Editorials from around New England:
Pot legalization: Unreliable in many ways
As if Connecticut didn't already have enough reasons to resist the temptation to legalize - and tax - recreational marijuana sales, the Pew Charitable Trusts offered another this week. As reported by the Connecticut Mirror in the Aug. 20 Republican-American, states that have taken this step have found the flow of money into their coffers to be erratic at best.
Connecticut lawmakers consider legalizing the drug and slapping a tax on it every year. The pressure to proceed grew more urgent this year after neighboring Massachusetts took the plunge. But Connecticut lawmakers remain skeptical. They realize the state already relies on deeply unstable cash flows from quarterly income-tax filings and revenue sharing with casinos.
"There are a lot of revenue sources in the state of Connecticut that have a lot of volatility to them, and it has taken me a decade of working with the legislature to get people to realize the money will fluctuate from year to year," said Rep. Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford.
In a state with a history of balanced budgets and consistent, stable tax receipts, adding an unpredictable revenue stream would make sense. The state would have the luxury of using the additional money for secondary needs or putting it aside for a rainy day. But Connecticut, with a history of volatile revenue flows and projected budget deficits, doesn't come close to clearing that bar.
Of course, that's just one of many reasons to let other states dabble in psychoactive drugs. A list of inevitabilities that appeared on this page in May included increased car crashes and industrial accidents; family breakups and other social problems; the potential for increased use of the drug by teenagers; and "perhaps worst of all, a growing population of people who go through life impaired - never able to contribute meaningfully to the social order; always coming up short of the capabilities they were born with."
The jury remains out on the impacts of legalization in terms of public safety, health, and marijuana's role as a gateway to more dangerous substances. Also unknown are the long-term effects of today's marijuana, which is many times as potent as the pot that was available in the past.
People with certain medical or psychological conditions may benefit from using marijuana or derivative products. They can acquire the drug legally for medicinal purposes. For everyone else, the central question should be: Will using this drug make me smarter or more capable? Or will it diminish my intellectual powers, in the short term as well as the long term?
Thus far, the Connecticut legislature has delivered the right answer to its constituents. May it continue to resist the lure of new, albeit unreliable, streams of tax revenue.
Maine organic dairy farms losing out with livestock rule
Portland Press Herald
People choose to pay a premium for organic food because they know it is produced following strict rules that prioritize healthy soil, crop diversity and animal welfare.
Except when it isn't.
The misinterpretation of a rule governing organic livestock by some certification agencies has allowed a few dairy farms to produce milk inconsistent with national standards. It has put those dairy farms who follow the rule the way it was intended - including all the organic dairy producers in Maine - at a disadvantage.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture should close this loophole to put all dairy producers on level ground - and to maintain the integrity of the department's organic certification.
The problem concerns "origin of livestock" rules for when conventional dairy cows can be transitioned into organic herds. The intention of the rule was to allow each farm a one-time transition, to smooth the path from conventional to organic.
However, some USDA-accredited organic agents - though not the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the only agent in Maine - interpret the rule as allowing for continuous conversions.
Organic agriculture advocates say this interpretation is a boon to some large-scale dairy farms, which can raise calves under cheaper conventional methods, then convert them to organic standards when time comes to produce milk.
As a result, Maine's organic dairy farms, which raise their calves using organic methods from the start, spend $600-$1,300 more per calf than those who skirt the rules, according to the state agriculture officials, who along with Gov. Mills are asking the USDA to act.
What's more, by allowing dairy products that are not fully organic to be sold under that label risk diminishing the USDA certification in the eyes of consumers, which in the long run will hurt all organic operations.
That's no small thing. Maine's dairy farms are hurting - mostly small family farms, dozens have been lost in just the last few years. Of the 231 left, more than 25 percent sell to organic processors.
And generally, organic farming is booming in Maine, where total organic product sales increased almost 65 percent from 2012 to 2017, to $60 million. Though organic farming still makes up only a tiny fraction of national and statewide agricultural production, it is growing - and it represents an important part of Maine's farming future.
And that future could be very bright, as long as Maine farms are allowed a level playing field, and to sell their goods under a certification that consumers trust.
Certified organic products are popular because that certification means something. The health and environmental differences between organic and nonorganic goods are complex and often depend on individual producers. But consumers know that when they buy something that is USDA-certified organic, it was made under certain conditions that they wish to support with their own dollars.
The misinterpretation of the livestock rule undermines that understanding. It hurts not only dairy producers who are following the rules, but all organic farmers as well.
The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill ordering the USDA to finalize the proposed rule that would end this loophole. If the Senate passed the same bill, the department would have to act.
Better yet, the USDA should stand up for its own rule, and make sure its organic certification keeps its meaning.
A start on reform at the Registry of Motor Vehicles
The Newburyport Daily News
The Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles is in dire need of a shake-up. Erin Deveney's resignation in the aftermath of a deadly crash in New Hampshire that might not have happened had her agency done its job unscrewed the lid from a rotten jar. Tuesday's firing of Thomas Bowes, head of the Merit Rating Board, was another important step toward righting the Registry.
