Hearst Connecticut Media. September 10, 2023.
Editorial: A choosier UConn has its downsides
There’s a certain pride that goes along with seeing your state do well. Even for those who didn’t attend the University of Connecticut, the success of our flagship public university on the national stage reflects well for everyone who lives here.
Usually, this comes in the arena of sports. The past quarter-century has seen many championships from the men’s and women’s basketball teams, plus plenty of success in other sports. This time, though, it’s about academics.
UConn ranked No. 46 in the Wall Street Journal’s recently released list of 2024 Best Colleges in the U.S. Not only is that 50 slots higher than the last time the rankings were released, but it came in ahead of schools with higher academic pretensions, including New York University and Brown University, of the Ivy League.
UConn is flying high.
It’s not on the same level as, for example, Yale University, which is No. 3 in the rankings. But the schools aren’t trying to do the same things. Yale, a private school, is defined by its exclusivity. UConn is, theoretically, for the people. It’s a public university and therefore should be considered the school of choice for in-state achievers.
Lately, though, that’s not necessarily the case.
As UConn has grown in prestige, its exclusivity has also grown. Gone are the days when a public high school student in Connecticut would use UConn as a safety school and be all but guaranteed admission with good grades and a solid profile. UConn can afford to be much choosier these days, and even highly ranked high school students are finding themselves going elsewhere.
Connecticut is blessed with many good alternatives. There are more four-year universities per square mile than just about any place else in America, and many offer a solid return on investment, in addition to an enriching student life and exposure to new and interesting ideas. There is more to college, after all, than getting a high-paying job afterward.
This goes for the state’s non-UConn public schools, as well. Though they’ve had their struggles, many students receive a fine education every year at the four state universities, as well as the transforming community college system. One thing Connecticut decidedly does not lack is options for higher education.
But there’s something special about UConn. Even as it can seem remote, tucked away as it is in the agricultural fields of northeastern Connecticut, Storrs offers a unique experience. Improvements over the years have given the once-sleepy campus the feel of a real college town, even if no one will mistake it for Chapel Hill or Ann Arbor any time soon.
So when UConn becomes more choosy, it loses out on something uniquely Connecticut. We want to see the school educate a diverse array of people, from all around the country and the world. But it shouldn’t be out of range for so many good students in Connecticut. If you live in this state and get good grades in high school, UConn should not be a reach.
It’s a conundrum we haven’t yet solved. We all want to see UConn soar. We also want it to remain attainable.
Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus. September 13, 2023.
Editorial: Fighting for Vermont
We are grateful that our congressional delegation is doing all it can to bring more aid to Vermont for flood recovery.
U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Peter Welch and U.S. Rep. Becca Balint sent a letter to majority, minority and Appropriations Committee leadership in the Senate and House of Representatives urging them to ensure that Congress passes federal funding for essential recovery and long-term disaster mitigation work in Vermont.
The White House on Sept. 1 issued an urgent plea for Congress to approve roughly $16 billion in new federal disaster aid, warning that the U.S. government is running out of money faster than anticipated to respond to Hurricane Idalia, the wildfires in Hawaii and other recent costly crises.
The new request is $4 billion more than the Biden administration sought when it first sounded the alarm about dwindling federal resources in early August. President Biden has called on lawmakers to approve the funds as part of a deal that would fund the government and stave off a shutdown at the end of the month.
The $16 billion would help restock the Disaster Relief Fund, the primary mechanism through which the Federal Emergency Management Agency provides assistance after major storms, fires and other calamities. Entering the heart of hurricane season, the fund has dipped to about $3.4 billion, according to FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, who told reporters this week that the agency has been forced to prioritize immediate disaster needs over longer term recovery efforts.
In Monday’s letter, Vermont’s delegation also called for increasing FEMA’s cap for hazard mitigation, making Small Business Administration loans forgivable in order to save small businesses, renters and homeowners from taking on additional debt after experiencing a disaster. It would also expand the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s emergency grant relief for impacted Vermont farmers, as well as opening eligibility for retroactive enrollment in the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program.
According to the letter, “As Vermont continues to respond to, and begins the recovery from, ongoing catastrophic flooding, we urge you to pass federal funding that meets the needs of our state, with a significant focus on funding for long-term disaster recovery and mitigation work. We ask you to move this funding expeditiously, so important federal resources for disaster response and recovery become available to states like Vermont as quickly as possible,” wrote the Vermont delegation.
They urged for support in investments in mitigation activities to build long-term resiliency against future disasters and the increasingly dangerous effects of climate change. “While the damage assessments and needs are ongoing, we appreciate your support for the authorization and appropriation of all additional federal disaster recovery and mitigation dollars that Vermont will need for years to come. Thank you for your consideration of our request and for your support of Vermont’s response and recovery process.”
