Hearst Connecticut Media. January 19, 2023.
Editorial: State’s housing crunch grows more urgent
As work at the General Assembly gets underway at the start of a new session, lawmakers are taking on any number of major challenges. Health care, education and tax policy will all be in focus this year, and though the budget situation is much improved over previous years, there will no doubt be plenty of debate on spending priorities in the weeks and months to come.
But one issue has taken on a special urgency, and it’s one the state has too often ignored. Housing, however, can no longer be overlooked. The state is in an untenable position.
Legislators were presented with some sobering numbers this week. According to testimony from a real estate industry expert, the entire state has only about 3,600 homes for sale . That’s down from about 17,000 homes for sale in 2017.
The housing debate often focuses on affordability, or on who is allowed to build what in which circumstances. But that number, which ought to get the attention of everyone in the Capitol, reveals a simple lack of availability at any price.
The effect is predictable. According to the same expert, the median price for a single-family home in Connecticut has increased to $339,000 in 2022 from $235,000 in 2017. That’s out of reach for many people who live here and just as many who are interested in moving to Connecticut. It’s absolutely stifling to economic growth.
The state has thousands of unfilled jobs. If every person looking for work took the first employment offer they found, we’d still be well short of filling those positions. We need more people.
But not only does the state lack affordable places for people to live in proximity to those jobs, it lacks housing altogether. The result is that what is available is out of reach for too many people.
We know why this happens. Multifamily housing is too often demonized as a source of social ills, bringing down property values and increasing quality-of-life problems. But none of that has to be true. Multifamily homes are simply places where people live, just like anything else.
The onus to make decisions on whether such construction is allowed is on the local decisionmakers, and those officials are too often deferential to the complaints of neighbors who don’t want anything to change. “Local control” sounds nice, but the overall effect is that little gets built because too many people are up in arms about every proposal.
Only the state is in a position to change that. By loosening zoning laws and reducing the ability of neighbors to stop projects they simply don’t like on properties they don’t own, more projects could move forward. As another expert testified in Hartford, lawmakers must take a close look at ending exclusionary zoning and loosening aesthetic requirements.
Despite the clear evidence that the state is in a housing crisis, it’s not clear how change will happen. Too many suburban representatives push the other way, condemning the state law that allows affordable housing to be built over a town’s objections if certain requirements are met. There are far too many people in power moving the wrong way.
That needs to change. The issue is not going away.
Bangor Daily News. January 18, 2023.
Editorial: Nirav Shah guided Maine through COVID’s uncertainty
Dr. Nirav Shah became a household name in Maine for a very unfortunate reason — the COVID-19 pandemic. For more than a year, the bespectacled doctor provided frequent updates to Mainers on the virus and its toll on the state. He told us what he knew, and what he didn’t.
Shah, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, provided a sense of calm while sharing information about the new virus that was sickening and killing people around the world in the early months of 2020.
Shah is now leaving Maine to work for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where he will be second in leadership to Director Rochelle Walensky.
“Day after day, week after week, Dr. Shah spoke calmly and directly to the people of Maine, many of whom were scared and uncertain. He delivered to us the unvarnished truth, as best we knew it, and answered our questions with compassion, empathy, humor, and a clarity that gave us much-needed hope in our darkest of days,” Gov. Janet Mills said in a statement last week. “I strongly believe that Maine’s nation-leading success in confronting the pandemic is due in large part to Dr. Shah’s leadership, and there is no doubt in my mind that he saved the lives of many Maine people. While I am saddened that we are losing Dr. Shah at the Maine CDC, I will be forever grateful for his work to protect and improve the health of Maine people.”
Maine’s pandemic response under Shah and Mills was rated as one of the best in the nation. The state has one of the lowest death rates and one of the highest vaccination rates. The Commonwealth Fund analysis gave Maine the second-best COVID response. A team of conservative economists gave the state an A grade for its response, praising its health performance but giving it a mid-range score on the economy and education.
