Editorials from around New England:
The Times Argus, Jan. 26
The opioid epidemic has been a steady and pernicious killer in Vermont and around the country, but a recent report from the state Department of Health offers new hope.
The report showed real success in combatting addiction and avoiding overdoses among 100 people receiving treatment within the state's hub-and-spoke program. It describes the findings of a study conducted last year by Richard A. Rawson with the Vermont Center on Behavior and Health at the University of Vermont. It showed complete avoidance of overdoses among those 100 people who were part of the study. The study found that 25 percent of the subjects had overdosed in the 90 days before entering treatment, but that none of those in treatment had overdosed in the 90 days before the study. The study also found a 96 percent decrease in opioid use among the 100 subjects in the study, and it found a 90 percent reduction in illegal activities and police stops.
The importance of this finding cannot be overstated. It shows that the state's treatment program works. And though that does not mean that all addicts will stay clean forever, the results are about as good as they could be.
The hub-and-spoke model is designed to be comprehensive. It consists of a treatment hub — a center where patients receive methadone or buprenorphine to treat the pain and cravings of withdrawal. Connected to the hub are the spokes — medical practices in the community that are ready and able to assist patients medically, using buprenorphine when necessary, and other assistance.
The results of the new study confirm the premise of the state's program that most addicts want to kick their habit. They want their lives back. They want to be freed from the cycle of addiction, crime and family disintegration that has consumed the lives of too many people.
Gov. Phil Scott's budget, unveiled on Tuesday, reflects his appreciation of these findings. His budget includes funding for programs designed to help addicted mothers and pregnant women and to help their families. He has also proposed placing job placement counselors from the Department of Labor in the state's recovery centers to help those receiving treatment to find their way to employment. It is an initiative with no extra cost but with great promise.
Scott's plans reflect the recommendations of the Vermont Opioid Coordination Council, which presented its recommendations to the governor earlier this month. The council urged a comprehensive program of prevention, treatment, recovery and enforcement that included what it called "wraparound lifestyle supports that make it possible for the individual to transform a life often destroyed by the disease." The council offered numerous recommendations including:
— Expanded access to treatment in the state's prisons.
— Supporting efforts by the judiciary to expand treatment dockets, or drug courts.
— Expanded housing support for people in need.
— Improved access to the hub-and-spoke system throughout the state.
Health Commissioner Mark Levine has expressed concern that the state's large treatment centers might need to be broken up to smaller units. In the recent past one center was serving more than 400 people a day. Levine was concerned that patients who show up as part of a large, visible crowd may feel a stigma and there may be too much talk of drugs among people waiting around for treatment. Thus, improving access may require the creation of satellite hubs in some smaller towns.
The success of Vermont's comprehensive approach suggests that there is no substitute for bold action. Former Gov. Peter Shumlin woke up the state and captured national attention four years ago when he devoted virtually an entire State of the State address to the opioid problem. The state of our state was not good, and it will not be good as long as dozens of people are dying every year. Around the nation thousands are dying.
Addressing social problems requires a holistic approach focusing on treatment, housing, health care, child care, law enforcement, jobs and the full engagement of the community. Scott seems to be on board, and the report from his Health Department confirms the value of full engagement. It shows that if the will is there, progress is possible.
Valley News, Jan. 24
It may well be that the boldest end run of the past season was executed not on the football field but on Interstate 93 in the White Mountains, where federal immigration agents appear to have colluded with state and local police to evade provisions of the New Hampshire Constitution. Although the courts may, on further review, nullify this attempt, it is still a striking example of federal overreach in the age of Trump.
To begin at the beginning, or perhaps before the beginning: U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents are authorized under federal law to set up checkpoints within 100 miles of any "external boundary" of the United States to prevent the illegal entry of aliens. Last August and September they erected temporary checkpoints on Interstate 93 South in Woodstock, New Hampshire, which is about 90 miles from the Canadian border.
