Portland Press Herald. November 21, 2021.
Editorial: Local zoning drives high housing costs around Maine
Municipal officials don’t have to answer to the people who can’t afford to live in their community.
When people talk about job-killing, growth-stifling government regulation, the bogeyman is usually some faceless bureaucrat in Washington or Augusta.
But in Maine, maybe we should be looking a little closer to home – even at the nice people at town hall.
A state commission that is looking at ways to address our affordable-housing crisis has identified ways that local land-use ordinances have failed to keep up with changing needs for new housing that is near jobs and is affordable to Maine workers.
These burdensome regulations force some Mainers to waste their time and energy on long commutes and make it harder for employers to recruit and retain employees.
They limit who can move to Maine (our only source of population growth in the last census), discouraging middle-class families from taking jobs here if they can choose to live in other parts of the country where incomes are higher or housing is less expensive.
The Commission to Increase Housing Opportunities in Maine by Studying Zoning and Land Use Restrictions was created with the passage of a bill sponsored by House Speaker Ryan Fecteau of Biddeford, a city that has seen both the good and bad sides of economic revitalization.
Over the last decade, Biddeford has experienced what every former mill town dreams of in the form of new businesses and private investment. But along with the jobs, restaurants and busy street life came increased demand for housing, driving prices out of reach for many who want to live there.
It would be a great injustice, Fecteau said, if the rebirth of the city doesn’t include the longtime residents who stuck with it during the bad times.
The commission is finalizing its report to the Legislature next month. Its recommendations go after single-family zoning requirements and are likely to include:
• Permitting the addition of accessory dwelling units, sometimes called “in-law apartments,” for most single-family homes.
• Permitting multi-unit buildings in all zones now limited to single-family houses.
• Requiring municipalities to identify areas for denser development.
Single-family zoning was not common in Maine until the period following World War II, when many cities and towns adopted ordinances to control growth. The downtowns that draw tourists and the walkable mixed-use urban neighborhoods where the real estate market now is the hottest were laid out in the years before zoning and could not be built today.
Over the years, the reliance on single-family zoning has constricted where new housing can be built, and that imposes limits on other parts of the economy.
People can’t move to where the jobs are if there is no place for them to live. A chronic labor shortage will prevent new businesses from opening and existing businesses from expanding.
And Maine’s existing housing stock, some of the oldest in the nation, was not built for modern conditions. Families are smaller today than they were before 1950, when a third of the houses in Maine were built. Multi-unit housing is more affordable and a better fit for many of today’s needs.
What stands in the way of this needed development is Maine’s tradition of local control. High housing costs are not a problem for people who already own homes, and local governments have to answer only to the people who live there, not the ones who can’t afford to. Municipal governments can decide that affordability is someone else’s problem.
That’s why the state should step in and set boundaries for what can be done by municipal zoning.
Just as every municipality with waterfront has to pass a shoreland zoning ordinance, every city and town should also be required to plan for housing affordability.
Changing these burdensome regulations won’t eliminate Maine’s housing problems, but it would give breathing room to a lot of Maine workers, their families and employers. That’s the direction in which the Legislature should be going.
Hearst Connecticut Media. November 21, 2021.
Editorial: CT finds a better way to draw district lines
Across the country, displays of political partisanship are rarely as blatant as when it comes time to draw political districts. Depending on which party is in control, lines are drawn to dramatically favor those in power and make elections oftentimes a foregone conclusion. Rather than voters choosing their leaders, too often it is leaders choosing their voters.
Be thankful Connecticut does not count itself among those masses.
The state recently approved a new map for state legislative districts, and the process ended with some winners and some losers, as was inevitable. But in general, the winners were places in Connecticut where the population is growing, such as Fairfield County , while the eastern half of the state, where population is declining, lost out a bit. That’s as it should be.
Perhaps even more welcome is the reaction of politicians to those changes. Legislative leaders of both parties praised the bipartisan process that led to this point, which follows every decennial census, and lauded Connecticut’s path toward reaching a compromise acceptable to all.
It’s true that it’s easier to make these changes in a place like Connecticut, where one party has so many more members, and thus representatives, than the other. But that has never stopped complaining on other issues, so it’s notable that the House districts were approved with a minimum of dissent.
