Editorial Roundup: New England

Hearst Connecticut Media. September 8, 2022.

Editorial: Plenty of blame on CT health insurance increases

In the end, the insurance rate increases approved by the state Insurance Department were not as high as had been feared. They will still take a toll on struggling families, and for all their gnashing of teeth on the issue, legislators will have to do better to keep the issue from recurring.

Everyone is acquainted with the problems inflation has been causing this year. While gas prices get a larger share of the attention than they deserve (and have, in fact, been declining most of the summer), it’s the big-ticket items where inflation hits hardest. That includes housing, transportation and health care, which has been a particularly fraught issue in the state in recent legislative sessions.

In July, state insurers put out word they were asking for an average increase of 20.4% on individual plans offered on the state exchange next year. Politicians, predictably, cried foul, with members of both parties pledging to put the companies on the spot for what were deemed outrageous requests.

After a sometimes-contentious public hearing, the final approved increases were lower than had been sought, averaging a 12.9% increase. That’s still a big jump, and one that people across the state will not help but notice.

Again predictably, each party blamed the other. But only one party has complete control of the legislative apparatus in Hartford.

Republicans can call news conferences, they can raise an issue, they can filibuster and they can put up roadblocks, but they can’t, for now, pass laws on their own. Democrats have strong majorities in both houses of the General Assembly and control the governor’s office. They have internal disagreements, but it’s Democrats who control nearly every level of power in state government. If something isn’t working, it’s up to them to fix it.

The debate over insurance hikes, however, had some top Democrats blaming Republicans for a failure to pass meaningful reforms. This doesn’t make sense.

The biggest insurance reform Democrats had sought was the enactment of a public health insurance option that would have competed against private carriers and, according to projections, helped keep prices lower. That plan was scuttled not by Republicans, but by Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont.

Lamont surely had his reasons. The threat of major insurance companies to decamp for other locations if Connecticut passed a public option was not a threat to be taken lightly. Despite reduced numbers, they still employ thousands of people in Connecticut. Not only would it have been harmful to Lamont’s political aspirations, it would have had serious economic ramifications.

Still, it should be clear where reform went to die. It wasn’t because of Republicans.

Faced with this political reality, Democrats will have to do better in coming years. If voters reward Republicans with a measure of political power after this year’s elections in November, it will be up to that party to deliver meaningful reforms. Whoever wins will be expected to bring results.

What won’t work is continued blame. State government has wide leeway to enact real reforms in terms of medical insurance, and if a public option isn’t a realistic goal, then something else needs to take its place.

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Bangor Daily News. September 5, 2022.

Editorial: We’re not fans of ranked-choice voting. That doesn’t make it a scam.

The role that ranked-choice voting played in Alaska’s recently decided special Congressional election has drawn understandable comparisons to Maine and our partial use of that electoral system. Unfortunately, some of the same terrible ranked-choice arguments that were made here are now being replayed in Alaska.

After former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin lost her bid for Congress in the final round of tabulation, Republican U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas was quick to go after ranked-choice voting with irresponsible rhetoric.

In a tweet, Cotton said ranked-choice voting “is a scam to rig elections.” His comments immediately transported us back to 2018, when former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin ultimately lost to current Rep. Jared Golden after initially leading in the vote tally but failing to secure a majority. Golden, a Democrat, leapfrogged Poliquin, a Republican, in subsequent ranked-choice tabulations and won the seat under the new ranked-choice system that voters approved in 2016. Poliquin incorrectly claimed that he won the election “fair and square” and then-Gov. Paul LePage wrote “stolen election” on the document certifying the results.

It might be a good time to remind folks that a federal judge in Bangor, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump, firmly rejected Poliquin’s legal challenge to ranked-choice voting here in Maine.

“Whether RCV is a better method for holding elections is not a question for which the Constitution holds the answer,” Judge Lance Walker said at the time. “By design, the freedoms and burdens of self-governance leave normative questions of policy to be worked out in the public square and answered at the ballot box.”

