- Associated Press - Saturday, January 30, 2016

Excerpts of recent editorials of statewide and national interest from New England newspapers:

New Haven Register (Conn.), Jan. 28, 2016

Whether a man-made material used for athletic fields and playgrounds is safe for athletes and children is under the microscope after being targeting by critics for years.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., is calling on the federal government to conduct an independent study on the use of crumb rubber on athletic fields and playgrounds after a series of reports and complaints called into question whether the man-made material was a pathway to exposure to one or more carcinogens.

Many argue the health effects of crumb rubber, which currently is used in more than 11,000 synthetic turf sports fields in the U.S. and in children’s playgrounds across the country, have not been adequately tested to ensure that it is safe for long-term exposure. One soccer coach has documented 69 cases of former soccer players diagnosed with cancer.

Here in Connecticut, the Department of Public Health has deemed its use safe and thousands of kids play on crumb rubber surfaces at high schools and playgrounds across the state.

But without a definitive scientific study determining its safety, experts are divided on its use and concerned parents rightfully are worried. Some municipalities have taken matters into their own hands - such as Ridgefield, which has posted health safety warning signs at its two athletic fields.

Crumb rubber made its debut as a synthetic turf for professional sports in the early 2000s, the successor to previous forms that athletes complained did nothing to protect them from hard landings. The new turf was made up of tiny, black crumbs made from pulverized car tires, among other materials. It provided a cushion upon impact for athletes and helped minimize serious injuries such as concussions.

But cries for federal authorities to take a closer look at the potential hazards have been mushrooming after many athletes who played extensively on synthetic fields were diagnosed with cancer. The controversy picked up steam after Environmental Protection Agency head Gina McCarthy refused to answer a reporter’s question as to whether the synthetic turf was safe for children.

No study links crumb rubber to cancer, but a study by Yale University found crumb rubber pieces contain 96 different chemicals, and 20 percent of the toxic chemicals present were carcinogens. And that is spreading fear through parents who say the tiny rubber crumbs get everywhere - in player’s uniforms, hair and cleats. And every time a player slams onto the turf, a black cloud of tire pellets shoot into the air and the granules get into their cuts and scrapes, and into their mouths.

The Synthetic Turf Council argues on its website there is no evidence to support claims that synthetic turf is unsafe. But an in-depth study free from special interests is needed to ensure athletes and children are not playing now to pay later. When the head of EPA refuses to go on record and validate a product’s safety to the American people, that should make everyone sit up and take notice. We certainly did - and so should the federal government.

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1KN3g70

Rutland Herald (Vt.), Jan. 25, 2016

We’re now in the last year of Barack Obama’s presidency. For many in the country, that’s something to celebrate. His legacy is already hotly debated, and the November election will have an impact on how much of that legacy is carried forward.

But Obama supporters and Obama detractors should all support the continuation of one small, oft-overlooked innovation that the current president brought to life: the United States Digital Service.

This service sprang out of what is arguably one of Obama’s biggest failures: the bungled launch of the healthcare.gov website. The site was meant to be a portal for Americans to sign up for health insurance through the exchanges - but it was riddled with problems, and Obama ended up calling in a rescue team to fix the site.

The rescue team included many of the best and brightest from the United States’ technology sector, who put their lives on hold and dedicated thousands of hours to working with officials and contractors to get the health insurance site back on track.

When that task was completed, several members of the team realized they’d done something positive for their country. They connected others in technology who were willing to take time out to make government - and, by extension, people’s lives - better. They’d also lowered costs - the healthcare.gov effort helped replace a $200 million login system that cost $70 million per year to operate with one that cost $4 million to build and less than $4 million per year to operate.

The team wondered if they could do the same by applying their technology skills to other areas of government. The White House was listening, and in mid-2014, the service was started.

What has happened since? The USDS has recruited bright people to apply the lessons of the technology sector throughout government. A sub-unit was started, called 18F, that works as a consultancy within the government. It partners with other agencies on specific tasks like improving the customer service portal for the Veterans Administration, reforming the Freedom of Information Act process, and creating a “College Scorecard” that makes data on college costs and outcomes easily accessible. In the process, they overhaul the partner agency’s approach and upgrade their skills. They also leave behind a change in philosophy.

What have they found? That many of the “bureaucrats” that are called out by politicians and critics actually want to do better, but are simply trapped by the inertia of the government and limited by the existing technology. They’ve found that many of the tech world’s best and brightest are highly motivated by the opportunity to help out, and to help the people in need who are served by the government. They’ve also found that there is incredible potential to improve the efficiency and quality of government services - and they’re doing it.

There are several examples in Vermont where state government has attempted a similar effort to improve its own processes. None have focused so exclusively on technology, or leveraged outside resources, to make the effort a forward-looking part of the state’s DNA. There were Tiger Teams under Gov. Jim Douglas, and more recently, several groups in the Agency of Natural Resources went through a process called LEAN Six Sigma, which is a set of processes used by industries to examine and improve existing processes and habits.