Connecticut’s bipartisan process is a stark contrast to other states that leave redistricting solely up to whoever is in power. That’s where you end up with a party that wins 51 percent of a state’s popular vote drawing a map that will earn them 75 percent of elected representatives and offer little hope of change until the next 10-year redistricting.
Gerrymandering is among the worst anti-democratic trends in America today, and it’s not as though Connecticut has been immune from it, especially in its U.S. congressional districts. But it’s not nearly as big a problem here as elsewhere.
The new map is also the first one to account for the state’s prison gerrymandering law, passed in the most recent legislative session, which requires most prison inmates to be counted in the district of their last home address rather than the district in which they are incarcerated.
Previously, more political power accrued to the districts that were home to prisons, even though many of the inmates housed there were only in place temporarily, and were in no way invested in the district’s future. This is a better way.
The new maps also helped increase continuity among constituencies. It’s important for representation to closely match town lines and affiliated populations whenever possible, and this map, by all accounts, does a good job of that.
Some activists said the process could have been more transparent, including with the release of draft maps throughout the past few months, but that’s a minor complaint.
Redistricting is a necessary step in legitimate legislative government. Too often it’s used as a way to divide constituencies and cement power. Connecticut, for now, has a better way. It’s one aspect of democracy promotion that could use wider circulation.
Boston Globe. November 24, 2021.
Editorial: The Massachusetts GOP needs a reboot
What happened to the party that once produced national leaders, but now barely limps along?
The Massachusetts Republican Party has a long and storied history, one that in the modern era includes such historically important figures as former president Calvin Coolidge; Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., a US senator and later a Republican vice presidential nominee; Edward Brooke, the country’s first popularly elected Black senator; governor and then US secretary of transportation and ambassador John Volpe; and other notables such as Bill Weld, governor and Libertarian Party vice presidential nominee; Paul Cellucci, governor and then a US ambassador; and Mitt Romney, later a GOP presidential nominee and US senator from Utah; as well as the first and only woman yet to occupy the Corner Office, Jane Swift.
That tradition shows the value of an even-keeled, big-tent state Republican Party. But today, under the fractious, evasive, and high-handed control of hard-right chairman Jim Lyons, the state GOP is barely limping along, a shell of its former self. It’s in the interests of the whole state for the GOP to right its ship and resume its role as a serious political party, one that can provide a counterbalance to dominant Democrats and nominate credible alternatives for office.
Lyons is under investigation by Attorney General Maura Healey for possible violations of state campaign-finance law — but has refused to give state committee members even the most basic information about the probe. Party fund-raising is so anemic that the committee has, at the most, only three staffers, as opposed to the eight to 10 it counted in the pre-Lyons years. A staff that small obviously can’t do much to help the party’s various candidates next year.
Meanwhile, the party chairman is at war with the GOP’s only statewide officeholder, popular Republican governor Charlie Baker, whom the ultraconservative Lyons considers a RINO, or Republican in name only. With Baker still mulling whether to seek a third term, Lyons, a devoted Donald Trump supporter, is actively maneuvering to help Geoff Diehl, a fellow Trump admirer who has announced his own candidacy for governor. By Trump’s own telling, Lyons brought Diehl to his attention and helped persuade Trump to endorse him for governor. Kimberly Duffy of Quincy is also running for governor as a Republican, and frequent candidate Darius Mitchell, a self-styled “Hip-Hop Republican,” has also said he is running.
As former party chair Jennifer Nassour notes, party rules stipulate the party chair has to be neutral in contested primaries. That holds unless authorized to help a specific candidate by a two-thirds vote of the party’s executive committee. Those same rules state that if a party chair assists or aids one candidate over another in a contested primary without authorization of the executive committee, it ”shall constitute grounds for removal.”
In reaction to Lyons’s controversial reign, an array of GOP fund-raisers have quit raising money for the state party. Funds are so meager that state committee members worry the GOP won’t be able to stage a convention next year. Delegates at those conventions decide which candidates will appear on the GOP’s primary ballot and which will receive the convention’s endorsement as its favored candidate. It’s not clear how that process would move forward without such a convention.
The most recent convention required about $400,000 in upfront money. As of its last filing, the state GOP has less than half that — about $160,000 — on hand.
According to cost estimates he distributed recently to state committee members, Lyons hopes to run a cut-rate convention for just $79,000. Doable? “No,” says a highly skeptical Nassour. “You cannot run even a small convention for that.”
