- Associated Press - Friday, May 5, 2017

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

CONNECTICUT

Hartford Courant, May 3

A proposal by Senate Democrats to open budget talks to the news media is a chance for politicians to shine a little more light on the process, and Republicans shouldn’t hesitate to agree.

The budget sausage gets made in a myriad of meetings: staff meetings, leadership meetings and meetings in between, as proposals are made and amended and political deals offered and accepted. It might not be possible for the press corps of the entire state combined to cover every aspect of the process, to say nothing of televising it. So any proposal to open “the talks” to the media probably wouldn’t include every meeting on the legislative agenda.

But it could put pressure on politicians to craft a decent budget under the public eye, and to that end, it’s a solid idea.

Everyone in the legislature feels the pressure already, especially after estimates for tax revenues came in sharply lower on Monday. The state is now facing a $4.9 billion shortfall over the coming biennium, meaning legislators will most likely have to cut spending and hike taxes. But where does spending get cut? And where do taxes go up?

When budget talks are conducted behind closed doors, the public misses an opportunity to see where their representatives stand.

But if some of the talks are open to the public, politicians’ true priorities might be visible. In a democracy, that’s only good. Nothing shows a politician’s real values more than how they spend the public’s money.

Even though some Republicans dismissed it as a political stunt, they should leap at the opportunity. To refuse could be seen as tacit acknowledgment that they want to hide their deal-making from their constituents. Yes, some stages of negotiations can benefit from confidentiality, but they can benefit from transparency, too.

In their private moments, Republicans might be more willing to discuss tax hikes here and there, especially given the state of the budget. Some Democrats might be secretly willing to flex some muscle and insist that unionized employees give back some of their unaffordable benefits.

But fear of not being re-elected will discourage them from saying so publicly. And that’s a shame.

Here’s news for legislators: The people of Connecticut might be willing to vote their representatives back into office if they show an ability to compromise for the good of the state and leave strict party fealty behind.

Everyone knows the state’s finances are a disaster, and no amount of finger-pointing or political posturing will change that. The people of the state of Connecticut want their legislators to work together and make smart - not political - decisions that will get the state on its proper footing. Few will criticize those who feel they must cross the aisle on an issue or two if it’s done for the right reasons.

Legislators’ loyalty should be to their constituents, not the party machines. Negotiations should be open to the public, and legislators shouldn’t be afraid to show their willingness to compromise.

Online:

https://cour.at/2pOjAln

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MASSACHUSETTS

Cape Cod Times, May 3

Thirty-seven dollars per day per person. That’s the shortfall experienced by Massachusetts skilled nursing facilities to take care of MassHealth (Medicaid) patients.

To put it another way, if it costs about $88,000 per year to take care of a Medicaid patient in a nursing home, the nursing home is reimbursed by the state and federal governments only about $75,000 per year.

In fact, Massachusetts - often ranked at or near the top in the nation in health care, education and other quality of life measures - is the fourth worst in the nation when it comes to funding Medicaid patients in nursing homes.

And since two out of three seniors living in Massachusetts skilled nursing facilities rely on MassHealth to pay for their care, nearly half of the state’s skilled nursing facilities are now operating at a loss. Some are in jeopardy of closing.

A recent analysis of state MassHealth costs shows that the higher the number of MassHealth residents that a skilled nursing facility cares for, the higher the facility’s loss. For nursing facilities with at least 75 percent MassHealth occupancy, which represents about 40 percent of all Massachusetts facilities, the average negative margin was 1.6 percent, with a total cumulative loss of $20.3 million.

For nursing facilities with at least 80 percent MassHealth occupancy, which represents close to 25 percent of all facilities, the average negative margin was 3 percent.

As a result, the Massachusetts Senior Care Association is once again trying to convince Gov. Charlie Baker and the state Legislature to invest $90 million in the industry. The money would go directly to wages for low-paid staff. At the end of the last legislative session, lawmakers allotted only $35.5 million.

