Editorial Roundup: New England

Bangor Daily News. May 14, 2024.

Editorial: Proposal to reclassify marijuana signals important shift away from failed punitive approach

A proposal from the Biden administration to reclassify marijuana as a less dangerous substance is a good step in ending America’s long, and failed, war on drugs. However, much more remains to be done to align federal drug policy with the realities, and real dangers, of substance use.

The Associated Press reported late last month that the Drug Enforcement Administration will soon begin the process of reclassifying marijuana, which could ease federal restrictions on the medical use of cannabis, which is legal in 38 states, including Maine. It could also ease restrictions on marijuana research.

The reclassification would not impact recreational marijuana sales, which are legal in 23 states, including Maine. It would not necessarily ease restrictions on banking and loans, which some say have hampered the cannabis industry. In addition, it would not impact the sentences of those currently incarcerated for marijuana-related crimes.

Still, industry officials and advocates for the legalization of cannabis hailed the proposal.

Vince Sliwoski, a Portland, Oregon-based cannabis attorney who runs well-known legal blogs on those topics, told The Associated Press the proposal was “paradigm-shifting, and it’s very exciting.”

“I can’t emphasize enough how big of news it is,” he said.

The proposed reclassification, which will undergo further federal review and a public comment period, is significant because it signals a shift in thinking about cannabis, not because it is a major policy change.

For far too long, the federal government has pursued a punitive policy toward drug use, which has not reduced overdose deaths and has led to the incarceration of far too many people — a disproportionate number of them people of color — for drug offenses.

On this front, recently passed laws in Maine could help more of the state’s residents move beyond drug convictions, particularly from the time before recreational cannabis use was legalized in Maine in 2017.

Under a law signed last month by Gov. Janet Mills, more drug-related criminal records can now be sealed, with the aim of helping more Mainers escape the stigma of a low-level drug conviction. Another measure will remove the age requirements for sealing criminal histories.

Peter Lehman, the Maine Prison Advocacy coalition’s legislative director, told lawmakers he has worked with hundreds of people who are burdened repeatedly by criminal histories when seeking jobs, housing and even recovery services.

“We also want to emphasize that the burden of a criminal record falls most heavily on the poor and racial and ethnic minorities who are overrepresented in Maine’s prisons,” Lehman said in testimony in March. “The northern, poorest and most rural counties are overrepresented in the Maine prisons partly from the same dynamic.”

The law changes were among the recommendations from a state panel that reviewed how the state’s criminal records are handled.

The state and federal changes are important steps in a better approach to substance use, especially cannabis use, which is now legal in Maine. Lawmakers, in both Augusta and Washington, can build on them to craft more appropriate drug policies that do not unnecessarily stigmatize people while focusing resources on reducing harmful substance use.


Portland Press Herald. May 12, 2024.

Editorial: Getting into college is tough enough

An ‘overhaul’ of FAFSA can be argued to have dragged applications by Maine students down by almost a quarter this year.

If you can’t determine how much college is going to cost you, how can you reasonably plan to go to college?

It’s a question plaguing many young Mainers right now. The federal legislation that led to the chaos ongoing in federal student aid applications, was named, remarkably, the FAFSA Simplification Act. We know now that it has done anything but simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

A delay of three months to launch followed by all manner of “glitches” and “technical issues” has left a whole cohort of college hopefuls high and dry.

As the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram reported last week, FAFSA submissions in Maine are down 23% from the 8,000 or so students who had applied by this time last year. On its face, that’s a terrible outcome – and one that should have been avoided.

The revised FAFSA application form was intended to make life easier for low- and moderate-income households. Cruelly, it is this group that will bear the brunt of the botched rollout.

“It’s the more vulnerable students and those who are more on the border of going to college or not that are most likely to be impacted by this,” Sandy Baum, a higher-education finance expert and a senior fellow at Urban Institute’s Center of Education Data and Policy, told the paper.

The University of Maine System is to be commended for extending its application deadlines for all schools to June 1 in response to the delay in getting students’ FAFSA information. While Bates, Bowdoin and Colby have not, they say their process of establishing student need relies on other factors.

Nationwide, FAFSA applications are down 36%. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 85% of American college students receive some financial aid.

That the Education Department’s mismanagement of an upgrade to an online form – over three years – would be responsible for a decline in applications for student aid, and in turn responsible for a decline in college enrollment, limiting the high school Class of 2024 and hurting weaker colleges financially in the process, is dire indeed.

Questioning Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, Maine’s Sen. Susan Collins went further last week, calling the fiasco “inexcusable” and requesting a formal apology. “The fact is that students in my state have been up in the air … they don’t know what package of assistance they’re going to receive,” Collins said.

