Editorial Roundup: New England

Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. November 15, 2021.

Editorial: The Dean

The dean of the U.S. Senate has announced it is time to step aside and not seek a ninth term.

Since 1975, Patrick Leahy has been serving Vermonters.

“It’s time to put down the gavel. It is time to pass the torch to the next Vermonter to carry on this work for our great state. It’s time to come home,” he told reporters. Home for Leahy and his wife, Marcelle, is at their farm in Middlesex.

At 81, he has had an accomplished career in politics. He has opened doors for millions of dollars to flow into the state, ranging from supporting the state’s most vulnerable populations, to securing federal assistance after Tropical Storm Irene and during this pandemic. (Likely, every town and city in Vermont has been made better at the hands of Leahy’s shrewd negotiations when it comes to federal funding.)

But he also fought for protections that directly impact Vermonters’ quality of life. He helped to preserve our natural resources, including millions for Lake Champlain, as well as the working landscape.

“Open land. Cleaner water. New markets for our farmers. Providing nutritious food for those in need. That will be a legacy to our state for generations,” he said.

He oversaw reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act and has “fiercely” advocated for civil liberties. He has shaped countless policies, and through his work on protecting humankind against landmines, probably saved many lives. In recent years, he has fought the battle for racial and social justice, often invoking the words and values of his old friend, John Lewis.

Lucy Leriche, vice president of public affairs at the Planned Parenthood Vermont Action Fund, noted he has been “a steadfast champion of reproductive rights and affordable health care, holding firm on his belief that everyone who requires care should have access, regardless of their income or where they live.”

“On behalf of everyone at VSAC, I want to thank Senator Leahy for his continued efforts to make education equity a reality for all Vermonters. Access to education and training after high school is an essential component of reversing income inequality and creating career opportunities that will last a lifetime,” noted Scott Giles, VSAC’s president and CEO.

“The health of Vermonters has been improved time and again thanks to Senator Leahy’s leadership, most recently thanks to his advocacy for COVID-19 relief funding for Vermont, which in turn ensured our health care system was able to remain stable and provide services for the patients who need us most,” said Dr. John R. Brumsted, president and CEO of the UVM Health Network.

The list of accomplishments and kudos is decades long.

There is another side of the senator that has lifted Vermonters, as well.

He presented us with photographs he had taken of key moments across his career (we hope that book is also int the works, because everyone loves that behind-the-scenes vantage), and he got us excited about the Dark Knight, with his fandom for Batman. (He did, after all, stand up to Heath Ledger’s Joker in rather epic fashion.)

His retirement announcement is not entirely unexpected.

We wondered when word got out that Leahy had forthcoming memoir about his years in politics if that was a signal that the time had come.

And while Leahy has been part and parcel to some of the most contentious battles that have been fought in Washington, D.C., over the last 40-plus years, all signs point to more gridlock and stiffer partisanship that will undoubtedly require a deep pool of stamina and energy. Leahy may well be up to those fights as well, but after so many pitched battles, we also see the appeal of some solitude.

Newly minted State GOP Chair Paul Dame laid out the challenge ahead. “With a rare vacancy and the current 50-50 divide in the Senate, Vermont Republicans will enjoy an incredible opportunity to recruit the kind of high caliber candidate to win this seat and make Vermont more competitive than ever before. … With national Democrats fracturing between the volatile Progressive wing and the Democratic establishment wing of the party, it will be interesting to see if backroom arrangements have already been made to tip the scales and appoint someone before his term ends, or to force certain interested Democrats to ‘wait their turn.’ If Democrats have not already pre-arranged this outcome and bypassed their party’s voters, we can expect to see a divisive primary to replace a man who was able to keep the peace due to his power and influence — but will be able to do so no longer.”

Like the rest of the state, we offer our thanks for a career of distinguished service and accomplishment. And we remain eager to see just who lines up (and who lines up behind them) to fill the dean’s shoes.

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Boston Globe. November 19, 2021.

Editorial: An epic failure on Beacon Hill

Lawmakers dawdled over ARPA funds, delaying economic relief to millions of their constituents.

When Massachusetts lawmakers wrested control over a $5 billion pot of federal money from the governor last summer, they also accepted the responsibility for getting that money out of state coffers and into programs, projects, and communities where it was intended to do good — and to do so reasonably quickly.

