Editorials from around New England:
Spenders draft an ugly legacy
In these times of intense political discord in Washington, D.C., it's refreshing to read about Democratic and Republican leaders sitting down with President Trump and hammering out a $2.7 trillion, two-year budget deal that will settle federal spending issues past the 2020 elections. Budgets, after all, are among the most important matters government officials tackle each year - essentially, a budget is a precise mathematical translation of the government's priorities.
Unfortunately, in Washington, D.C., the main priorities are spending and borrowing. Finding a live unicorn is easier than finding a serious congressional effort to balance the federal budget. The budget last was balanced in 2001; deficits have been the rule under one Democratic and two Republican presidential administrations. And even the balanced budgets of the late 1990s were illusory. They were dependent on diversions of tax revenue from the Social Security Trust Fund, which is headed for insolvency in 2035.
Deficits through 2021 are staggering to the point of incomprehensibility. A trio of New York Times writers gamely tried to explain the tentative agreement July 23. "(I)t is another sign that a Capitol once consumed by fiscal worries simply no longer cares - even as the government's deficit approaches $1 trillion a year," they wrote. "The agreement . would raise spending by about $320 billion, compared with the strict spending levels established in the Budget Control Act of 2011."
For his part, Mr. Trump sometimes talks like a spending hawk but appears willing to give what The Wall Street Journal calls the "Bipartisan Spending Party" practically anything it wants, so long as it accedes to his demands for what he considers adequate military funding. For 2020-21, he's getting a $22 billion increase in military spending, from $716 billion to $738 billion, in exchange for that $320 billion increase in discretionary spending. Remember that first number - 22. Turn it into trillions of dollars and you have the approximate level of the national debt, more than double the $9 trillion debt that the Democrats' presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, characterized as "unpatriotic" in 2008. (For the record, Mr. Trump's and George W. Bush's contributions to the national debt - about $700 billion and $731 billion per year on average, respectively - were smaller, by that measure, than Mr. Obama's approximately $1.1 trillion.
One can't help but wonder how the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of today's spendthrifts will feel when the debt bomb finally detonates. Will they feel the same way about their ancestors as today's Americans feel when considering the record of ancestors who owned slaves, drove Native Americans from their historic lands, polluted America's air and water, and engaged in needless wars? It's easy for us to deplore the depredations of people long dead, yet we seem unable to critique our own legacy.
Way back in 1787, the framers of the Constitution sought to "secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity." It seems the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government are focused unswervingly on "ourselves" and utterly oblivious to the welfare of "our Posterity."
Census shows challenges facing Maine farms
Kennebec Journal/Morning Sentinel/CentralMaine.com
More than 130 Maine farms will be open to the public on Sunday, the most ever in the 30-year history of the state's Open Farm Day. The event comes at a time when there are more young Mainers involved in producing food than there have been in decades.
There's no doubt that the agricultural industry here is diverse, vibrant and full of potential.
But that does not mean that it can be taken for granted.
While the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2012 Census highlighted a stunning positive reversal in Maine farming, the latest report shows the struggles and challenges that lie ahead.
In the five years prior to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, following a period of general decline within the industry, the number of Maine farmers under the age of 34 increased nearly 40 percent. During the same time, the amount of land in agriculture — which had previously declined under pressures from residential development — increased 8 percent.
However, the 2017 Census, released in April, found that in the five years following the previous count, Maine lost 10 percent of its farming acreage, one of the five worst declines nationwide, according to the Maine Farmland Trust. In that time, the state recorded a net loss of 563 farms, down to 7,600.
What's more, both the average per farm market value of products and the average net income per farm fell in that time period.
And while the number of farmers under 44 increased nearly 10 percent, the number 65 and older went up by nearly a third.
The numbers tell us that it is tough to make a living in Maine agriculture.
The economics of farming in Maine means it requires an all-encompassing effort from farmers, who have to work the land for long days during the week, then go sell their products at markets throughout the state on weekends. Many have had to add ancillary businesses such as farm tours or small maple syrup operations. And even all that work does not guarantee a farm will make ends meet.
Maine has to do more to support these thousands of food producers. There is latent demand for Maine-grown products, and opportunities to build prosperous markets, in and out of state.
Maine has made strides in recent years in getting locally produced food into schools and other institutions, and in using it to feed the poor, all of which raise demand and make the industry more stable. A new agriculture-focused credit union will give farmers access to much-needed financing.
More can be done, however, to allow producers to add value to their products and get them to wider markets.
In short, it needs to be easier for people to replace the processed foods in their diets with products that are locally grown.
Put another way, Maine needs to keep more of the money its residents spend on food here within our borders — something consumers, too, should keep in mind while picking out dinner.
