- Associated Press - Friday, December 8, 2017

Editorials from around New England:

MASSACHUSETTS

The Salem News, Dec. 3

Finding work as a police officer or firefighter isn’t always easy. Openings in local departments can be scarce. Still, it’s an area where it helps to have served in the military, as many government hiring managers give preference when filling those jobs to veterans.

Many do, but not all. The advantage is fading these days as more mayors and town managers look to bypass old rules for government hiring, including ones that demand preferential treatment for vets.

It’s not a positive development. Not only are veterans often uniquely qualified for public safety jobs, our national government has put up hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of taxpayer dollars for their training and education.

It’s a shame, and simply wasteful, not to leverage that resource.

And the trend underscores the importance of what lawmakers, including Rep. Ted Speliotis, D-Danvers, are doing to backstop the veterans preference. Speliotis and others are advocating a bill that requires local governments that slough off the old rules of civil service to still give extra consideration to men and women who’ve been honorably discharged from the military.

“Any alternative to civil service ought to require some form of recognition of these brave men and women,” he wrote recently in a letter published in area newspapers.

The idea of a veterans preference, at least within the federal government, dates to the Civil War, notes Gregory Lewis, a professor of public policy at Georgia State University, for a column published by the current events website The Conversation. Policies were strengthened after both world wars such that veterans were given extra credit on numerical hiring scales used to size up candidates for government work. Disabled vets got double the advantage.

In Massachusetts, the process of filling jobs with the state and local governments have extended similar preferential treatment to those who’ve served, through the civil service system. Currently 145 of 351 cities and towns in the state subscribe to that system.

The problem emerging is a trend away from civil service. Local governments are seeking and getting the state’s blessing to bypass the rules, which local officials claim constrain their hiring decisions. Diversity is among the top reasons cited by mayors and town managers seeking flexibility. Civil service rules hamstring urban departments, for instance, in efforts to land minority candidates, in part because veterans who march to the top of hiring lists aren’t always minorities.

Boston Police Commission William B. Evans is among those who’ve complained about the constraints of civil service while trying to diversify. Last spring, he told the Boston Globe that even though his three brothers are veterans, he would rather have a different system of rewarding their service. “They gave up a significant part of their life defending this country. I don’t believe that they don’t deserve what they get, but I believe we have got to find a better way .,” he told the newspaper.

Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, recently told Eagle-Tribune Statehouse reporter Christian Wade the civil service laws are “rigid and antiquated,” and stand in the way of local governments trying to “modernize.”

Efforts to make local police and fire departments more reflective of their communities are laudable, but it would be a mistake to somehow allow that important objective to disrupt the consideration given veterans.

The two needn’t be mutually exclusive.

Indeed, a report earlier this year by the Pew Research Center suggests the military is nearly as diverse as the rest of the country. Racial and ethnic minorities represent 40 percent of the 1.3 million members of the active-duty military - and about 44 percent of the broader population ages 18 to 44. African Americans are more represented in the military - about 17 percent of the active-duty service - than in the population as a whole.

That’s not to say the applicant pool for local police and fire jobs is always diverse, but it does suggest that members of the military can give city and town halls options to diversity.

What cannot be overlooked in that effort is a qualified labor pool ready to sign up for some of the most taxing, stressful jobs in government. Nor can we forget our obligation to those who have dutifully served this country.

Online: http://bit.ly/2ApHvzW

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CONNECTICUT

The Courant, Dec. 7

Any sweeping change in the tax code is going to have winners and losers, but the two Republican bills now working their way through Congress would hit some Connecticut homeowners particularly hard - those with crumbling concrete foundations.

Just two weeks ago, many Connecticut residents were celebrating a change to the federal tax code that would allow them to write off 75 percent of the unreimbursed cost of fixing a crumbling foundation. As those repairs can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, the tax break would be a great way to provide some relief to those who have suffered a huge and unforeseen loss. The same deduction also helps those who suffered other casualties such as fire or theft.

But this tax deduction is among the many that both Republican tax plans eliminate, and it will be felt keenly in Connecticut. Congress should restore it.