This week they failed to live up to that responsibility.

Negotiators appointed to reconcile House and Senate versions of spending packages that neared $4 billion — using a combination of federal American Rescue Plan Act money and surplus state revenues — couldn’t reach agreement by their own self-imposed Nov. 17 deadline set for the end of formal legislative sessions.

Well, no surprise there. Legislators have dawdled for nearly six months. Sure, some of that time was devoted to six public hearings, but most of it was spent behind closed doors as House and Senate committees met to each come up with their separate bills. The House bill didn’t emerge until Oct. 25; the Senate passed its bill just last week.

The pattern is not uncommon on Beacon Hill. The annual state budget, which goes through a similar negotiating process nearly always goes beyond the July 1 deadline for passage. But this pandemic-related spending — clearly deemed essential by federal lawmakers to recovery efforts at the state and local level — is evidence of a new level of dysfunction by legislative leaders.

And as if to prove that point to an already skeptical public, before going home for the year, Senate lawmakers once again extended their own rules to allow remote voting and participation until March 31. Meanwhile, the House didn’t pass a permanent voting reform bill and neither branch extended the existing emergency law allowing no-excuses mail-in voting beyond the Dec. 15 deadline. One rule for lawmakers, another for their constituents.

Under the rules in place for the next seven weeks of this legislative recess, should an agreement finally be reached in committee on the massive federal-funds bill, approval could still be halted on the floor by any single lawmaker.

There is also the possibility that if the bill doesn’t pass before the Legislature reconvenes on Jan. 5, that lawmakers would have to start all over again. Under a 1995 rule, unlike policy-oriented bills, which get carried over to the second year of the two-year session, appropriation bills not enacted during the first year die.

So Thursday, after several months of little more than gentle prodding, Governor Charlie Baker, who never wanted to give up control over the money in the first place, put out an official I-told-you-so.

“The Baker-Polito Administration believes the Legislature’s original decision six months ago to freeze these funds and subject them to the legislative process created a massive delay in putting these taxpayer dollars to work,” said Terry MacCormack, a Baker spokesman.

“Massachusetts was already behind most of the country in utilizing these funds before the latest setback, and further delay will only continue to leave residents, small businesses, and hundreds of organizations frozen out from the support the rest of the country is now tapping into to recover from this brutal pandemic,” he added.

And, according to a database kept by the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Baker administration is right. Legislatures in states from Maine to Florida began pushing money out into their communities in dozens of different ways beginning in June — long about the time legislators here were still planning those hearings. Baker did manage, with the consent of lawmakers, to use $200 million for economically distressed hospitals and for workforce development. Another $109 million went to four communities short-changed under the federal COVID relief package.

There is, of course, still some hope that the lawmakers negotiating a final compromise bill could reach agreement, and that the rank-and-file membership will fall in line — which they have a way of doing when large sums of money are at stake for their communities and the people and businesses in those communities. Along with substantial expenditures for essentials like housing assistance, job training, environmental infrastructure, education, and health care, both bills are chock-full of earmarks. According to an analysis by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, the House bill contains 411 such earmarks, totaling $154.4 million; the Senate version has 415 earmarks, totaling $122.9 million.

They include such items as $5 million for the cleanup of King’s Beach in Lynn, $5 million for a food distribution center in Chicopee, millions for tourism, tree planting, and agricultural supports. Love ’em or hate ’em, earmarks are the grease that often makes the wheels of government turn. And so it might in this case.

But inter-branch rivalries and an appalling lack of urgency have now turned this abundance of riches into a source of embarrassment — that is, assuming the lawmakers in question are capable of being embarrassed. This was no time for business as usual. Apparently, that message never made it to Beacon Hill.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial misstated the status of permanent voting reform legislation. The legislation has not passed in the House, but a version has passed in the Senate.

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Bangor Daily News. November 19, 2021.

Editorial: Maine needs to better diversify its energy sources to lessen future price spikes

Electricity prices for most Maine residents will rise by about $30 a month under rate increases set this week by the Maine Public Utilities Commission. The rate increases come on top of rising prices for heating, gasoline, food, cars and many other consumer goods, many of which are also in short supply because of transportation and other supply chain problems.

After the PUC announced the big price increases for the upcoming year, state officials encouraged Maine residents to conserve electricity — through efficiency updates and weatherization, for example — and to reach out for assistance if they need help paying their energy bills.