Said another way: Some people may not like ranked-choice voting, but Maine voters (and Alaska voters) have decided to use it to elect at least some of their officials. Certain candidates may not like it, but their preferences don’t supersede the will of the voters.

There’s a big difference between a lost election and a stolen election. Being disappointed with the results isn’t the same thing as being disenfranchised or having an election stolen from you. Duly enacted election laws and procedures apply to everyone, whether they agree with them or not.

We didn’t think we’d have to explain this to the supposed “rule of law” crowd, but here we are, yet again.

It may sound strange for an editorial board in Bangor, Maine, to be disappointed in a senator from Arkansas, but that is where we find ourselves. This is because in early January of 2021, when Trump was ramping up his stolen election rhetoric ahead of the Jan. 6 electoral count certification in Congress, Cotton stood firmly against objecting to that certification. He deferred to the Constitution rather than political convenience. We wish he would revisit his own remarks from that time.

We haven’t been big fans of ranked-choice voting and still don’t believe that it’s delivered on its promises to make politics less contentious. We opposed the first Maine ranked-choice referendum in 2016. We’ve highlighted the complications and confusion that resulted. We also opposed a subsequent referendum that overrode the Legislature’s move to slow the implementation of the initial ranked-choice law.

But here’s the thing: Maine voters disagreed with us. Twice. We respect that reality.

As we hope we’ve demonstrated over the years, it is possible to raise concerns about ranked-choice voting and its implementation without questioning the actual legitimacy of elections. It is beyond disappointing to see losing candidates and other officials repeatedly fail to do the same.

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Boston Globe. September 6, 2022.

Editorial: Taxpayers weary of ‘As the State House Turns’

Baker prods lawmakers with a new budget bill and a reminder of unfinished business.

The ongoing soap opera that is the Massachusetts Legislature these days gets back to business this week — well, sort of, kind of.

It could — and should — get back to work. There’s certainly no shortage of important items to deal with. But that will require ending the virtual paralysis that hit a month ago when legislative leaders were informed by Governor Charlie Baker that taxpayers might be entitled to get nearly $3 billion back from their government under a 1986 tax cap law that hasn’t resulted in a rebate since 1987.

Somehow that came as bad news to House Speaker Ron Mariano.

But now the House Ways and Means Committee has before it a $1.6 billion supplemental budget bill filed by Baker last week. It includes a lot of essential items — like $200 million to help the MBTA implement some of those safety upgrades demanded by federal officials, $108 million for COVID-related costs, $50 million for step-down housing for those leaving psychiatric or skilled nursing facilities, and nearly $40 million for school safety grants and programs.

It also includes $30 million for the court appointment of guardians ad litem as independent advocates in custody cases involving children who have been under the care of the Department of Children and Families, along with a policy section to require their appointment. The latter request stems from the botched custody case that preceded the disappearance and now presumed murder of 5-year-old Harmony Montgomery.

In any usual year a Legislature, which has never had a problem spending state dollars, would be eager for the chance to throw more money into the pot and pat themselves collectively on the back for doing so.

Baker notes in his filing letter to lawmakers that the year just ended represents “another remarkable year as it relates to tax revenues that leaves the Commonwealth in an exceptionally strong fiscal position.” In fact, revenues were up 20.5 percent from the previous year.

And that, the governor reminded legislators, will trigger the 1986 tax cap as he certified for the first time the figure of $2.941 billion now due to taxpayers, pending final approval by the state auditor.

“This legislation includes a section setting aside the necessary amount of FY22 surplus to ensure that it is easily available as our administration implements the law and returns the exceeded allowable revenues to Commonwealth taxpayers as required by statute,” Baker wrote.

He might as well have waved a red cape in front of the bullishly stubborn Mariano, who when last heard from was still blaming the Legislature’s own failure to pass a major $4 billion economic development and tax relief bill on that tax cap law.

That tax cap law, “62F is why we’re in this predicament, in my view,” Mariano told reporters in mid-August. “And I’m hesitant to commit almost $7 billion to this project — the $3 billion in 62F and the $3.5 (billion) or whatever we’re spending in the (economic development) bill ... The 62F money, that’s hanging out there with a lot of questions that I’d like to see answered before we make major decisions about taxes and everything else.”

