Editorial Roundup: New England

Rutland Herald. June 21, 2022.

Editorial: Choices

A Supreme Court decision this week caught our attention. It could have significant implications right here in Vermont.

The decision stems from a case out of Maine, and points to school choice.

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Maine’s Agency of Education can’t exclude religious schools from a program that offers tuition aid for private education, a decision that could ease religious organizations’ access to taxpayer money.

The 6-3 outcome could fuel a renewed push for school choice programs in some of the 18 states, Vermont included, which have so far not directed taxpayer money to private, religious education.

According to the Associated Press, the ruling is the latest in a line of decisions from the Supreme Court that have favored religion-based discrimination claims.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for a conservative majority that the program violates the Constitution’s protections for religious freedoms, the AP reported.

“Maine’s ‘nonsectarian’ requirement for its otherwise generally available tuition assistance payments violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Regardless of how the benefit and restriction are described, the program operates to identify and exclude otherwise eligible schools on the basis of their religious exercise,” Roberts wrote.

According to the AP, the court’s three liberal justices dissented. “This Court continues to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state that the Framers fought to build,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote.

Here in Vermont, a similar fight has taken shape. We have Barstow Unified Union School District v. Vermont Department of Education.

In March, the Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit Christian advocacy group, filed a lawsuit in Vermont’s district court on behalf of the Williams family of Chittenden, as well as the Catholic Diocese of Burlington, after the Williamses were denied tuition benefits to attend a local religious school. The Williams family wanted to send their children to Mount St. Joseph Academy, an independent Catholic school in Rutland.

In Vermont, a student living in a town without its own high school, like Chittenden, is able to apply for a tuition voucher to attend one elsewhere. For a student tuitioned at a public school, a town pays the receiving district the equivalent of that district’s average per pupil costs. For independent schools, a student receives a voucher worth up to the average announced tuition for Vermont public schools or the independent school’s tuition, whichever is less.

According to reporting by Herald reporter Jim Sabataso, for more than 20 years, religious schools have been excluded as a school choice option, which means families like the Williamses have had to pay tuition out of pocket.

Following the 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, which ruled that religious schools cannot be excluded from participating in publicly funded programs that provide financial assistance to students attending private schools, the Williams family requested tuition reimbursement. The district, after consultation with the Agency of Education, denied that request.

The family made another request after the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of families from Rice Memorial High School in Burlington who were seeking a similar tuition benefit. After being denied yet again, they took legal action.

According to Sabataso’s reporting, further complicating the issue is a ruling by the State Board of Education that ordered three school districts to pay tuition requests made by families living in choice towns who were seeking to attend Catholic schools. At the time of the ruling, the board argued that excluding the schools would essentially be discriminatory, but it also stressed that its ruling was not setting precedent.

While that ruling has ostensibly put religious schools back on the table, AOE guidance on the matter historically has been muddy. Last year, for example, the agency released a best practices document for schools but has since withdrawn those recommendations, according to the AOE.

We will have to wait and see what kind of pressure the Supreme Court decision puts on the agency. But suffice it to say, any ambiguity is likely to be erased and clarified in short order.

Vermont lawmakers, meanwhile, in anticipation of just such a ruling from the Supreme Court, introduced a bill this past session that aimed to place tighter restrictions on the flow of public dollars to religious schools. The bill, which passed the Senate but stalled in the House, proposed to require religious schools to certify they have “adequate safeguards” to ensure public tuition money will not be used “to support religious instruction or worship or the propagation of religious views,” and compelled schools to comply with federal and state nondiscrimination laws protecting, for example, LGBTQ+ students or those needing special education services.

What comes next will be hotly debated throughout upcoming campaigns, as well as across school districts statewide. The question in the meantime will remain: Who will pay for school choice?

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Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. June 22, 2022.

Editorial: Place holders

Recently, Vermont Public Interest Research Group gave ranked choice voting a test drive in a mock primary election.

“Nearly 1,300 Vermonters cast their ballots in this mock election, and all of them got the chance to experience a simple, clear method of voting that allowed them to choose the candidates who best represented their values without having to worry about anyone being a spoiler,” said Paul Burns, VPIRG’s executive director.