Otherwise, many farmers won't make it, and those that do will be leaving money on the table. As old farmers retire, the industry simply won't be able to attract others to take their place.
More farmland will be lost to some other use, and an important part of Maine's economy will lose more of its potential.
Feds shouldn't stymie Mass. wind power
The Boston Globe
Who thought we'd miss Ryan Zinke?
President Trump's former interior secretary, who left office last winter dogged by a pack of ethical questions, got at least one thing right: He supported swift action to develop offshore wind energy in the United States.
Now his successor, David Bernhardt, is slow-walking a critical federal permit and could bring a groundbreaking Massachusetts project to a screeching halt. Caution is one thing, but Bernhardt ought to resolve his doubts soon, before he delivers a major setback to a nascent industry.
Last year, the state's major utilities picked Vineyard Wind to develop what would be the nation's first industrial-scale wind farm. The 84-turbine facility is supposed to start generating electricity by 2022. That's an ambitious target, but the company says it had been on track to meet that deadline.
Until now. A major problem surfaced earlier this month, when, without warning, the department abandoned a previously announced timetable by failing to finish a required environmental review.
That set off alarm bells in the Commonwealth, where creating an offshore wind industry has been a major economic and climate-mitigation goal. According to the company, if it doesn't receive the permit in the next three to five weeks, it will be "very challenging to move forward."
An extra few weeks might not seem like a big deal, but according to the company a delay could wreck its tight construction schedule. For instance, to construct the platforms for offshore wind turbines, the company booked the use of a specialized vessel used by the offshore oil and gas industry. The ship's time is reserved years in advance, and there are few other American-flagged vessels the company could use instead (federal law requires use of an American ship). If Vineyard Wind misses its window it'll have to start from scratch.
Apart from logistics, there's also the discouraging message the Interior Department would be sending if it sabotages Vineyard Wind. Investors need regulatory certainty, not abrupt policy shifts.
The Interior Department provided no explanation for the delay, but has pointed out that it's not legally required to make a decision until March 2020. The department did not respond to a request for comment from the Globe. Some fishing groups have pressed for more distance between the turbines, but the company says it's not feasible to change its plans so late in the permitting process.
It'd be ironic for an administration that's usually intent on dismantling environmental protections and speeding the construction of energy infrastructure to drag out the review of Vineyard Wind. Worse, it'd undermine the goals this administration professes to support. The "men and women who construct wind turbines in American waters in the years to come will continue to set our nation toward clean energy dominance," Zinke wrote in these pages last year. Hopefully, Bernhardt will agree — and let Vineyard Wind move forward on schedule.
Strict new limits on the amount of PFAS material
The Nashua Telegraph
After months of investigations, hearings and headlines, New Hampshire officials this week decided to impose strict new limits on the amount of PFAS material allowed in the water supply.
The chemicals are formally known as per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, but they are collectively called simply PFAS. This category then has two subdivisions: PFOA and PFOS.
The adopted New Hampshire standard for PFOA is 12 parts per trillion, while it is 15 parts per trillion for PFOS. Those numbers are far more stringent than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's suggestion of 70 parts per trillion.
However, the EPA also states on its website that exposure to PFAS increases the risk of cancer, thyroid hormone disruption and immune system impacts.
PFAS started to become common in the lingo of New Hampshire residents when the materials were identified in the water near the Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics plant at Merrimack. Since then, members of the activist group, Merrimack Citizens for Clean Water, have continued to press for the pollution to be mitigated.
"Finding out you have contaminated water and it's being served to your family is not something anybody wants to hear," New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services Assistant Commissioner Clark Freise told the Associated Press. "To now know we are moving down the road to making sure the public water systems are below these standards, and it is good clean water safe water to drink, everybody wants that."
But the low standards have drawn opposition from municipalities and the business community in New Hampshire, some who worry about the cost of complying with the standards. Lobbyists representing New Hampshire businesses decried the move.
"We're disappointed JLCAR did not postpone this agenda item to provide stakeholders an opportunity to assess the new MCLs,"
"The final proposed MCLs (maximum containment levels) , released less than three weeks ago, left little time or opportunity for interested parties to properly examine and comment on the effects of the new MCLs. The final proposed MCLs are between 50% and 80% lower than those initially discussed," New Hampshire Business and Industry Association President Jim Roche said.
On the other hand, no longer should residents have to worry about consuming too much PFAS in their water. Also, no longer will parents have to worry about their children bathing in too much PFAS.
Enjoy the clean water!
Taking over the city's schools
The Providence Journal
After her weak and timid education reforms of the last four-and-a-half years, Gov. Gina Raimondo is confronting the disaster of Rhode Island public schools, particularly in Providence.
On Tuesday, the state Council of Elementary and Secondary Education, which is under the governor's control, granted her new education commissioner, Angélica Infante-Green, authority to intervene in Providence's public schools. The vote was 7-0.
