- Associated Press - Saturday, May 16, 2015

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

The Hartford Courant (Conn.), May 12, 2015

If you thought the $2.6 billion spent on the 2012 presidential election was obscene, the number in the 2016 contest could reach $5 billion, according to The Hill. In little Connecticut, the bill for the 2014 gubernatorial election was more than $30 million, according to news reports.

Thanks in part to the 2010 Citizens United decision and others that have removed limits on corporate contributions, a Mississippi of money is flowing into political campaigns. If we the people cannot regulate this torrent of simoleons, could we at least get a piece of the action?

A reader, Elwyn Harp of West Hartford, offers an intriguing idea. What if, he asks, 5 percent of every campaign contribution went to the government? The money could be used for clean election programs or for general expenses.

In places where Senate or House members represent more than one town, Mr. Harp suggests that the towns get a share depending on voter turnout. The idea obviously is to increase turnout. It couldn’t hurt.

Mr. Harp’s idea might draw a legal challenge on First Amendment grounds, that taking part of a donation would inhibit a donor’s right of free speech. Assuming that giving money is a form of speech, does a 5 percent fee really keep the message from being heard? Acknowledging the possibility of a First Amendment challenge, University of California tax law professor David Gamage said the idea of a political “contribution tax,” as he called it in a 2004 Yale Law Journal article, “merits a thorough debate.”

It still does. State and local governments cannot print money. The state and many towns are struggling to balance their budgets. No revenue idea should be dismissed out of hand.

There are fees or corrective taxes for a host of other activities. Mr. Harp may be on to something.

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Online:

https://cour.at/1RFrOEL

The Concord Monitor (N.H), May 13, 2015

Earlier this year, meteorologists warned New Englanders to prepare for heavy rains and floods. Instead, the deep snows of winter melted slowly and May saw only a trace of precipitation. Instead, hot days and dry winds are making for a record brush fire season. That’s the weather for you- unpredictable as ever. Or is it that the climate is changing?

Weather is what’s happening today, this week or this month. Climate is what the weather has been like over decades, centuries and eons. The weather is getting weirder. The world is warming. The climate is changing, and sea levels are rising.

Last week brought news of yet another study that purports to confirm two things: Sea levels did not rise quite so much as earlier measurements suggested- that’s the good news -but the rate of sea level rise is increasing faster than predicted. What happens could hinge on whether a tipping point is reached. Sea ice, for example, reflects solar radiation; seawater absorbs it and warming waters hasten the melting of ice caps and glaciers. The more open sea, the faster the ice melts.

Sea level rise and glacial retreat are objectively measured facts agreed upon by all but a tiny minority of scientists and, yes, even politicians. The why of climate change enjoys a bit less agreement, since factors such as natural variation and volcanic, human and solar activity come into play. There is less agreement still about whether any single weather event or seasonal variation is related to climate change. That lack of certainty, and a well-funded disinformation campaign by the fossil fuel industry, is probably why polls show that only 40 percent of Republicans believe climate change is real and only one-third of Republicans believe human activity is a major cause.

Given that some projections of sea level rise put significant portions of places like Portsmouth, Hampton, Boston and New York City, let alone Miami and New Orleans, under water at peak high tides by the century’s end, that disbelief is dangerous. It has slowed efforts to combat climate change and stalled almost all attempts to impose a tax on carbon emissions. That has to change.

Better information could make believers out of some doubters, which is why we applaud the advent of tools to more accurately equate weather and climate.

An effort based at Britain’s Oxford University is using faster computers, better modeling techniques, more accurate satellite measurements and other tools to come closer to attributing given regional weather patterns and events to changes in climate. The computer models, which the university’s Environmental Change Institute has put online for anyone to use, can’t yet say that A is to blame for B. Instead, they give probabilities.

The 2013 heat waves that fried Australia and worsened the drought in the American West were five times more likely to occur because the average temperature was 3.6 degrees higher, according to the model. In Europe, the odds of heat waves like those that have been blamed for thousands of deaths are now 35 times more likely to occur because of global warming. The odds of droughts like those affecting California and the Southwest have also increased.

Sea level rise and the increase of extreme weather is not something to worry about down the road. The effects of climate change are being felt now and they will only increase if more fossil fuel, whether coal in China or oil from Canadian tar sands, goes up in smoke.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1E6aVZn

The Valley News (Vt.), May 12, 2015

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is being punished. On Tuesday, the National Football League announced its sentence in deflategate: a four-game suspension for Brady, a $1 million fine for the team and the loss of draft picks. A special investigator told the league last week that Brady was most likely aware that team employees intentionally under-inflated footballs used in the AFC championship game.