While Shah spawned a fan club, he also was a target of anger and disdain. Conservatives have criticized the state’s response to the pandemic as too heavy handed. They reason that the pandemic was not too bad in Maine, so the response from Shah and Mills was too drastic. This neglects the fact that the pandemic’s death toll and infection rate in Maine were among the lowest in the country in large part because of the protective measures that the administration imposed and suggested.
While we don’t aim to downplay the negative impacts of some state rules on businesses, education and mental health, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fear and uncertainty that was prevalent in early 2020 when the coronavirus was first found in the United States and Maine. Much was not known about the deadly virus, but caution was a guiding principle around the world.
During these uncertain and scary times, Shah’s reassuring words and thoughtful assessment of the dangers of the pandemic were needed and welcomed.
“During his tenure as Maine CDC director, Dr. Nirav Shah’s briefings during the pandemic were a source of calm, and he provided helpful advice on how Mainers could protect themselves, their families, and their communities,” Sen. Susan Collins said in a statement. “Maine is grateful for his service, and I wish him all the best on his new leadership role at the U.S. CDC.”
Shah served Maine well during tumultuous times. As he moves on to a new role, Maine’s loss is America’s gain.
Boston Globe. January 16, 2023.
Editorial: Maura Healey promised to bring transparency to an opaque governor’s office. It’s not clear if she’ll follow through.
Time to put some muscle behind her campaign promises.
A few days before Christmas, GBH radio host Jim Braude said he had two questions for Governor-elect Maura Healey.
First, would she break with past governors who claimed they are exempt from the state’s public records law? And second, would she support legislation trimming back exemptions that the state Legislature and judiciary claim?
“Yes, yes,” Healey replied.
“Well,” Braude said, “that takes care of that.”
As her quick answer may have betrayed, her commitment to transparency seems less than ironclad.
Massachusetts is the only state in the country where the governor, the state Legislature, and the judiciary have all claimed exemptions from public records law.
And their stonewalling has made it far too difficult for the press, watchdog groups, and ordinary citizens to understand how policy is made and how justice is meted out here.
To justify that stonewalling, governors have pointed to a 1997 decision by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court, known as Lambert v. Executive Director of the Judicial Nominating Council, which found that, because the public records law does not specifically name the governor’s office, the state Legislature, and the judiciary, they are exempt.
Transparency advocates have long criticized the court’s ruling.
And they have called on governors, Democratic and Republican, to voluntarily open their offices to scrutiny.
Healey gets credit for signaling a break from her predecessors.
But as Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, fairly points out, “she hasn’t provided any details, she hasn’t shared with us any steps that she’s going to take to make that a reality,” and “until she does, until she puts more action into those words, it’s just a promise unfulfilled.”
Last month, Silverman’s First Amendment Coalition, the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, and the New England Newspaper & Press Association wrote a letter to Healey asking her to put some muscle behind her pledge.
The groups wanted the governor, immediately after taking office, to issue an executive order subjecting her office to the public records law. They wanted her to appoint a public records officer, too. And they are calling on her to file and support legislation clarifying that the public records law applies to the governor’s office.
The editorial board put all this to the governor’s office and asked if she’d also file and support legislation making it clear that the state Legislature and judiciary are subject to public records law. We got a broad statement in reply: “Governor Healey has been clear that her office intends to comply with the public records law and provide more transparency to the governor’s office than ever before,” said spokeswoman Jillian Fennimore.
Healey doesn’t seem poised to press lawmakers on the question; her office has indicated it will review any legislation that comes its way. And it will evaluate any public records requests that come to the office on a case-by-case basis — a standard that seems to leave room for dodging uncomfortable requests.
The administration, in fairness, is young. It may take some time to figure out how to handle the kind of requests that previous governors brushed aside.
But anything less than fulfillment of the sort of public records requests that are routine in virtually every other state won’t do.
Rutland Herald. January 14, 2023.
Editorial: The more you know
Last week, Secretary of State Sarah Copeland Hanzas announced plans to create a new education and civic engagement coordinator position for the agency.
In a news release, Copeland Hanzas said she wanted to build on her predecessor Jim Condos’ “work to protect and preserve the integrity, transparency and accessibility of our elections” and “move to a new phase of engagement with Vermonters of all ages.”
