Portland Press Herald. December 3, 2023.
Editorial: Use surplus to help out Mainers left behind – and further power economy
With the economy working very well for some and not at all for others, a targeted approach is required.
News headlines say Maine has another “budget surplus.” While it’s true that the state has a flush bank account, it also has a stack of unpaid bills waiting in the mailbox.
State officials project Maine will have $139 million in unexpected revenue in the current fiscal year, and more than $500 million total through the next four years.
Add in our record-high rainy day fund, which is maxed out at $968.3 million, and there is no doubt that Maine is in great financial shape.
With revenue from income tax returns and consumer spending and corporate profits outpacing earlier projections, it’s clear, too, that a lot of individual Mainers are benefiting as inflation subsides and the U.S. economy hums along.
But you don’t have to look very far to find Mainers who aren’t getting a share of the recovery.
Our neighbors who are homeless, or who spend so much on housing they don’t have much left for anything else. The kids who live every day in and around poverty, and those who need help from underfunded state services. Every student who loses out when schools can’t find enough teachers and ed techs. Every person who misses out on care because it’s too expensive or not available, disrupting their lives and getting in the way of their ability to work or gain skills.
To their credit, the Mills administration and the Legislature have made wise investments in these areas. But no one can honestly say they’ve done enough. The two-year budget passed over the summer put a lot of state money where it was needed, but it also left unfunded dozens of bills that address the roadblocks in people’s lives, and which already passed committee and the full Legislature.
As Gov. Mills prepares a supplemental budget request to hand legislators early next year, setting the framework for how the surplus will be spent, she should make it a priority to fund those unfunded bills, as well as other critical legislation that will be coming before the Legislature next session.
Previously, Mills has opted to send money collected in surplus of the budget back to taxpayers in the form of checks. This was a justifiable response first to the pandemic, which harmed people up and down the income ladder in ways that were hard to predict, and again during the double whammy of record inflation and high heating costs, which made last winter so difficult.
But now, with the economy working well for some but not others, a more targeted approach is required.
Unfunded bills regarding affordable housing and shelter operations, as well as those covering teacher pay, minimum wage, general assistance and student behavioral health, all address problems harming Mainers, holding them back as they seek a productive and rewarding life.
They harm the economy, too, as barriers keep residents from working as much as they’d like, and prevent Maine businesses from growing at a time when demand is high.
In addition, legislators will have to fund the legislative response to the shootings in Lewiston, which should include laws aimed at improving the mental health system as well as reducing access to firearms. Maine’s embattled child welfare system is in need of major help as well.
Maine Republicans, in the legislative minority, say yet again that the budget surplus is a sign that taxes are too high. Rep. Josh Morris, lead Republican on the Health Coverage, Insurance and Financial Services Committee, said last week that lawmakers should reduce spending and taxes to help Mainers “crushed by high costs” – the result, he claimed, of “inflationary progressive policies.”
However, the most recent tax cut plan released by Maine House Republicans gave little to no benefit to low-income residents while the largest reduction went to wealthy Mainers – exactly those who are having few financial problems these days.
And the “inflationary” policies passed in recent years? They have helped produce a recovery that has taken hold far faster than the one following the Great Recession, and put the U.S. in a much better position than other rich nations across the world.
The economy is doing well for a lot of people. But it won’t be all it can be until it works for everyone else.
Rutland Herald. December 2, 2023.
For some time now, we have been talking about how, when all factors align, there will come a point when the population of taxpayers in Vermont can no longer afford to pay for the services required to run the state and educate our children.
We may be at our tipping point.
This week brought news that will anger most Vermonters.
In the annual letter forecasting the education tax rate, Commissioner of Taxes Craig Bolio noted, “This year’s letter projects property tax bills to increase by an average of 18.5% next fiscal year, driven largely by a forecasted 12% increase in year-over-year education spending.” He said, in addition, many districts are seeing changes in pupil counts due to implementation of the new pupil weights. Changes in pupil counts affect education tax rates, which are based on per pupil spending.
“I understand that this will not be welcome news for Vermonters,” said Bolio in his letter. “This forecast predicts an unprecedented property tax increase next year, with very real financial impacts at a time Vermonters are already struggling to pay for housing.”