According to a news release, the flash flooding Vermont experienced from July 7 through Aug. 8 impacted more than 5,000 individuals and families, led to more than 200 water rescues, nearly 90 road closures along major routes, and damage to 200-plus miles of rail in the state-owned rail system.
According to the release, the initial estimate from the state on flood-related damages is currently totaling in the many hundreds of millions of dollars. Small businesses, farming and rural communities, and individuals all suffered heavy losses, including anywhere between 145,000 and 686,000 acres of agricultural land across the state.
In addition, water and wastewater infrastructure was also severely damaged, including the wastewater facility in Johnson, which was completely destroyed and will likely cost upward of $10 million to replace. State inspectors have classified five dams as high hazard and 22 as significant hazards — leaving the state at significant risk for loss of life and property during future storms.
According to FEMA, so far, more than $54.7 million in federal assistance has been provided by FEMA and the SBA directly to Vermonters to aid in their recovery. The funds include grants from FEMA, payouts from the National Flood Insurance Program and long-term, low-interest disaster loans from the SBA.
As of Sept. 11, Vermont’s recovery assistance includes more than $17.7 million in FEMA’s Individual and Households Program grants awarded to eligible homeowners and renters in the nine designated Vermont counties. These grants help residents pay for uninsured and underinsured storm-related losses, including more than $16.2 million to help pay for home repair, home replacement and rental assistance for temporary housing, as well as $1.5 million in other needs like moving and storage fees, transportation, child care, medical and dental expenses.
According to FEMA, the National Flood Insurance Program has paid $18.3 million in claims for Vermont policyholders. And the SBA says it has approved more than $18.6 million in 394 long-term, low-interest disaster loans for homeowners, renters, businesses of all sizes and nonprofit organizations to repair, rebuild or replace disaster-damaged physical property and cover economic injury.
To date, there have been 2,922 survivor visits to Vermont’s 13 Disaster Recovery Centers.
The delegation has stepped up, pushing hard for results. The need remains imminent as the state struggles back to its feet. It is important work that needs the delegation’s attention.
A reminder that recovery specialists from the state, FEMA and SBA provide information on available services, explain assistance programs, and help survivors complete or check the status of their applications for assistance. No appointment is necessary to visit — walk-ins are welcome. The deadline to apply for FEMA and SBA assistance is Oct. 12.
Boston Globe. September 13, 2023.
Editorial: Positioning Massachusetts to lead on marijuana research
Federal rescheduling could open new opportunities.
As many states legalize marijuana for recreational and medical use, it is becoming more important to understand the plant in all its complexity, including potential harms and benefits. Too much of what we think we know about marijuana is either hysteria or hype. Massachusetts, with world-class universities, hospitals, life sciences firms, pharmaceutical companies, and a thriving legal marijuana industry, is well-poised to become a center of cannabis research.
With the federal government considering loosening restrictions on marijuana, more opportunities to conduct cannabis research could open up. Federal and state governments should continue to remove as many regulatory barriers as possible so science can progress.
Marijuana is currently a Schedule I drug, which means it has no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse, similar to heroin. The designation is ridiculous when 38 states have state-sanctioned medical marijuana programs. President Biden’s Department of Health and Human Services recently recommended to the Drug Enforcement Administration that marijuana be rescheduled to Schedule III, a category that includes drugs with a lower potential for abuse, like ketamine and anabolic steroids. The DEA should agree.
Marijuana researchers today need to obtain a Schedule I license, which requires developing detailed protocols and complying with rules like maintaining a separate storage safe. Until recently, researchers had to obtain marijuana from a single federally sanctioned source at the University of Mississippi, although the DEA in 2021 agreed to authorize additional growers.
Rescheduling marijuana will remove some regulatory barriers. Equally importantly, it will remove stigma, which has led many universities and hospitals to avoid marijuana research for fear of losing federal funding. It could open up more opportunities for federal grants. Large pharmaceutical companies may be more willing to begin researching new cannabis-derived drugs.
Positioning Massachusetts to take advantage of a loosening federal climate will take a concerted effort by state officials.
“If and when it does get rescheduled, Massachusetts needs to be proactive not reactive, and Massachusetts needs to be ready to go with a plan,” said Cannabis Control Commissioner Kimberly Roy.
Massachusetts currently offers a marijuana research license, but only one company has gotten a provisional license and no research facility has opened. Only eight applications have been submitted.