But there’s more that could be done, and it could have a very real and immediate impact on the lives of Vermonters and on the state budget.

As Mikey Dickerson, a founding member of the agency and part of the healthcare.gov team, said, a key element is to “make it possible for people who had been part of the problem in the past to change. …You have to give them permission to come along and get on the bandwagon. If they get convinced there won’t be any place for them in the new world, then (they will) dig in and resist what you’re doing. …You have to be willing to make friends with people you might not have otherwise thought.”

His insight might do a lot of good if it were applied more broadly by more people. But the U.S. Digital Service has had a major impact already by working without an agenda other than accomplishing a very straightforward goal: Make the government work better, using skills, principles and technology that are widely available in today’s world. We should bring that to Vermont.

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1Vxs8FH

Concord Monitor (N.H.), Jan. 29, 2016

Presidential candidates, like street-corner organ grinders of old, put out tin cups and crank out promises created to please the audience. This time around, many have impressive goals for their first day in office. Bernie Sanders would act to reverse the decline of the middle class on his first day. Ted Cruz has pledged to abolish the IRS, investigate Planned Parenthood, undo the multi-nation deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear program, abolish Common Core education standards and reverse every one of President Obama’s long list of executive orders.

None of those things can or will happen, but then the promise is music to some ears. At least since President Harry Truman used an executive order to desegregate the military, scholars and politicians alike have questioned how far a president can go to circumvent Congress with a presidential edict. The limits remain unclear.

For three election cycles, political reporter Charlie Savage, now of the New York Times, has asked presidential candidates to answer a short list of questions geared to gauge their view of presidential authority. This time, Savage explained in a Times article on Sunday, only one candidate, Republican Rand Paul, answered them.

Presidents Obama and George W. Bush issued executive orders and memoranda in roughly equal amounts, and faced similar challenges to their constitutionality and cries of “imperial presidency.” Executive orders, in use since George Washington, allow a president to act quickly, particularly in times of danger, without first gaining congressional approval. Their use, however, has increased with congressional paralysis, which has become a political fact of life that’s not likely to change with the next election. So it could be that the candidates didn’t answer because they didn’t want to limit their powers needlessly or because the question has yet to be answered definitively by anyone.

Several candidates, including Trump and lawyers Cruz and Marco Rubio, appear to have views on the extent of presidential power that, with less than a dozen days to go before the primary, voters should think about.

President Richard Nixon once summed up his take on the matter by saying “when the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” That proved not to be the case. Dick Cheney, the former vice president and perhaps the nation’s most steadfast proponent of almost unchecked presidential power, once put it this way when asked about limits:

“The president of the United States now for 50 years is followed at all times, 24 hours a day, by a military aide carrying a football that contains the nuclear codes that he would use and be authorized to use in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States. He could launch a kind of devastating attack the world’s never seen. He doesn’t have to check with anybody. He doesn’t have to call the Congress. He doesn’t have to check with the courts. He has that authority because of the nature of the world we live in.”

That’s not a view of executive authority that makes us feel safer, but it does make us wonder how many of today’s candidates feel the same way.

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1KhuVSP

The Republican of Springfield (Mass.), Jan. 28, 2016

When Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders had an opportunity to fan the flames of controversy around former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure at the State Department, he took a pass. It was a bit more than three months ago, during a televised debate, when the Vermont senator, after Clinton sought to downplay a probe of her emails as a partisan matter, said:

“Let me say - let me say something that may not be great politics. But I think the secretary is right, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.”

The Democratic partisans in the crowd loved it. As did Clinton. And the issue was put to rest, right? Not at all. In the eyes of many Democrats, perhaps, but the American people will have ample opportunity to grow even sicker and more tired of hearing about Clinton’s emails. Especially if she emerges as the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee.

But even earlier, there’ll be another spate of news stories about the former secretary’s home-brew email server and the security of the arrangement.

After a federal judge ruled that the Clinton emails needed to be made public by the end of this month, they’ve been being released, in batches. But the final group won’t be made public on schedule, as officials have said they need more time to sort through them completely.

Here comes that controversy again.

We continue to believe that Sanders’ challenge to Clinton remains more quixotic than not. The Bernie boomlet, even should he prevail in both Iowa and New Hampshire, is not likely destined to last.

So, fast forward to the summer. Imagine that Clinton has secured the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Think her Republican opponent and GOP-allied groups won’t be talking about her emails? They’ll be talking about them non-stop.

And Clinton, of course, will endeavor to wave away the attacks as rank partisanship, as old news that’s already been covered, as just more of the same.

Will Sanders (and other Democrats) continue to come to her defense? Absolutely. But there’ll be an awful lot of noise. Of that there can be little doubt.