“It was a good start, but not nearly enough,” said William Bogdanovich, chairman of the board of the Senior Care Association. Bogdanovich is also president and CEO of Broad Reach Healthcare in North Chatham.

This year, the governor’s budget maintains the current $35.5 million for front-line staff wage increases. And last week, the House of Representatives approved its FY2018 budget recommendation, which also maintains the $35.5 million and adds an additional $2.8 million to reward high quality facilities (pay for performance). The House also added $15 million for reimbursement rates that could be invested in staff wages.

“We greatly appreciate the House of Representatives investment considering the slow growth in state revenues,” said Bogdanovich.

Nevertheless, the Senior Care Association is still pushing for a $90 million investment in staff wages. “We continue to believe that this funding is critical to retraining and recruiting direct-care staff and ensuring high quality care,” Bogdanovich said in an email to the Times.

“A facility’s ability to invest in staff wages and resident care is dependent upon state funding, since 70 percent of Massachusetts nursing facility residents have their care paid for by the state’s Medicaid program,” he said. “So while it’s a start, we have further ground to cover.”

And keep in mind that as the budget process progresses on Beacon Hill, with a Senate vote, a House-Senate conference committee, and the governor’s final approval, much can change between now and the end of the session in July.

Bogdanovich said that if the Legislature does not approve another $54.5 million, the consequences could be serious for skilled nursing facilities.

“Job vacancies have jumped from last year and are now at 15 percent,” he said. “It’s hard to attract and retain workers when you can’t pay much for a job that’s difficult and requires 24/7 participation.” In fact, 54 percent of front-line workers at nursing homes depend on some sort of financial assistance to make ends meet.

Fortunately, more than 130 legislators have signed on to support the Senior Care Association’s proposed bill. We urge the Senate to increase the allocation and the governor to sign it.

Online:

https://bit.ly/2q7D2ww

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RHODE ISLAND

Providence Journal, May 4

Six months ago, Gov. Gina Raimondo said she would do whatever it takes “to protect Rhode Island taxpayers” from a vendor that was “unfairly demanding more money.” The company, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, was saying the state would have to pay another $12 million if it wanted a long-awaited new computer system for the Division of Motor Vehicles.

It turns out that the state will be paying some more for the new system, now in the works for an almost inconceivable 10 years and overdue by at least seven. But taxpayers may have been somewhat relieved to learn that the bill won’t grow by $12 million, but $5.5 million.

That will bring the total cost for the project up to about $20 million - vastly more than the $13 million figure conveyed to taxpayers a decade ago as the project was getting underway. But at least Rhode Island is now moving forward.

There is, no doubt, a great deal of blame to go around in terms of who is responsible for the delays and cost overruns with this project. The legal battle between the state and its vendor - now DXC Technology, formed last month through a merger involving Hewlett Packard Enterprise - reveals a lot of finger-pointing.

But as we have seen with the DMV system, and with the flawed $364 million computer system that is supposed to handle all the state’s social services programs, our elected leaders must make sure they have the right people with the right expertise in place to plan, seek bids on and manage these costly and complex projects. That is the best way to serve - and protect - the taxpayers.

And when something does go wrong, as it often does, they must be ready with a plan B and again take steps to protect the taxpayers. That is, after all, what other states do. At least four - California, New Mexico, New Jersey and Vermont - that hired the same company for similar projects years ago have long since either won settlements or canceled their contracts. We won’t delve into whether Rhode Island should have done that with its long-overdue DMV project. What is clear is that the settlement announced last month is at least a better deal than taxpayers were looking at when Hewlett Packard Enterprise demanded another $12 million.

Going forward, Ms. Raimondo must take steps to ensure that Rhode Island has a team in place to oversee these projects and bring them to a successful conclusion. With this in mind, we applaud the decision to hire an independent expert to examine the DMV system and make sure it works properly before it goes live on its projected start date of July 5. Better to find out up front if there is a problem than face bigger headaches down the road.