While cars were stopped as agents inquired about the immigration status of the occupants, drug-detection dogs were deployed to sniff around the vehicles. If the dogs signaled the presence of contraband, the cars were searched by federal agents, who, by prearrangement, turned over the fruits of these searches to Woodstock and state police. (That's because the amounts of drugs the searches yielded were too small to meet the threshold for federal prosecution.) As a result, 44 people were charged in state courts, 42 of them for possession of small amounts of drugs, mostly marijuana, for personal consumption. None of those 42 faced a charge more serious than a class B misdemeanor, and none were charged with possession with intent to sell.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire is representing 18 of the defendants and has filed in Plymouth District Court a motion to suppress the evidence, on the grounds that Article 19 of the state constitution affords greater search-and-seizure protections than the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Article 19 provides that everyone has "a right to be secure from all unreasonable searches and seizures of his person, his houses, his papers, and all his possessions." Specifically, in a 1990 case, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that, under Article 19, "authorities (must) be able to articulate a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity (in order) to employ a dog to sniff for contraband."
The searches conducted at the I-93 checkpoints did not meet that standard, the ACLU contends, because the border patrol agents had neither a warrant nor reasonable suspicion. And evidence produced from searches conducted by federal agents cannot be used in state prosecutions if it was obtained in a way that violates the state constitution, the ACLU asserts. For its part, the prosecution argues that since such searches by drug-detection dogs are permitted under the Fourth Amendment, federal law is the controlling factor and the state prosecutions ought to be allowed to go forward.
Although we think the ACLU has the better of the argument here, this is a legal matter that the courts will have to sort out. But as a matter of public policy, the whole affair is troubling. Emails obtained by the ACLU indicate that Customs and Border Protection knew ahead of time that the checkpoints were likely to yield small amounts of drugs that wouldn't qualify for federal prosecution and orchestrated the cooperation of local and state police in bringing state-level charges. Moreover, Woodstock Police Chief Ryan Oleson not only acknowledged but also enthusiastically embraced this circumvention of the state constitution, telling the Union Leader that, "These dogs were highly trained and impressive to watch," and that border patrol agents have "a lot more leeway," since he could not use a dog to search a car without being able to articulate a suspicion of drug possession.
Indeed, it appears that this whole operation was a fishing expedition of the kind that constitutional protections are specifically intended to prohibit. Given how far away from the border the checkpoints were erected and that drug sniffing dogs were present at the outset, it's reasonable to suppose that drug interdiction was a primary, if not the primary, objective of the operation. Indeed, the ACLU says, of the 33 individuals detained at the checkpoints for alleged immigration violations, there is no indication that any crossed into the United States from Canada; many had entered the United States legally and had simply overstayed their visas.
Moreover, hundreds and perhaps thousands of people were stopped for no reason that furthered an important government purpose. This sort of governmental intrusion on individual privacy should set off warning bells for all who value liberty.
The Trump administration has been eager to compel the cooperation of state and local police across the country in its immigration crackdown, even though immigration enforcement is entirely a matter for federal authorities. It now appears from this incident that the federal government is also interested in enlisting local law enforcement in a renewed "war on drugs," by pursuing small individual users through the state courts. New Hampshire should assert its independence by declining to do under the guise of federal authority that which the state constitution prohibits.
Bangor Daily News, Jan. 23
Maine's first couple in November recounted their experiences with bariatric surgery to a conference of medical professionals.
During the address to the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery, according to a report in the Sun Journal late last month, Gov. LePage talked up his connections to the Trump White House.
"Every time I meet with the president and the vice president, we talk about how we need to reform America," LePage said. "And I'm considered one of the experts in the whole area of Medicaid, Medicare and health care, as well as reforming welfare."
There's plenty of evidence that the Trump administration doesn't value actual subject matter expertise. The administration's nominee to serve as the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientist lacked any scientific or agricultural credentials. Multiple Trump judicial nominees have lacked trial experience; one notably couldn't answer basic legal questions. Trump's interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, reassigned a climate scientist, who grew up in Maine, to oversee accountants instead.
To consider LePage an expert, then, fits a pattern. But it's still an unsettling thought.