She singled out the importance of the FAFSA system to first-generation college students, reflecting on her time as an employee of Husson University in Bangor, where she had a front-row seat to the “real-life consequences” of federal aid.

Our students should be able to make informed decisions about their future, on time. After apologizing, Cardona and his colleagues must take every action available to them to remedy the situation.


Rutland Herald. May 16, 2024.

Editorial: Protecting privacy

Several times a year, we are approached by Vermonters who want to talk about concerns about scams and data breaches. Usually, they want certain retribution against companies they feel did not go to great enough lengths to protect their personal information.

Those conversations usually end with someone on our staff advising the individual to file a report or complaint with either the state Attorney General’s Office or local law enforcement.

That advice usually does not assuage anyone who is feeling violated, who might have to be taking steps to reclaim their identity, or — at a minimum — take personal steps to avoid such a thing from happening again.

What they want is the media (in this case, our newspapers) to help fight the fight for them, and at least get the word out as a cautionary tale.

These privacy breaches have become so commonplace that it got the attention of lawmakers during the just-closed legislative session.

As the Associated Press made note this week, the Democrat-controlled Vermont Legislature has passed one of the strongest data privacy measures in the country aimed at cracking down on companies’ use of online personal data, which would let consumers file civil lawsuits against companies that break certain privacy rules.

According to published reports, the bill prohibits the sale of sensitive data, such as Social Security and drivers’ license numbers, financial or health information. It also sets meaningful limits on the amount of personal data that companies can collect and use, according to the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), based in Washington, D.C.

Rep. Monique Priestley, a Democrat from Bradford, led the charge. In a commentary published in this newspaper in April, Priestley noted, “Of the 20 largest economies in the world, the U.S. is the only country that lacks a comprehensive framework establishing rights and protections for the collection, use and sharing of data. In a time when everyone owns a computer, carries a smartphone, drives a connected car, and owns a variety of smart devices, every beat of your heart, movement you make, and conversation you have, are valuable. Battles to protect your data are taking place at the state and federal level.” More than a dozen states have comprehensive data privacy laws. Vermont’s is “among the strongest, if not the strongest” in the country, Caitriona Fitzgerald, deputy director of EPIC, told the AP this week.

The fear, of course, is that gaps can be exploited, undermining the protections legislators were seeking.

According to Priestley’s commentary, research shows that a majority of American adults incorrectly believe when a company has a privacy policy, it means that company cannot share personal data with other parties without their permission.

“I assure you, this belief couldn’t be further from the truth. If you are a Vermonter, there are currently no regulations in place to protect you and your loved ones,” Priestley wrote.

Critics of the bill say too strong could have its own toll.

A big step in the Vermont legislation is allowing consumers to sue. That has drawn some concern from lawmakers, Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who very well may veto the bill because of concerns it could harm small businesses in Vermont. It is true: Many state attorneys general do not have the resources to enforce these privacy regulations, EPIC’s Fitzgerald told the AP.

If there is a violation and a person wants to sue, the accused company has 60 days to remedy that problem, according to the Vermont bill. The governor, the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, and other lobbyists working in support of Vermont businesses are concerned about the private right of action and what the bill might mean for business owners, as well as saturating the court system with frivolous lawsuits.

Legislators attempted to resolve that by limiting action to violations by data brokers, which are companies that make a majority of their revenue selling data, as well as large data holders, which are companies processing data from 100,000 Vermonters or more a year, Priestley told the AP.

The bill also includes parts of previous legislation aimed at protecting children. “What’s left is really a product and safety liability bill as far as minimizing addictive features and things like that,” Priestley said.

According to AP, the passage of Vermont’s legislation came after Maryland’s governor signed two measures into law aimed at better protecting personal data online from Big Tech, including a bill to try to create limits on information collected on children. The other Maryland law will create consumer protections and rights, as well as disclosure obligations relating to online personal data controlled or processed by certain entities that conduct business in Maryland or provide services or products that are targeted to residents of the state.

Scott, who just announced a bid for reelection for a fifth term, is unlikely to sign into law any measure that could make doing business in Vermont even harder.

But that’s a tough sell for the scores of Vermonters who have been pinched by data breaches and privacy issues in recent years. We believe consumer protections need attention, especially against bad actors who do not need nor deserve access to our most private information.


Boston Globe. May 16, 2024.

Editorial: House leaders lard up the state budget with a side of pork

Stealth earmarks just appear in the final hour even at a time of so-called fiscal restraint.

There are earmarks — and then there are earmarks.

