- Associated Press - Friday, April 14, 2017

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


Connecticut Post (Bridgeport), April 13

Lobbyists’ objections to a state soda tax contain as much rot as the teeth of too many kindergartners.

The drivers who haul the pop argue that the proposed penny-per-ounce levy would cause cavities in their job market. The Teamsters forecast a loss of some 150 truck-driving jobs. As exhibit A, they point to job loss that resulted from bans of sugary drinks in public schools. We suspect the kids somehow managed to consume alternate beverages that were delivered via tractor-trailers.

The Connecticut Retail Merchants Association claims that Connecticut’s more modest retailers would be unable to sustain themselves if 2-liter bottles cost an extra 68 cents. We have a hard time buying their sincerity when so many vendors currently charge as much for bottled water as they do for a belly’s worth of Coca-Cola.

The retailers and drivers might want to take a closer look at the fine print on the products they peddle. We have. Many of the soft drink giants also produce refreshments sans sugar.

There are other objections from non-lobbyists, including Republicans on the Finance, Revenue & Bonding Committee. They want an assurance that the new tax revenue would be placed in a dedicated fund so it is spent as intended on efforts to promote better health. The cautionary tale on this matter was delivered when the Big Tobacco settlement of two decades ago never managed to be dedicated to the cause of smoking cessation.

This isn’t quite the same thing as the state’s vexing inability to create a transportation fund vault. Regardless of how the income is spent, a soda tax would theoretically have an immediate effect on the health of residents, as fewer would purchase the product.

Connecticut stands to be a trailblazer as the first state with the controversial tax, which was recently introduced in cities such as Philadelphia, San Francisco and Albany.

For a look at the potential health benefits, we need to peek to the other side of President Donald Trump’s phantom wall. In the four years since it introduced a tax, Mexico is claiming a 10-percent reduction in soda sales. More importantly, a study in the British Medical Journal projects more than 20,000 fewer heart attacks and 189,300 fewer cases of Type 2 diabetes.

The tax is not intended to reduce Connecticut’s projected $1.7 billion deficit, but Mexico’s experience suggests there could be true savings via trickle-down economics, even though the trickle will be filled with less sugar.

Lawmakers have found use for a soda tax before, to boost war chests during both World Wars. This effort could save lives as well, while improving countless other ones.

The expectation is that a Connecticut tax could raise between $85 million and $141 million. While some of the income should be dedicated toward the cause of combatting obesity and diabetes, the money could also be earmarked for child services, public school education or enhancing pre-K opportunities.

First, though, lawmakers need to supersize their thinking.





Portland Press Herald, April 11

When people know the risks that come with drinking well water in Maine, they in large part take appropriate action. With that in mind, the state should be yelling about those risks from the rooftops - instead, it is registering barely above a whisper.

In fact, Maine’s problem with arsenic-laced drinking water gets the most exposure every two years or so, when the matter comes before the Legislature. However, that attention is fleeting - in 2015, a bill aimed at encouraging well tests failed to overcome a veto by Gov. LePage, and nearly two years have passed without a public effort to combat contaminated well water that is commensurate with the damage it causes.

A similar bill is now back before the Legislature, and we hope enough lawmakers will see that the state can’t afford to stay quiet any longer.

The problem starts with the bedrock common to Maine. Naturally occurring arsenic can seep out of that rock and into the groundwater that through private wells provides nearly half of Mainers with drinking water.

About 1 in 8 Maine wells has a level of arsenic higher than the federal standard, and in some regions - Down East, in the Augusta area and along the southern coast - the rate is far higher. In Kennebec County, for instance, 29 percent of wells exceeded the federal standard.

More than half of Maine wells, however, haven’t even been tested, putting tens of thousands of Mainers at risk.

Among many other ailments, arsenic consumption has been linked to various cancers - the elevated incidence of bladder cancer in northern New England has been associated with the use of well water.

Arsenic also causes problems for neurological development in children. A study found that students on well water in the Augusta area and York County lost an average of 6 IQ points compared to their peers on public water.