To start, LePage seems confused by the basics surrounding Medicaid, as he's shown repeatedly during the state's multi-year debate over expanding the public health insurance program. During an appearance on Maine Public's "Maine Calling" show in May 2016, LePage misstated basic facts about who qualifies for Medicaid in Maine and who doesn't, and the fiscal details of expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
"The state of Maine accepts people up to 200 percent of poverty," he asserted to host Jennifer Rooks. "Medicaid is 138 percent of poverty."
He later stated that adults without children are "one of the groups that do not qualify above 138 percent of poverty," disputing a low-income adult caller's assertion that she qualified neither for Medicaid nor for federal subsidies to help her purchase individual insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
In Maine, the state's Medicaid program doesn't cover non-disabled adults without children at all, due to cuts LePage pushed through early in his administration. The Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act that LePage vetoed multiple times and that voters approved in November extends coverage precisely to that population.
Medicaid is available only to some parents (those with incomes up to the federal poverty level), pregnant women, children, and residents with disabilities.
In other words, its reach is much more limited than LePage seems to believe. And the governor also appears to misunderstand the extent to which the federal government, by law, pays for Medicaid expansion.
"Maine does not get the extended benefit of the 90-10 percent," LePage asserted to Rooks. "Everybody thinks we do. We don't. We never did, we never will."
Throughout most of the country, the federal government, in the long term, will cover 90 percent of the cost of expanding Medicaid to low-income adults the program hasn't previously covered. In Maine, the majority of the population to be covered — non-disabled adults without children — would be subject to the 90-10, federal-state funding split. The remaining adults to benefit — parents with incomes between 105 and 138 percent of the federal poverty level — would be funded at the same rate the federal government funds the rest of Maine's Medicaid program, which is currently a 64-36, federal-state split.
In the area of health care, LePage has also demonstrated ignorance. The response to Maine's opiate addiction crisis must involve medical treatment. Yet LePage has stated he's "been trying to close down methadone clinics since I've been governor," his administration has imposed an arbitrary two-year cap on Suboxone and methadone treatment covered by Medicaid, and he's denied that the overdose-reversing drug naloxone saves lives. "(I)t merely extends them until the next overdose," he wrote in a 2016 veto letter.
When it comes to "reforming" welfare, LePage's policies have been focused squarely on cuts that he's asserted have actually made life better for the people losing food assistance and cash benefits. Yet reports issued by his own administration disprove his assertions, showing that kicking people off food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families has not helped people gain work or earn incomes that help them escape poverty.
In a Trump administration that prefers not to see federal employees use the phrase "evidence-based," LePage would fit right in as an expert.
The New London Day, Jan. 24
It is unthinkable that emergency responders would not respond to a 911 call from any address in town. A cry for help anywhere brings out police, firefighters and ambulance crews, with wages, equipment and training paid for by property taxpayers. Other taxpayer-sustained services are less urgent but still indispensable to non-taxpayers alike: waste management, for instance, and keeping storm sewers unclogged.
The question of institutions paying the property taxes that support municipal emergency and quality-of-life services should not be "if" but "how much?" Nothing in life is free — except for large consumers of municipal services. The tax-exempt status granted them by the state of Connecticut undermines the concept of shared civic responsibility.
The Day welcomes the efforts of New London officials to take the first steps in spreading the costs of municipal services to those who use them. The city is not at this time proposing to collect for the costs of police or other emergency services, but ideas for charging all users a fee for trash pickup and recycling and for stormwater discharge upgrades are fair, sensible and overdue. It's a start at involuntary sharing of expenses by the non-taxpayers that benefit from them.
The state needs to acknowledge that its good intentions for Payment in Lieu of Taxes — PILOT funds — are paving the way to hell for its urban centers. It is not just a matter of fairness, although that rankles.
The ultimate solution is statewide tax reform, but until the General Assembly has the intestinal fortitude for that, it needs to find ways to unshackle cities like New London. Too many entities are classified as exempt from property taxes. To worsen the municipal math, the state has steadily reduced the fraction of the replacement it offers for taxes that would otherwise be collected. New London Mayor Michael Passero goes so far as to say that the state "creates" its Distressed Municipality rankings.