But the party’s biggest potential problem is the apparent criminal investigation underway at the attorney general’s office. That probe commenced after the State Office of Campaign and Political Finance referred a set of dubious-looking transactions to Healey. Those transactions saw Senator Ryan Fattman contribute a total of $137,000 to the state party, which then spent $136,405 to help his wife, Stephanie Fattman, in her reelection bid as Worcester County register of probate. State campaign-finance law prohibits arrangements that disguise the true source of a donation to a campaign and limits what one candidate can contribute to another to $100.
Many state committee members were caught off-guard in mid-October when the Globe reported that prosecutors were calling witnesses before a grand jury in that affair. Investigators wouldn’t do so unless they saw the very real possibility of criminal indictments resulting.
Enough state committee members want a briefing thereon that it has been on the agenda at the last two state committee meetings. Lyons, however, has ended those meetings before that order of business came up. Forty state committee members have written party legal counsel David Carr, a Lyons loyalist, asking for basic information on the matter. Carr has not responded.
In reaction to the high-handed way Lyons runs the monthly meetings, committee members have, with Lyons’s apparent acquiescence, asked the party’s national committeeman and woman to find a professional parliamentarian to help guide those meetings.
The committee next meets on Nov. 30. At that meeting, state committee members should:
▪ Authorize the hiring of one of the recommended parliamentarians — and require that Lyons conduct the meetings according to his or her rulings.
▪ Insist on an update on the attorney general’s investigation, including what criminal or civil penalties could loom. Although prosecutors aren’t supposed to discuss such matters, nothing prevents a potential subject from doing so.
▪ Remind Lyons of the party rules and demand that he end his pro-Diehl maneuvering and stay on the sidelines of any primary challenges unless and until he is authorized to do otherwise.
▪ Instruct the chairman to move “expeditiously,” as the party bylaws stipulate, to schedule district caucuses to fill two state committee seats he has left open for almost a year, for fear, it seems, that Baker supporters will prevail there, as well as a newly vacant seat.
▪ Determine how they will respond if the AG’s investigation results in any indictments.
Lyons has put the party he purports to lead in a sorry situation. If that situation is to be remedied, state committee members need to step up. Doing so wouldn’t just be good for the GOP but for the state as well.
Boston Herald. November 24, 2021.
Editorial: Low bail set stage for parade massacre
We’ve been here before — too often.
A heinous crime, a suspect arrested, his criminal record revealed, followed by — “who let him out on bail?”
In this case that suspect is Darrell Brooks Jr., alleged to have plowed his SUV into a Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wisc., killing five and injuring scores of others, including children, on Sunday.
As the Associated Press reported, Brooks, who had a rap sheet going back to 1999, had two outstanding cases against him at the time of the parade atrocity. One included an allegation that he deliberately hit a woman with his car earlier this month after a fight. Brooks was free on $1,000 bail.
Prosecutors in Milwaukee County on Monday called their bail recommendation “inappropriately low” given the facts of that case and the Sunday crash, and said they would review it.
It’s a bit late for that.
Julius Kim, a defense attorney and former assistant prosecutor, said the bail could easily have been set more than twice as high.
“He was accused of running over the mother of his kid, and to put it at $1,000 strikes me as low,” Kim said. “It could have been an inexperienced attorney who happened to be reviewing cases that day.”
It is a terrifying thought that a Christmas parade ending in death and mass injury may have hinged on an attorney’s inexperience. And a $2,000 bail for allegedly running over the mother of his child is still way too low.
But we live in an age where community safety comes second to the convenience of those charged with crimes, and even after the horror in Waukesha, legal pros are pushing back. Higher bail amounts, they say, would keep poorer defendants behind bars longer pre-trial.
“I’m sure the district attorney’s office is going to look back at this and ask themselves, ‘Did we get this wrong?’ ” said John Gross, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School and also the director of its Public Defender Project. “This is such an extreme incident … could they reasonably expect he would get behind a vehicle and run people down on a parade route? What would have alerted you to the capacity he would have had for this kind of violence?”
How about hitting the mother of his child with a car?
In Wisconsin, judges currently are only allowed to consider the possibility that defendants might not show up for a court appearance when setting bail.
