Editorial Roundup: New England

Hearst Connecticut Media. March 24, 2021.

Editorial: High costs for prison phone calls must end

In another entry in the category of “Connecticut? Really?” some people may be surprised to learn this state charges some of the highest rates in the nation for phone calls from inmates to the outside world. Though the prison population has been steadily declining for years, Connecticut is charging too much to people who can least afford it, and hurting itself in the process.

One advocate says the state ranks last nationally in affordability, with a 15-minute call costing up to $4.87. “Each year, Connecticut residents spend nearly $14 million to speak to incarcerated loved ones, roughly $8 million of which goes to the state,” said Jewu Richardson, co-director of the Connecticut Bail Fund, in a recent op-ed.

For those who would consider that a small price to pay for people who made poor decisions that led to their incarceration, consider that these costs are borne by their families, who are disproportionately Black, brown and low-income. They are not likely to be people with extra cash to spend on communications.

And those calls are important to everyone. “Continued contact with family while in prison increases the odds that the incarcerated person will successfully transition back into society once released. Studies have shown that incarcerated people who lack family support are more likely to revert to criminal behavior.” Those are the words of David Lamendola, a director for Verizon Government Affairs for New York and Connecticut, whose company is supporting a reduction of high calling rates.

The Legislature has taken notice. After a bill failed to advance in 2019, it was pushed aside, along with everything else, in the 2020 session due to the pandemic. Now, with a crowded docket of left-over priorities and new business, there’s a danger that this proposal could again fall to the wayside.

Leaders in Hartford should see that it doesn’t. Gov. Ned Lamont in his budget proposal allocated some funding to reduce the cost of prison phone calls, but advocates say it isn’t enough. The state makes more than $7 million annually from the calls, with most of the money making its way to the judicial branch and the Criminal Justice Information System. That money would need to be replaced.

As stated by Hamden state Rep. Josh Elliott, a longtime proponent of free inmate phone calls, the state should never have become reliant on the money that comes from those commissions. Replacing it is necessary, but it shouldn’t be used as an excuse not to make a necessary change.

A wide range of advocates support reduced-price or free calls from prisons, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s to everyone’s benefit. As with many criminal justice issues, what seems at first glance like a policy that goes easy on people in the system is to the public’s benefit because it can reduce the chances of recidivism. At a time when the crime rate has increased, this should be an easy choice.

Connecticut is today making news for being on the wrong end of the scale for prison phone calls. Action by the Legislature can move it back in the right direction.

___

Portland Press Herald. March 24, 2021.

Editorial: Lobster traps and turbines can co-exist in the Gulf of Maine

The lobster industry is lashing out at offshore wind developers, and it’s not helping anyone.

Tension between the lobster industry and offshore wind developers are at a boil this week after a large protest by fishermen Sunday was followed by a confrontation Monday that caused the Coast Guard to be called in.

“We’re at war with windmills,” one fisherman told Press Herald Staff Writer Tux Turkel.

For the sake of everyone involved, let’s turn down the heat on that pot. The work being done now on behalf of the developers isn’t an act of war – it’s part of the effort to see how Maine can get the most out of its greatest resource.

The ocean has for generations supported families along the coast. It has provided income and a way of life for those who have captained a lobster boat, as well as for their employees and the suppliers and buyers who keep them going.

There’s no reason that has to change, even if the lobster industry has to begin sharing some of the ocean.

Offshore wind has great potential as clean energy and an economic driver for the state. While turbines attached to the ocean floor are becoming more common, particularly in northern Europe, the Maine project features a floating turbine.

A single 12-megawatt test turbine placed just south of Monhegan Island is planned to demonstrate the technology. If successful, it could be used in places all over the world. Any Maine-based companies or technology involved in the beginning of the project could potentially become part of an international supply chain.

The test turbine will be connected to the mainland grid by a 23-mile line that reaches to South Boothbay.

A boat, the 144-foot R/V Go Liberty, was surveying the seabed along the proposed route for that line when it was disrupted by three fishing boats. A spokesman said it became an “unsafe situation.” The Coast Guard was called.

Monday’s disruption followed a protest Sunday in which more than 80 lobster boats lined up between Monhegan and Boothbay Harbor. The protesters were raising awareness of the power line and the future development of offshore wind, which they say will ruin fishing in the area. The survey boat, some lobstermen said, has already damaged fishing gear.

New England Aqua Ventus disputes that allegation. The company also says members of the lobster industry are purposely interfering with their work. On March 13, the company located 221 lobster buoys marking traps along their route and asked lobstermen to remove them. By the weekend, there were 453 buoys.

Whatever’s going on here, it’s not helping.

Lobster fishing is a $485 million-a-year industry in Maine. It is part of the economy and culture of our state. It holds up entire communities.

Offshore wind isn’t there yet, but its potential is huge. The Maine project is cutting-edge and has received significant support, including $47 million from the U.S. Department of Energy and a $100 million investment from two green-energy companies.