If the forecasts come to pass, the property taxes on a $250,000 home would increase by about $650 next year. The increase in the non-homestead rate likely will put upward pressure on rents as well, he said. A senior citizen living on a mix of Social Security and a modest retirement account that totals $50,000 annually would see their net taxes increased by nearly $200, one Republican lawmaker noted.
Bolio wrote to lawmakers, “Coupling a historically unaffordable housing market with an 18.5% average property tax increase will only worsen the housing affordability problem for Vermonters. At a time when residents are paying more for everything, the Governor has tasked the Administration with working with the Legislature to address our housing affordability problems and to find ways to restore sustainable growth and transparency in the Education Fund.”
Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who has campaigned on affordability and has resisted tax increases whenever possible was aptly concerned.
“At a time when housing costs and interest rates are elevated, higher property taxes will make our housing and workforce crises worse, and I sincerely hope the Legislature agrees,” he said. “For years, I have warned that Vermont is unaffordable for too many families and small businesses. This is why for seven years I focused on holding the line on higher taxes and fees, while offering solutions to reduce the tax burden on Vermonters. And for six out of the seven years, we were successful in preventing new taxes and fees.”
The governor (and other Republican leaders) sent a clear message: “We should all agree it is time for us to take our affordability crisis seriously.”
“We have proven when we work together, we can make historic and impactful investments that produce positive results for our communities, without adding more financial burdens on residents. We can do that again, but it will require more than better budgeting in Montpelier. School boards, who already have a difficult job, will need to do all they can to contain spending to a rate that taxpayers can afford,” the governor urged. “Together, we can, and must, prevent this untenable tax increase, or anything close to it, from coming to pass.”
Bolio noted in his letter, almost contrition in sending the bad news, that Scott has long been concerned about Vermont’s demographics. “Among the most significant impediments to reversing our demographic trends is access to quality, affordable homes for working families.”
Rep. Pattie McCoy, of Rutland, the Republican House leader, agreed the forecast is unacceptable. She put some of the onus back on communities and school districts that are still working on budgets for the next fiscal year.
“Vermont children are our most precious resource. Yet we must be mindful that their care and public education is not supported by limitless resources. Unfortunately, the Education Tax Rate Letter released today does not provide balance that Vermonters can afford,” she wrote in a prepared statement issued Thursday.
“School district education spending requests for next year have not been finalized or warned, and importantly they have not been approved by voters. School boards must consider the tax burden being placed on taxpayers and change course,” she said.
McCoy acknowledged that last spring school districts asked for an additional $127 million from the Education Fund for the current school year, an 8% increase. Next school year they have proposed to further increase spending by $205 million, a 12% increase.
Unfortunately, education is only one factor of the state’s taxation equation.
McCoy points out that an economy growing at just over 2% does not support education spending increases of 12% with associated 18% property tax increases. “No one is asking school districts to do more with less; we are simply asking them to limit their increases to a level that Vermonters can afford,” she said.
“The impact of these possible tax increases are sobering, but when considered in the context of Vermont’s crisis of housing affordability and availability they are nothing short of catastrophic,” she said.
Now is the moment to keep our state from tipping over. Speak up. Get involved. Attend budget meetings. Hold local school officials and superintendents (and municipal officials well) working on these budgets accountable to the limited tax base supporting these towns, school districts and state.
Demand a result we can afford.
Boston Globe. December 5, 2023.
Editorial: Tackling the scourge of ghost guns, preventing the next tragedy a must in 2024
Legislative differences, egos shouldn’t get in the way of needed reforms.
In Wareham last week, Robert Gomes III, 26, was charged with fatally shooting his father. He told police he bought the gun from a “website that he could not remember,” according to court records. It was essentially a ghost gun, a prosecutor told the court.
In Springfield, days earlier, 19-year-old Jovonne Torres was arrested for firing a gun at a driver he said tried to run him down in a parking lot. Police identified the weapon as a ghost gun with a high-capacity magazine.
Earlier in the month Charles Santos, 34, of Kingston was arrested for unlawful possession of a high-capacity firearm along with a 3-D printer and 3-D-printed gun body parts.
The list goes on and on. The guns that are assembled at home from a kit or even printed at home are without serial numbers and virtually untraceable. They are also a growing menace on the streets.
