Editorial Roundup: New England

Bangor Daily News. May 16, 2022.

Editorial: New state funding is welcome as browntail moths are expected to terrorize Maine again this year

Insects pollinate our crops, they serve as pest control by taking care of other problem insects, they even help clean up waste. There are plenty of good types of bugs. The browntail moth, however, is not one of them.

We are at war with these bugs here in Maine. And as we’ve argued before, this ongoing battle requires a strong response from the state. It requires a browntail moth Marshall Plan.

That response thankfully did get stronger at the recent conclusion of the 130th Legislature, with lawmakers passing and Gov. Janet Mills signing a new law to create a $150,000 fund to help municipalities and nonprofits deal with browntail moth mitigation. Those recommended mitigation efforts include using pesticides to kill the caterpillars before the end of May and web removal from late October to mid-April.

The caterpillar stage of these invaders has poisonous hairs that can cause a painful, poison ivy-like rash and respiratory problems. Tree defoliation is also a big problem. Aerial mapping last year found almost 200,000 acres damaged by the moths. They have been a cyclical problem since first arriving in Maine in the early 1900s, with numbers growing rapidly over the past seven years.

We and others have called on the state to step up its role and resources in the browntail moth fight, and this new funding fits the bill.

The new law’s lead sponsor Rep. Allison Hepler, a Democrat from Woolwhich, called the browntail moth issue a “growing problem that will not be reduced until action is taken” in February testimony.

“I am not an alarmist, but the consequences of tree damage across the state affect the forest’s ability to sequester carbon, and the impact of pests like browntail moth on people stress our health care system,” Hepler continued.

Bangor Public Works Director Aaron Huotari testified in favor of the measure in February, highlighting the toll that browntail moths have taken on both Bangor’s trees and residents.

“The City of Bangor has earned the Tree City, USA designation for the last 16 years. We budget and spend a great deal of money to maintain healthy trees, remove dead and dying trees, and plant new ones every year. A great number of these public assets are the target food for browntail moth, especially oak and fruit trees,” Huotari told lawmakers. “Last year’s infestation resulted in dozens, if not hundreds, of trees in Bangor being completely defoliated. Many trees appear to have bounced back with a second leafing out but the trees are severely stressed at this point.”

Unfortunately, as explained by BDN reporter Lauren Abbate, this year is shaping up to be another bad one for browntail moths after last year was the worst Maine had ever experienced. More rain is needed in the next month an a half to support the spread of fungal and viral diseases that can kill the caterpillars.

“Another large outbreak this year is likely to result in a significant number of previously healthy trees dying off. This affects residents and visitors of the city as areas of vibrant growth become stark brown treescapes thereby decreasing property value and no longer providing cooling effects, air cleansing, and mind calming properties,” Huotari continued. “If the browntail moth infestations aren’t brought under control it will take the City of Bangor’s tree ecosystem years to recover.”

There are steps individual property owners can take to help manage the spread and impact of browntial moths. The Maine Forest Service has information and resources outlined on a frequently asked questions page on its website. And as Abbate pointed out, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention released information in early May about how people can protect themselves from browntail moth exposure.

Even with existing efforts, the need to marshal more collective resources has been clear. We are glad state leaders have taken this step to bolster support for local efforts across Maine. This is not a war for individuals or communities to be waging alone.

___

Hearst Connecticut Media. May 18, 2022.

Editorial: Is it time to remove phones from classrooms?

Can the genie be put back in the cellphone?

Every parent knows the challenges of getting children to turn off screens. The 1950s cliché of “Don’t sit so close to the TV” may seem quaint, but it was also a harbinger of things to come.

Seven decades ago, the concern was over compromising young eyes and brains. Today, issues related to excessive screen time are even more grave. In tracking the rise in depression among youth over the past decade or so, experts offer some pretty persuasive evidence that supports what parents suspected for years: Screen time can be perilous.

