Editorial Roundup: New England

Boston Globe. January 12, 2022.

Editorial: Qualified progress on qualified immunity

State commission recommends some worthy reforms, but punts on larger question of whether to change controversial rule that shields police officers from legal liability for abuse.

Police accountability in Massachusetts remains very much a work in progress.

On Beacon Hill, lawmakers passed a landmark police reform bill at the end of 2020 but left a lot of thorny issues to be resolved by more than a dozen commissions, which were given a year or more to sort them out. Yes, it was a way to kick the can down the road. In its best light, it was a way to search for consensus.

Today for the thorniest of those issues — qualified immunity for police — consensus remains elusive, and the commission assigned to study the issue has, yes, kicked the can down the road again. The Commission on Qualified Immunity, which issued its recommendations last week, voted 10-4 for a two-year “review” of the “implementation and administration” of the police reform law before recommending changes to qualified immunity.

The court-created doctrine of qualified immunity provides a legal shield for public officials, including police, from civil lawsuits for much of their conduct in the line of duty. The doctrine has come under increased scrutiny as a number of states have reexamined police accountability in the wake of the killing of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

If police could be held personally liable for abuses of authority and excessive use of force, the reasoning goes, there would be fewer abuses.

The Massachusetts Police Reform Law recognized that when it explicitly provided that qualified immunity would not be available as a defense to police who have been decertified by the newly constituted Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission. So, for example, an officer who was decertified for using a now-forbidden choke hold could presumably be sued under that provision, although it has not yet been put to a legal test.

In fact, the American Civil Liberties Union, in its written testimony to the commission, insisted the decertification of an officer “will likely take years” and that delay “will compromise the victim’s opportunity to seek timely justice in the courts.”

Commission co-chair Michael Day, who also serves as House chair of the Judiciary Committee, disagreed, saying, “The way this (the POST commission) was set up was designed for swift action. If that doesn’t happen then . . . we’ll have to revisit it and make sure it does.”

Day, in an interview with the Globe editorial board, added, however, that he is banking on two other commission recommendations that could, if approved by the Legislature, “bring a sea change in how the courts will treat qualified immunity” in the state. And while he is the first to admit the recommendations are more “nuanced” than going directly at the doctrine of qualified immunity, they do have the potential to move the needle.

One recommendation is for a change in the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act to remove the “threats, intimidation, or coercion” requirement currently needed to bring an action against law enforcement officers.

In reality that has meant that nearly all such actions are currently brought in federal rather than state court. Eliminating that higher state bar for a civil rights action would encourage more of those aggrieved by police misconduct to use the state courts.

The second recommendation, another change to the civil rights law, would require judges to determine if the conduct in question violates an individual’s civil rights even if the suit is dismissed on the grounds of qualified immunity. In other words, it begins to set legal precedent.

As arcane as the recommendations sound, they are both important and not without controversy. Both made it through the 15-member commission with only eight votes.

Like football, police reform is indeed a game of inches.

Qualified immunity — which began as a brainchild of the federal courts back in 1967 — should, of course, be tackled at the congressional level. But given the dysfunction in Washington, that seems less likely with every passing day.

A half-dozen states, moved by the 2020 summer of activism and demands for racial reckoning in policing, have in the past 18 months revised their state laws to restrict the use of qualified immunity. Colorado was first, back in June 2020. Some states, like New Mexico, have restricted qualified immunity but also prohibited actions against individuals, allowing only the employer — say, the police department — to be sued.

The commission in its report noted, “there is insufficient information available at this time to determine the efficacy of (these) legislative actions.”

There remains broad consensus around the notion that excessive use of force, racial bias, and abuse of authority have no place in modern policing and that those guilty of any one of those ought simply to be gone. Crafting laws and policies that take that from the drawing board to reality isn’t easy, and consensus around the details is hard to come by. That means the votes will also be hard to come by.

The commission’s failure to go directly at the issue of qualified immunity is, therefore, nearly as understandable as it is disappointing.

___

Brattleboro Reformer. January 13, 2022.

Editorial: Vermont must strengthen child care, mental health systems

The latest report on The State of Vermont’s Children adds to the cacophony of alarm bells concerning the care and education of our youngest citizens, especially since the onset of the pandemic.

While there are some positives in the report compiled by Building Bright Futures — such as increased housing supports — the declines and vacancies in the child care workforce and the increasing prevalence of children with behavioral, emotional, developmental and mental health issues are cause for concern.