Getting the concrete foundation language into the casualty loss deduction was no small victory. U.S. Reps. Joe Courtney and John Larson were part of a 19-month effort to get the change, and last month they were celebrating the IRS’s willingness to help.

One Ellington attorney who represents hundreds of clients with crumbling foundations told The Courant that clients were hopeful that “they could, over the course of years, in effect write off the cost of their repair.”

This smart solution to a serious problem will vanish if the Republican plan goes through. Eliminating the casualty deduction is simply bad policy for the entire nation.

But it’s not the only way the tax bills hurt Connecticut.

The proposed tax changes also mean people can no longer write off their state taxes and only $10,000 of their municipal property taxes.

It’s not too hard to find a homeowner in any Connecticut town whose property tax exceeds $10,000 a year. But in Fairfield County, where houses can be far more expensive, the elimination of the deduction could be the final push some people need to flee the state’s already high taxes for greener pastures.

Connecticut has enough of a problem with high earners moving out, and this tax change could quickly make matters worse.

The problem is compounded with the proposed elimination of the state income tax deduction and a proposed $500,000 cap on mortgage interest deductions in the version of the bill that passed the House of Representatives. Even doubling the standard deduction won’t make up for the loss of the hefty income tax write-off for many of those earning six- or seven-figure salaries. And while many states don’t have too many home mortgages over $500,000, 17.4 of Connecticut’s mortgages fall into that category.

Worse still, home values in Connecticut could fall by more than 10 percent, according to estimates from the National Association of Realtors.

These state and local tax deductions are an incentive for homeownership and should be retained. In high-income states - particularly those that voted against Donald Trump, according to a New York Times analysis - the impact of the proposed tax change is greater. It’s unfair and unwise.

University endowments could also see a new 1.4 percent tax on income. Yale, which has one of the largest endowments in the nation, earned an 11.3 percent return in the last fiscal year on its endowment, which exceeds $25 billion. It would owe more than $40 million under the plan - which might seem like a drop in the proverbial bucket, but Yale’s endowment does a lot of social good.

In a recent op-ed in Politico, Douglas A. Warner, a member of Yale’s board of trustees, wrote that Yale “makes voluntary payments to New Haven and other towns; it funds scholarships for any New Haven public high school graduate with a B average or higher to attend any public or private university in Connecticut; the Yale Homebuyer program has dispensed millions to employees who buy (and occupy) a home in New Haven. … I doubt that the federal government will step in to sustain these efforts if universities are taxed.”

The Republican plan - to tax universities, hurt homeowners who have suffered unforeseen disasters and discourage investment in higher-cost housing markets - is no way to build for the future.

Online: http://cour.at/2k8MzxQ

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CONNECTICUT

The Republican-American, Dec. 5

“Drain the swamp.” Easy to say, a little harder to do. Just ask President Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Critics say Mr. Tillerson is an empty suit on the international circuit and seems to be hollowing out the State Department by cutting staffing and spending. Mr. Zinke is taking heat for his role in sharply reducing the size of two enormous national monuments in Utah, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. According to The New York Times’ Julie Turkewitz, the moves could signal “possibly opening millions of preserved public acres to oil and gas extraction, mining, logging and other commercial activities.”

The Trump administration has a strong, perhaps even ironclad, mandate to “drain the swamp.” That means paring federal staffing, regulations and land-use powers to within shouting distance of constitutional principles. But the behemoth and its allies are fighting back. The Wilderness Society and several other groups filed the first of an inevitable cluster of lawsuits Monday, the Times reported Tuesday.

Meanwhile, congressional Democrats, current State Department employees and agency alumni are protesting the budget cuts vehemently. For his part, Mr. Tillerson, who famously reorganized Exxon and the Boy Scouts of America, insists the accusations that he is gutting the agency are false. Calling the State Department’s $55 billion budget for 2016 a “historic outlier,” he confidently predicted the agency will have a lighter workload as unspecified international conflicts are resolved.

He called the planned cuts a “reality check.” But he, along with Messrs. Trump and Zinke, ignored a more pressing reality: Any attempt to reduce employment in a business or government agency will meet with forceful resistance, for the obvious reason that people don’t want to lose their jobs - or if they are among the lucky ones who keep their jobs, they don’t want to take on extra work.

