Hearst Connecticut Media. March 22, 2023.
Editorial: CT officials ready to start trash talking over waste disposal proposal
We can expect a lot more trash talking in the weeks to come.
Gov. Ned Lamont started the exchange by pitching an ambitious solution to Connecticut’s mounting garbage problem. No one can escape dealing with garbage. That won’t translate to broad public interest in this issue.
It’s probably Lamont’s biggest pitch since his failed effort to revive tolls in Connecticut. That was easy for every state resident to understand. It would mean money out of the pockets of drivers, so it failed.
Garbage is more complicated. In short, yours probably does a lot of traveling. Connecticut is second to New Jersey for transporting trash across state lines. Much of ours is taken to landfills in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Haulers can quickly recognize that finding a better way can cut into their own revenue stream. That alone will likely fuel some lively trash talk in the General Assembly.
The governor is responding to the closure of Hartford’s Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority, which led to about 40% of Connecticut’s waste being shipped to other states via road and rail (the state still has a similar waste-to-energy plant in Bridgeport, along with some smaller ones).
There could also be blowback from companies with bold-faced names. The proposal would shift some of the burden to companies that provide the packaging to help foot the bill for the eventual fate of their boxes and containers. Skeptics following the money lean on the argument that those costs will only be passed along to the consumer (that would be you).
Or it might just inspire better packing. You can probably summon recent examples of waste that arrived at the front door. Order a couple of batteries the size of fingernails and they arrive in a box that could contain a pair size 11 loafers.
Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection posits that taking such measures to keep 190,000 tons of recyclables out of landfills would also save municipalities as much as $50 million.
James Albis, the director of DEEP’s office of policy and planning, says nothing would really change for the consumer.
“You’d still have a blue bin that you’d put out to your curb. You’d still bring your recyclables to the transfer station for drop off. The only difference would be that for municipalities that are opting in, the stewardship organization would be paying for that collection, either directly reimbursing the municipality or contracting directly with the hauler,” Albis said.
There’s more to the proposal, including efforts to reduce more food waste from the stream. If the plan survives, it will inevitably include compromises. But lawmakers should consider the history of waste management, which serves as a demonstration that habits can change. The term “litterbug” seems quaint now, having expired back in the 1970s after helping transform the way Americans looked at their trash. There were similar showdowns over the launch of recycling before blue bins became an afterthought.
This proposal, too, deserves debate in the hope of making further strides to reduce waste (it also wouldn’t hurt to keep more haulers off our highways).
So trash talking is better than not talking about it at all. This is not a problem we can just kick to the curb.
Portland Press Herald. March 19, 2023.
Editorial: Momentum on recognition of tribal rights long overdue
Maine tribes’ inherent right to self-governance persists. State lawmakers of 2023 are coming around to that fact.
A sense of hope descended on Maine last week as the leaders of our state’s tribal nations addressed a joint session of the Legislature.
It was the first such address in 21 years, and only the second ever of its kind – an indication of how poor the relationship between the tribes and state government has been. For a long time, elected officials didn’t see it as a relationship at all.
That’s finally changing. As the tribal leaders one by one made their case for sovereignty at the State House, there were plenty of lawmakers ready to enter a brand new era of tribal-state relations, one that could benefit both and lift up parts of the state that could badly use a boost.
At issue is the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, state and federal legislation passed to settle tribal claims on their ancestral lands. For $81.5 million in cash, the tribes dropped their land claims and agreed to a jurisdictional agreement with the state, one that is unique to Maine tribes.
Gov. Janet Mills, who did not attend last week’s joint session, has opposed overhauling the existing agreement. In response, lawmakers now hope to get enough support to make a sovereignty bill “veto-proof.”
This push has been a long time coming. As the tribes have argued for years, the status quo is not working for anyone – not the tribes, nor their neighboring communities, nor the state itself.
The 1980 agreement means that Maine’s four federally recognized tribes – the Passamaquoddy Tribe, Penobscot Nation, Houlton Band of Maliseets and Mi’kmaq Nation – are unable to govern themselves in the same way as the other 570 federally recognized tribes, who have had a much higher degree of self-determination as a result of federal laws passed since the late 1980s.
Because of the Settlement Act, many of those new laws don’t apply to Maine tribes.
The tribes argue that while other tribes across the U.S. have been able to build up robust governments to provide much-needed services and drive economic development, Maine’s tribes have been stuck, restricted by their dependence on a state and federal government that hardly make them a priority.
While economic growth for the Maine tribes has stagnated in recent decades, other tribes have become the “economic engines” for their regions, according to a recent Harvard study commissioned by the Wabanaki Alliance. The researchers say progress for tribes around the country has far outpaced that of Maine’s Wabanaki Nation, and that counterparts have succeeded in building governments that provide a full suite of services and industries as well as jobs, infrastructure and revenue – not only benefiting the tribes themselves but their regions as a whole.