“The implications from the social isolation and stress on children and families are beginning to arise in the form of increased frequency and acuity of behavioral, emotional, and mental health challenges for children, and increased burnout for those who serve children and families,” the report states. “These additional needs, paired with the vacancies, understaffing, and turnover in essential human services, pose significant risks to Vermont children and families.”

The child care issue is a problem that has been brewing for years, but brought to the forefront since the start of the COVID pandemic. Between December 2015 and December 2020, Vermont lost 2.5 percent of reported child care capacity, a total of 821 spots, according to Chloe Leary, executive director of Brattleboro’s Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development.

“We’ve had this problem all along,” she said in a November interview. “The pandemic exacerbated it.”

Currently, about 994 children are being served by local programs, but Leary says the area needs at least another 115 slots to make a dent in the problem. At the Winston Prouty center, only four of the six available classrooms are open because of staffing shortages. Licensed for 68 children at full capacity, the center can have 42 with its four classrooms.

“This year, the longstanding workforce challenges have escalated into a crisis for Vermont’s early childhood system,” says the Building Bright Futures report.

The problem, says Leary, is the lack of financial support for both child care workers and the families that need child care services.

“Working with young children is rewarding and exhausting, and involves more health risk than usual in the time of COVID,” Leary wrote in a recent column in the Reformer. “Wages do not reflect the value, stress, or risk of the work, and it is hard to keep people in the field when they can make $3 to $5 more an hour at an easier, less risky job.”

One of the key recommendations from the Building Bright Futures report is to invest more in the compensation, recruitment, retention, training and professional development of child care workers and early child educators. Leary says efforts are underway to do just that.

Act 45 in Vermont, which the governor signed last June, represents a strong step forward in making child care more affordable for families and supporting early educators through the creation of scholarships; adjustment or removal of copayments; and loan repayment assistance. And the Build Back Better Act being considered at the federal level includes several elements for expanding child care, including decreasing the cost of tuition for families and creating free universal pre-kindergarten.

Locally, the Child Care Counts Coalition in Windham County is looking to raise $175,000 to establish the Elizabeth Christie Fund to give bonuses to local child care workers who are staying or joining the field. Among those Leary is reaching out to for financial support is the business community, which faces a slew of challenges when working parents don’t have access to affordable, quality child care.

A U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation survey conducted in 2019 found that, even before the pandemic, many parents were postponing school and training programs, declining promotions and (sometimes) leaving the workforce entirely because of child care challenges. This leaves employers struggling with high turnover, hiring issues, transition and training, and decreased productivity.

Any money that a local company contributes to helping solve the child care crisis should be seen as an investment in its own future. Not only would it reduce the challenges of vacancies and high turnover, but it would make life easier for existing employees... and a happy employee is a productive employee.

As for Vermont’s mental health crisis, the challenges and solutions echo those of the child care issue. We all know that, for many children, mental health challenges resulting from the pandemic will have both short- and long-term consequences to their overall health and well-being. This includes children’s capacity to regulate and express emotion; form close, secure relationships; and to explore the environment and learn.

Unfortunately, decades of neglect and underinvestment in the systems that address mental health needs across childhood settings have been exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and must be addressed urgently.

As the report notes, “The pandemic has highlighted more than ever the need for increasing mental health resources and supports across settings and in multiple modes. While the need and acuity are continuing to rise, recruiting and retaining the mental health workforce has escalated from a challenge to a crisis.”

___

Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus. January 11, 2022.

Editorial: Food for thought

When it comes to eating healthfully, apparently Vermont is a leader in the nation.

A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released last week indicates adults in Vermont do a decent job of eating their daily requirements of fruits and vegetables.

From a sampling of some 5,000 respondents, 15.3% of Vermont respondents said they ate enough fruits; 16.1% said they ate enough veggies.

Vermonters tend toward being healthier. Likely, part of that is being surrounded by a working landscape, and plenty of local farms and providers. Likewise, we also have a higher-than-average number of citizens who exercise and use the state’s many benefits to our advantage.

It pays off. Last year, for the fourth-consecutive year, Vermont was named the nation’s healthiest state by the United Health Foundation. The state has steadily risen during the past 20-plus years of the group’s America’s Health Rankings, moving from 20th in 1990 to the top spot.

Still, what the CDC found is that the percentage of U.S. adults meeting fruit and vegetable intake recommendations is low.