For its cities to be livable and ultimately vibrant, Connecticut needs its legislators to re-examine the long, long list of property tax exemptions. Among the dozens of categories listed in Section 12-81 of the Connecticut General Statutes are those that can afford to pay their executives high salaries yet dodge the option of a voluntary payment in lieu of taxes. The state should require institutions classified as tax-exempt to periodically present their request and credentials for that status. If the legislature were to consider term limits for tax exemptions, some institutions might suddenly find it in their best interests to negotiate substantial voluntary payments with their host towns. Local negotiations would offer a degree of control both for the payers and the municipalities.
If the statutory list of nonprofits consists of a herd of sacred cows, as it seems to, cities and towns are right to re-categorize some items currently covered by taxes to services that can be paid by fees. Tax exemption does not apply to user fees.
On the table in New London is a pay-per-bag waste management program that would apply to all disposers of trash. Already heavily taxed property owners are correct when they grumble that it would add to their costs, but it brings a promise of lowered trash tipping costs that is good taxpayer news. In the near future, the city may try to implement a user-paid storm water discharge program that has been kicking around for about a decade while New London fails to meet its mandates from the Department of Energy and Environmental Policy. That is another idea worth trying.
The Day would be interested in further arrangements that would have the large nonprofits in the city, notably Lawrence + Memorial-Yale New Haven Hospital, Connecticut College, Mitchell College and any others with sizable staffing or clientele, contribute toward the cost of police, fire and paramedics. Voluntarily stepping up is preferable, but the urgency of the bottom line for city services is inescapable. Along with the mayor, we await the next move from the city's largest nonprofit institutions.
Ultimately, however, the future of its cities' fiscal stability is in the hands of the state, which alone can reform its tax structure and renew the concept of shared responsibility.
The Providence Journal, Jan. 24
Rhode Island has taken several important steps in recent years to walk itself back from the precipice of economic disaster.
It reformed state public pensions (though local ones remain a disaster). It resisted the annual temptation to hammer residents with broad-based tax hikes. It started to make energy and unemployment taxes less onerous for businesses, since Rhode Island cannot afford to drive more jobs away.
Those who wonder whether those steps were worth it might want to read a Jan. 9 story in the Hartford Courant ("Business Leaders Say State Economy is in Crisis").
The story reports that Connecticut's private sector leaders met this month to discuss their state's "sluggish economic growth ... dwindling population and an entrepreneurial climate that more and more businesses criticize as noncompetitive." Connecticut has been hammering its businesses and residents with ever-higher taxes to pay for ever-increasing costs associated with pensions and other benefits for public employee unions.
That has done much to damage its economic competitiveness. According to the Beacon Hill Institute, Connecticut was America's eighth most competitive state in 2001. By 2016, it had dropped all the way to 43rd.
That has driven away upper-middle-class people.
Jim Loree, CEO of Stanley Black & Decker, noted that the average income of a family leaving Connecticut, $123,000, is substantially higher than the income of a family moving into the state, $93,000. This churning has caused an "incredibly volatile" income stream in this state, leaving it "very vulnerable to market downturns."
Another problem, Mr. Loree noted, is that the state's tax revenues come from a very limited pool of potential taxpayers. Residents of a mere 10 towns produced 36 percent of the state's tax revenue. And an incredible 12 percent of all of the state's personal income tax came from 357 families alone. "The suburbs of Connecticut are massively subsidizing the cities of Connecticut," said Kevin Sullivan, the state's commissioner of revenue services.
Should many more wealthy taxpayers flee, Connecticut would be in a world of hurt.
Meanwhile, the state's liabilities, including debt and pensions, soared to $85.5 billion in 2016. Moody's Investors Service listed the adjusted net pension liability at 20 percent of gross domestic product, and warned that funding obligations could triple in the next 15 years.
Will anyone choose to stick around to pay for that?
Connecticut's economic policies have created enormous difficulties for existing businesses, while driving others out. In the last two years, Aetna and General Electric announced they will move their headquarters out of state. Those "high profile exits undermine the credibility of the state and make it incredibly challenging for us," said Catherine Smith, commissioner of economic and community development.
