Editorial Roundup: New England

Hearst Connecticut Media. October 21, 2021.

Editorial: Absentee ballots a step forward for CT

Among the many changes COVID-19 brought to Connecticut was an upending of traditional voting practices. With fears of contracting a deadly disease serving as a potential deterrent for voting in person last year, an emergency order from the state allowed anyone eligible to cast a ballot to do so remotely, via absentee ballot.

This was a step forward, and allowed Connecticut to catch up, for now, with much of the rest of the nation. Some states do all their voting by mail, and nearly all of them have looser restrictions on absentee ballots than Connecticut does. Belying our reputation as a place friendly to voting rights, this state has historically had some of the most restrictive statutes in the nation on that score.

It’s good news, then, that the state Legislature extended last year’s order to cover the 2021 local elections, to be held Nov. 2. Anyone can again cite COVID-19 as a reason to vote via absentee ballot, with the pandemic a justified reason for emergency measures to continue.

But there shouldn’t need to be a reason. Absentee ballots are safe and work well for many people. There’s no good reason for the state not to move ahead and allow them in all elections going forward, pandemic or not.

Getting there is the hard part. The Connecticut Constitution is the stumbling block, and it must be amended to allow no-excuses absentee ballots in future elections. To get there, the Legislature approved a referendum on a constitutional amendment to allow no-excuse absentee voting, but opposition from minority Republicans kept the vote short of the supermajority necessary to put it on the 2022 ballot. Now it needs to be approved again by the next session of the Legislature.

It’s a hard climb to change the state Constitution, which is at it should be. But this is a change that is overdue.

Residents have until Oct. 26 to register to vote ahead of the election; Connecticut also allows residents to register on Election Day. Time is running short, and anyone interested in taking advantage of the opportunity to vote via absentee ballot should move quickly.

It’s an option that found widespread support last year. “It’s really extraordinary when you think about the fact that in 2020, about 650,000 people in Connecticut voted by absentee ballot,” Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said at a press conference recently. “When they cast their vote, they cast their vote for whichever candidates they preferred. But I think they also cast their vote for no-excuse absentee balloting.”

While opponents have seized on the potential for fraud, there is no evidence that there are more problems with absentee ballots than in-person elections. The safeguards are in place to protect the integrity of the ballot, and there is simply no indication that any widespread fraud is affecting the outcome of elections in this country, whether via in-person or absentee ballots.

It’s a good thing when more people can vote. Everyone who is eligible should be able to take part in the democratic process. Connecticut’s restrictive laws are long overdue for an update.

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Portland Press Herald. October 21, 2021.

Editorial: Maine’s Sen. King sounds alarm on democracy in danger

We are in a constitutional crisis in which false claims of voter fraud can undermine faith in elections, the independent senator said.

The United States is in the midst of a constitutional crisis, and if we don’t act to resolve it now, we could see the end of the American experiment in democratic self-government.

That’s not something we heard on talk radio or read in an angry tweet.

That stark warning was made on the floor of the U.S. Senate this week by independent Maine Sen. Angus King, someone who, we have come to know, is careful with his words.

When he sounds an alarm like that, we listen.

King spoke Tuesday afternoon in favor of a new voting rights bill, the Freedom to Vote Act, of which he was a cosponsor.

The legislation is a scaled-back package that was negotiated after a more comprehensive bill, the For the People Act, could not clear a Republican filibuster. The Freedom to Vote Act met the same fate Wednesday, leaving sponsors with few options but promising to keep fighting.

Considering what King says is at stake, we hope that they do.

A constitutional crisis is a political conflict that can’t be resolved by the Constitution, either because it is silent or unclear on the specific issue or because the institutions in the system of checks and balances fail to do their jobs.

The crisis King describes comes from the false claims that Donald Trump won the 2020 election, a lie that has been echoed by Republican officeholders and, according to polls, is believed by one-third of all Americans and two-thirds of Republicans.