It was the same tune Mariano was humming when the clock ran out on formal legislative sessions for the year on July 31 — a date, by the way, not set in stone, but merely a function of legislative rule-making. During the current informal sessions any single legislator can halt action on a bill.

Senate President Karen Spilka has repeatedly expressed a willingness to have the governor help break what has turned into a legislative logjam, as she did during that same August hallway news conference, along with her continuing frustration that all money bills have to originate in the House.

“We are dependent upon either the governor or the House,” Spilka said. “Unfortunately there are some hard times being in the Senate. This is one of them, but that’s what our constitution says and we need to live by it.”

She expressed hope at the time that Baker would tackle some of the Legislature’s unfinished business in a supplementary budget.

What Baker did do in the new budget bill is remind lawmakers of their rather large bit of unfinished business, while giving them the benefit of the doubt, writing, “We recognize that the Legislature is committed to passing an economic development bill this session, which will direct needed funding toward many shared priorities.”

We wish we shared Baker’s optimism. A year when the state is awash in money and the list of needs is long — programmatic needs as well as the need for tax reforms that will put real money back in people’s pockets — ought to spur action rather than melodrama.

Summer break is over and the people of Massachusetts are due more from their lawmakers than the stalemate they’ve seen thus far.

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Boston Herald. September 8, 2022.

Editorial: What can $9M buy? Not an AG primary win

Many former candidates for higher office have the post-primary blues this week, but losing must have an extra sting for Shannon Liss-Riordan.

Imagine waking up Wednesday morning and realizing you spent some $9.3 million of your own money to come in second.

Andrea Campbell, former city councilor and winner of the Democratic primary for state attorney general, spent some $1.68 million on her campaign, as the Herald reported.

Before the election, Liss-Riordan touted the benefits of coughing up her own cash for the cause, telling reporters that self-funding put her above special interests, something her campaign manager suggested Campbell hadn’t managed to avoid.

“Since entering the campaign Andrea Campbell has laid out the red carpet to outside money,” campaign manager Jordan Meehan said last week. “She has repeatedly refused to disavow special interest money, and now the mega-donors who are hell-bent on expanding charter schools in Massachusetts have arrived to prop up Campbell’s flagging campaign.”

It would have taken a heck of a lot of propping to bridge the gap from $1.68 million to $9.3 million. Nonetheless, Campbell did just fine.

“We have turned our movement into a moment — a historic moment,” Campbell said at her campaign celebration in Quincy. “It is not lost on me that this is the first time a Black woman has ever been elected, not only as nominee for attorney general, but for any statewide office.”

Liss-Riordan is a labor attorney, with suits against companies like Uber and Starbucks on her legal resume, so it’s doubtful the $9M injection into her campaign coffers has her clipping coupons for Spam.

But the buyer’s remorse must be mighty, especially when one considers what a cool $9M could buy.

For starters, $8,495,000 could have gotten Liss-Riordan a cozy seven-bedroom, four-and-a-half bathroom compound in Aquinnah. There’s a six-bedroom main residence, a 1,000-square-foot, one-bedroom guest cottage and 17.76 acres of “lush rolling terrain,” according to the Upper Cape Realty listing. That would leave $505,000 left over for lovely coastal-themed bric-a-brac.

Liss-Riordan could have dropped that $9M on a Bugatti Centodieci. There are only 10 of these sportscars being made, and prices are already on the way up. It looks pretty snazzy, if that word can be applied to a Bugatti.

Or she could have taken a page out of climate czar John Kerry’s book and plunked down that $9M on a private Gulfstream. A 2005 G450 can be had for a skosh under that, and while Kerry reportedly boasts a 1995 Gulfstream GIVSP, they could still be jet buddies. You never know when you might need another high-falutin’ endorsement.

Both Campbell and Liss-Riordan had progressive heavy hitters supporting their bids for office. But only one had a formidable war chest.

There’s a positive takeaway, for anyone other than Liss-Riordan.