And nobody wants to cede control of land. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management manages - mismanages? - 260 million acres, or more than 12 percent of all the land area in the United States, most of it in the Western region. It also controls mining rights under its own land and that of other federal agencies, totaling 700 million acres.

Federal management practices contribute to the wildfires that have raged in the West this year. Bureaucratic obstacles and lawsuits by “environmental” organizations make it hard for logging companies to thin the trees in forested areas, resulting in huge zones of dense growth and deadfall that breed forest fires.

Mr. Tillerson, Mr. Zinke and other members of Mr. Trump’s swamp-draining crew deserve more support than they’ve been getting. They’ll get little assistance in the central swamp that is Washington, D.C., but Americans have reason to appreciate their efforts.

Online: http://bit.ly/2y7NQKG

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VERMONT

The Times Argus, Dec. 8

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments earlier this week in the case of a Colorado baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, who sued, charging unequal treatment.

The case involves a clash of values, including equal treatment under the law, freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Lawyers for the couple argued that the baker had discriminated against them in violation of a Colorado law guaranteeing equal treatment. The baker’s lawyers argued that he opposed gay marriage because of his religious beliefs, and so he did not want to participate in their wedding by providing a cake. They also claimed that baking a cake was a form of expression protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech.

Vermont witnessed a similar case five years ago when an inn in Lyndonville refused to host a wedding reception for a gay couple. That case was settled after the owner of the inn acknowledged he would have allowed the reception, despite his opposition based on his Catholic faith. It was an employee who had refused to allow the reception.

One issue is whether a person can justify discriminatory behavior on the basis of his or her religion. It is widely accepted that the law forbids people from using religion as a justification for refusing to serve African-Americans at a lunch counter. In many states, the same protections apply to homosexuals.

The baker sought to get around the law by arguing cake baking is akin to artistic expression. Thus, his right of free speech means he should not be compelled to express, by means of cake, a message about marriage that he does not agree with.

David Brooks of The New York Times wrote a column recently expressing regret the case had to be settled through the adversarial process of the legal system. Couldn’t they have worked it out as neighbors?

Groups that have been subject to a history of discrimination should not bear the onus of working it out. There are ways the baker could have worked it out. He could have had an employee who did not share his religious misgivings bake the cake. (Town clerks opposed to gay marriage have sometimes delegated the issuance of licenses to an assistant.) He could have donated his profit from the cake to his church or to his favorite charity.

So, is cake baking a form of art that merits First Amendment protection? Another way of seeing it is that the creation of the cake may be art, but that the sale of the cake is commerce. People are not allowed to exclude groups - blacks, Muslims, women, gays - in public commerce, even if that prohibition impinges on their freedoms as a business person. This debate was settled with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. That’s because discrimination inflicts economic harm and infringes on basic rights, injuring individuals and creating divisions within society.

Those defending the gay couple in Colorado argued that allowing discrimination against gay people seeking to be married would open the door to new forms of discrimination against other minorities, imperiling civil rights that have long been guaranteed. Whether he likes it or not, the baker lives in a world where gay marriage exists, and protecting him from that reality comes at too high a cost. The baker is free to believe anything he wants and to practice his religion as he sees fit. But as a businessman doing business with the public, he is not permitted to inf lict the harm of exclusion. When he set up shop as a baker, that is the responsibility he should have been willing to accept.

Up until the 1940s, tourist brochures from Vermont listing inns and resorts sometimes included a single word at the end of their promotional material: “Restricted.” What this meant was that Jews were not welcome. Awareness of the Holocaust shamed innkeepers into dropping that restriction.

Gay people have suffered violence and discrimination throughout history, in Vermont and elsewhere. Dropping the restrictions that have excluded them from marriage and other institutions of ordinary life has been a great liberation - for everyone. It’s the best way of working it out.

Online: http://bit.ly/2ApRi9a

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NEW HAMPSHIRE

The Concord Monitor, Dec. 7

It’s the era of solar panels, wind turbines and light emitting diodes, or LEDs, that banish darkness for a fraction of the cost of old-fashioned light bulbs, but Americans still spend more than $3 billion a year on candles.