Sure, every legislator in Massachusetts wants to, as the saying goes, bring home the bacon for his or her district. But not all lawmakers are equal on Beacon Hill, and those who are more powerful don’t play by the same set of rules when it comes to tucking those bits of pork into the current state budget.

A Globe analysis of those stealth — and very last minute — earmarks in the budget now marking its way through the process at the State House found at least $5 million attributable to House leaders. Many of them earmark taxpayer money for private charities — like $65,000 for Responsible Urbanities for Fido (RUFF), the nonprofit that runs two dog parks in the district of House Ways and Means Chair Aaron Michlewitz, or the $175,000 to repair the roof and towers of Hammond Castle in Gloucester in the district of Ways and Means Vice Chair Ann-Margaret Ferrante, or $50,000 for the Friends of Faxon Park in Quincy, home to House Speaker Ron Mariano. The speaker also scored $500,000 for the Adams Presidential Center, a planned research and exhibition space in Quincy.

Now earmarks in the broadest sense of the term — defined as an appropriation for a specific district, program or project — have been around as long as there have been lawmakers to request them. This year, according to an analysis by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, the House added 748 earmarks to its budget during the April debate on the $58 billion appropriation. Those earmarks totaled some $80.3 million in new spending.

Mariano insisted in a statement, “While local earmarks are often a critical source of needed support for our communities, the House remained focused on balancing their importance with the need to be fiscally prudent throughout this year’s budget process.”

Most of those earmarks were filed in advance of House floor debate as budget amendments — each carrying the name of its sponsor. That means that, if nothing else, there is some transparency around the requests.Those 1,495 amendments were then put to a vote that bundled them into seven “consolidated amendments” — divided by subject matter. The consolidation process is presided over by a mere handful of House leaders.

Lucky or influential reps went home happy, others not so much.

But “the consolidated amendment process allows new earmarks to be adopted to the budget without an underlying amendment having been filed,” the MTA analysis noted. It put the number of stealth earmarks at 48.

They appear as if by magic — untethered to any individual representative — and without any advance notice.

In the case at hand, most of those anonymous earmarks came on the last day of House budget debate, in the last consolidated amendment of the day, on a Friday afternoon. Reps got the 18-page “Labor and Economic Development” mega-amendment about 30 minutes before the vote.

In what passes for debate these days in the House, Representative Mindy Domb of Amherst rose to praise Mariano and Michlewitz for the budget’s support of the arts and tourism in particular (her earmarks included $100,000 for the The Boston Ballet and $15,000 to furnish a game room at the Amherst Senior Center). And she gave a shout-out to the Massachusetts-based films, “American Fiction” and “The Holdovers” as “a product of tourism strategy to showcase Massachusetts and bring people here.”

Representative Kip Diggs of Barnstable (who scored three earmarks totaling $230,000) also rose to praise the budget which he called a “testament to our collective commitment and foresight of a robust investment in economic development. .”

The consolidated amendment passed 157-0.

Ultimately four of the House’s 25 Republicans voted against the budget in its entirety.

The dirty little secret of earmarks is that almost everybody gets a piece of the action — some big, others quite small — but enough that no one chooses to rock the boat.

The Taxpayers Foundation put the median value of an earmark this year in the House at about $50,000. And “while earmarks provide one-time benefits for a variety of purposes across the state, they also limit the resources available for other uses,” the MTF said in its report. “For example, earmark spending may come at the expense of increases for competitive grant programs that fund similar projects using more transparent means.”

Ah, transparency — that all too elusive commodity on Beacon Hill. In the case of many of those last-minute earmarks the proposing lawmaker remains completely anonymous.

Of course, an increase in the Republican minority might embolden its members to actually demand more transparency.

Or the Massachusetts House could follow the lead of Congress, which after a 10-year moratorium — itself brought on by several scandals including an infamous “ Bridge to Nowhere” for Alaska — restored earmarks, now dubbed “congressionally directed spending” in 2021. But the item has to have a member’s name attached to it and “a certification letter explaining the purpose of the funds.”

The state Senate, where budget action returns next week also faces work on 1,100 budget amendments.

“The Senate has a long-standing process for ensuring transparency regarding amendments for the budget debate,” Senate President Karen Spilka said in a statement. “Filed amendments may be ‘bundled’ by subject to expedite the process of dispensing with a large number of amendments, but the underlying amendment, or its redraft, remains available on the Senate website for public view. Members may request to have a particular amendment pulled from a bundle and debated on the Senate floor.”

The budget process, she added, allows “senators to advocate for their local priorities” before the budget’s release and during debate.

It’s unlikely anyone can or will put the earmark genie back in the bottle — even Congress gave up on that. But keeping the process honest means keeping it more open and transparent and forcing even legislative leaders to own up to their own pet projects and causes.