Built out, offshore wind could be a major component of eliminating emissions and slowing climate change – which, by the way, is causing rapidly warming waters off the coast of Maine, threatening the lobster industry.

But to be successful, not only here in Maine but also across the world, the offshore wind industry is going to have to co-exist with marine activities.

And that’s the purpose of the survey – to find the best way for floating turbines to work in the Gulf of Maine without disrupting our traditional industries.

It’s a big ocean. It can fit both turbines and traps. For the sake of Maine’s future, let’s find a way.

___

Boston Globe. March 22, 2021.

Editorial: Money talks: The MBTA walks back service cuts

It’s a good thing that Congressman Lynch’s threat to the state worked.

After the MBTA went ahead with planned cuts to train and bus services, US Representative Stephen Lynch issued a stern warning to state transportation leaders: Use the federal COVID-19 relief money to retain those services and the workers who operate them, as intended, or jeopardize the money Massachusetts might get, and how it could be spent, in any future congressional infrastructure package.

That threat — plus a letter from the entire congressional delegation decrying the cuts — seems to have worked. On Friday, MBTA general manager Steve Poftak sent Lynch a letter saying “there will be no layoffs or furloughs made by either the MBTA or Keolis,” the private contractor that runs the commuter rail line for the T. The rest of Poftak’s letter is vaguer; but the T also appears to be backtracking on its already-implemented budget cuts. In the letter, Poftak refers to “increasing service levels as quickly as possible on the bus and subway” and assures Lynch “this pathway to full service will be fully funded.” By that, Poftak means that in the fiscal 2022 budget, the T will propose funding to pre-COVID-19 service levels for bus and subway lines, a T spokesman said.

In an interview on Friday, Lynch said he was happy about the outcome promised in Poftak’s letter, but noted: “You need to verify they’re doing what they say they’re doing. If the lines are restored, I will know that. If they’re not, I will know that, too. It’s not something you can hide.”

Before the delegation weighed in, the T’s overall reaction to receiving $1 billion in federal stimulus money was mystifying. Like other transit agencies, the T lost an enormous number of riders when employers closed during the pandemic. To keep transportation systems afloat, President Biden’s relief package includes $30.5 billion for transit agencies across the country. That federal largesse led cities like New York to immediately rethink planned service cuts. But in Massachusetts, the T, with the backing of Governor Charlie Baker, stubbornly resisted any revisionary thinking. Last weekend, the T moved ahead with plans to reduce trip frequency on some bus and subway routes and eliminate some commuter rail and ferry service on weekends. Some 40 commuter rail conductors were also scheduled to be laid off.

The layoffs were reversed after Lynch blasted the T at a press conference with Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh at his side. Now, it’s important for the T not just to reverse the service cuts, but also to re-up its commitment to better public transit.

After record-breaking snowfall shut down the T in 2015, Baker promised reforms that would bring about “accountability, reliability, and a world-class transportation system.” While Baker gained more control over the transit agency and the T has invested some $5.1 billion in capital improvements between fiscal 2016 and fiscal 2020, a world-class transportation system is still very much aspirational. And in the midst of a pandemic, Baker has looked as if he’s retreating from that aspiration, not trying to fulfill it. Thanks to the service cuts, some subway cars are packed, putting commuters at greater COVID-19 risk. And this past week, an Orange Line train derailed in a work zone at Wellington Station, causing the T to pull temporarily the system’s newest subway cars from service.

This isn’t the time for Baker to pull back from his commitment to the T — not if you think about investment in transportation as crucial long-term investment in the state and regional economy. And not if you are concerned about losing out on future federal dollars targeted to infrastructure — or losing control over where the money can be spent. In conversations he said he had with Baker and Poftak, Lynch said, “What I explained to them, is ‘‘Look, if we can’t trust you to be on the same page on transportation, we would make the decisions about where the money goes. . . . There would be a reluctance on the part of the delegation to put money out there at the discretion of the MBTA or DOT if we firmly believe we are not on the same page.’” (It’s not an empty threat: The House recently decided to bring back the earmark system that gives legislators direct control over some federal spending.)

As US Representative Jake Auchincloss, who sits on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, also noted, “It makes it hard to advocate for the state when there’s a track record of the state not using the funds in the spirit of the purpose designed in the package.”

The T needs to show it is using the federal money in the spirit of the COVID relief package — the sooner, the better.

___

The New London Day. March 24, 2021.

Editorial: Carney showed courage. He was criticized. Republicans rewarded the criticizer.

How can the Connecticut Republican Party ever expect to have the broad appeal necessary to win state elections or gain power in the legislature if it rewards people like Mary Ann Turner who condemn people like state Rep. Devin Carney of the 23rd District?

State Republican leaders chose Turner, long active in Republican politics in Enfield and someone firmly entrenched in the Trump wing of the party, to fill the position as vice chair of the State Central Committee.