When people know these risks, they typically take steps toward mitigation - testing, then some sort of filtration system if necessary. A study in Maine by Columbia University found that 73 percent of participants took action after being directly notified that something could be wrong with their well.

But the word isn’t reaching everyone. While the testing rate has jumped in the last 15 years, it is still below 50 percent. The response simply has not matched the scope of the problem; the LePage administration even declined to reapply for a two-year federal grant aimed at increasing well testing.

That could change with L.D. 454. Sponsored by state Rep. Karen Vachon, R-Scarborough, the bill would assess a $10 fee for every test done at the state water-testing lab to pay for outreach and education.

Coupled with funding to help low-income Mainers with problem wells purchase filtration systems, it would make a real difference. Research has shown that people will respond to a campaign of similar messages over various media - think newspaper, TV and radio ads, and fliers in the mail, at school and at the doctor’s office.

That message has been muffled. Lawmakers should vote to make it loud and clear.





The Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield), April 9

As Massachusetts lawmakers wrestle with a law governing the sale of recreational marijuana, they are reportedly considering including a provision raising the age in which residents can legally purchase tobacco in the state to 21. They should do so, for reasons of health and also of economic fairness.

The state smoking age is currently 18, although 140 of the state’s 351 towns and cities have raised that age to 21. The legal age for purchasing alcohol in the state is 21, and with the age requirement for marijuana yet to be established, advocates on Beacon Hill hope to set a uniform age of 21 in all three categories.

In the Berkshires, Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge - thanks to the Tri-Town Board of Health, which has been a pioneer in smoking prevention - Williamstown, Great Barrington, Egremont and the two Berkshire cities of North Adams and Pittsfield have raised the age to purchase smoking to 21, with the Pittsfield Board of Health approving the change unanimously last July. Pediatrician Dr. Lester Hartman, of Needham, the first Massachusetts town to raise the age to 21, told the Tri-Town board in 2015 that research has shown that 90 percent of lifetime smokers start before the age of 21. Raising the age to 21 would spare many the diseases that are caused by smoking, among them cancer, emphysema, and heart ailments, and potentially save the state the millions of dollars spent on treating those diseases that translate into higher health care costs for everyone, smokers and non-smokers.

Opposition to raising the age to 21 in Berkshire municipalities has come from convenience store owners concerned that they would lose business to stores in border towns where the age is still 18. This issue would largely be addressed if the state age was uniformly raised to 21, although some communities bordering New York state towns where the age is 18 could lose business. When that issue came up in Egremont last year, Juliet Haas, the town’s Board of Health agent, replied that the health of residents had to come first, and health is indeed the overriding issue.

There will be pushback from the tobacco industry, but it is significant that the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, which has 4,000 members and has actively opposed this effort in the past, will apparently not do so this year. While the association will not support it, Association President Jon B. Hurst told The Boston Globe it is likely to remain neutral, reflecting the trend in communities to raise the age to 21. “At some point you just want consistency across Massachusetts,” Mr. Hurst told The Globe.

Massachusetts would be the third state to raise the smoking age to 21, following Hawaii and California, which would be in keeping with the state’s image of itself as a strong advocate of healthy living. With Governor Charlie Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg all in support of the concept of raising the age to 21, and with the marijuana legislation providing a good opportunity, now is the time to do so.





Concord Monitor, April 12

Viewed from above on Google Earth, swatches of Storm Lake, Iowa, a community of 10,000, look like corduroy, so heavily is the landscape furrowed.

A healthy portion of America’s food and feed is raised in Storm Lake, primarily by agribusinesses whose farming practices, a local newspaper claimed, are to blame for nitrate pollution of the Raccoon River, the source of drinking water for a half-million people.

“Anyone can see how filthy Storm Lake is, how the Des Moines River near Humboldt is a mud flow, how shallow lakes in Northwest Iowa have eroded into duck marshes,” Art Cullen, editor of the Storm Lake Times, wrote. “Anyone with eyes and a nose knows in his gut that Iowa has the dirtiest surface water in America. It is choking the waterworks and the Gulf of Mexico. It is causing oxygen deprivation in Northwest Iowa glacial lakes. It has caused us to spend millions upon millions trying to clean up Storm Lake, the victim of more than a century of explosive soil erosion.”