According to the Campaign Legal Center (CLC), which monitors the U.S. election process, “Ranked-choice voting makes our democracy more equitable and gives voters more choice at the ballot box.”

Voting for more than one candidate on the ballot in a single race may seem a little odd to most, but to those familiar with ranked-choice voting, it has provided a way to improve voting and elections. (Ranked-choice voting) elections are more inclusive because it gives voters an easy and more meaningful way to express their candidate preferences, the CLC website indicates.

According to Jesse Clark, a doctorate student in the Department of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, ranked-choice voting can be broken down into two main types: instant-runoff voting (IRV) and single-transferrable vote (STV). IRV is currently used in Maine. It works by allowing voters to rank as many of their preferences as they see fit. If a candidate breaks 50% of first-place votes, they win the election. If not, it goes into a vote reallocation. The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and voters who named that candidate as their first are then allocated to their second choice. This process continues until one candidate reaches a minimum 50%+1 of the remaining votes.

According to Clark, in an STV system, there are multiple winners in each race, and voters rank as many candidates as they wish. If a candidate breaks the threshold of first-place votes to be elected, votes from different precincts are randomly assigned to their second choice. This continues until all available seats in an election have been filled.

This initiative has been enacted in Alaska, Maine and more than 20 cities across the country, and ensures that the majority winner prevails, even when there are more than two candidates in the race.

According to Burns, participants in the mock election were allowed to vote in either the Republican or Democratic primary and rank their preferred candidates in the elections for U.S. House and Senate. Because the participants in the mock election were self-selected, the results should not be taken as a scientific measure of current public opinion or used to predict who will actually win the upcoming primary races.

“Here in Vermont, it’s not at all unusual to have three or more candidates running for a single seat in primaries or general elections,” said Burns. “Under our current system of voting, which can result in the winner having less than majority support. It can also force voters to try to game the system or choose between the ‘lesser of two evils’ just so their vote will count.”

According to Burns, in three of the four primary races covered in the mock election, a majority winner emerged in the first tally of votes. This included the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, where Rep. Peter Welch had 76% of the vote to 15% for Isaac Evans-Frantz and 9% for Niki Thran.

In the Democratic primary for U.S. House, the mock election was carried by current state Senate Pro Tem Becca Balint with 59%; Lt. Gov. Molly Gray had 29%, followed by Sianay Chase Clifford with 9% and Louis Meyers with 3%.

In the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, the mock election had former federal prosecutor Christina Nolan at 67%, besting her opponents Gerald Malloy (20%) and Myers Mermel (14%).

In the mock race for the Republican nomination for U.S. House, however, RCV did come into play.

In that race, Ericka Bundy Redic had 39% of the votes in the first round, compared to 32% for Anya Tynio and 29% for Liam Madden. Under RCV, Madden was eliminated from the race and those who ranked him first had their second-choice votes applied. This then produced a majority winner, with Bundy Redic getting 54% of the second-round vote, compared with Tynio with 46%.

Overall, what we like about ranked-choice voting is that it forces candidates to abandon negative campaign tactics because candidates not only need the first choice votes of their supporters, but also the second and third choice votes from voters who prefer other candidates. CLC cites a study has shown that jurisdictions with ranked-choice voting have experienced friendlier campaigns and majority support in the cities using it.

We like clean, issue-driven, equitable elections. We look forward to seeing one.

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Boston Herald. June 23, 2022.

Editorial: End Beacon Hill loopholes for felonious ex-pols

A federal conviction is no small thing — at least outside Massachusetts politics.

Here, in the lofty echelons of the State Legislature, it is not even a speed bump on the road to a reinvented career.

Though former House Speaker Sal Di Masi ultimately succeeded in his bid to return to Beacon Hill as a lobbyist after serving five out of eight years in federal prison for taking tens of thousands of dollars in kickbacks, the case is back before the Supreme Judicial Court.