“A majority of the crime guns that are currently recovered in Boston and Springfield and in some other urban communities are in fact ghost guns,” Representative David Linsky told a legislative hearing last week. “Ghost guns are just as deadly as a gun that is bought from a licensed gun dealer. … Currently under Massachusetts law, these are not prohibited guns, and it’s creating a significant public safety problem.”
Attorney General Andrea Campbell has been outspoken on the need to do more to combat the proliferation of ghost guns and the need to give law enforcement more tools to deal with them. The Massachusetts House has already passed a sweeping gun reform measure that would require ghost guns to be registered and have serial numbers on their frames, and while Senate President Karen Spilka has promised to get a gun reform bill on the governor’s desk before the session ends in July, this week’s hearing (on 53 separate gun-related measures) is the first time senators have publicly tackled the issue.
For months House and Senate Democrats have been squabbling over which committee should handle gun reform. The House bill emerged from the Judiciary Committee, where Chairman Michael Day led the effort to draft a sweeping 126-page gun reform effort. Last week’s hearing was before the Joint Committee on Public Safety. The Senate has already indicated it too will take a broader approach but has yet to offer up that vision.
There’s no doubt, though, that action on ghost guns needs to be part of whatever legislation eventually makes it to the governor’s desk.
“These unregulated parts and kits make it possible for a whole range of prohibited and dangerous individuals — people with criminal convictions, people with severe mental health issues, people in crisis — to access firearms by buying parts online with no background check,” Samuel Levy, counsel for Everytown for Gun Safety, testified.
But ghost guns aren’t the only issue on which this usually reform-minded state has fallen behind.
More than a year and a half ago, in the Bruen decision, the US Supreme Court struck down New York’s century-old public carry law, which required New York residents to demonstrate “proper cause” to obtain a concealed carry license. The court left states to sort out how to comply with the ruling. Massachusetts has yet to do so.
At least the high court did allow restrictions on the right to carry in “sensitive spaces” such as schools, polling places, and government buildings. The House bill explicitly lists those and adds that guns may also be banned at the discretion of business owners and homeowners. Any future Senate gun reform offering would certainly have to address that long-overdue issue.
Also overdue for an update is the state’s red flag law — more formally known as an Extreme Risk Protection Order — that allows a court to suspend a gun license and remove a gun from anyone who “poses a risk of physically hurting themselves or others.” But currently only a family or household member or the police department of the city or town in which the gun owner lives can apply for the order. Too often others see the warning signs of a life beginning to unravel but sadly can do nothing. Employers, school administrators, and health care providers must be added to the list of those who can apply for such an order.
All of those items are essential to whatever comes out of the Senate by way of gun reform. But they represent a floor, not a ceiling, to what can and must be accomplished in the coming year.
If there is some bit of wisdom to be gained from the recent tragedy in Lewiston, Maine, it is that nowhere is completely safe. No town, no city can afford to be complacent — not when do-it-yourself weaponry is as close as a computer keyboard and the next day’s delivery.
There is no shortage of good intentions on Beacon Hill when it comes to gun reform. But as we have seen on too many occasions, rivalries, egos, and just plain dysfunction often get in the way of the best of intentions. A renewed effort at gun reform is too important to fall victim to that in 2024.
Hearst Connecticut Media. December 3, 2023.
Editorial: A short-lived electric car ‘victory’
There was a lot of celebrating among opponents of a proposed electric vehicle regulation recently.
“Together, we did it!” the Yankee Institute exclaimed. “This is a victory for all of us.”
The issue was the withdrawal of proposed regulations that would have ended the sale of new gas-powered cars in Connecticut by 2035. Gov. Ned Lamont said the proposal wasn’t dead, but the state was going to try a different tack to get the rules in place.
Nevertheless, the celebration was on among opponents of the plan, which included conservatives, people who sell gasoline for a living and wavering moderates. But what, exactly, were they celebrating?
It’s not about the open road, as earlier warnings from the Yankee Institute and others had intimated. No one is banning cars, and the experience of driving an electric vehicle is pretty much the same as any other car, except that you get to ignore the prices advertised at gas stations.
Is it about government regulations? That makes a little more sense, but only to a point. What you can and can’t drive is highly regulated already, and it’s not as though any existing regulations are going to be rolled back. Nor would any opponents of the proposed new rules want them to be, in all likelihood. Minimum safety requirements, for example, have made a huge difference over the years.