Industry representatives say the license is flawed. It requires detailed disclosures about proposed research with no guarantee of confidentiality, which companies researching new products worry could hurt them competitively. Research facilities must negotiate agreements with their host community and hold a hearing — standard requirements for marijuana businesses but not major research institutions. The fact that there are two separate paths to licensure — federal and state — with different requirements can alienate applicants.
Revising this license type in a way that respects intellectual property and makes it more attractive to companies, nonprofits, and universities should be a Cannabis Control Commission priority.
One major question is how research would be funded. Some states — like California, Colorado, and Michigan — have state-funded cannabis research centers or grants. Scientist Staci Gruber, who runs the Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery program at McLean Hospital, said the lack of state funding puts Massachusetts behind other states.
The state Cannabis Advisory Board’s research subcommittee is recommending putting public funding behind an ambitious research agenda, with topics like assessing marijuana’s impact on various medical conditions, evaluating use of the whole plant versus specific compounds, evaluating use and outcomes in medical compared to recreational users, and examining the impact of certain manufacturing processes on workers. A bill pending in the Legislature would create a public fund to research the application of medical marijuana to specific diseases.
While there are many competing priorities for state dollars, government could contribute in ways other than direct funding, like by encouraging public universities to convene a research effort.
Marion McNabb, president of the research-focused Cannabis Center of Excellence and head of the research subcommittee, said with the large number of colleges in Massachusetts, creating a consortium to advance research locally “would set Massachusetts apart as a leader in the nation.”
One interesting model is an effort by multistate cannabis company Ethos Cannabis. In Pennsylvania, Ethos partners with Brooke Worster, a physician and researcher at Thomas Jefferson University and an affiliated cancer center. Worster designs clinical trials and obtains federal research funding, while staff from Ethos, a state-licensed cannabis company, handle the marijuana and administer the trials. Worster said the model is similar to what pharmaceutical companies traditionally do with academic medical centers but is newer to cannabis. “It’s not reinventing the wheel,” Worster said.
Helen Gomez Andrews and her husband started The High End, a Holyoke-based cannabis growing and manufacturing company that is going through the Massachusetts licensing process. The company will extract oils for marijuana edibles and concentrates, then develop its own chocolates. Once the revenue-generating side of the business opens, Gomez Andrews said they will seek a license for a research lab, subsidized by product sales.
Gomez Andrews said she became interested in research after her daughter, now 13, began using medical marijuana to treat her epilepsy. The family found little research to guide them. “Medical cannabis now, it’s all anecdotal,” Gomez Andrews said. “There’s no official, medical institution-approved research.”
She hopes rescheduling will open more opportunities for funding and partnerships with medical or academic institutions. As Gomez Andrews said, “With all of these great institutions of learning and medicine, Massachusetts should absolutely be the center of the world for cannabis research as well.”
Bangor Daily News. September 13, 2023.
Editorial: Maine needs to speed up a public defender system to solve its crisis of legal representation
No matter what a judge decides regarding a lawsuit challenging the state’s system of indigent defense, the state needs to continue its overhaul of the broken system. And, it needs to do it with more urgency.
Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy will soon decide whether to accept a settlement in a case that called Maine’s system of hiring private lawyers to represent low-income clients unconstitutional.
The settlement would pause the lawsuit, filed by the Maine ACLU, for four years in exchange for a slate of reforms that include more training for lawyers who volunteer and a commitment to advocate for more resources.
These steps seem inadequate to the scale of the problem, and at a hearing on the proposed settlement late last month, Murphy quickly shared her skepticism with the plan.
“And I think I was trying to suggest to you all that if there was going to be a settlement, it was going to have to address the looming emergency that I think everybody recognizes,” Murphy said.
That emergency, which Murphy said she routinely views in her courtroom, is a chronic shortage of attorneys willing to represent the state’s low-income defendants. Lawyers who do take on this work are overwhelmed, the justice said.
It all adds up to an arrangement that can deprive defendants of their rights to a speedy and fair trial, while also potentially disrupting their lives, jobs and relationships with family members. The system also costs taxpayers increasing sums to keep people in jail for extended periods of time while they await court dates.
The situation is so bad that the state’s chief justice, Valerie Stanfill, recently wrote a letter to the state’s largest law firms asking them to help.
“As I am sure all of you know, Maine is facing a crisis with respect to the availability of constitutionally required counsel in both criminal and child protective cases,” Stanfill wrote. Although the Legislature nearly doubled the pay for lawyers to accept appointments through the Maine Commission on Indigent Legal Services, “the crisis is worsening,” the chief justice said in the Aug. 24 letter. “Last week there were over 100 cases pending in which a person is entitled to appointed counsel and for whom no attorney is available.”