While Mainers should do these things, and additional help is available this year thanks to federal pandemic financial relief, this is cold comfort to those who will still struggle to pay their bills.

Unfortunately, there are no quick, simple answers to rising energy prices. But, these big rate increases should spur conversations — and hopefully, action — to change the state’s energy mix. Reconsideration of how electricity prices are set should also be on the table.

Rising electricity costs, like higher heating oil and gasoline prices, are the result of supply and demand. Early in the pandemic last year, when governments around the world imposed restrictions to slow the spread of coronavirus, demand for fuels for transportation and manufacturing plummeted, as did prices. In April 2020, demand for oil was so low that petroleum futures were briefly traded at negative prices.

As pandemic-related restrictions have largely been lifted and economic activity recovers, demand for fuels, particularly natural gas, is high around the world. Globally, supply has not kept pace with this increased demand, so prices have increased, rapidly. Natural gas prices in New England have more than tripled since last September, according to data from ISO New England, which operates the region’s electrical grid.

Maine, and the rest of New England, are highly dependent on natural gas to generate electricity. So, when natural gas prices are high, they can drive up electricity rates, which is what happened this week when the PUC selected bids to supply electricity to most Maine customers for the upcoming year.

Residential customers who buy standard offer electricity from Versant, which serves most of Penobscot County as well as Hancock, Piscataquis and Washington counties, will see an 89% increase in their power supply rate, beginning in January.

Standard offer rates for customers of Central Maine Power, which services much of southern and mid-coast Maine, will rise by 83%.

Commercial and industrial customers of both utilities will also see significant rate increases next year.

Nearly all residential utility customers pay the standard offer rate, which is set by the PUC when it selects bids to provide electricity for the upcoming year. Customers can choose to buy electricity from what are called competitive electricity providers, which may offer lower prices. The Maine Office of the Public Advocate has a list of these providers, and their current rates and contract terms, on its website.

An electricity bill includes two components, electricity supply and delivery. The electricity supply rate is set by the competitive bidding process required by Maine law.

Staggering bids — setting prices for only a portion of the needed electricity supply at one time, which the PUC did in the past — could help spread out price increases. But the bottom line is that higher input fuel prices translate into higher electricity prices.

Increasing supply from renewable sources is a big part of the solution. Rather than buying fossil fuels from other states and countries, Maine and New England should generate more electricity from wind, solar and hydroelectric facilities, which also pollute less than fossil fuel-burning generators. The amount of electricity produced by renewable sources is growing in New England, but too slowly to meet demand.

The New England Clean Energy Connect, the 150-mile transmission line across Maine that was rejected by voters earlier this month, pledges to bring 1,200 megawatts of hydropower from Quebec into the New England electric grid. The corridor, which is now the subject of competing legal claims, wouldn’t have helped reduce electricity prices this winter, but projects like it will be necessary to meet both energy demand and climate change targets moving forward.

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Portland Press Herald. November 18, 2021.

Editorial: Maine State Police have a racial profiling problem

A federal judge has thrown out evidence in a drug case because she believed the officer targeted a driver based on his appearance.

The Maine State Police have a problem. It’s racial profiling.

For the second time in two years, drug trafficking prosecutions have blown up in court because of the involvement of Cpl. John Darcy. The 2019 Trooper of the Year has admitted to targeting drivers based on a “gut feeling” that they might be carrying drugs. In both cases, the driver he pulled over was Black.

The Constitution protects us from unreasonable searches. Racial profiling is against Maine law. But if that’s not enough to get the State Police to take this issue seriously, then losing these two cases might.

The state cannot expect to have its cases stand up in court if officers don’t respect the limits on their authority that are necessary in a free society.

Darcy has been a known problem for some time. In August 2019, he was recorded speaking with another state trooper about his reason for pulling over a motorist on the Maine Turnpike. Darcy said, “This guy kinda looks like a thug, to be honest with you,” because “he’s wearing a wifebeater” (slang for a sleeveless white undershirt) and “he’s got dreads.”

Darcy pulled over the driver ostensibly for operating in the middle lane of a three-lane highway without passing. The trooper reported that he thought he smelled burned marijuana and called for a drug-sniffing dog. A subsequent search uncovered cocaine and pills, and the driver was charged with possession with intent to distribute.