Republican-controlled state legislatures have passed “election integrity” laws that, if not stopped by federal intervention, would deny the opportunity to vote to tens of thousands of 2020 voters, many from the same minority groups that had to win their long fight for ballot access in 1965.

“One of our great political parties has embraced the idea that our last election was fraudulent, that our president is illegitimate, and that they must move legislatures across the country to ‘fix’ the results of future elections,” King said. “A substantial proportion of our population has lost faith in our democratic system and seems prepared to accept authoritarianism; all but the most extreme sources of information have been devalued, and violence bubbles just below the surface.”

King and the other supporters of the Freedom to Vote Act say what’s needed is a set of minimum standards that would guarantee that everyone who is qualified has the ability to vote, regardless of what state they live in. It calls for some of the features of Maine law to be available in every state, like Election Day registration and no-excuse absentee voting, and it would define what kinds of identification are acceptable in states that require ID for voting.

Failing to pass these reforms, King said, will allow Republicans in the states they control to tailor the electorate to their political needs. Then it will be Democrats who will say that the election results can’t be trusted and that the government is illegitimate.

As a consequence, King predicts, “we will be left with a downward spiral toward a hollow shell of democracy, where only raw power prevails and its peaceful transfer becomes a distant memory.”

Democracy is fragile, King told his colleagues, although they shouldn’t have needed the reminder. Just nine months earlier, many of them had to run for their safety when a mob stormed the Capitol to disrupt the certification of the presidential election, part of a plan to keep Trump in office.

Our imperfect system of self-government is based on the simple principle that all power comes from the people, who are regularly consulted in frequent elections. Destroying public faith in elections destroys the entire system.

King has sounded the alarm. Is anyone listening?

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Boston Globe. October 20, 2021.

Editorial: State police, correction unions forget the public good

Vaccine mandates must trump collective bargaining agreements in these perilous times.

How many court orders from how many judges will it take for those supposedly on the front lines of protecting the public to acknowledge that they can’t adequately do their jobs without first being vaccinated against COVID-19?

It defies logic, and just plain common sense, that those who are exposed on a daily basis to the risk of infection would put their interpretation of their collective bargaining rights ahead of protecting the public, themselves, and their own families.

This is the way US District Court Judge Timothy Hillman put it in his decision last Friday in denying Massachusetts correction officers a preliminary injunction against Governor Charlie Baker’s vaccine mandate:

“Congregate facilities like prisons are particularly high-risk environments for COVID-19... and by Plaintiff’s own contention, COs have the potential to spread COVID-19 into their own communities, as they ‘spend the vast majority of their work days in the presence of inmates... and also have families and participate in activities outside of their work that bring them into contact with’ the public.”

The judge then referenced a similar case that was filed earlier in state court by the State Police Association of Massachusetts — and dismissed — saying the police “frame the public interest too narrowly by focusing on its members to the exclusion of everyone else.”

In that one line, the judge captured the utter shamelessness of those two public safety unions in their battle against the governor’s vaccine mandate — which kicked in for real this week (and appears to be working: only about 1,600 state workers have not either gotten vaccinated or applied for an exemption).

This isn’t about vaccine hesitancy. It’s about who gets to — well, literally, call the shots.

State Police Association president Michael Cherven and members of his union board went before the cameras Monday across from the State House to decry the “lack of fundamental fairness” in the Baker administration’s treatment of the union.

“We’re pro-vaccination. We’re also pro-labor,” he said, adding that 85 percent of the union’s members have been vaccinated. As of last week, 299 remained unvaccinated, of whom about 200 had filed for a medical or religious exemption. The overwhelming number — 186 — filed for a religious exemption.

What Cherven and his membership couldn’t win in state court he apparently is attempting to win in the court of public opinion. And that’s an even longer shot.

Any driver pulled over by a trooper certainly has the right to expect he or she won’t be put at risk by that trooper.