Campbell’s win should encourage those who make their bones on city councils and other local legislative bodies, but who feel cowed by the mega funds raised by their rivals for higher office.

Big bucks don’t guarantee a win.

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Rutland Herald. September 6, 2022.

Editorial: Critical deal

We are grateful that the Vermont Attorney General’s Office joined 33 other states in reaching a $438.5 million agreement in principle with JUUL Labs.

Juul said that the settlement “is a significant part of our ongoing commitment to resolve issues from the past. The terms of the agreement are aligned with our current business practices which we started to implement after our companywide reset in the fall of 2019.” But the company said it was not acknowledging any wrongdoing in the settlement.

The news resolves a two-year bipartisan investigation into the e-cigarette manufacturer’s marketing and sales practices, according the the attorney general’s office.

Under the terms of the agreement in principle, the State of Vermont will receive approximately $8 million over a period of six to 10 years. In addition to the financial terms, the settlement would force JUUL to comply with strict injunctive terms severely limiting their marketing and sales practices, including refraining from marketing to youth.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently recommended Vermont spend $8.4 million on tobacco prevention and control, but the state only spends 42.9% of that. Vermont also sees $103,400,000 in tobacco-related revenue annually.

As was the case when Vermont received millions in tobacco money, the settlement is helpful; the prevention and prohibition is critical. Vaping has been identified as a mounting problem in the most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey of the state’s middle and high schoolers. Meanwhile, data from the American Lung Association shows that vape sales in Vermont were higher in the first six months of the 2021 fiscal year than they were in 11 months of the 2020 fiscal year. It states that 86% of Vermont’s youth and young adults who vape said their first time vaping was with a flavored product. The use of menthol by people who already smoke cigarettes went from 42% in 2017 to 64% in 2017.

We must take wins where we can get them, especially when it comes to addiction and our state’s youth.

In a news release issued Tuesday, Vermont Attorney General Susanne Young noted, “JUUL led the charge in reversing decades of progress in fighting nicotine addiction. …JUUL targeted young people, including children, in their advertising and product design. As a result, a generation of youth are newly addicted to nicotine — a crisis that is evident in schools across Vermont. This settlement is an important step in fighting this public health crisis, but there is still work to be done. Vermont is a leader in enforcing its consumer protection and tobacco laws, and we will continue to hold companies accountable for fueling the youth vaping crisis.”

Until recently, JUUL was the dominant player in the vaping market, the news release states. “The multistate investigation revealed that JUUL rose to this position by willfully engaging in an advertising campaign that appealed to youth, even though its e-cigarettes are illegal for them to purchase and are unhealthy for youth to use. The investigation found that JUUL relentlessly marketed to underage users with launch parties, advertisements using young and trendy-looking models, social media posts, and free samples. It marketed a technology-focused, sleek design that could be easily concealed and sold its product in flavors known to be attractive to underage users. JUUL also manipulated the chemical composition of its product to make the vapor less harsh on the throats of the young and inexperienced users. To preserve its young customer base, JUUL relied on age verification techniques that it knew were ineffective,” the statement from the AGO reads.

The investigation further revealed that JUUL’s original packaging was misleading in that it did not clearly disclose that it contained nicotine and implied that it contained a lower concentration of nicotine than it actually did. Consumers were misled to believe that consuming one JUUL pod was the equivalent of smoking one pack of combustible cigarettes. The company also misrepresented that its product was a smoking cessation device without FDA approval to make such claims.

As part of the settlement, JUUL has agreed to refrain from: youth marketing; funding education programs; depicting people younger than age 35 in any marketing; use of cartoons and paid product placement; sale of brand-name merchandise; sale of flavors not approved by FDA; allowing access to websites without age verification on landing page; representations about nicotine not approved by FDA; misleading representations about nicotine content; sponsorships/naming rights; advertising in outlets unless 85% audience is adult; advertising on billboards and public transportation; social media advertising (other than testimonials by individuals older than the age of 35, with no health claims) and use of paid influencers; direct-to-consumer ads unless age-verified; and free samples.

We hope the deal is finalized. It is a critical step toward the long-term health of our children and state.

END