The current generation of kids have been raised on (and by) the internet. Conversations about addressing appropriate screen usage were overdue even before the pandemic exacerbated the problem.

France banned cellphones in elementary and middle schools four years ago. China instituted a ban last year, citing a need to protect students’ eyesight and to enhance their concentration. Similar actions have been taken in other corners of the world, and murmurings of bans in American classrooms are growing louder.

It’s not a new discussion. Some school districts started debating bans before current high schoolers were born. A few carried them out. Seymour instituted a ban in 2018. It was inspired by bullying, but reportedly had the ancillary benefits of improved grades.

Torrington students staged a walkout after a policy denying phone access was launched in March. Earlier this month, Branford announced that phones, Apple Watches, Airpods and other electronics could no longer join students in the classrooms.

Many such policies were declared with considerable use of euphemisms. Stamford officials were more direct about what’s driving consideration of a new cellphone policy. A recent middle school fight occurred at the same school where students recorded themselves participating in a TikTok challenge simulating the firing of a gun at the camera.

School districts need to have difficult discussions about the pros and cons of student phone use. Teachers on the front lines need to be allowed to steer the discourse, and districts should consult best practices from other communities.

Emergency rooms are seeing disturbing increases in the number of teens committing self-injury, but the trend predates the social isolation of COVID. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites a 44 percent increase over the past 13 years of youths reporting making a suicide plan.

The world is not a great place to grow up in right now. Kids are living in the shadow of the pandemic, a war and an unpredictable economy. Social media can be an escape, but it can also be a rabbit hole. Studies by the likes of Clinical Psychological Science suggest adolescents who spent more time on social media platforms and cellphones are more likely to report mental health issues.

The healthier peers seem to have followed advice that has been passed along by those 1950s parents. They limit technology use and engage in sports and in-person interactions.

There is no magic number, but studies suggest students with more than three hours a day of screen time pivot toward depression.

In other words, there is a way to put the genie back in the cellphone. Just turn it off.

___

Boston Globe. May 20, 2022.

Editorial: In prison, phone calls home aren’t a frill. They’re as important as food and clothes.

Sheriffs shouldn’t balance their budgets with onerous fees. Lawmakers can right that wrong.

The state’s highest court made clear this week that there’s nothing to prevent county sheriffs from continuing to charge often usurious rates for the phone calls that provide inmates their lifeline to the outside world — to family, friends, and even lawyers.

That decision, by the Supreme Judicial Court, ups the ante on legislative efforts to see that this most vital service, critical to any inmate’s reentry into the community, is treated with the seriousness it deserves — and, like food and clothing, is provided free of charge.

Under the current system, county sheriffs and the state Department of Correction are contracted with a private telecom provider — Securus is the firm of choice for both the state and all but two Massachusetts counties — but the rates are actually paid by those on the receiving end of the phone calls. So it’s most often families who bear the burden of the calls, which average about 14 cents a minute.

However, as recently as 2018, prisoners housed in Bristol County — the subject of the lawsuit before the SJC — were charged as much as $3.16 for the first minute and 16 cents a minute thereafter.

The suit — filed against Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson by a collection of former inmates, several attorneys (who also are forced to pay those phone bills), and a family member of a former inmate, represented by Prisoners’ Legal Services — charged that the sheriff had no authority under state law to “extract unlawful fees” in the form of those “inflated” phone charges. An amicus brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts called the agreements and the commissions they generated for the sheriff’s office “legalized kickbacks.”

In 2009, when legislation was passed completing the state’s takeover of county government, the duties and responsibilities of those county sheriffs were clarified, including the right to profit from those inmate phone calls.

“Had the Legislature intended to put an end to the sheriff’s practice of collecting inmate telephone revenues, it could have done so,” Chief Justice Kimberly Budd wrote in the opinion, issued Tuesday. Instead, the 2009 statute “expressly provides that the sheriff may continue to retain inmate telephone revenues even after the transfer of the sheriff’s office to the Commonwealth.”

