent or disincentive.”

While this feels like a bigger issue, some of the testimony focused on the fact that smaller systems — like those found around Vermont and other smaller communities — are especially vulnerable because they have relatively small staffs, they do not have high-level safeguards and security, and even a minor incident could have a huge effect on people’s trust in something as basic as drinking water.

“This is why small communities believe that protecting our water supplies from any cyberattack is just as important as protecting large communities,” wrote Sophia Oberton, the special projects coordinator for the city of Delmar, which sits in Maryland and Delaware. It serves 4,500 citizens.

We commend Sen. King for defending rural communities at risk. And we condemn any movie producer who thinks this is a plot worth pursuing. And Bruce Willis ain’t interested.

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Boston Globe. July 22, 2021.

Editorial: Giving a boost to nonprofits in their time of need

Restoring the state’s charitable tax deduction is the right thing to do.

If ever there was a year to lend a hand to the state’s nonprofits — everything from community centers and homeless shelters to pandemic-shuttered arts organizations — this is it.

Yes, this is the year to write the check. And what better way to encourage people to write that check than to give them a modest state tax deduction in return. Taxpayers benefit. Charities benefit. What could be better — and easier?

But that will require members of the Legislature to go along. For the state, it means a revenue hit of only about $64 million a year. But for the nonprofits and the community members they serve that stand to benefit, it can represent a lifeline.

“Thousands of nonprofits are on a fiscal cliff right now,” Jim Klocke, CEO of the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network, said in an interview. “Some that got PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans have run out. Many nonprofits kept doing what they usually do, like running after-school programs, and then they did some more, like opening soup kitchens. . . . This is just the right time to reinstate this (charitable) deduction.”

The long and torturous history of the charitable deduction in Massachusetts goes back to 2000, when voters approved the ballot measure by a 72% to 28% margin. But in 2002 the Legislature put the measure on hold until the state hit a certain number of economic triggers — the same ones that eventually reduced the state income tax back to 5 percent. That should have happened as of Jan. 1, 2021, but lawmakers delayed it a year.

When Governor Charlie Baker filed his budget back in January for the fiscal year that began July 1, he proposed another year’s delay. In the midst of the pandemic, the administration was doing everything but checking the seat cushions for spare change. Flash forward six months and the state is now awash in unexpected revenue — but lawmakers still wanted to hang on to that additional $64 million.

Last week, when the budget reached his desk, Baker vetoed the delay, noting in his veto message, “the combination of strong state revenues and serious needs facing nonprofits and charitable organizations necessitate this tax deduction’s going into place.”

He’s right — not to mention it was the will of the voters, who have been asked to wait more than two decades to see it implemented.

Klocke has been surveying his organization’s 700-plus members throughout the pandemic. In the most recent survey, 60% of respondents reported revenue loss with an average drop of 34% over the past year.

Do the wealthy benefit from the charitable deduction? Sure, and lots of organizations depend on their wealthy donors for support. But the deduction would also be a boon to some 627,000 low- and middle-income taxpayers because, unlike the federal deduction, the state deduction is universal. That figure, Klocke noted, is based on actual filers who deducted federal charitable contributions before the law changed in 2017.

Here taxpayers don’t have to itemize all deductions to collect — just write a check for $500 (or several checks), and get back $25.

Small donors make up the backbone of many nonprofits. Some 80% of MNN’s members rely on individual donations to support their work.

In a perfect world, government would do more too — although this year it would be hard to fault this state and this particular budget. The Massachusetts Cultural Council, for example, got $21.4 million. According to MassCreative, that’s “the largest public investment in arts and culture since Fiscal Year 2002.”

Many programs run by nonprofits that deal with domestic violence, mental health, and substance abuse also found greater support in this year’s budget.

But nonprofits have always depended on a combination of resources, and reinstating the charitable deduction would help keep the private tap flowing.

The Legislature can do its part by letting the governor’s well-timed veto of yet another year-long delay stand.

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Boston Herald. July 22, 2021.

Editorial: State can’t afford to wait to spend relief cash

For Bay State industries and communities counting on funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to help in their recovery, the Legislature has a message for you: Cool your heels, we’ll get to it.

The money, some $5.3 billion, landed in Massachusetts on May 19, but lawmakers are in no rush to dole it out to those who need it.

What’s called for, they maintain, are hearings to talk about the money and how to spend it. Those discussions could last until fall, the State House News Service reported.

Gov. Charlie Baker is having none of it.

“We have to start making the investments I proposed now, not months from now,” Gov. Charlie Baker told legislators earlier this week.

Baker knows what’s needed, and wants to put more than half of the state’s ARPA allocation to work now on housing and homeownership supports, job training, water and sewer infrastructure, addiction treatment and other areas. He pressed lawmakers on the Joint Committee on Ways and Means and the House Committee on Federal Stimulus and Census Oversight for swift action.

“The kinds of projects that are needed to address the impacts of COVID are significant in scale and time-consuming. We have to start making the investments I proposed now, not months from now,” the governor said. “Some of these programs, especially housing and infrastructure projects, require a long implementation time. For others, time is of the essence to address urgent needs.”

Baker’s bill would spend $2.915 billion of the state’s total, specifically $1 billion for housing and homeownership supports, $1 billion for infrastructure investments, $450 million for economic development, $240 million for workforce development and $225 million for health care.

His proposal would leave about $2 billion in the Federal COVID-19 Response Fund that lawmakers created.

That’s plenty for the Legislature to ruminate on.

The Legislature prefers a slow and steady approach. The chairmen running the hearing — Reps. Aaron Michlewitz and Dan Hunt, and Sen. Michael Rodrigues — suggested the ARPA money will stay put in its segregated account for months more.