Stanfill urged the firms to encourage their lawyers to take some of these cases. More specifically, she asked that the firms encourage recent law school graduates to clerked for the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to take on child protective cases. She listed these lawyers by name.
While some of the firms have said their lawyers will participate, Joan Fortin, the CEO of Bernstein Shur makes a persuasive case for why this is inadequate and the state needs a long-term solution, namely a fully staffed public defenders office. Maine is the only state without such an office.
For one, the landscape of lawyering is changing. Years ago, many lawyers wanted to be on their own or part of a small firm. These lawyers formed the backbone of the state’s indigent defense system.
Increasingly, lawyers value firms where they have access to more training, benefits and colleagues. Therefore, a system that relies on independent lawyers or lawyers from small firms to take on these cases is outdated, Fortin, who has long been involved in attorney recruitment at Bernstein Shur told the BDN editorial board.
In addition, Fortin noted, the lawyers at her firm are not well versed in criminal and child welfare law, although the firm has committed to supporting lawyers who want to be rostered and trained to help with these cases, in addition to the pro bono work that the firm’s lawyers already do.
The biggest issue is that the state is failing to meet its constitutional obligation to ensure a right to counsel and a speedy trial, and it is now passing that responsibility on to many of the state’s law firms.
“It is unconscionable that the state is not fulfilling their constitutional obligation,” Fortin said. She notes that without needed representation, parents could lose their parental rights and some defendants will remain in jail awaiting court dates to determine their guilt or innocence.
There is broad agreement that Maine needs a system of public defenders. Lawmakers need to provide adequate funding to build this system much more quickly.
Portland Press Herald. September 13, 2023.
Editorial: Settlement should be used to repair damage from opioid addiction
Companies that brought about the crisis will pay tens of millions of dollars to Maine. We must use it the right way.
For years, pharmaceutical companies sold doctors and patients on the promise of new pain medications with a dishonest but very lucrative campaign. Now, they are finally paying up, in some small way, for the death and destruction they caused in every corner of America.
Over the next 18 years, states will receive a total of some $50 billion as part of a landmark settlement with the companies that helped kicked off the addiction crisis that has killed more than 1 million Americans since 1999, and about 105,000 last year alone.
Here in Maine, where opioid addiction has been particularly destructive, we’ll receive roughly $235 million over the next two decades. Every cent should go to repairing the terrible damage that drug addiction has wrought in our state, and helping people move past the horror the disease has brought to their lives.
As many advocates are doing right now, it’s worth looking back on the experience surrounding another settlement – the 1998 agreement with tobacco companies that sends about $54 million per year to Maine.
That money was meant to make amends for the billions of dollars in health care-related costs incurred by states treating illness and disease caused by smoking. It was supposed to act as a counterweight to all the money and effort tobacco companies used to hook millions of smokers and plant smoking firmly in our culture.
States, however, have mostly failed to use the settlement funds for their stated purpose, instead diverting them to pay for unrelated programs or fill budget holes. The 20-year report on the settlement by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids found that just 2.4% of funds in 2019 were used for tobacco prevention and cessation programs.
Maine has done better than most. For the first decade of the settlement, the state put settlement funds toward prevention programs and it helped drive down smoking rates.
Gov. Paul LePage, however, used the money to shore up Maine’s Medicaid program and eventually disbanded the local organizations tasked with working on tobacco prevention, among other public health goals.
It would be very easy for the same thing to happen to the funds from the opioid settlement. The bodies distributing the funds, which includes the Maine Recovery Council in the Office of the Attorney General, as well as counties, cities and towns, should be clear that the money should be spent, as long as it lasts, on matters directly related to the damage caused by opioids and addiction. Legislators should set an example for their future counterparts by doing the same.
The fund must also be used to expand the programs and services we don’t have enough of, and to support new ideas for engaging with folks whose lives have been upended by the drug crisis – and everything that comes along with it.
As has been the case since the beginning of the crisis, Maine continues to have a shortage of medication-assisted treatment and detox options. People in crisis should not have to wait to access the most successful forms of health care.
Harm reduction must also continue its journey to the forefront of our response. Access to naloxone, clean syringes and drug testing kits saves lives, as do the people and groups who help people get those items – and try to steer them toward care.
And as anyone who has seen tent encampments pop up in communities across the state this summer knows, the addiction crisis is intertwined with the crisis of homelessness. To get people off the streets, and into situations that are healthier for them and our society as a whole, Maine needs more housing support, both for those in recovery and those actively using drugs, who often don’t have anywhere to go.
Faced with a deadly and overwhelming addiction crisis, the way forward for Maine is clear. The state’s goal should be to save as many lives as it can, where it can, while giving people a path to a healthier life. That’s how our money should be spent.