There’s a primal beauty to a burning candle, elegance and romance to dinner by candlelight, a balm for the senses in the sweet smell of burning beeswax scented with the essence of flowers or spices. There is also danger.

Burning candles are blamed, on average, for more than 15,000 house fires per year, according to the National Fire Protection Association. The majority of them, and the majority of deaths attributed to fires, occur in December between the hours of midnight and dawn, according to the association. That’s right. It’s candle-fire month. Use extreme caution.

Few people, we hope, use real candles to light their windows or adorn their Christmas tree with little open flames, but every candle should be considered a home fire waiting to happen if left unattended. Falling asleep with a candle flickering is indeed pleasant, which is why more than one-third of all candle fires, and a similar number of candle-associated deaths, occur in bedrooms.

The rules about candle use should seem obvious, yet some 25 candle-related fires occur in the nation each day. The majority of them are caused by candles placed too close to a flammable object like curtains, a Christmas tree, newspapers or furniture. Even a safely-placed candle can spark a conflagration if it’s knocked over by a pet or if its container cracks from the heat of a wick allowed to burn down to a pool of wax. Again, the rule is, never leave a room with a candle burning. Snuff it out rather than blow it out, which can propel sparks toward carpets or curtains.

And, to be truly safe, consider replacing traditional candles with a flickering, flameless LED substitute. Sure, they’re fake, but they’re safe.

Online: http://bit.ly/2BOg5QB

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MAINE

The Portland Press Herald, Dec. 8

Veteran homelessness in 2010 was a nationwide problem, and a national disgrace. Since then, it has been cut nearly in half, and effectively ended in many places.

That’s not by accident - a concerted effort by federal agencies and their state and local partners homed in on the problem. Through a joint program of the Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs departments, housing has been found or maintained for more than 138,000 veterans in the past seven years.

Despite this clear success, the Trump administration moved recently to end the program, known as HUD-VA Supportive Housing. After an outcry, the VA this week appeared to step back from its plan, saying instead that it would take time to review its funding.

In military terms, advocates won the battle, but the war is far from over. There remains an unacceptable number of homeless veterans who need assistance, and those recently helped by the program continue to need support. It is a difficult population, one dealing with poor health, mental illness and other vulnerabilities - if the program is ended before the supports are adequately filled in, the successes of the past few years can go away as fast as they came.

The HUD-VA Supportive Housing targets homelessness through a combination of housing vouchers through HUD and case management, which the VA provides. Case managers can work with landlords, and help veterans pay bills, access agency services and find work.

Veteran by veteran, this program has lowered the rate of homelessness among former service members. The 2016 homelessness count found slightly fewer than 40,000 homeless vets across the country, the sixth straight year showing a decline, and a 46 percent drop from 2010. Some communities have even declared an end to veteran homelessness in their area. Maine, too, has made great strides.

But the problem is far from over. The nationwide count this year found a slight uptick, about 1.5 percent, which can be almost entirely attributed to an increase in the number of homeless veterans in the Los Angeles area, where high housing prices have meant that housing vouchers are not as attractive to landlords.

That might mean that an adjustment in strategy is necessary in attacking homelessness in high-cost areas. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that 40,000 veterans still need homes, and that many more continue to need ongoing support from the HUD-VA program. It certainly doesn’t warrant a complete dismantling of a program that has worked so well.

The Dec. 1 announcement that the program would be essentially eliminated was met with gasps from advocates, state officials, even HUD representatives. All 14 members of the Senate Appropriations Military Construction-VA Subcommittee - Democrats and Republicans alike - sent a letter to VA Secretary David Shulkin asking him to reconsider.

On Wednesday, Shulkin seemed to acquiesce. “Over the next six months, I will solicit input from our local VA leaders and external stakeholders on how best to target our funding to the geographical areas that need it most,” he said. “Based on that input we will come forward with proposals for fiscal year 2019 on how to improve the targeting of our homeless program funding.”

That’s a delay, not a promise. A program that has proven itself so effective at solving an immensely difficult problem deserves a whole-hearted endorsement, and advocates shouldn’t rest until Shulkin provides one.

Online: http://bit.ly/2kETuTl


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