It’s probable that Brady will appeal the suspension and Patriots owner Bob Kraft will continue to accuse the league of unfairness. Kraft had already said the 243-page report issued by a law firm hired by the NFL was “incomprehensible,” both in its conclusions and the “time, effort and resources” that went into them. Brady had issued a soft denial, often with a bemused, above-it-all air about him.

The lawyerly tone of the report, relying on the standard of guilt being “more probable than not,” led us to believe there was no smoking gun to convict Brady or others, rather, the preponderance of evidence pointed to shenanigans. On the surface, relying on probability doesn’t seem very sporting, since the nature of athletic competition is to settle things once and for all- not to declare a probable champion.

It seemed the controversy called deflategate had lost some of its steam in the months since the possible- or is it now probable? -violations. Perhaps matters such as the NSA’s mass collection of phone data, ruled improper by a court last week, reminded people that there were more serious questions afoot than the proper care and inflation of game balls.

We grew tired of the controversy even before the Super Bowl, which the Patriots won on a miracle interception, not Tom Brady heroics, but one aspect of the NFL report was particularly amusing. The two other Patriots employees under suspicion are a lowly locker room attendant and an equipment assistant whose texts were worthy of minor comedic characters in a Shakespeare play. If Brady were king, they would be Falstaff, Nick Bottom or The Fool. One Patriots employee called himself “the deflator,” and the duo’s jests included texts complaining that Brady didn’t share enough “love,” that is, gifts, and warning that if he complained about the footballs in one game, he would be served up watermelons, rugby balls or balloons in the next.

It won’t happen, of course, but it would be more satisfying if Brady’s likely appeal were heard by a jury of his peers- old quarterbacks, gimpy-kneed but still of sound mind, who could best determine if the slightly soft footballs that the Patriots employed provided anything more than a minor edge. They would surely note that the game where the violation probably occurred- the AFC championship -was dominated by the Patriots who employed a powerful running game that day.

But the Bard himself could have delivered a better finding in this matter. A servant in King Lear is pronounced “a knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking knave.” And it doesn’t stop there. He’s further called a rogue, beggar and coward, and his parentage is called into question.

What a weak thing the NFL deflategate report was by comparison- no sure villains, just probabilities. The penalty that followed yesterday was swift and harsh, surprisingly decisive from a league that considers all the possibilities- including branding and profits -before it metes out justice.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1G71m2b

The Republican of Springfield (Mass.), May 13, 2015

“You’ve got voicemail.”

Verizon is planning to purchase AOL for some $4.4 billion. One can well imagine that there were plenty of folks at both companies mimicking the voice of America Online’s “You’ve got mail” announcement that was, for a time back in the go-go ‘90s, virtually synonymous with the brave new world of the Internet.

And then AOL bought Time Warner, the new gobbling up the old, and the dot-com revolution was complete. Or so it seemed for a moment. Until the tech stock bubble burst and that failed mega-deal began to be taught in business schools as one of the worst mergers ever.

Telecom giant Verizon is scooping up AOL for the latter’s video capabilities. Verizon wants to reach the growing number of so-called cord cutters, people who don’t subscribe to cable or satellite TV bundles, but who would rather watch video on their smartphones and tablets.

Federal regulators, of course, will have to take a look at the deal. With AOL making its living as a content provider and Verizon in the delivery game, some scrutiny is warranted.

Unlike AOL’s acquisition of Time Warner a decade and a half ago, this deal is in no way a hookup of old and new. It’s the union of one rapidly evolving company with another rapidly evolving company. Verizon, of course, was created by destruction, coming into being after the breakup of what was once known to many as “the phone company.” Verizon evolved from the creation of the “baby Bells” that came from the breakup of AT&T; in 1984.

For its part, AOL, the former America Online, was for so many people their introduction to the Internet. It was an Internet service provider before folks had even really come to know the term. (Surprisingly, AOL to this day has a bit more than 2 million dial-up customers.) But it has morphed with the times. AOL owns the popular Huffington Post and TechCrunch.

In the 1990s, the Internet was the future. Today, it still is, of course, but it’s just that it looks nothing like what folks had envisioned. Verizon is looking to 2030 as much as to tomorrow. Watch for more deals ahead.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1JIfG08

The Portland Press Herald (Maine), May 11, 2015

How to attract new companies to Maine is one of the most contentious, vexing and persistent problems facing the state. However, if the goal is to bring in more high-paying jobs, perhaps it is time for Maine to make a pitch to employees as well as employers.

Fueled by the proliferation of high-tech jobs and high-speed Internet- and supported by companies increasingly convinced of the benefits of telecommuting -the number of people working full time from home is growing rapidly. Maine, with its low costs and high quality of life, would seem a good fit for these workers who can work anywhere, and the state could certainly use more young, well-educated and well-paid residents.

Before the state can attract more of these workers, though, policymakers need to know exactly how many are here, why they’ve chosen Maine and what the state can do to support them.