The economic activity on tribal lands comes from casino gaming, sure, but also a variety of other industries, among them tourism, defense manufacturing, forestry, agriculture, natural resources, health care and fish processing. Even if the casinos were taken out of the equation, the other federal tribes would be doing much better than before.
Between 1989 and 2020, the average per capita GDP growth for the other federally recognized tribes in the lower 48 states was 61%, according to the study. While that doesn’t yet have them on equal footing with the rest of the U.S. – centuries of discrimination put the tribes far behind to begin with – it puts them miles ahead of the Maine tribes, which in the same period saw their economic output grow just 9%. The child poverty rate on tribal lands is much higher than in Maine as a whole, as is unemployment. Per capita income is lower, even though rates of higher education among the tribes compare favorably with the rest of the state.
Those numbers look a little better when tribes are compared to the region they are in, and not the state as a whole.
But that’s because tribal lands are in and around some of the poorest areas of the state, all the more reason to give tribes more latitude. There’s no doubt places like western Maine and Downeast would benefit from newly empowered tribal governments.
In community after community, recognizing the inherent rights of tribes has done just that.
Recognition is not only right for the tribes – it’s right for Maine.
Bangor Daily News. March 21, 2023.
Editorial: Your tax return can help fight hunger in Maine
Hunger in Maine is a persistent problem with food insecurity in the Pine Tree States significantly higher than the national average. In Maine, 10 percent of people – and, worse, one in six children – face hunger, according to Feeding America.
There is a new way for Mainers to help ease this persistent problem. When filing your taxes this year, you can check a box to donate money to a new hunger relief fund. An emergency food assistance fund is one of eight charitable checkoffs on Schedule CP, which accompanies the state’s standard 1040ME tax form. The form allows a portion – or all – of a person’s tax refund to be directed to one of the funds.
The new checkoff is the result of legislation passed by lawmakers in 2021. Other checkoffs benefit wildlife, children, libraries, pet sterilization and veterans and military families. The minimum contribution is $5. You can also use your state income tax refund to purchase state park passes through Schedule CP.
Money collected through the checkoff will go toward an emergency food assistance program run by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. Food pantries and other emergency food providers can apply for assistance from the fund.
“Hunger and food insecurity carries an immense stigma. It’s not something we typically like to talk about,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Maureen Terry, D-Gorham, said in testimony in March 2021.
“To me, this checkoff option is just like making dinner for a sick friend or community member in need of a little extra TLC. It provides a way for more of our neighbors experiencing food insecurity to access meals without all of the added stress and fear often associated with asking for help,” she added. Terry is a chef and former restaurant owner, who now operates a cookie company and serves on the boards of various farmers markets.
“During my 10 years in this office, I have seen increasing levels of poverty and increasing food insecurity. Of course, the pandemic has made such matters even worse,” Alan Casavant, the mayor of Biddeford, said in testimony in support of the bill. “This bill represents a simple way in which individuals can assist those in need. … With so many of our neighbors struggling day to day, it is important, I think, to add new tools to the proverbial tool box to assist them in any way that we can.”
This new tool offers an easy way for Mainers to help their neighbors in need.
Yet, we do agree with Mike Allen of Maine Revenue Services that the proliferation of checkoffs on the tax form can be confusing and not directly related to the payment of state income taxes.
“These contribution checkoffs, as well as the one being proposed, are all worthy,” he said in 2021 testimony neither opposing or supporting the bill. “But there are many other causes that could be included on Maine tax forms, and the income tax return has become increasingly complicated by the inclusion of items that are not required to properly administer the tax laws. A growing number of checkoffs detracts from the primary purpose of the income tax return and makes the tax booklet appear to be even more complex than it already is.”
However, now that these checkoffs exist, it is an easy way to help worthy causes.
So, as you complete your tax forms, don’t forget to fill out Schedule CP if you’d like to donate a portion of your tax refund to the worthy cause of your choice.
Boston Globe. March 20, 2023.
Editorial: Health care costs need to be contained
Insurance premiums rose on average 6.6% between 2020 and 2021, raising costs for families and businesses and highlighting the stubborn challenge of rising health costs.
Health care spending in Massachusetts continues to grow by leaps and bounds, and paying for health care is taking an increasing chunk of residents’ paychecks and business’ bottom lines. It’s hardly the only driver of the state’s increasingly onerous cost of living — there’s also housing, energy, and child care, to name a few — but if Governor Maura Healey is serious about making the state more affordable, health care costs need to be on the table.