But there's truth in comments made by Bowes' attorney, Leonard Kesten, who appeared with him at a meeting of the Merit Rating Board's three-member oversight panel. While Bowes accepts responsibility for his role, Kesten noted there are many other people and departments to consider. "There are multiple failures, which took years to happen, that's been going on for years," he said.
The Registry won't be fixed until all are brought to light and addressed.
So, while there's satisfaction in seeing people like Deveney and Bowes lose their jobs, there is no assurance that the Registry is fully equipped to handle the challenges that left it with a backlog of out-of-state reports about arrests and infractions involving Massachusetts drivers in the first place. Those challenges are technical, as documented by a Grant Thornton audit that pointed to long delays in implementing a computer system that processes such notices. The problems also appear to be cultural in an agency devoid of any sense of urgency or appreciation for its role in ensuring the safety of the public.
Among the many breathtaking revelations since Volodymyr Zhukovskyy's truck collided with a group of motorcycles on a two-lane highway in Randolph, New Hampshire, in June, killing seven people: His license should have been suspended had the Massachusetts RMV acted properly when receiving notice of an earlier drunken driving arrest in Connecticut; thousands of such records had not been processed at the Registry; officials knew about the backlog but were stymied by the logistical and technical issues underpinning it; and at least one RMV staffer specifically looked at a notice of Zhukovskyy's arrest in Connecticut but closed the message within a matter of seconds, taking no further action.
In the department of further action, the departure of Deveney and Bowes are just the start. The Registry has spent two months chasing paperwork to ensure it catches other outstanding violations and violators, but it's a ways from assuring those of us it serves that it's ready to make sure the job gets done in the future.
There's so much wrong with New Hampshire's effort to impose Medicaid work requirements
There's so much wrong with New Hampshire's effort to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients
New Hampshire should abandon its effort to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients. They are ill-conceived, ill-designed, ill-administered and, according to a federal judge, illegal.
The new rules — which require most recipients to spend at least 100 hours a month working, going to school or participating in community service — were imposed by the Legislature and Gov. Chris Sununu when they reauthorized the state's expanded Medicaid program in 2018. The requirements affect about 25,000 people in the program, who must document their compliance monthly.
They are ill-conceived. The expanded Medicaid program extended eligibility to those making up to 138% of the poverty threshold, or $35,535 for a four-person household — the very definition of the working poor. An estimated 65% of participants are already working and 77% come from working households.
Besides that, the whole idea of the program is that both the participants and society benefit when people have health insurance. The participants are able to obtain health care when they need it instead of waiting until they are very sick and their conditions become very expensive to treat. People with employer-based insurance benefit because their premiums no longer have to subsidize care for the uninsured. And society benefits because the general population is healthier.
Moreover, the expanded Medicaid program is key to fighting the state's awful opioid epidemic, because it pays for substance-use treatment.
Any requirements that threaten participants with loss of coverage are not only cruel, they are stupidly counter-productive.
They are ill-designed: Making Medicaid participants provide monthly documentation of their work status ignores a fundamental reality of life for low-wage workers making ends meet by piecing together several part-time jobs. The number of hours worked can fluctuate from month to month, and the decision of how much to work is often not within the control of the worker.
In addition, day-to-day problems such as illness, family care responsibilities and transportation difficulties can and do crop up, getting in the way of complying with the 100-hour requirement.
They are ill-administered: The Sununu administration's rollout of the new requirements, before the federal court ruling, was a fiasco. June was the first month for which participants had to document their hours. Only 8,000 were in compliance. Letters were scheduled to be sent to the 17,000 who weren't, informing them that they were in danger of losing coverage. That was before the Health and Human Services commissioner wisely pulled the plug and delayed implementation until September, sparing state government the embarrassment of widespread noncompliance.
In the meantime, though, state workers had already begun going door-to-door in high-enrollment neighborhoods in the state's bigger cities. And the state had already spent $130,000, to little effect, on outreach efforts such as letters, phone calls, text messages, public information sessions and information tables set up outside grocery stores and other retailers, The Associated Press reported.
Is this a good use of scarce state resources? No, it is not. It amounts to squandering them in a quixotic attempt to make an ideological point about what supposed duty low-income people owe to the state.
If Sununu truly wanted to encourage people to work, he would not have vetoed earlier this month a bill that would have raised the minimum wage in New Hampshire from the paltry $7.25 federal level to $10 an hour in 2020 and $12 an hour in 2022. That, too, was ill-considered.
They are illegal. At the end of last month, U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg, sitting in Washington, blocked the requirements, ruling that the Trump administration had failed to address the potential for low-income residents to lose their health insurance coverage. He had previously invalidated similar rules in Kentucky and Arkansas. Noting that 18,000 people lost coverage in Arkansas in 2018, Boasberg said that New Hampshire's program poses even greater concerns because it requires more hours of work each month and applies to a wider age range of participants.
Sununu signaled that the ruling would be appealed; what the state should do instead is repeal the requirements.