In one corner, DiMasi. In the other, Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin. DiMasi first tried to register as a lobbyist in 2019, but Galvin blocked the move. It was language in the state’s lobbying law that gave DiMasi a loophole: The secretary of state shall “automatically disqualify any person convicted of a felony in violation of chapter 3, chapter 55 or chapter 268A from acting or registering as an executive or legislative agent for a period of 10 years from the date of conviction.”

DiMasi argued, with eventual success, that the statute only applies to state crimes, not federal ones.

To argue that one didn’t commit a state crime, just a federal one, and therefore should be allowed to return to the scene of the crime so to speak for a fresh start is a stunning affront to the concept of public service. Massachusetts voters trust their elected officials to represent them. We pay them, quite well, and fund their ample pensions. We should expect them to uphold the law.

And once they don’t, once they betray the public trust, there should be consequences. If you left the State House in disgrace, a quick return shouldn’t be an option.

DiMasi’s conviction completed a trifecta for Massachusetts House Speakers. His predecessor Thomas Finneran pleaded guilty in 2007 to a federal obstruction of justice charge for giving false testimony in a 2003 lawsuit. Finneran got 18 months’ unsupervised probation and fined $25,000.

And Finneran’s predecessor Charles Flaherty agreed to plead guilty to felony tax evasion. He stepped down as house Speaker in 1996 and was fined $50,000.

Not our state’s finest moments.

But ones the SJC seems to think will happen again.

“The Secretary has advanced several reasons in favor of our deciding the case,” SJC Clerk Francis Kenneally wrote in the recent ruling. “After considering the Secretary’s arguments, we are of the view that the legal issue is of great public importance and is likely to recur.”

California has its earthquakes, Florida its alligators, and Massachusetts a seeming predilection for political shenanigans.

Earning and keeping the public’s trust seems as quaint as a pair of spats in today’s political environment — both here and nationally.

As the Herald reported, the specific case involving DiMasi is moot because oral arguments were not held before the 10-year period after DiMasi’s conviction had elapsed.

DiMasi has long asserted that he paid his debt to society and deserves his second chance.

Redemption is possible, but rules should be respected. That DiMasi sidestepped the 10-year ban from Beacon Hill work because his conviction was at the federal level is a clever reading of the law — but a poor way to shore up the public’s trust in the political process.

And something that should not recur.

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Bangor Daily News. June 23, 2022.

Editorial: Senate bill, while far from perfect, is an important step forward in reducing gun violence

A month after a teenage gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, the U.S. Senate is moving toward final passage of a bipartisan bill that aims to reduce gun violence.

Earlier in the week, the Senate voted 64 to 34 to proceed with the legislation, a bellwether vote showing bipartisan support for the measure. The bill overcame a filibuster on Thursday by a vote of 65-34.

As we’ve written before, the bill is far from perfect. But, it is the first significant legislation to address gun safety that stands a chance of passage in three decades. That is a commendable achievement and lays the groundwork for further bipartisan work on gun violence and other critical issues facing Americans.

The bill would boost funding for school safety along with mental health and suicide prevention programs. It will also provide federal funding to states to implement and manage red flag laws that create a process to remove weapons from those who are deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. Maine has a yellow flag law that has been slow to be implemented.

The compromise bill also expands background checks to more gun sellers and strengthens background checks for gun buyers who are under 21. It toughens penalties for those who illegally purchase and traffic guns and it expands restrictions on gun ownership after convictions in domestic violence cases.

Although the bill has yet to pass – it should – much of the credit for this work goes to two senators, Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Republican John Cornyn of Texas.

Immediately after the May 24 murders at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Murphy took to the Senate floor and beseeched his colleagues to take action to stop such massacres, something lawmakers failed to do after a gunman killed 20 first graders and six educators at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in December 2012.

He quickly corralled together a group of senators, including Cornyn, to draft legislation to address concerns about both gun violence and mental health. Sen. Susan Collins was part of the initial group of senators who began negotiating the legislation. The group later grew to 20 senators, 10 from each caucus, including Sen. Angus King. Having 10 Republicans was essential to overcoming a potential filibuster in the Senate.