And while Vermont’s was better than most, we could use a few more helpings.

According to the CDC, nationally in 2019, 12.3% and 10% of the 294,566 surveyed adults met fruit and vegetable intake recommendations, respectively. Meeting fruit intake recommendations was highest among Hispanic adults (16.4%) and lowest among males (10.1%). Meeting vegetable intake recommendations was highest among adults older than 51 (12.5%) and lowest among adults with low income (6.8%).

According to the report, “States can use this information to tailor efforts to populations at high risk (e.g., men, young adults, and adults with lower income) and to implement enhanced interventions, policies, and programs that help persons increase fruit and vegetable consumption to support immune function and prevent chronic diseases.”

The 2020–25 Dietary Guidelines for Americans advise incorporating more fruits and vegetables into U.S. residents’ diets as part of healthy dietary patterns. Adults should consume 1.5- to 2-cup-equivalents of fruits and 2–3-cup-equivalents of vegetables per day.

According to the report, a healthy diet: supports healthy immune function; helps to prevent obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and some cancers; having some of these conditions can predispose persons to more severe illness and death from COVID-19.

CDC used the most recent 2019 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance system data to estimate the percentage of states’ adult population who met intake recommendations.

Overall, 12.3% of adults met fruit recommendations, ranging from 8.4% in West Virginia to 16.1% in Connecticut, and 10% met vegetable recommendations, ranging from 5.6% in Kentucky to 16% in Vermont.

In 2019, the median frequency of reported fruit intake was once per day. The median frequency of reported vegetable intake was 1.6 times per day, ranging from 1.5 times per day in Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada and New Mexico to 1.9 times per day in Maine and Vermont.

Even the CDC is wagging its finger.

The report said while there could be legitimate reasons for not eating more (and better), we need to eat more and better as a nation.

“For some persons, such barriers might have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, related to economic and supply chain disruptions that could further limit ability to access healthier foods,” the report states.

The report recommends states and communities take bolder actions in supporting food policy councils (community-based coalitions often supporting a specific community such as households with incomes below the federal poverty level or persons from racial and ethnic minority groups) to build a more sustainable food system; supporting community retail programs to attract grocery stores and supermarkets to underserved communities to improve community food quality; and increase healthy food access, promoting participation in federal nutrition assistance programs.

Vermont has a solid system in place, but it can be improved.

We can tap into plenty of local produce available at farmers markets and stands. There’s of course the added benefit of supporting friends, neighbors and your community by shopping at those local sources. For some with the time, inclination and land, there’s even the option to turn to our own gardens or fruit trees and berry bushes during those warmer months many of us may already be pining for currently.

Food for thought. Now, go eat an apple or a carrot.

___

Hearst Connecticut Media. January 14, 2022.

Editorial: Should CT’s film efforts fade to black?

Measuring the benefits of film tax credits in Connecticut is akin to figuring out the ledger on a motion picture after factoring in box office, streaming, DVD sales and the overseas market.

No one has ever been able to definitively declare Connecticut’s efforts a “hit” or a “flop,” but there are plenty of reasons to scrutinize the receipts.

A CT Mirror investigation published this week offers several plot twists surrounding credits awarded to Blue Sky Studios, which was Connecticut’s marquee star just a few years ago. After producing hits such as the “Rio” and “Ice Age” franchises, along with “The Peanuts Movie,” the Greenwich-based studio seemed to anchor a future for film production in the state and launch careers in an enticing industry.

Disney, home of the happy ending, crushed those dreams when it purchased Fox studios, which included Blue Sky in its portfolio. Another cartoon factory was one asset Disney apparently didn’t need. Blue Sky faded into the sunset, and 469 employees lost their jobs last February.

The Mirror reports Blue Sky was receiving Connecticut’s Film and Digital Media Production Tax Credit rather than the Digital Animation Production Tax Credit. The difference is more than a few words. Blue Sky should have maxed out at $15 million a year, but was instead granted $32 million every 12 months. The result was reportedly an excess of $83 million.

And, just to put a cartoon exclamation point on the matter, the last $32 million payout was disbursed less than two weeks before Disney announced the closure of Blue Sky.

Did Connecticut give Disney $32 million for nothing? Shouldn’t state residents at least get some FastPasses at Disney parks?

Alas, while companies have to surrender credits if they leave the state, that’s not the case with Blue Sky because it was shuttered.