“We need to recognize that sometimes people don’t vote because they don’t know how to vote, or they don’t know the candidates, or they are skeptical about whether their vote will make a difference,” she stated.
The new coordinator will be charged with creating a civics curriculum for school teachers, engaging with Vermonters on civics in their communities and building a voter guide for the 2024 General Election.
“Civics is more than the dry, boring three branches of government. Civics is also about being able to affect change, solve problems and make life better for all of us,” stated Copeland Hanzas. “Individuals can only do so much on their own. Working together through civic participation allows us to accomplish more than any one person can do themselves.”
We applaud the effort and look forward to seeing it implemented. A solid foundation in civics and a basic understanding of how our government works is essential as Americans encounter new and increasingly more sophisticated forms of misinformation and fake news online, as well as ongoing voter suppression efforts across the country.
The last couple election cycles have shown us that many Americans — politicians included — need to brush up on their civics lessons. Unfortunately, in recent decades national education policy has de-emphasized civics education in favor of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. Indeed, the U.S. spends a thousand times more per student on STEM education than on history and civics, according to the Center for Civic Literacy at Indiana University.
The results are troubling: A quarter of Americans cannot name a single branch of government, according to a 2020 national survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania; and 60% were unable to name a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, a 2017 survey by C-SPAN found.
Now more than ever, Americans need to know their civics, but as research from the Center for American Progress shows, civics education is far from guaranteed in schools these days. While most states require at least a semester’s worth of standalone civics courses, only nine states and the District of Columbia require one year of U.S. government or civics; 31 states only require a half-year of civics or U.S. government education, and 10 states — including Vermont — have no civics requirement.
CAP also reported that state civics curricula tend to be heavy on knowledge but light on teaching skills and agency for civic engagement, stating, “no states have experiential learning or local problem-solving components in their civics requirements.”
While helping adults gain a better understanding of government may prove difficult, CAP does have some recommendations on how to foster good citizenship in the next generation of Americans, such as creating opportunities for youth participatory action research and activism; teaching news and media literacy; and increasing voter registration and participation.
For many Americans, the Jan. 6 insurrection was a wake-up that demonstrated how little some of our fellow citizens understand or respect our political system.
“The deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in January and the continuing misinformation about the presidential election have left many Americans deeply worried about the state of their democracy. Some legislators on both sides of the aisle say the extreme political divisions spring in part from a fundamental lack of understanding about the country’s history and how its government works,” stated a 2021 report from Pew Research Center report.
The report notes that while teaching topics like slavery and institutional racism have proven divisive among educators and lawmakers, there seems to be agreement that civics education is a good starting point for bridging the current ideological divides in our country.
According to Pew, lawmakers in at least 34 states debated 88 bills in 2021 that sought to bolster civics education for public school students. Measures ranged from mandating civics education for middle and high school students to incentivizing civics activities outside the classroom.
One measure in Delaware, for example, proposed giving students in grades six through 12 one excused absence per year from school to participate in a civic activity, such as attending a rally or visiting the state capitol. In New Jersey, both houses passed a measure requiring civics coursework in middle school. Florida lawmakers, meanwhile, unanimously passed a bill offering school districts civics literacy education that was ultimately vetoed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who argued it was promoting “preferred” orthodoxies.
Other states, like New Hampshire, have made passing a civics competency assessment a high school graduation requirement. Currently, almost half the country requires some sort of civics exam. However, Pew notes that critics have argued such tests don’t take into account students’ uneven educational experiences and could “disproportionately hurt low-income communities or communities of color by risking students’ graduation.”
Time will tell if these various efforts will pay off. A healthy democracy requires an informed, engaged electorate that can discern truth from lies in order to guard against those who would dismantle it. In recent years, we have come uncomfortably close to seeing how easily it can all come undone if we let ourselves be swayed by demagogues and misinformation. We owe it to our children to arm them with the knowledge and agency necessary to defend themselves from such threats in the future.
Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. January 17, 2023.