Though the state's history of running schools is dismal — the system it runs in Central Falls performs even more poorly than Providence's — this is worth a try. Doing nothing is not an option.
Tuesday's action follows a devastating report by Johns Hopkins University about the state of Providence schools. As we have noted, it found that students are held to a low standard. Very little learning occurs. Teachers and students do not feel safe. Bullying and violence are widespread. Chronic student and teacher absenteeism is a huge problem. It is almost impossible to fire bad teachers. Any potential for reform is smothered in layers of bureaucracy. The best teachers, who care deeply, feel unsupported.
At nine well-attended public forums following the report, parents and students expressed frustration, if not despair.
And on Tuesday night, a whopping 200 people turned out in support of change, a clear sign that parents care passionately about their children's education.
Commissioner Infante-Green and the state must not let them down.
We have been to this dance before. A similar report in the late 1990s changed nothing.
"There will be no third report," Ms. Infante-Green vowed.
Unfortunately, there are mixed signs about the potential for reform. Neither Barbara Cottam, the state Board of Education president, nor Nicholas Hemond, the Providence School Board president, resigned in the wake of the condemnatory report. That underscores the lack of any serious culture of accountability about public schools in Rhode Island.
Ms. Infante-Green has not spelled out her plan, but it could be costly and would have to involve upsetting deeply entrenched special interests. In the past, when push has come to shove, cowardly business leaders turned tail and the State House watered down reform.
The stunning success of the Achievement First mayoral academy in Providence shows what must be done. Principals must be given the authority to run their schools, including the power to hire and fire teachers. The best teachers and administrators must be supported and promoted. Discipline must be restored. School days and school years must be lengthened. A consistent grade-by-grade curriculum in accordance with state standards must be introduced.
This must not follow the governor's repeated approach — seen in the loss of the Pawtucket Red Sox and the rejection of an enormous private investment in a power plant — of initially supporting a project and then failing to provide the political capital to make it happen.
All of the state's most powerful players must be encouraged to buy in, including the leaders of the General Assembly, who so far have been virtually ignored.
For too long, poor and minority students in Providence have been cheated out of the education they need to share in the American Dream. We have said it before: Turning this around is the civil rights challenge of our time. The state must not fail them one more time.
The Caledonian Record
This week the ACLU sent a letter to Concord Coach (CC) urging the bus company to refuse warrantless bus raids by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents.
The Concord Coach policy is to allow the agents free access to passengers. The company long-argued it has a legal obligation to do so.
But the CBP itself this week released training documents to the ACLU that explicitly say agents require "consent to search or question bus passengers without a warrant."
"In light of the newly released public records, it is clearer than ever that Concord Coach Lines has a choice to continue to allow immigration agents to board buses and search," the ACLU writes. "Choosing to consent to these bus raids jeopardizes (Concord's) paying passengers' Fourth Amendment rights."
Of course it does.
"Concord Coach has no legal obligation to allow Border Patrol on its buses without a warrant or probable cause. Putting its own customers at risk of civil rights violations by allowing Border Patrol to board buses is inexcusable," says Vermont ACLU staff attorney Jay Diaz.
These instructions for Concord Coach would also be helpful for the Greyhound Bus Company which continues to allow raids even as it tells riders of their rights when border patrol boards.
In March 2018, the Vermont ACLU openly called on Greyhound Bus Company to resist federal immigration and border patrol agents who freely board their buses and question passengers about their citizenship status.
ACLU chapters in nine other states partnered with Vermont in their "Stop Throwing Passengers' Rights Under The Bus" campaign. They also launched an online petition that explains "The Greyhound bus company is allowing Border Patrol agents to board its buses and search passengers without a warrant - with no suspicion of wrongdoing other than the color of their skin. It's a gross violation of passengers' constitutional rights."
To date the petition has over 100,000 signatures.
Involvement by Vermont's ACLU followed a 2017 incident, in White River Junction, in which border patrol agents boarded a bus at 2 a.m. and conducted indiscriminate immigration checks on two non-white passengers. "The agents would not allow anyone to leave the bus, asking the passengers their citizenship and checking the identification of people who had 'accents or were not white,'" the ACLU wrote.
Greyhound says the policy to allow agents onto the bus is in keeping with the law (as they understand it). But Diaz was quick to call out Greyhound. "If Greyhound wants to maintain the support of its customer base, it should stand up for its customers' rights and push back," Diaz said. "For border patrol to say that they have carte blanche to do so-called border searches anywhere in the whole state of Vermont . it's simply untenable and contravenes everything that our Constitution stands for."
We agree wholeheartedly with the ACLU. Theirs is the only reasonable positions to hold on these clearly unreasonable searches.