That might have been just fine with lawmakers back in 2009, but the COVID-19 pandemic, which curtailed in-person prison visits, made clear how important those lines of communication were. The Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association responded last summer by agreeing to allow 10 free minutes of calling time per week to each inmate and to assure a top rate of 14 cents per minute.

At the same time, Connecticut became the first state in the nation to make all inmate calls free. Around the country, localities like New York City implemented free calls in 2019, and San Diego County began offering free calls (limited to 15 minutes each) last summer.

The Massachusetts House, as part of its fiscal 2023 budget, mandates that the state Department of Correction, county sheriffs, and the Department of Youth Services all provide phone services free of charge. House budget analysts found that calls, video, and electronic communications currently cost those incarcerated and their families some $14.4 million a year.

The House proposes setting up a Communications Access Trust fund with initial funding of $20 million to cover the potential revenue loss to DOC and the sheriffs.

Next week the Senate is scheduled to debate its budget plan, and Senator Cynthia Creem has filed an amendment that would also offer free calling from state and county prisons beginning July 1, 2023. The amendment does not use the trust fund device or propose additional funding, but its passage would certainly provide momentum as the two budgets move into the inevitable conference committee for negotiating differences between their spending priorities.

Onerous fees for a basic necessity like communications do nothing to protect public safety, and in fact make rebuilding life after prison harder if they cause inmates’ social and family connections to fray. The fees are simply an unnecessary and counterproductive burden, one that should be lifted by lawmakers this year.

___

Boston Herald. May 17, 2022.

Editorial: Time to go after Big College’s soaring costs

Elizabeth Warren hates high prices.

Sometimes.

The Massachusetts senator has railed against inflation and the soaring costs of food and oil. She has lamented the burden these have placed on hard-working Americans.

The culprit? Corporate greed.

In a press release issued last March, Warren said: “Corporate executives have padded their pockets with hefty paychecks and over-the-top compensation packages, while American workers, who helped generate record corporate profits, have hardly seen their wages budge. We need to take dramatic steps to address wealth inequality in this country and discouraging massive executive payouts is a good place to start.”

She took Big Oil to task in November on Joy Reid’s MSNBC show: “If this were just ordinary inflation, we might see prices go up, but prices at the pump have gone up why? Chevron, Exxon, have doubled their profits. This isn’t about inflation, this is about price gouging for these guys.”

And the price spikes at supermarkets got an equal dose of Warren’s ire: “Giant grocery store chains force high food prices onto American families while rewarding executives & investors with lavish bonuses and stock buybacks,” Warren said. “I’m demanding they answer for putting corporate profits over consumers and workers during the pandemic.”

Skyrocketing prices and mega salaries for those at the top — sounds like the higher education industry.

As the Herald reported, Boston University is raising its tuition by 4.25%, which means a bill of $61,050 per year for undergrads.

“We are caught in an inflationary vise between the institutional pressures and the impact on our students and their families,” BU President Robert Brown wrote in an end-of-year letter to faculty and staff.

Back in 1980, the Harvard Crimson reported that BU’s tuition was heading for a hike. Undergraduate tuition that year was set to soar to a total of $5,515, the university announced.

A spokesman cited inflation adjustments of faculty and administrative salaries and fringe benefits accounted for much of the increase. The rest was reportedly due to increases in financial aid, improvements in academic programs and administrative and general expenses.

That $5,515 in 1980 would be $19,349.95 in today’s dollars, a cumulative inflation rate of 250.9%. But today’s students aren’t paying $19,349.95 — they’re due to fork over $61,050. That’s one heck of an inflationary spike.

BU is not alone — college tuitions are astronomical. Tufts University estimates the cost for the 2022-23 academic year is $63,804. At Northeastern, the cost for the 2021-22 year is $56,500.