With the earlier selection of Susan Hatfield, former vice chair, to finish the two-year term of the party’s former chairman, J.R. Romano, it suggests the Trump faction is dominant. And given how the former president was crushed in the November election in Connecticut, dragging down the party with him, it does not bode well for the prospects of any Republican resurgence.

Turner attended the infamous Jan. 6 rally in Washington, which led to the assault on the U.S. Capitol in an effort to block the recording of the electoral college vote making Joe Biden president. (She was not involved in that.)

Carney, whose district consists of Lyme, Old Lyme, Old Saybrook, Westbrook, knew exactly what happened and who was primarily responsible. President Trump’s baseless claims of a fraudulent election had so stirred up some of his supporters that they attempted an insurrection.

“I am extremely saddened at what is occurring as a result of false claims and incitement by the president,” wrote Carney at the time on Facebook, reacting to the attack of the Capitol.

For this, Turner called for his resignation.

“Obviously you are drinking the koolaid. I am coming home from the rally and it was peaceful. You should be praying for what little of America is left. Give up yr (sic) seat because you have proven you are easily manipulated,” she responded on Carney’s Facebook page.

Turner has since backtracked and apologized for the remark, saying she wasn’t aware of the severity of what happened at the Capitol. But that initial reaction, certainly, was the more telling account of her perspective.

Carney, who is fiscally conservative and strongly pro-business, but who will not set aside his ethics for blind loyalty, is the kind of Republican who can win in Connecticut. Maybe Republicans don’t want to win.

___

Bangor Daily News. March 26, 2021.

Editorial: A 1-party budget endangers hopes for bipartisanship in Augusta

There are good reasons that most Maine biennial budgets over the last century have been bipartisan. Because state budgets are a reflection of priorities for the upcoming years, drafting spending plans with input from a diversity of people, especially lawmakers regardless of political party, typically results in better results. This collaboration and cooperation often carries over to other legislative work.

This year, of course, is no ordinary year. We’re in the second year of a pandemic and lawmaking — as well as everyday life — is different and often fraught with difficulties.

That, however, is not a reason to abandon a bipartisan approach to budgeting. Yet, that is what Democrats in the Maine Legislature are doing. They hope to pass a budget next week, with or without Republican support. Most Maine laws take effect 90 days after the Legislature adjourns, unless they are emergency legislation, which requires a two-thirds affirmative vote in both the House and Senate. If a budget is passed early next week with a simple majority vote, it can go into effect before July 1, when the state’s next fiscal year begins. If there is no budget by then, a two-thirds vote will be needed to have a new budget before the new fiscal year.

We understand some of the reasons behind the Democrats’ approach: Finalizing a budget now gives communities and school departments certainty as they prepare their own spending plans. It avoids a potential contentious fight in a few months and, worse, the possibility of a state shutdown if lawmakers can’t agree to a spending plan. It would allow the Legislature to adjourn next week, at a time when new coronavirus cases are on the rise and safety precautions are still needed (but remain contentious), and to return later this year when it may be less risky.

There are a lot of downsides, however. Passing a budget with just approval from Democratic lawmakers will likely poison the legislative atmosphere for the remainder of the session, which runs into 2022. If they are largely left out of the budget process, Republican lawmakers will have little incentive to work with Democrats, who control the state House and Senate and the governor’s office.

For one, there will likely be no bond package this year, or next. Gov. Janet Mills laid out an ambitious plan of state borrowing for broadband, career training and child care, among other things. There are also numerous bond proposals pending in the Legislature. Since bonds need approval from two-thirds of both the House and Senate before going to voters, it is unlikely that any of these proposals — other than the annual transportation bond that Republicans traditionally support — will move forward.

Democrats are likely calculating that the state can forgo bonding because of the $1.6 billion that Maine is expected to receive from the latest relief package passed by Congress. Being bailed out by the federal government is no reason to skip bipartisan budget negotiations, however.

To be sure, the Democratic budget document, which largely mirrors the $8.4 billion two-year budget proposal offered by Mills last month, is not a bad plan with the ongoing uncertainty around the pandemic and its impacts on our economy and lives. The general approach — to largely keep spending in check, avoiding both drastic cuts or big spending increases, makes sense. Ruling out a last-minute stalemate and state government shutdown this summer is also good.

However, Democrats are jumping through procedural hoops and speeding ahead without the typical deliberation and bipartisan engagement and dialogue in order to get this done with just barely enough time to spare. And it looks like they’re going to have to quickly adjourn the entire Legislature to make it work.

Some Republican lawmakers have shown that they are more interesting in ideology than the practicality of governing. But the recent breakthrough on supplemental budget negotiations was a step in the right direction, even though a group of Republicans stalled the process near the finish line. Democrats and Republicans alike celebrated the bipartisan success of that eventual deal. Though it took too long and Republican demands shifted, it did come together. Turning away from that collaboration rather than building on it is a step backward from Democrats.

We hate to think that there is no way to bridge the divide between parties in Augusta. Forging ahead with a majority biennial budget endangers any future efforts at bipartisanship and sets a bad tone in Augusta.

END