A new report from the state’s Center for Health Information and Analysis found that between 2020 and 2021, total health care spending in Massachusetts grew by 9% to $67.9 billion, or $9,715 per resident. That reflects an unprecedented drop in health care spending in 2020 due to the COVID-19 lockdown, with utilization bouncing back in 2021 with patients who were sicker after deferring care. But even at an annualized rate, health care costs rose on average 3.2% a year since 2019 — higher than the state’s 3.1% target.
A decade after Massachusetts passed its most recent major health care cost containment law, policy makers have struggled to lower costs that have been among the nation’s highest. Insurance premiums rose on average 6.6% between 2020 and 2021, according to CHIA, with the average commercially insured consumer paying $563 a month. More people are enrolling in high deductible health plans, which means they pay lower premiums but have higher out-of-pocket costs before their insurance kicks in for most medical expenses.
Lawmakers should return to the health care cost debate given the post-pandemic “new normal.” Here are some areas to examine:
Pharmacy spending: While most health care costs fluctuated during the pandemic, pharmacy spending continued a steady rise. Between 2019 and 2021, pharmacy spending in Massachusetts grew by 7.5% annually, according to CHIA, even after accounting for the rebates drug manufacturers pay insurers. This number, which excludes the cost of COVID vaccines purchased by the federal government, appears consistent with national trends. Data compiled by Health Policy Commission senior director of research and cost trends David Auerbach found that average commercial insurance spending on branded prescription drugs increased from $684 per prescription in 2017 to $1,029 in 2021.
The Health Policy Commission has called for lawmakers to include pharmaceutical companies and pharmacy benefit managers, the middlemen between drug manufacturers and insurers, in the annual state agency review of health care costs, a process that today requires public data reporting by hospitals and insurers. Improving transparency in drug pricing would be a good first step in understanding the complicated industry and determining whether more aggressive steps are warranted, like price reviews, price caps, rebate rules, or copay limits.
Telehealth: When the pandemic hit, telehealth went from a negligible part of the health care system to its lifeblood, comprising $1.8 billion in spending in Massachusetts in 2020 and $1.7 billion in 2021. As pay parity requirements expire, policy makers should examine the potential for savings. One question is whether savings will come through lower reimbursement rates or through other avenues — having fewer in-office visits, more efficient care, and potentially having more lower-acuity care performed by physician assistants or nurses.
Workforce: With pandemic-related burnout, early retirements, and the lure of more flexible jobs elsewhere, health care is experiencing a workforce crisis. A recent Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association survey found that in fiscal 2022, hospitals spent $1.52 billion on temporary staff, mostly traveling nurses, up from $204 million in 2019. Short-term, lawmakers may want to look at whether additional regulations are needed to govern the health care gig economy. Long-term, the state must shore up the workforce, whether through increasing capacity for education and training, exploring licensing reforms, developing student loan repayment programs, or ensuring hospitals have resources to provide wages, benefits, and working conditions that will retain staff.
Provider price variation: Lawmakers have been trying unsuccessfully for years to address unwarranted price variation, where different hospitals get paid different amounts of money by insurers for identical services or drugs based on factors like their size and marketing power. The Health Policy Commission has recommended capping prices for the highest-paid providers, while lawmakers have considered other ways of limiting price variation or using fees to shift money between hospitals. This also raises the issue of how to get patients to obtain care in less expensive settings — for example, moving routine care from a hospital to a physician’s office.
Out-of-hospital care: Hospitals are experimenting with innovative ways to keep people home. Mass General Brigham and UMass Memorial Medical Center started “hospital-at-home” programs using monitoring technology and home visits to deliver acute care. Beth Israel Lahey Health offers remote health monitoring, where nurses monitor patients’ daily health data. Expanding successful initiatives will cut costs while delivering care in a more comfortable setting.
Hospital expansions: Mass General Brigham’s scuttled proposal to expand into the suburbs called attention to whether health system consolidations are raising costs. One concern was the expansion would pull wealthier patients from community hospitals to the more expensive MGB system. Lawmakers have discussed imposing more state scrutiny on hospital expansions.
Cell and gene therapy: Cell and gene therapies are the cutting edge of medicine. They have enormous potential to treat and cure rare and chronic diseases but come with huge price tags. New treatments may require new models of payment, like having insurers pay over several years if the treatment remains effective. It will take creativity to ensure promising treatments can enter the market in ways that make financial sense.
Data: Massachusetts collects a ton of health care data. But is it the right data? Lawmakers at a Health Policy Commission hearing Wednesday questioned whether the state needs to create an “affordability benchmark,” setting a target for how much consumer health care cost should rise per year; to collect data about health care being delivered through companies like Amazon and Best Buy; or to learn about the impact of private equity companies entering health care.
As state Representative John Lawn, House chair of the Committee on Health Care Financing, said at the hearing, it is not sustainable to have health care costs growing at a rate that outpaces the rest of the economy. Slowing cost hikes won’t be easy, but Healey and the Legislature need to put this ballooning industry on a diet.