Murphy withstood initial criticism from groups that have long pushed for stronger gun control laws that the compromise bill was too weak.

Cornyn was booed at the recent Texas GOP convention for his role in the negotiations and the NRA, which had given the Texas senator an A-plus rating, opposes the bill.

On Tuesday, 14 Republicans – including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell – voted to move forward with the bill. Most of these senators had A or A-plus ratings from the NRA.

“Yesterday, the Senate took a big step toward an important bipartisan bill to prevent mass murders, make schools safer, and protect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens,” McConnell said in remarks on the Senate floor on Wednesday. “A bipartisan group led by Senator Cornyn has put together a package of commonsense and popular solutions to make these horrific incidents less likely. And it does not so much as touch the rights of the overwhelming supermajority of American gun owners who are law-abiding citizens of sound mind.”

“The American people know that we don’t have to choose between safer schools and our constitutional rights. Our country can and should have both,” McConnell added.

He repeatedly noted that the legislation includes “no new restrictions, bans, waiting periods, or mandates for law-abiding citizens of any age.”

For many, these are shortcomings in the legislation. We understand concerns that this bill is too weak. But, we also understand political reality. The bill that senators are scheduled to consider on Friday shouldn’t be the final, or only, solution to America’s growing gun violence problem. But, it is an important start.

Passing legislation to improve gun safety and access to mental health services would be a significant achievement in a closely divided Senate at a time of heightened political polarization. And, it would show that progress is possible on other critical issues when lawmakers are willing to work together to seek commonsense middle-ground solutions.

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Hearst Connecticut Media. June 19, 2022.

Editorial: Take time to ponder the meaning of Juneteenth

Monday’s day off, for those lucky enough to have one, likely takes many people by surprise. Juneteenth is the newest federal holiday, and it was only last month that Gov. Ned Lamont signed legislation recognizing Juneteenth as a legal state holiday in Connecticut. But it’s a day that should be about much more than rest.

Juneteenth dates to the Civil War, and commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. Its status as a national holiday is one of the few tangible results of the protests, marches and demonstrations that marked the summer of 2020 following the killing in Minneapolis of local resident George Floyd at the hands of the city’s police department.

That summer, coinciding with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, seemed to promise a new era of racial understanding and empathy. Because it wasn’t just Black people marching for justice — it was a widespread phenomenon, and it reached into some of the whitest enclaves in the nation, including into some of the toniest suburbs in Connecticut. Finally, after so many years, people seemed to be understanding each other.

Activists remarked at the time that something real had to come from such an outpouring, and in Connecticut, at least, that came to pass. The police accountability law passed that year doesn’t go as far as some would like, but this state was one of the few jurisdictions anywhere to make concrete changes in how it approaches racial justice. For the first time, an independent investigator would take on questions of policy brutality, with at least the promise of justice that had too often been brushed aside.

The wider picture, looking back two years later, is much grimmer. Rather than a deeper understanding of the realities Black people have faced for the hundreds of years in America, too many white people have instead supported a backlash to any hint of progress. This can be seen in the condemnation of so-called Critical Race Theory, which is used by critics as a catch-all for nearly any discussion of race that might make people uncomfortable.

Even as many companies set up diversity initiatives after 2020 aimed at increasing inclusiveness, such endeavors have come in for harsh criticism in the years since, with arguments that such efforts are biased against white people, or aimed merely at promoting feelings of guilt among the privileged class. Every step forward has been met with resounding force pushing the other way.

That’s how it’s been throughout American history. The result is a situation where nearly every factor that determines a person’s well-being — health, wealth, family support, education, likelihood of incarceration, average lifespan and more — is far more positive for white Americans than their Black counterparts. Slavery ended generations ago, but its aftereffects are felt to this day.

So if Juneteenth is the only tangible legacy so far of the convulsions of 2020, let it be a meaningful day. Everyone should take a few minutes and ponder why it is that such an occasion is worthy of commemoration some century and a half later. We can claim to be a colorblind society, but the results of our actions show something different.

It’s up to all of us to change that.

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