But when the recording was brought up in court last year, prosecutors abruptly dropped the charges.

The recording was brought up again Monday by U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen, who threw out evidence collected by Darcy in another questionable stop.

This time, the trooper pulled over a vehicle whose operator, he said, was driving too slow on the turnpike and was crossing the white “fog” line that separates the travel lane from the breakdown lane. After talking with the driver and passenger, he again called for the K-9 unit and found heroin.

But in her order, Torresen wrote that there was no evidence from Darcy’s dash camera that any law had been broken. She instead pointed to Darcy’s testimony in court, where he said he sometimes parks by the York tollbooth and follows cars if he has a “gut feeling” that the drivers might be committing a crime.

Combined with the 2019 recording, Torresen found that Darcy was not a credible witness and did not have justification for pulling over the vehicle and initiating a search.

Even if Darcy doesn’t pull over every Black driver, this is textbook racial profiling. “Gut feelings” is just another way of saying prejudice. No one should be deprived of their constitutional rights because of the way they look.

It’s true that drugs were found in both of these cases, but we have no idea how many innocent people have been pulled over, questioned and even searched just because officers like Darcy thought they looked like “thugs.”

It’s impossible to say how deep the problem is because of the secretive culture of the agency, which releases little about the disciplinary history of its officers. In July, the Maine Department of Public Safety announced that it had reviewed more than 1,000 of Darcy’s traffic stops and found no “pattern of targeting of motorists based on race,” but it did not release any information to support the finding, citing state law and collective bargaining agreements.

Defense lawyers, however, will not be bound by confidentiality, and they will be taking a hard look at the basis for traffic stops that lead to arrests.

If more judges decide, like Torresen, that they cannot trust the justifications provided by state troopers, maybe the Maine State Police will realize that they have a problem.

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Hearst Connecticut Media. November 18, 2021.

Editorial: A grim milestone in overdose deaths

In the midst of a pandemic that has claimed three-quarters of a million lives in this country alone, there is human suffering that can get lost. Deaths from drug overdoses don’t often make the kind of headlines that COVID regularly sees, but the loss for victims’ loved ones is the same. And recently, those deaths hit an unprecedented milestone.

More than 100,000 deaths in this country have been attributed to drug overdoses in the past year, a number we’ve never seen before. It’s affected every state and nearly every community. Families have suffered alone or in groups, but there has been no national outpouring of support for people affected by these losses as there has been for COVID. It’s a country of people in many cases struggling by themselves.

There are many causes for the increasing numbers, but experts say the pandemic itself is playing a big role. Because many people who use drugs were socially isolated, they were less able or less willing to get themselves into treatment. It’s a pattern we’ve seen repeated elsewhere, including in the rising challenge mental health providers have faced. Whatever the raw numbers show in terms of COVID victims, the real figures of people who have had their lives changed is much higher.

There are other challenges. According to news reports, “the new data shows many of the deaths involve illicit fentanyl, a highly lethal opioid that five years ago surpassed heroin as the type of drug involved in the most overdose deaths. Dealers have mixed fentanyl with other drugs — one reason that deaths from methamphetamines and cocaine also are rising.”

Often the presence of fentanyl is unknown to users. Whatever the goals of dealers who mix it into their regular supply, they can end up killing people who are not expecting it. And because drug transactions typically take place in an underground market, there is no authority to ensure cleaner supplies.

Connecticut saw an increase of 4.4% in the number of deaths from overdose for the year ending in April 2021. That was on the low end for state figures nationwide, but still represents more than 1,400 lives lost in the 12-month period. Other states were in far worse shape — California saw a 48% rise in overdose deaths; West Virginia a 62% increase.

Though the numbers are unprecedentedly high, there is growing understanding of the problem and what can be done. More experts are taking an approach focused on harm reduction, which tries to help people who are addicted without resorting first to punishment. Unfortunately, such approaches are not yet commonplace, and too many people who suffer from addiction find themselves caught up in the criminal justice system when what they really need is medical care.

The first challenge is awareness, and much as these numbers are shocking, it could help people who have previously looked the other way to realize the enormity of the problem. The results released this week are not an official count, and the numbers for 2021 when they are finally released could show the problem is even worse than currently believed.

Either way, the time for action is now. Recognizing the problem is the first step, and helping those in need must follow.

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