In its 2019 report, the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) estimated the average economic impact of the Film and Digital Media Production Tax Credit resulted in a loss of $58,510,604. While that’s not even half the price tag to produce, say, “Ant-Man,” it would seem to demand a closer look at the books.

The DECD apparently agreed, and hired a consultant. That act can seem like a copout.: When faced with a challenging financial kerfuffle, spend more money for an outside opinion.

The agency hit the pause button on its 2020 report to get feedback from the consultant. That result was expected last summer. Like any troubled film production, it was delayed again and is expected to be delivered soon.

We’ve supported some of the state’s film measures, and they still merit reasoned consideration. The Film Infrastructure Tax Credit, which helps fund facility construction costs, for example, has boosted Connecticut’s success stories with ESPN, World Wresting Entertainment and NBC.

The more fleeting film sets that occasionally roam around the state also deliver invisible benefits by luring tourists and backing local businesses.

But Connecticut has made other mistakes regarding tax credits, notably overlooking its own fine print that allowed producers to sell them to other entities.

Don’t blame Disney, Blue Sky or any other filmmaker for the state’s box office woes. What should be coming soon to an auditor’s office near you is a closer look at Connecticut’s bookkeeping.

___

Hartford Courant. January 11, 2022.

Editorial: Food waste diversion an important step for Connecticut

We have a problem with trash.

This includes sheer quantity.

According to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protect, our more than 3 million residents produce almost 4 million tons of municipal solid waste annually and dispose of nearly 2.6 million tons.

Amid this mountain of refuse, the problem also includes the planned shutdown of the trash-to-energy plant in Hartford in June, which means much of Connecticut’s waste likely will be going to out-of-state landfills. (Note that, according to DEEP, our total amount of solid waste is about three-quarters of a ton of trash disposed per person, per year.)

The MIRA’s trash-to-energy plant in Hartford that is scheduled to close is the largest of five such plants in the state, and capacity is shrinking and may decline by 40% by 2026 at out-of-state landfills, DEEP has said.

But state environmental officials say they have been urging recycling and reuse solutions.

One of those is a pilot food-scrap collection set to launch this month in 1,000 Meriden homes, an effort officials say is part of leading the way to reducing organic waste throughout Connecticut.

We think it’s an innovative idea.

Middletown last year launched a food-scrap recycling effort, through which Main Street restaurants collected all vegetable and meat scraps from their kitchens and patrons’ plates. The scraps are collected twice weekly by Hartford-based Blue Earth Compost.

Middletown also has a food-scrap recycling program for residents, one that city says it expanded last year to include a second location.

In terms of reducing food waste, Middletown offers solid advice: “Try one idea at a time, so it doesn’t get overwhelming.”

The Meriden process seems simple: DEEP says color-coded bags (green in this case) will be given to residents this month to use for the four-month program. The bags will be collected along with other trash (that’s another color: orange bags), but organic waste will be sent to Quantum Biopower in Southington to be transformed into energy, according to DEEP.

DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes says such strategies “have been shown to work elsewhere in the U.S. and abroad. ”

“The city of Meriden is leading the way by launching this pilot at a critical time for Connecticut’s waste system,” Dykes said.

Dykes’ agency notes that currently an estimated 35% of the material flowing from state homes and businesses to landfills and trash-to-energy plants is organic and could be used as compost and animal feed or converted to gas and fuel at anaerobic digestion facilities, The Courant has reported.

So, using DEEP figures, our math shows that for each person in Connecticut about 525 pounds of their solid waste is organic and this pilot program should produce at least 4,300 pounds a month in Meriden to send to Quantum Biopower. (That’s 1,000 homes and 35% of the solid waste of one person per home).

That’s not a lot when you think about the total quantity of trash that we all contribute to here in Connecticut.

As we have reported, the state now sends about 400,000 tons of waste to landfills in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and other states each year. The shuttering of the Hartford plant will add another 700,000 tons, Tom Kirk, president of the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority, has said.

Industry officials also have said there are challenges to organics diversion, including the need to make sure material is cleanly separated from plastics and other waste, that separate trucks could be needed for collection and movement of the materials, and that methods would be needed to address odor, wildlife and pest incursions and any other problems associated with possibly stinky garbage.

But it’s a step in the direction Connecticut must take to change habits, experiment, and invest in programs that ensure we learn new ways to reduce what has to go into landfills.

END