Rutland Herald. March 17, 2023.
In another sad reminder that transphobia and broader anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes remain alive and well in Vermont schools, the Vermont Principals’ Association this week banned Mid Vermont Christian School from participating in school sporting events. The sanctions come after the independent religious school, located in White River Junction, withdrew its girls’ basketball team from a playoff game because a transgender student was playing on the opposing team.
“The VPA again reiterates its ongoing support of transgender student-athletes as not only a part of building an inclusive community for each student to grow and thrive, but also as a clear expectation by Vermont state law(s) in the Agency of Education Best Practices, and in VPA Policy regarding transgender student athletes,” the association said in a statement Monday.
As the governing body for Vermont school sports and activities for member schools, the VPA’s decision carries weight. By violating its policies, Mid Vermont Christian is now ineligible to participate in future VPA events.
The VPA expressed its support for transgender student-athletes in the wake of Mid Vermont Christian’s forfeit last month, stating it is “committed to providing all students with the opportunity to participate in VPA activities in a manner consistent with their gender identity,” adding that “VPA policies prohibit discrimination and/or harassment of students on school property or at school functions by students or employees. The prohibition against discrimination includes discrimination based on a student’s actual or perceived sex and gender.”
We applaud the VPA for its decisive action in protecting the rights of trans youth. This type of intolerance flies in the face of statewide efforts to affirm that Vermont communities are welcoming and inclusive places.
It also comes at a time when violence against transgender people is on the rise. According to the Human Rights Commission, 2021 was the deadliest year on record for transgender and non-binary people, with 57 fatalities in the U.S. In 2022, HRC recorded at least 40 deaths. The ACLU, meanwhile, is currently tracking over 420 anti-LGBTQ+ bills in state legislatures across the country.
Some may argue the VPA’s ruling unfairly punishes the students — and, yes, that’s unfortunate — however, it’s the school’s own intolerant policies which have brought down these sanctions. If they don’t want to play by those rules, they don’t get to play at all.
Mid Vermont Christian’s head of school, Vicky Fogg, defended the school’s position to the Valley News, stating, “We believe playing against an opponent with a biological male jeopardizes the fairness of the game and the safety of our players.”
This all comes as lawmakers in Montpelier consider legislation that would put safeguards on how public dollars flow to independent schools in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Carson v. Makin decision last year, which has cleared the way for religious schools, like Mid Vermont Christian, to also receive those dollars. In particular, the proposed legislation would establish clear anti-discrimination requirements to protect LGBTQ+ students, faculty and staff.
The prospect of public money subsidizing religious education — and indirectly supporting discriminatory practices — doesn’t sit well with us. Sending taxpayer money to institutions that lack public oversight also gives us pause. Our public schools are governed by boards, composed of individuals elected by the voters. While it’s not always the case, these bodies — when functioning well — provide transparency and accountability. And when they fall short, we can make our voices heard — either at a board meeting or at the ballot box. With independent schools, we have no such recourse.
To be sure, the state is mindful of the risks and seems to want to find a way to placate taxpayers’ concerns without dismantling school choice altogether. As a rural state, independent schools have bridged a crucial gap in providing education to students. To simply remove school choice would be difficult and detrimental to many communities. However, independent religious schools have to accept that, when it comes to public money, the laws of the state supersede divine law — they can’t have it both ways.
But according to a recent report by VTDigger, Mid Vermont Christian School tried to do just that earlier this year when it petitioned the Agency of Education seeking permission to receive public tuition funding without adhering to Vermont’s anti-discrimination laws.
In its investigation, VTDigger cited a handbook from 2020-21 where the school “claimed the right to reject or expel students for, among other things, ‘supporting sexual immorality’ and ‘practicing homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity.’” It added that “all employees and volunteers are expected to agree to a statement that includes prohibitions of homosexuality, bisexuality, transgender identity and extramarital sex.”
Consequently, the Vermont Independent Schools Association has said it would not support the school’s application in a statement, reading, “VISA opposes initial approval or approval renewal for any independent school unwilling to affirm it will comply with the nondiscrimination requirements in the Vermont Public Accommodations Act and in State Board of Education rules for independent schools.”
But it’s not just Mid Vermont Christian that poses an issue for taxpayers. We must scrutinize any religious school seeking public money and be ready to call them out if they discriminate students, faculty or staff in any way.
If religious schools want to continue operating the way they do and maintain discriminatory policies without public accountability, then families that choose to send their children there should pay full freight and risk courting further sanctions from organizations like the VPA. Compared to the bigotry and harassment our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters are facing in this country right now — especially trans youth — we think it’s a small cross to bear.