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1WTB21u

The Providence Journal (R.I.), Jan. 28, 2016

A series of missteps by government officials has plunged Flint, Mich., into something of a nightmare. For more than a year, contaminated water has poured from the taps in this struggling working-class city, forcing residents to seek safer alternatives. Flint’s water has been found to contain high levels of lead, which can damage children’s brains. A recent outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease, which sickened dozens and killed 10, could ultimately be traced to Flint’s water system as well.

The trouble began in the spring of 2014, when, to save money, Flint stopped drawing its water from Lake Huron, through Detroit’s system, and began taking it from the Flint River. The switch was supposed to be temporary, carrying Flint through the construction period of a new regional water system.

Residents immediately noticed that their water smelled and looked foul. But, for months, the state ignored their complaints, including reports of rashes and other health problems. In what should have been a red flag, a General Motors plant stopped using Flint water in October of 2014, asserting that it rusted parts. People cleaning surgical instruments at a local hospital reported corrosion as well.

Still, it took a year for Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, to offer a plan of state aid, and approve a switch back to the original water supply. But by then, water from the river had so badly corroded the pipes in Flint’s distribution system that lead was leaching into the supply. Repairing the system could cost as much as $1.5 billion.

In his State of the State address last week, Mr. Snyder apologized profusely to the residents of Flint. Along with assistance, they deserve a full accounting of what took place. Decades ago, when Flint’s economy was stronger, several industries were operating on the banks of the Flint River. Unfortunately, they left a variety of toxins behind. The decision to switch the city’s water supply to the river was clearly disastrous.

It was made, apparently, by one of several state-appointed emergency managers who ran the city while it was in receivership from 2011 to 2015. More should be known about how this decision was reached, and also about the state’s decision not to add anti-corrosion chemicals to the river before switching the supply. Doing so might well have saved numerous children from the danger of lead poisoning.

Finally, more must be known about the state’s long refusal to address complaints, and its insistence that the water was safe. A state task force recently faulted the health department for failing to warn the public. It assigned even more blame to the state Department of Environmental Quality, whose director recently resigned.

Federal and state investigations that could shed more light on the crisis are now under way. President Obama has declared a state of emergency, permitting Flint residents to obtain assistance from federal taxpayers. The cost of federal aid could prove substantial, particularly if it is broadened to embrace long-term solutions.

Flint offers an example of what can happen when government bureaucrats spectacularly fail to weigh the public impact of their actions - and a reminder of the importance of an alert citizenry and the full disclosure of information. It also should send a warning about the dangers of under-investing in infrastructure, including municipal water systems. That is a problem in the aging cities of the Northeast.

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1m4Yonr

Kennebec Journal (Maine), Jan. 28, 2016

For the first time since deaths from drug overdose began to appear at an alarming rate, there seems to be an almost universal appetite for identifying the best ways to address the addiction, petty crime and drug trafficking that are the result of Maine’s heroin epidemic.

Imposing longer sentences for drug crimes, however, should not be on that list. With so many evidence-based practices available to solve the drug crisis, there is no reason to return to a method that has been proven not to work.

L.D. 1541, now before the Legislature, would increase punishments and set mandatory minimums for importing into the state most illegal drugs. It would also create a new crime - aggravated illegal importation - with a sentence of up to 30 years in prison for people who import larger quantities, or use a minor to assist in the importation.

Importation is a particularly hard crime to prove, and Maine already has sufficiently harsh penalties for drug possession and trafficking, even in regard to relatively small amounts - 2 grams or more of heroin carries a maximum of 10 years in prison, while 6 grams or more has a 30-year maximum. Prosecutors have other, better tools for punishing drug dealers.

More than that, though, it is important to remember that the ultimate goal is to alleviate the suffering caused by the drug crisis and to make our communities safer.

Longer prison sentences satisfy the understandable desire to punish those who are profiting off addiction. For some, unfortunately, tough-on-crime pronouncements also are a way to prove how serious they take this issue.

But there is no proof that putting away a drug dealer for a long time makes it any less likely that another one will take his place. Increased sentences will only fill Maine’s prisons, and leave taxpayers on the hook for the bill - at a cost of about $56,000 per year per inmate - well after other, better initiatives have with any luck put the heroin epidemic to rest.

That’s clearly what happened in the drug crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when harsh sentences and mandatory minimums only served to fill prisons and, often, trap nonviolent and low-level offenders in the penal system, making recidivism all the more likely.

There are a lot of great ideas floating around Augusta, and they are coming from both sides of the aisle. Increasing access to medication-assisted drug treatment, supporting recovery services in Maine’s county jails and drug education in its schools, and stemming the overprescription of opioid painkillers are just a few of the initiatives that experience shows can make real headway in ending a drug crisis.

The Legislature should focus on those proposals, and leave failed ideas in the past.

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Online:

http://bit.ly/23AbZVC

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