The vaccination track record for correction officers is even less impressive. According to a filing in the recent federal court case, some 1,400 correction officers, or 40 percent of the union members, remained unvaccinated as of last week.

In issuing his ruling, Hillman noted, “Even considering the economic impact” on the correction officers, “if they choose not to be vaccinated, when balancing that harm against the legitimate and critical public interest in preventing the spread of COVID-19 by increasing the vaccination rate, particularly in congregate facilities, the court finds the balance weighs in favor of the broader public interests.”

Baker has activated an additional 250 members of the National Guard in case the correction officers fail to take the judge’s message to heart.

Overall, the governor’s office reported about 95 percent of the more than 40,000 executive office employees who come under the vaccine mandate are in compliance, having submitted proof of vaccination or filed for an exemption.

Other unions representing public employees, like Local 509 SEIU, whose members include social workers, and the Massachusetts Teachers Association, have been supportive of the mandate. The state police and correction officers are outliers.

And, sad to say, they have company elsewhere in the country, where opposition to vaccine mandates seems particularly virulent among public safety officials. Police in Chicago, Seattle, and San Diego are all fighting local mandates. And yet more than 460 law enforcement officers have died of COVID, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, which tracks deaths in the line of duty. That tally is five times the number of police who were killed by gunfire in the same period.

The phenomenon of noncompliance by law enforcement officers Monday attracted the attention of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, who said resistance among police “doesn’t make any sense.” Noting the obvious, that those in law enforcement are simply exposed to more people and are, therefore, at higher risk, Fauci urged those in critical jobs to consider “the implications of not getting vaccinated.”

Then he put into words what so many mayors and governors and corporate executives have had to wrestle with in recent days: “I’m not comfortable with telling people what they should do under normal circumstances,” Fauci said, “but we are not in normal circumstances right now.”

Collective bargaining doesn’t supersede the law of the land, or the needs of the public amid a national crisis. The unions representing Massachusetts state troopers and correction officers seem to have lost sight of that. The public has not.

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Rutland Herald. October 18, 2021.

Editorial: Kicking the can

While protests and encampments, including one on the steps of the State House, are raising awareness to the homelessness crisis in Vermont, the Scott administration rolled out a plan to address the housing needs of vulnerable Vermonters.

The plan already is generating criticism and concern. Time is critical. In higher elevations of Vermont on Monday, snow was falling.

The plan requires fully funding Gov. Phil Scott’s $249 million Housing Recovery Plan.

In part, the proposal includes:

— Extending to the current pause until Dec. 31, to ensure that the most vulnerable Vermonters remain housed during Vermont’s inclement winter. During the continued pause, GA clients will still be required to recertify eligibility, receive housing support services and work on their housing plan. The pause can be implemented due to the extension of FEMA funding at no cost to the state.

Providing transportation for eligible GA participants when no rooms are available within the district.

— Understanding who is in motels and what barriers exist to exiting.

— Transitioning motel guests to Emergency Rental Assistance Program for long-term motel rentals.

— Sustaining the Rapid Resolution Housing Initiative beyond the Coronavirus Relief Fund expiration. (Almost 600 households have used funds from the initiative to address housing barriers and increase housing options.)

— Establishing a Rental Risk Mitigation Program to provide landlords and motels with an incentive and added security to work with tenants receiving rental subsidy.

— Enhancing the Vermont Housing Incentive Program, which has aided more than 340 rental units for people experiencing homelessness.

In addition, while shelter capacity has increased above pre-COVID levels, more than 200 winter shelter beds have been lost statewide. Motel capacity remains strained, with no capacity for GA clients in many districts regularly. The proposal would expand shelter capacity in high needs areas.

“There is immediate and long-term work ahead and we look forward to implementing an emergency housing system that is sustainable past State Fiscal Year 2022,” states the release announcing the proposal.