Connecticut is working hard to retain Aetna, now that New York City has pulled out of a deal that would have moved the company's headquarters there. While CVS, in the process of buying Aetna, said this month it has no plans to move that headquarters, Gov. Gina Raimondo should see if at least some of those jobs could come to Rhode Island. It is certainly less risky than the Nutmeg State.
The Cape Cod Times, Jan. 24
We hate to be the skunk at the garden party, but why are so many people celebrating the news that Boston is among the 20 finalists for hosting Amazon's second headquarters, a mega-campus that would attract 50,000 new jobs?
Are they nuts?
Boston's infrastructure, including its roadways and mass transportation system, cannot even handle current traffic loads, even after the construction of the $14 billion Big Dig. How can the city possibly accommodate 50,000 new recruits, many of whom will come with family members from other parts of the state and country?
In its application to attract Amazon, Boston pitched a campus at Suffolk Downs in East Boston, but listed other possible locations in the Seaport district, downtown, and elsewhere. Somerville separately proposed a string of sites along the Orange Line and Green Line Extension running from North Station to Assembly Square. This is the same antiquated and bloated MBTA that is regularly plagued with deficits, delays, cancellations and other service problems.
Downtown Boston? The narrow and poorly maintained streets of downtown Boston cannot handle Amazon's mega campus, which is one of the reasons Robert Kraft decided to build Gillette Stadium in Foxboro.
As for the Seaport district, which is already figuratively sinking into the sea from the weight of its construction boom, why would Amazon build in an area prone to flooding from rising seas?
If Amazon wanted to inject new life and business into struggling communities, it should have selected Detroit or St. Louis or even Worcester. Boston is booming. Let's spread the wealth to those who most need it.
Unfortunately, it's too late to ask Amazon to reconsider those cities, but perhaps it is not too late for Boston and Massachusetts officials, including Gov. Charlie Baker, to redirect Amazon's attention to areas outside of Boston, but still close enough to tap its world-class universities and countless cultural amenities.
For example, what if state officials proposed building Amazon's second headquarters somewhere near the proposed South Coast Rail project, which would restore commuter rail service between Boston and Southeastern Massachusetts? Taunton, Fall River and New Bedford are the only cities within 50 miles of Boston that do not currently have commuter rail access to Boston. South Coast Rail will reconnect this region to jobs and generate economic development.
Last March, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation announced it could provide earlier service to the region by extending an existing rail service through Middleboro. And the Middleboro line is the same line used by the CapeFlyer, which provides summer service from Boston to Cape Cod.
Just for argument's sake, imagine the number of winners if Amazon built its $5 billion campus in or near Middleboro? That would immediately bolster efforts to build the South Coast Rail. In addition, the sparsely populated areas of Southeastern Massachusetts, including Lakeville, Berkley and Plympton, could accommodate the influx of new employees.
Local economies from Brockton to the north, New Bedford to the south, Plymouth to the east, and Attleboro to the west would benefit from the spillover effect of such a major development. Already, there's been comment from developers and commercial real-estate brokers about the Amazon proposal. Also, landing the Amazon behemoth would bring along with it a school of pilot fish, prospects such as contractors and suppliers looking to locate nearby.
And with the infusion of such brain power in a red part of our blue state, perhaps the region would turn purple! (Only kidding.)
Of course, this is probably a pipe dream because Amazon would certainly not entertain such a bait-and-switch proposal. But we sure wish state and city leaders were more creative with the Boston-area proposal than what was submitted.
While we will of course root for the home team, we think Amazon will disqualify Boston when it discovers its shortcomings, most notably among them its poor mass transit system, its narrow and congested roads, and its exorbitant cost of living. As a matter of fact, economists are predicting that the 50,000 jobs averaging $100,000 per year will further raise the price of housing in Boston and the cost of living in general, already one of the highest in the country.
So while Massachusetts would be in line for $1.3 billion in tax revenue over 20 years, it's time to calculate the costs of welcoming Amazon to our commonwealth.
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