That is no comfort to the more than 350,000 residents who are set to lose their enhanced jobless benefits at the beginning of September.

“As we near the fall, it’s more urgent than ever that we have increased supports in place to help retrain people, re-credential them and connect them with job opportunities,” Baker said. The governor later added, “We need to make investments now to help people who’ve been laid off or unable to work find employment.”

Public discussions are of course important to issues before the Legislature. But as we’ve learned all too well, the past year has hardly been normal, many businesses are not yet up to full strength, and supports that helped so many Bay Staters survive during the pandemic are about to end.

Time is very much of the essence.

Funding from American Rescue Plan Act is not like a fine bordeaux — it doesn’t need to age to be its best.

Lawmakers can bring about — if not the best of both worlds — at least a solution that allows for urgent needs to be addressed while reserving money for a more deliberative process.

Passing Baker’s bill would get us there.

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Portland Press Herald. July 22, 2021.

Editorial: Thrifty Mainers should have the ‘right to repair’

The Federal Trade Commission is right to take on manufacturers that have purposely made their items difficult to fix.

The thrifty, crafty New Englander is not just a stereotype — research points to a longstanding culture of repair and reuse in Maine that abhors waste, either in material or money.

But actions by manufacturers have made it harder, and in some cases impossible, for anyone but themselves to fix or maintain many consumer products, limiting consumer choice and raising costs.

The Federal Trade Commission voted on Wednesday to take action against these anti-competitive practices, which strike right at the heart of small business and entrepreneurship. In doing so, the agency is asserting that we all have — to use a phrase from activists — the “right to repair.”

That right never used to be in question. There was a time when the lives of the things we bought could be extended with a few spare parts and some know-how.

But more and more, companies are keeping a tight hold on both those things, forcing consumers to either use the manufacturer’s own repair service, or buy a new product outright. They are purposely designing products to complicate or prevent repair, keeping parts and repair information to themselves, or using software locks to push out the competition.

“Repairs today require specialized tools, difficult-to-obtain parts, and access to proprietary diagnostic software,” an FTC report said in May.

As a result, the small businesses that do third-party repair are put at a disadvantage, stunting a local industry full of innovators who offer affordable services. And when a product breaks, consumers have few places to go but back to the manufacturer.

So when someone breaks their smartphone — and it’s their only way to access the internet — there’s probably no shop down the street that can get it back to them quickly and cheaply.

Or when schools need laptops for students, they can find it difficult to rebuild old computers themselves, and are forced to buy new ones — if they can find them with the broken supply chains of the COVID era.

The FTC also heard from farmers with broken-down tractors, hospitals with worn-down ventilators, and members of the military with malfunctioning equipment. All of them wanted to do the repairs themselves but were stymied by lack of help from manufacturers.

Opposition to the right to repair, besides from manufacturers looking to preserve this revenue stream at the expense of consumers, comes from concern over safety should the wrong person work on an item. There are certainly safety considerations in some industries, but the FTC report found those worries in general overblown.

The harm to consumers by repair restrictions is just too high to ignore. Americans everywhere rely on these products to get through the day. When one breaks down, they should have more than just one costly option to get it back up and running.

And, besides, in a world full of waste, we should be reusing the things we buy, not tossing them into a landfill every time a problem arises.

We’re sure any thrifty Mainer will agree.

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Hearst Connecticut Media. July 21, 2021.

Editorial: CT fumbled gun background transition, but sellers should stay calm

Ready, fire, aim.

This mangled version of the traditional phrase is at times an unfortunate summation reflecting the launch of state initiatives, but never more appropriate than with the new firearms background check system.

Everything involving obtaining a gun in Connecticut stalled this summer just as demand is spiking. Buying a gun, applying for a pistol permit or transferring a weapon is not happening efficiently.

“The timing of this upgrade is ill advised because (of) the record number of sales continuing to occur throughout the state,” Lawrence Keane, senior vice president for government and public affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, wrote in a letter to Connecticut Public Safety Commissioner James Rovella.

While we’re never going to embrace a spike in gun sales, this system should work seamlessly before its use is mandated.

The state counters that the problem was fueled by the sales rush. Rovella’s office outlined other reasons: The transition from the outdated system, and training of staff.

The transition, though, was not a surprise, and the staff should have been trained before the launch. It was slated for July 13, and delayed another 24 hours.

Some retailers told Hearst Connecticut Media they were unable to reach the state’s Special Licensing and Firearms Unit by phone. One reported trying to call 100 times an hour, adding to 1,000 failed calls a day. Another was able to break through with three staffers calling to make background checks.

The volume of calls could not have helped. It also fueled enough frustration that the NSSF quickly threatened to take legal action.

As Connecticut residents transition from social isolation from the COVID-19 pandemic, gun sales for the first six months of 2021 reached 163,000. Similar sales in the latter half of this year could put a number on the final tote board beyond the record 317,000 background checks recorded in 2016.

The goal, of course, is to make the process more fluid, so retailers should eventually be able to get products into the hands of consumers more quickly. While we prefer a delay to skipping vital checks, this should never have happened.

A state spokesman says the existing program was a decade overdue for an upgrade. The new one would finally allow online transactions.

Gun sales will remain a polarizing issue. Connecticut’s problems come at a time when talks have ended between U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, to increase the number of gun sales that require background checks.

Both sides of this debate made mistakes. Connecticut should have been prepared before subjecting dealers to a program that wasn’t ready for prime time.

And the NSSF — which is all about gun sales — could serve its members and public better by being a voice of reason.

Acting rationally (by not making 1,000 calls a day, for example) is in everyone’s self-interest. No one should need a reminder of the core function of a firearm. Patience is preferable to a mistake in a gun sale.

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