The Republican governor — whose administration has come under fire by critics for not acting fast enough or showing enough compassion on the homelessness issue — put the onus to solve the problem onto lawmakers: “To make this plan a reality, we’ve proposed to the legislature historic investments in housing to help people move out of homelessness, benefiting them and their communities,” the release stated.

At one point this summer, there were more than 850 individuals being housed in Vermont hotels and motels.

Six months ago, in this space, we cautioned that kicking the can down the road (especially when weather was warmer) was going to be short-sighted, at best. News media across the state has had articles detailing the extent to which the homeless problem was going to hit critical mass again between fiscal deadlines and Mother Nature’s march toward winter.

In recent days, we have been inundated with calls for coverage of the pressing issue (via the protests and encampments), as well as a letter-writing campaign that has included the homeless, high school students, activists and the elderly.

The administration’s plan addresses some of the issues. It fails, of course, to address many of the root causes of homelessness in Vermont: affordability, livable wage, workforce development.

Unfortunately, those discussions can wait (probably until the next election cycle for governor and legislators next year) but suffice it to say, politics are about to be play out to the frustration of advocates for the homeless, critics of this administration, critics of the Democratic leadership at the State House, and Vermonters homeless and not.

Despite the immediacy of the issue, it will be stated — and rightly so — this proposal, albeit bold for a Republican governor, does not go far enough. Moreover, it shifts the potential blame if it fails on lawmakers who will be hard-pressed to give it their legislative blessing.

The answer lies in the impossible: Lawmakers, the administration, communities across the state, as well as stakeholders like social service organizations, need to convene in order to come up with guidelines and answers. Real answers — not political hot potatoes. The resolution is not a patch.

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Bangor Daily News. October 21, 2021.

Editorial: Judge is right that more data needed before part of ocean put off limits to lobster harvesting

A federal judge’s order last week to temporarily stop the planned closure of a large swath of the Gulf of Maine to lobster fishing is welcome news to Maine’s lobster industry, but also to those who believe that data should guide decisions about protecting endangered North Atlantic right whales.

In August, federal fisheries regulators announced new rules for lobster fishing gear and the closure of 950 square miles of ocean about 30 miles off the coast from Mount Desert Island to Casco Bay to traditional lobster fishing from October to January. Ropeless fishing, a new and largely untested way of setting and retrieving traps using a smartphone, would still be allowed in this area under the rules. The closure was set to go into effect this week.

The new regulations came despite years of pleas from lobstermen, Maine elected officials and this editorial board that any decisions about measures to be taken to protect the whales needed to be made based on actual data about where and how whales are being injured, entangled and, too often, killed.

Without better data, Maine’s lobster industry was being asked to make substantial — and costly — changes that may not have addressed the biggest threats to right whales. Other threats include collisions with shipping vessels.

“We will continue to push for science and data that reflect what is truly happening in our industry,” Alfred Frawley, a lawyer for the Maine Lobstering Union, which brought the lawsuit against NMFS, said in a statement.

In a draft biological opinion issued earlier this year, the National Marine Fisheries Service essentially acknowledged the lack of specific data on what causes whale mortality, particularly information on collisions between ships and whales. Yet, it went ahead with the restrictive rules, which also impact New England’s crab fishery.

In an order issued on Saturday, Federal District Court Judge Lance Walker temporarily stopped NMFS from imposing the closure because the agency hadn’t presented enough evidence to justify it. Walker put the closure on hold while he more fully considers the merits of the case brought by the Lobstering Union. He also noted that the draft biological opinion put closure as a management option after gear modification rules had failed. Instead, NMFS imposed gear modifications — including putting more traps between buoy lines and the use of weaker rope or clips on buoy lines so that a rope will break if a whale becomes entangled — at the same time that it closed off part of the Atlantic Ocean to lobster fishing.