That’s in line with Massachusetts 2018 criminal justice reform law, stating that bail should be set no higher than necessary to ensure the defendant shows up for court, after accounting for their financial resources.
Yes, everyone is innocent until proven guilty. But a record rife with arrests for violent behavior should have some influence over bail as much as a defendant’s finances.
As we learned, sometimes money is no object, as when the Massachusetts Bail Fund (“Free Them All”) helped a Level 3 sex offender and convicted rapist who was in jail on new rape charges pay a $15,000 cash bail to get out in June 2020, according to authorities.
A month later, Shawn McClinton was charged with bringing a woman to a Boston apartment and forcibly raping her, strangling her and holding her at knifepoint, according to court documents filed by Boston Police.
Incarcerating people for being poor is, of course, heinous. But letting people out regardless of the severity of the crime they are accused of because they might not be able to afford bail?
We’ve seen the result in Waukesha.
Bangor Daily News. November 23, 2021.
Editorial: Power to the people
Electricity prices for most Maine residents will rise by about $30 a month under rate increases set this week by the Maine Public Utilities Commission. The rate increases come on top of rising prices for heating, gasoline, food, cars and many other consumer goods, many of which are also in short supply because of transportation and other supply chain problems.
After the PUC announced the big price increases for the upcoming year, state officials encouraged Maine residents to conserve electricity — through efficiency updates and weatherization, for example — and to reach out for assistance if they need help paying their energy bills.
While Mainers should do these things, and additional help is available this year thanks to federal pandemic financial relief, this is cold comfort to those who will still struggle to pay their bills.
Unfortunately, there are no quick, simple answers to rising energy prices. But, these big rate increases should spur conversations — and hopefully, action — to change the state’s energy mix. Reconsideration of how electricity prices are set should also be on the table.
Rising electricity costs, like higher heating oil and gasoline prices, are the result of supply and demand. Early in the pandemic last year, when governments around the world imposed restrictions to slow the spread of coronavirus, demand for fuels for transportation and manufacturing plummeted, as did prices. In April 2020, demand for oil was so low that petroleum futures were briefly traded at negative prices.
As pandemic-related restrictions have largely been lifted and economic activity recovers, demand for fuels, particularly natural gas, is high around the world. Globally, supply has not kept pace with this increased demand, so prices have increased, rapidly. Natural gas prices in New England have more than tripled since last September, according to data from ISO New England, which operates the region’s electrical grid.
Maine, and the rest of New England, are highly dependent on natural gas to generate electricity. So, when natural gas prices are high, they can drive up electricity rates, which is what happened this week when the PUC selected bids to supply electricity to most Maine customers for the upcoming year.
Residential customers who buy standard offer electricity from Versant, which serves most of Penobscot County as well as Hancock, Piscataquis and Washington counties, will see an 89% increase in their power supply rate, beginning in January.
Standard offer rates for customers of Central Maine Power, which services much of southern and mid-coast Maine, will rise by 83%.
Commercial and industrial customers of both utilities will also see significant rate increases next year.
Nearly all residential utility customers pay the standard offer rate, which is set by the PUC when it selects bids to provide electricity for the upcoming year. Customers can choose to buy electricity from what are called competitive electricity providers, which may offer lower prices. The Maine Office of the Public Advocate has a list of these providers, and their current rates and contract terms, on its website.
An electricity bill includes two components, electricity supply and delivery. The electricity supply rate is set by the competitive bidding process required by Maine law.
Staggering bids — setting prices for only a portion of the needed electricity supply at one time, which the PUC did in the past — could help spread out price increases. But the bottom line is that higher input fuel prices translate into higher electricity prices.
Increasing supply from renewable sources is a big part of the solution. Rather than buying fossil fuels from other states and countries, Maine and New England should generate more electricity from wind, solar and hydroelectric facilities, which also pollute less than fossil fuel-burning generators. The amount of electricity produced by renewable sources is growing in New England, but too slowly to meet demand.
The New England Clean Energy Connect, the 150-mile transmission line across Maine that was rejected by voters earlier this month, pledges to bring 1,200 megawatts of hydropower from Quebec into the New England electric grid. The corridor, which is now the subject of competing legal claims, wouldn’t have helped reduce electricity prices this winter, but projects like it will be necessary to meet both energy demand and climate change targets moving forward.