On Monday, Cullen and the Storm Lake Times won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. It’s proof that great journalism serving the public’s interest can occur despite limited resources. The twice-weekly paper started by Cullen and his brother John two decades ago has just 10 employees. Art’s son Tom, 24, and his wife, Dolores, do most of the reporting. John Cullen is the publisher.

Iowa and New Hampshire share more than a privileged position in the presidential election cycle. They share a problem found in nearly every state: water polluted by fertilizer runoff, whether from farm fields or lawns and playing fields. That runoff is the major source of pollution in Great Bay, one of the East Coast’s most valuable estuaries. The nitrates must either be removed from drinking water or prevented from entering it in the first place.

In Iowa, the downstream city of Des Moines, facing the need to spend millions to build a plant to remove nitrates, sued Storm Lake’s county and surrounding water districts for discharging polluted water. Cullen’s paper, through dogged reporting, discovered that the state’s agribusiness association, using donations from companies like Monsanto and Koch Fertilizer, had created a secret fund to pay law firms to lobby on behalf of the polluting counties and influence public officials.

“State and federal governments have been throwing money at soil and water conservation since the Dust Bowl, yet the problem is getting worse. It’s because we are farming through the fencerows in a more intense fashion than ever. We allow no buffer, and in fact have methodically eliminated the buffer since 2009. Anyone living in Buena Vista County can see it. Even a county supervisor could, if he weren’t so afraid of agri-industry,” Cullen wrote.

But big corporate farms didn’t want to set aside any land that could be used to grow money just to reduce water pollution.

A federal judge, seconding an opinion by Iowa’s supreme court, said last month that water districts lacked the power to deal with the issue. The problem, in a state with 21 million acres planted in corn and soybeans, was for the state legislature to solve. That legislature, thanks to Cullen’s edits and his paper’s reporting, now knows the players, their motives and the easiest way to solve the problem.

The efforts of the tiny, family newspaper deserved a Pulitzer.





The Providence Journal, April 8

Rhode Island lawmakers helped stave off disaster six years ago with historic votes that overhauled the state pension system. At the urging of then-General Treasurer, now-Gov. Gina Raimondo, they raised retirement ages, suspended cost-of-living adjustments and significantly improved the system’s health.

But Rhode Island’s pension crusade left a large piece of the problem unresolved - a piece involving 34 local plans managed by cities and towns. Rather than bite off more than they could chew, lawmakers formed a study commission to look at the local plans.

The commission met 39 times over three years and issued a final report in January 2015.

Until recently, the panel’s report effectively sat on a shelf. But Ms. Raimondo’s successor as treasurer, Seth Magaziner, has taken up one of its key recommendations and is making a strong case for lawmakers to act.

Calling the local pension shortfalls the “biggest financial challenge the state has,” Mr. Magaziner wants to make it easier for cities and towns to move their pension plans into the state-run Municipal Employees Retirement System, where they stand a much better chance of staying solvent.

The 116 local plans that are already managed by the state have an average funded status of 83 percent. By comparison, 19 of the locally managed plans are less than 60 percent funded, and 12 are less than 40 percent funded. According to Mr. Magaziner’s office, their combined unfunded liability has soared to about $2.4 billion.

In the state system, communities must make the required contribution each year or face the loss of state aid. There is no such requirement for the locally managed plans, though they may have their own guidelines. Providence, for instance, is required to make 95 percent of its contribution under a settlement with local unions. Historically, though, local politicians have been able postpone budgetary pain, while members of public employee unions were left with far less money than promised.

The largest local plan, in Providence, has a staggering unfunded liability of about $900 million, and is only about 27 percent funded - and those numbers assume an unrealistic 8.25 percent return on investment.

In Coventry, a police pension plan is just 15 percent funded, with an unfunded liability of more than $62 million. In Johnston, a plan for police officers is about 20 percent funded, with an unfunded liability of more than $64 million, and a now-closed plan for firefighters is about 28 percent funded, with an unfunded liability of more than $60 million. In Cranston, a now-closed plan for police officers and firefighters is about 22 percent funded, with an unfunded liability of more than $220 million.