“Without trivializing the precarity or significance of the right whale as a species, I find that the certain economic harms that would result from allowing this closure to go into effect outweigh the uncertain and unknown benefits of closing some of the richest fishing ground in Maine for three months based on a prediction that it might be a hotspot for right whale entanglement,” Walker wrote in his 28-page ruling.

“While the public interest in this case cuts both ways — pitting a culturally and economically valuable fishery against the preservation of an equally iconic endangered species — it strikes me that there is an overriding public interest in insisting on orderly and epistemically sound rulemaking that members of the public have reason to believe is grounded in reality,” he added.

In other words, the rules should match the data and information that regulators have in hand. This is not only a good ruling for the lobster industry, but also for those of us who think data needs to be front and center when balancing the needs to protect an endangered species and preserve a critical fishery.

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The Sun Chronicle of Attleboro. October 20, 2021.

Editorial: State GOP needs to give Jim Lyons the boot

In recent decades, Massachusetts voters have elected moderate Republican governors such as William Weld, Paul Cellucci, Mitt Romney and now Charlie Baker.

Moderate Republicans, such as Leon Lombardi, John Lepper, Kevin and Betty Poirier, and now Jay Barrows, Sean Dooley and Steve Howitt, have represented the Attleboro area well in the Legislature.

All have provided statesmen-like opposition to the Democratic dominance on Beacon Hill.

They must be disgusted to see the party’s current leadership.

The latest disgrace comes in a story from The Dorchester Reporter on recently filed campaign finance records from the Boston City Council race.

Those record show the Republican State Committee — with the backing of state party Chairman Jim Lyons — spent $3,697 on Facebook ads for city council candidate Donnie Palmer ahead of the Sept. 14 preliminary election.

Palmer, who failed to advance beyond the preliminary race after finishing 14th out of 17 candidates, used social media to attack mayoral hopeful Michelle Wu, the Chicago-born daughter of Taiwanese immigrants.

In one post, Palmer wrote: “ARE WE ABOUT TO ELECT A CHINESE CITIZEN TO CONTROL THE CITY OF BOSTON?” Accompanying the words was a picture of Wu alongside a photo of Chinese head of state Xi Jinping.

Jaclyn Corriveau, a Republican State Committee member who is Asian-American, asked Lyons to rescind his endorsement of Palmer and “denounce Asian hate.” He declined.

When questioned about Lyons, Baker — who has frequently clashed with Lyons, a fervent supporter of former president Donald Trump — called for the state party chairman’s resignation, saying he was concerned “about the level of vitriol and racism that’s come out of a number of members of the committee,” and that it has “no place in life, much less in public life.”

This is the latest in a series of clashes between Baker and Lyons. In June, Baker was among a chorus of Republican officials who denounced anti-gay remarks made by state committee member Deborah Martell and called for her resignation. (Martell said she was “sickened” by a Republican congressional candidate’s decision to adopt two children with his husband.)

Party members called on Lyons to step in, but he declined to do so, citing party bylaws that “freedom of speech and religious liberty are values that are unbending and uncompromising.”

In the most recent case, Lyons responded with a statement defending his actions for the Asian community while a state representative and taking a shot at Baker.

“Perhaps it is time for Gov. Baker to reconsider his party affiliation,” Lyons said.

If the governor wants to be a member of party of divisiveness, of falsifying the truth, of racist dog whistles, then he should pledge full allegiance to the Trump-led GOP.

But we think the Republican Party, in Massachusetts and across America, is better than that. The party of Weld, Cellucci and Romney, the party of Lombardi, Lepper and Poirier, does not portray opponents as evil enemies, as Trump and followers like Lyons do.

Baker called for Lyons’ resignation, but we recognize that will not happen.

Instead, we call upon the Republican State Committee to muster the courage and get the two-thirds vote needed to oust the chairman, if for no other reason than Trump-like rhetoric only damages the GOP cause here in deep blue Massachusetts.

But make no mistake: Jim Lyons is an embarrassment to Massachusetts and especially to the Republican Party and he needs to go.

END