Consumer choice? Again, that effect will be limited no matter what Connecticut does. With California and other states moving ahead with electric vehicle regulations, the market is going to be changing under any circumstances. We’re rapidly approaching a point where available choices between electric or traditional cars will be made long before a customer even thinks about buying a car. You can’t today buy a car that uses leaded gasoline, and that’s where things are headed on all gas-powered cars.
This seems, in the bigger picture, like a fight that beleaguered conservatives had to wage because they needed a win. They don’t get a lot of victories in a place like Connecticut, and now they have one. Ultimately, it won’t matter much. If the governor and legislature continue on the path they have been going on, the new regulations will be passed in any event, and all the drama this week will be less than a footnote.
We should remember, though, why this fight has been necessary. Traditional cars, even with modern technology, contribute heavily to global climate change. The transportation sector is a major source of emissions, and we need to find a better way. Electric cars are far from a perfect solution, but they are a huge improvement over what we have now.
There are problems to be solved before we move fully into an electric-vehicle future. That’s why the regulations wouldn’t take effect immediately. We can, as a state, take on those challenges. What we can’t do is ignore the problem. Everyone who takes the climate crisis seriously knows this.
So, opponents are free to celebrate today. But they need to know this is far from the end of the story. And their victory, short-lived though it may be, doesn’t help anyone in the long run.
Bangor Daily News. December 4, 2023.
Editorial: Angus King’s bill is modest proposal to reduce gun violence
About a week after a horrific shooting in Lewiston left 18 people dead and 13 injured, some Mainers took to social media to beseech U.S. Sen. Angus King to do something to reduce the gun violence in America.
One person said on Instagram that they had long supported King but was “so disappointed in Maine leaders” for not doing more to “take weapons of war out of the hands of dangerous people.”
King responded: “You won’t be disappointed much longer.” It was an unusual and bold promise.
Three weeks later, King and several colleagues introduced a bill in the U.S. Senate that would place some new restrictions on high capacity magazines and gas-operated semi-automatic guns.
It is, however, an important potential move forward at a time when much gun control legislation has faced dim prospects in Congress. However, given that King’s bill so far has no Republican co-sponsors, it, like much other legislation aimed at restricting guns and ammunition, faces extremely long odds in Congress.
That is unfortunate, because even if this bill is far from perfect, Americans want — and deserve — more restrictions on some types of guns. Gun violence is much more prevalent in the U.S. than other wealthy, advanced countries.
The Oct. 25 mass shooting in Lewiston was one of the worst in the country’s history. Afterward, some politicians pledged action to curb gun violence. This included President Joe Biden who visited Lewiston after the shooting, and U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of the 2nd District, who gave an impassioned speech apologizing for his past opposition to an assault weapons ban.
King is the first to offer specific legislation.
The Gas-Operated Semi-Automatic Firearms Exclusion Act, or GOSAFE Act, would establish a list of prohibited semi-automatic firearms and mandate that future “gas-operated” designs, which allow rapid firing, go through an approval process before being manufactured. It would also prevent certain modifications of allowed firearms, and prevent “unlawful” self-assembly of “ghost guns.”
It would limit magazines to no more than 10 rounds of ammunition and outlaw conversion devices, such as Glock switches and bump stocks that allow guns to fire rapidly. Finally, it would set up a voluntary buyback program to allow gun owners to turn in and receive compensation for guns and magazines that would be banned moving forward under the legislation.
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, joined King in introducing the bill, which is co-sponsored by U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, and Mark Kelly, D-Arizona, the husband of former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords who suffered a severe brain injury in a 2012 shooting.
The bill includes many exemptions, including for some shotguns and does not cover guns that people already own.
It was still roundly attacked by gun advocacy groups and some Republicans, who wrongly suggest that Americans oppose further restrictions on guns. In addition to strong support nationally for a ban on assault weapons, a recent poll found that Mainers strongly support broader background checks and waiting periods for gun purchases. While not part of King’s legislation, these should be top areas for debate among state lawmakers when they return to Augusta early next year.
We won’t venture an assessment on whether King’s bill has eliminated disappointment among those seeking policy solutions to end the gun violence that devastated Lewiston in October. What we can say is that is one modest proposal in what needs to be a sweeping reassessment of the many contributors — including gun access, inadequate mental health services and gaps in existing laws — to our unacceptably high number of gun deaths in the U.S.