An ethics probe of the governor
It's never a good day when you're the governor and the state Ethics Commission decides to investigate you. It's even worse when the investigation involves a lucrative no-bid contract you are trying to get the General Assembly to approve. It's even worse than that when you are attempting to introduce yourself nationally as a new and inspiring model of a Democratic politician.
But that's the kind of day Gov. Gina Raimondo had Tuesday.
The Rhode Island Ethics Commission, by a 6-to-1 margin, voted to investigate the governor's close relationship with longtime International Gaming Technology executive Donald Sweitzer.
Mr. Sweitzer is a $7,500-a-month lobbyist for IGT, and its former chairman. He is also a noted national political fundraiser who has an unusually strong political tie with the governor.
Ms. Raimondo is chair of the Democratic Governors Association — a position that is widely seen as a stepping stone for national politics, often including a run for the presidency. She made Mr. Sweitzer her top associate in that organization.
"Don has been a trusted adviser to the Democrats for decades, and I'm lucky to have him as a friend, supporter and constitution," she said last November in announcing his appointment as DGA treasurer.
After that appointment, Ms. Raimondo struck a $1-billion, no-bid, 20-year deal with IGT to provide lottery services for the state.
Certainly, the relationship gives off the aroma of a conflict.
State law prohibits government officials from using their position or confidential information "to obtain financial gain ... for him or herself or any person within his or her family, any business associate, or any business by which the person is employed or which the person represents."
The gain for Ms. Raimondo might be political contributions that help her establish growing national recognition as an articulate woman governor who combines liberal policies with a pragmatic job-creation agenda.
After news and opinion appeared about this matter, the Rhode Island GOP jumped, presenting a case to the Rhode Island Ethics Commission. The commission Tuesday ruled against the GOP about bidding; the IGT contract does not necessarily have to go out to bid. But the commission did find that another piece of the complaint — that the governor stands to benefit — warrants further investigation. The votes were taken behind closed doors, and the commission did not explain itself about either ruling.
For her part, the governor says her deal is simply an attempt to retain a major Rhode Island company and its 1,000 jobs that, according to IGT, pay an average of $100,000. It has threatened to leave without a no-bid, 20-year extension of its deal, she said. Certainly, the loss of such jobs would deal a serious blow to the state's economy.
For the deal to go through, the General Assembly would have to waive the law requiring such projects to be bid, and the governor was hoping for hearings this fall.
Undeniably, the ethics probe casts a cloud over that effort. The public, meanwhile, is still waiting for a persuasive independent confirmation that the governor's deal with IGT is better than what the taxpayers could obtain if the services were put out to bid.
Whatever happens, vigorous debate and intrepid news reporting about this story reflect how fortunate we are to live in a republic with free speech, a free press and a public that wants to fully vet any such proposal.
Warren seeks an end to heritage controversy
The Brattleboro Reformer
The issue of Sen. Elizabeth Warren's Native American heritage has been a distraction from her first run for public office up to her current campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Monday, she made an effort to put it behind her.
Speaking before the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum in Sioux City, Iowa, the first caucus state, the senator expressed regret over how she handled past claims to tribal heritage. The senator could have been more specific, but acknowledging mistakes and promising to learn from them is more than President Trump or most politicians ever do.
Sen. Warren has made her Native American links a key part of her Oklahoma origin story since running against incumbent Republican Sen. Scott Brown in 2012. Many of Sen. Brown's supporters took to doing the "tomahawk chop" popularized by fans of the Atlanta Braves, which probably didn't help his election chances. President Trump refers to her as "Pocahontas," which is demeaning to Native Americans and is in keeping with his mocking of the heritage of minority Americans.
Last fall, Sen. Warren tried to quiet critics by taking a DNA test, an action that the Berkshire Eagle had encouraged editorially. The test showed that she had a strong likelihood of Native American heritage, most likely eight generations ago. The revelation did not quiet critics and caused a backlash among Native Americans, with the Cherokee nation asserting that the test did not back up Ms. Warren's implications that she was a member of that nation or any other tribal nation. This was presumably what she was referring to at the forum Monday when she acknowledged "mistakes" and said "I am sorry for harm I have caused." The senator has also been accused of leveraging her Native American ancestry to benefit her educational career and gain employment benefits, but an exhaustive analysis by The Boston Globe debunked these claims.
Sen. Warren's appearance Tuesday came as she continues her rise in the polls, running even with long-time Democratic front-runner Joe Biden in a couple of surveys. She and her advisers evidently decided that this was a good time to clear the air on the persistent Native American controversy. It will have no impact upon the president and Sen. Warren's harshest critics but it may have an impact on voters concerned about the domestic issues that the senator focuses upon and who are weary of the Native American brouhaha.
The latest of the many comprehensively detailed platforms that make the Democrat unique compared to most of her rivals came Friday in the form of a 9,000-word opus on Native American issues. It addresses in detail a variety of subjects, among them violence against indigenous women, outdated treaties, unfair banking regulations and educational and economic shortcomings on tribal reservations. This is probably the best way for her to make amends to any Native Americans upset by her past claims. Should the president and her critics continue to mock her — and by extension indigenous people — Native Americans and tribal leaders should consider who their real enemy is.