Any word from Warren and her progressive colleagues about these astronomical prices? According to Warren & Co., the problem isn’t tuition, it’s that students have to pay back the loans they took in order to pay it. The solution? Forgive the debt. Why doesn’t Big College get the same treatment as Big Food or Big Oil?

Why isn’t Warren targeting the salaries of university staff?.

A BU spokesman would not say if President Brown and other high-paid staffers would be taking pay cuts. Brown earns $2.1 million annually, according to a recent 990 tax form. Five other faculty members top the $1 million mark, records show.

Students should pay a reasonable tuition for a college education — they shouldn’t have to shoulder the inflated salaries of university staff.

___

Rutland Herald. May 14, 2022.

Editorial: Hard data

There have been some tragedies in the news lately. Police have been investigating a shooting Monday in Springfield, where a resident was shot in the leg. There have been some high-profile road rage incidents on our state roads and interstates, as well as a shooting incident between vehicles on Grand Isle. Notably, there have been some suicides involving firearms, including a young person, and two Vermont veterans in recent weeks.

These reports are always disturbing and heartbreaking.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week, in its Morbidity and Mortality report, published the results of a study titled, “Vital Signs: Changes in Firearm Homicide and Suicide Rates — United States, 2019–20.”

Here is what it found: Firearm homicides and suicides represent important public health concerns in the United States, with substantial inequities by race and ethnicity and poverty level. In 2020, 79% of all homicides and 53% of all suicides involved firearms. From 2019 to 2020, the firearm homicide rate increased about 35%, and the firearm suicide rate stayed high. The firearm homicide rate in 2020 was the highest recorded in more than 25 years.

“Long-standing systemic inequities and structural racism limit economic and education opportunities. They contribute to unfair and avoidable health disparities among some racial and ethnic groups. Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the substantial increase in the firearm homicide rate, along with notable increases in firearm suicide rates for some groups, has widened racial, ethnic, and other disparities. For example, young people, males and Black people have the highest firearm homicide rates and experienced the largest increases in 2020,” it states.

The reasons for the increasing rates and widening disparities are likely complex, the study found. Multiple stressors associated with the COVID-19 pandemic may have contributed to the increases, including: changes and disruptions to services and education; mental stress; social isolation and economic stressors, including job loss, housing instability and difficulty covering daily expenses.

According to the study, “The findings of this study underscore the importance of comprehensive strategies that can stop violence now and in the future by addressing factors that contribute to homicide and suicide, including the underlying economic, physical and social inequities that drive racial and ethnic disparities in multiple health outcomes. For example, policies that enhance economic and household stability (e.g., temporary assistance to families, child care subsidies, tax credits, housing assistance and livable wages) can reduce family poverty and other risk factors for homicide and suicide (e.g., family stress and substance use).”

It goes on, “Communities can also implement locally driven approaches that address physical and social environments that contribute to violence and other inequities, with the potential for immediate benefits.”

We need to make sure resources are available to all Vermonters who are feeling stressed or in danger of domestic violence. Communities nationwide must implement comprehensive violence prevention strategies to address physical, social and structural conditions that contribute to violence and disparities.

Studies like this one, while threatening to some, can help identify disproportionately affected populations and guide the development and implementation of evidence-based strategies for communities experiencing social and structural conditions contributing to violence and disparities in violence. We are not immune.

Vermont does well in providing myriad violence prevention programs, such as those that teach coping and problem-solving skills, enhance norms against intimate partner and other violence, prevent substance use and suicide attempts, encourage help-seeking, or provide mentoring and employment opportunities that can be implemented more broadly, irrespective of risk.

More can always be done. We continue to urge lawmakers to provide funding to services providing counseling and mental health services, as well as those organizations working with teens, veterans and vulnerable populations.

If you or someone you know needs help, text “VT” to 741741 to get an automated text response first, and then a response from a trained crisis counselor. Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) and provides 24/7 service via a toll-free hotline to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.

END