Editorial: Open up
As Vermonters, we take pride in the access we have to our elected officials. In our hometowns, we run into them at the hardware store; we catch them in line at the market. Save the governor, they are not surrounded by staff or security. They are where we all need them to be: public.
In the halls of the State House, the faces become familiar in a hurry. The smallest capitol building in the nation leaves very few spots for private conversations. We all know we are one scare away from a different set of safety protocols and losing that ready access.
On Aug. 16, 2018, on this page, in this space, we published an editorial titled, “Yes, we are the enemy.” It was part of a collaborated response — given by newspapers nationwide against claims by then-president Donald Trump — that the media was the enemy.
It drew the attention of former U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, who asked that our editorial be included in the Congressional Record later that month — an honor for our newspapers.
In that editorial, we noted:
“If you abuse your power, we are your enemy.
“When you use propaganda to mislead the people, you are the enemy.
“If, as a public official, you deliberately hide documents or close meetings, we are your enemy.
“We will come after you if you are an oppressor of the underprivileged.
“We will never allow you to silence the voices and opinions of others.”
During the past week, it has been brought to our attention that reporters are being shut out of House committee rooms. It will not stand.
In another coordinated response, this time much closer to home but just as important, we have joined with online, print and broadcast media in a defense of our constitutional right — as the eyes and ears of the public — to be admitted to any rooms in the State House in which a quorum of a committee or chamber is present.
That’s our job. The condemnation, led by VTDigger Editor Paul Heintz, was sent to House Speaker Jill Krowinski and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Baruth on Tuesday. The letter is signed by representatives of The Times Argus/Rutland Herald, VTDigger, WCAX-TV, Vermont Public, Valley News, Seven Days and FOX44/ABC22 News.
“We write to express alarm at the restrictions imposed upon journalists during the opening weeks of this biennium. Legislative leaders and staff have sought to exclude photographers and videographers from the House and Senate floor, and chairs have repeatedly shut reporters out of committee rooms while legislators conducted the public’s business. These restrictions fly in the face of centuries of precedent and tradition in the Statehouse and violate the Vermont Constitution,” the letter states. “The framers were clear when they wrote that ‘the doors of the House in which the General Assembly of this Commonwealth shall sit, shall be open for the admission of all persons who behave decently ….’ They were equally clear when they wrote that ‘the people have a right to freedom of speech, and of writing and publishing their sentiments, concerning the transactions of government, and therefore the freedom of the press ought not to be restrained.’”
As we have noted above, members of the media recognize certain challenges of keeping the State House as a healthy and safe place to work. We also understand media have to be on time for public business, and we might have to stand through some committee meetings that are in tight quarters.
“But the measures you take must not infringe upon the right of the press to witness and document the work you do in the name of Vermonters. You have had nearly three years since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic to come up with a plan to accommodate the public and the press in a fully in-person legislative session. The solution cannot be to continue meeting in cramped committee rooms and then shut the doors on all but a handful of staff and witnesses,” the letter notes. “Poor planning does not excuse you from your constitutional obligations.”
The letter also notes just how much the media (and the public) appreciate that the Legislature has chosen to livestream some proceedings. (A shout-out to our longtime partner ORCA Media in Montpelier, which has been providing committee coverage as part of its public access for years now.)
However, “it is not a substitute for in-person reporting. Throughout the pandemic, legislators repeatedly discussed public business before livestreams began and after they ended. Reporters must be in the room to capture all such deliberations,” the letter notes.
Krowinski did allow photographers (including our own Jeb Wallace-Brodeur) on the House floor during the inaugural ceremonies, and her office has made a commitment to ensuring press access to House committees in the future.
However, Sen. Baruth has apparently taken a position that the press is guaranteed a single seat in each committee room. It’s not that easy, and the senator and his staff know that. Pool coverage does not work.
“If anything, Washington could learn a thing or two from Vermont, where journalists have historically had open access to the deliberations of those writing our laws. This has contributed to a more informed, accountable and civil discourse, and we ought not abandon it,” the letter concludes. “We urge you to reverse course and reopen the doors of the Statehouse. We will not stand idly by as you keep them closed.”