It makes little sense for cities and towns to continue managing 34 pension plans when the state, with few exceptions, has a better record on investment returns and offers significant economies of scale in managing costs.

Cities and towns have resisted the idea of moving their plans because of the logistics involved - different benefit structures, different amortization periods, and so on. But the bill introduced for Mr. Magaziner would let communities make gradual changes when moving into the state system. For instance, they could keep longer amortization periods, making annual contributions more manageable.

Moving troubled plans into the state system would not endanger the plans already there. Each community in the system remains responsible for its own obligations.

After years of non-action, Mr. Magaziner’s bill is a welcome step. Since the financial health of Rhode Island’s cities and towns affects every citizen, the General Assembly should undertake this long-overdue reform.





Valley News (West Lebanon, New Hampshire), April 11

New Hampshire recently came home with the kind of report card that teenagers typically try to hide from their parents in the bottom of their backpack. It was issued by a panel of civil engineers as part of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ assessment of the state’s infrastructure, and the grade was C-minus.

Certainly, it could be worse: The grade assigned to the nation as a whole was D-plus. But it was alarming enough to suggest that the state has plenty of remedial work to do. Among the findings were that nearly 13 percent of the state’s bridges are structurally deficient, that extensive flooding could be in the offing unless New Hampshire changes its approach to storm-water management, and that significantly more money needs to be spent to sustain its surface transportation system.

To his credit, Gov. Chris Sununu has proposed making increased investments in roads, bridges and schools, but the budget for the next biennium is in limbo at the moment, so it’s unclear whether infrastructure spending will survive. All too often, such expenditures are put off to another, and financially brighter, day that somehow never seems to arrive in New Hampshire.

Vermont appears to be faring somewhat better. Ironically, this is attributable in part to the devastating effects of Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, which inflicted on the state damage estimated at between $700 million and $1 billion. Substantial federal disaster aid helped in rebuilding roads and bridges, and state government has continued to invest. Even so, the latest report card available on the American Society of Civil Engineers website, from 2014, assigns the state a C. It also emphasizes the need to focus on resiliency in rebuilding in a state that has been hard-hit by flooding over the years.

The pressing need for infrastructure improvements - and the millions of new jobs that they would create - was a centerpiece of Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign, and appears to be one of the few campaign goals he remains committed to pursuing now that he is in office. But, as usual, the signals are mixed.

The president has talked of investing up to a trillion dollars over 10 years in improving the nation’s aging and decaying infrastructure, not only its roads, bridges, mass transit, ports and water systems, but also potentially its energy systems, broadband connectivity and veterans hospitals. This sort of ambitious program ought to attract Democratic support as well as Republican, but as always the devil will be in the details. Trump has suggested both that the program would be paid for entirely by government borrowing and alternately that he would rely on public/private partnerships for financing. The former could be a deal-killer for Republicans and the latter for Democrats. Another problem for Democrats is that the Trump administration likely will try to limit environmental reviews and community input in order to fast-track transportation projects.

In any case, both New Hampshire and Vermont state governments and regional planners ought to begin preparing immediately, if they haven’t already, for the possibility that large amounts of federal funding could become available soon to address deficiencies. The first step is to identify priorities and to marshal the facts to demonstrate why those priority projects would serve the public good (and put people to work in good-paying jobs). That’s because the money may not be distributed to states solely by some agreed-on formula, although there no doubt will be some of that. Rather, specific projects that best promote economic development or public safety and convenience may receive priority wherever in the country they are proposed, especially if they are regional in nature. That suggests that consulting other New England states could be a winning strategy.

And even though the impetus for Trump’s plan will not be immediate and direct economic stimulus, such as the program launched by President Obama in the throes of the Great Recession, politicians on all levels like to see measurable progress in the public works they have sponsored before the next election. That’s a good argument for making sure that priority projects are “shovel ready,” or as close to that as possible, before Congress acts. Think of it as the Twin States doing their homework.



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