MAINE’S ‘REMOTE WORKFORCE’

Part of that work is underway at the Maine Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Southern Maine, which is studying Maine’s “remote workforce,” a notoriously difficult group to pin down, given its relative newness. There is also an effort to bring to Portland next year a national conference on the subject.

Policymakers should follow and support these efforts, which will help Maine take advantage of this growing phenomenon.

According to the group at USM, 5.3 percent of Mainers work from home, up from 4.3 percent in 2000, though half are self-employed and not a part of the remote workforce. Nationwide, 63 percent of employees are allowed to work at home at least part of the time, compared to just 34 percent in 2004, according to the National Study of Employers.

It is clear that companies that once worried about how allowing remote work would affect their ability to oversee employees and build a company culture are coming around. Telecommuting can lower costs, provide flexibility to workers, widen the available talent pool and even increase productivity.

ANTIDOTE TO POPULATION, WAGE ISSUES

Insurance giant Aetna, where 47 percent of employees work from home, said it saves $78 million a year by downsizing its offices. In addition, the company said that telecommuting has raised its retention rates.

The average work-from-home employee is a 49-year-old college graduate who makes $58,000 per year and works for a company with more than 100 employees.

But telecommuting appeals to a wide variety of people: those who want to live in an area where there are fewer nearby opportunities in their field, or who want the freedom to move around; those with child or elder care responsibilities; those who want to avoid a long and tiring commute.

Maine, with its limited number of brick-and-mortar businesses looking for high-tech help, lower-than-average cost of living and better-than-most quality of life, has a lot to offer these workers.

And once here, these workers improve the quality of the state’s workforce and act as an antidote to some of the state’s most stubborn problems, including its aging population and stagnant wages.

SHAPING STATE POLICY

The question, then, is, what can we do to bring remote workers to Maine, and how can we support them once they are here?

The work being done at USM will define the remote workforce as it stands in Maine now, and perhaps provide details about individual experience that can help shape policy. A conference would show Maine is serious about building this part of the workforce and generate new ideas for making remote employees aware for what the state has to offer.

If working from home is going to be a critical part of tomorrow’s workforce, then there is no reason that home shouldn’t be in Maine.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1A0zueQ

The Nashua Telegraph (N.H), May 12, 2015

Tax-related identity theft is a regular growth industry.

In 2010, the number of fraudulent federal tax returns filed using somebody’s stolen information was about 440,000. In 2013, that number had exploded to nearly three million.

Thieves have found there is money to be made- lots of it, in fact -by stealing someone’s Social Security number and using it to file a tax return with the Internal Revenue Service. By the time the victim and the IRS discover that a crime has been committed, the refund check has been cashed and the thief is usually long gone.

The IRS estimates that it paid out more than $5 billion in fraudulent tax returns.

The feds knows they have a problem and the agency’s website contains a list of things a victim should do after learning they’ve been ripped off. That includes filing a report with law enforcement, contacting your bank and letting credit bureaus know.

You know what’s not on the list? Requesting a copy of the fraudulent tax filing that the IRS relied upon to give the money to the crooks in the first place.

Victims seeking to obtain the fraudulent returns so they can determine the degree to which their information has been compromised have often found the agency unwilling to furnish the bogus returns.

That’s been a source of frustration to those law-abiding taxpayers trying to find out if their bank accounts or children’s Social Security numbers have also been stolen.

The IRS says privacy concerns are behind such refusals, but the agency’s own in-house Taxpayer Advocate Service reported to Congress last year that sometimes the IRS is tone-deaf in its approach to the problem. The IRS “in many ways treats the victim as someone experiencing a minor inconvenience instead of a frightening personal disaster,” the report found.

New Hampshire U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican from Nashua, sent a letter to the IRS commissioner last week, asking him to take a harder look at the issue.

“Tax-related identity theft victims have been through enough, and the least the IRS can do is to provide them with copies of their fraudulent returns so that they may secure their personal identity,” Ayotte wrote to Commissioner John Koskinen. “While I understand that the agency has privacy concerns, victims deserve to know the extent of their identity theft, including what personal information has been compromised, in order to take action to protect themselves and their families.”

While the 2012 Fair Credit Reporting Act allows people access to documents related to fraudulent activity against them, the IRS relies on another portion of the tax code to trump that victims’ rights language and make it harder for taxpayers to get fraudulent returns.

“In addition to the significant financial and emotional hardship that identity theft imposes on honest taxpayers,” Ayotte wrote, “I find it deeply troubling that the IRS does not help victims by providing them with copies of the fraudulent returns so that they may determine what information was stolen.”

So do we, especially since it appears that, by not providing the returns, the IRS is protecting the privacy of criminals at the expense of victims who are just trying to piece their lives back together.

We can’t help but believe the IRS can do better in its handling of the issue.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1IyEI2U


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