Even if the system works as it should, the DMV says there may be even longer wait times for a couple of months. But taxpayers certainly have a right to expect that after 10 years, and with the added oversight, any problems with the system will be minimal and that, before long, the lines will be getting shorter and moving more quickly. That is, after all, what they were promised a long time ago, when this project got underway.

Online:

https://bit.ly/2pOpQtm

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VERMONT

Rutland Herald, May 5

This is the time of the legislative session when everything is in motion and where it all ends up often comes as a surprise.

That’s what happened when the Senate voted to use money originally dedicated to the cleanup of Lake Champlain to pay for a $35 million housing bond proposed by Gov. Phil Scott. It was a move that infuriated environmentalists, who see the cleanup of pollutants in the lake as vital to the state’s economic interests.

The money comes from a surcharge on the property transfer tax and was dedicated to the lake cleanup through 2018, by which time lawmakers were charged with finding a permanent source for the money. Instead, senators decided to use the money to boost to housing construction in the state. The Legislature would have to find new money for the lake cleanup later.

Both the housing market and the lake cleanup are urgent needs, and yet the Legislature hemmed itself in by accepting Scott’s refusal to OK any new taxes or fees. Instead, lawmakers decided to use the fees imposed a few years ago for a new purpose.

Originally, senators contemplated a new occupancy fee for those staying in hotels and motels, but that would have counted as a new fee, running afoul of the governor. So, for the time being, the property transfer tax will have to do double duty: Funding the cleanup in the interim while also providing about $1 million to pay off a portion of the housing bond.

Senators supporting the arrangement say there is plenty of time to find another source for lake cleanup money. But one of the leading advocates for the lake, James Ehlers of Lake Champlain International, was not impressed. He called the failure to fund the cleanup “shameful” and said the Senate had been “negligent” in not fulfilling its obligations.

The obligations are real. The state is under a mandate from the federal government to control pollutants that cause dangerous algae blooms in the lake. Over 20 years the cost of establishing pollution controls will be about $2.3 billion. It’s easy to put off, except it can’t be put off. The housing crisis is also real. The lack of affordable housing exacerbates the economic crunch many working Vermonters face. Every survey of state economic conditions points to housing as a problem. Working people who have trouble paying for child care, health care and everything else cannot afford the high rents that prevail, especially in Chittenden County. Putting more homes on the market is essential, and the housing bond would help.

In other words, both needs are real. Siphoning off money from the lake for housing must be seen as a temporary fix, and legislative leaders appear to understand that. Scott’s pledge to avoid raising taxes has boxed them in and forced the issue to next year, when the need for lake cleanup money will again confront them.

Meanwhile, other final pieces of legislation are taking shape, with a showdown earlier this week between the governor and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson. The speaker doesn’t ordinarily vote on legislation, but Johnson voted to block an amendment containing the plan from Scott to subject teachers’ health insurance to state control. Johnson’s vote against the amendment created a tie, which meant the mea sure d id not pass. The House ended up voting for an alternative amendment that would preserve the local role in negotiating health care benefits.

Scott has turned his health care proposal into a potent political tool, demanding the Legislature enact it in order to save $ 26 million. It is hard to resist the idea of saving $26 million.

But Democrats didn’t like the idea of allowing the state to interfere in teachers’ contract negotiations and argued that the governor’s plan was sprung on the Legislature late in the session and did not have the benefit of careful study.

The version passed by the House is designed to capture health care savings, and it would be hard for Scott to veto the budget because he did not get the exact version he wanted. His likeliest course is to declare victory and allow the Legislature to go home.

Online:

https://bit.ly/2pOwsYT

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MAINE

Sun Journal (Lewiston), May 3

A proposal by the Auburn School Department for early-release Wednesdays for middle- and high-schoolers sounds quite a lot like its proposal for late-start Wednesdays, pitched and quickly folded in 2012.

Five years ago, Superintendent Katy Grondin said the department is “committed to raising student achievement by increasing teacher effectiveness in order for all students to be career and college ready when they graduate from Edward Little High School.” Her idea for increasing teacher effectiveness was to use late-start Wednesdays to give staff extra time for training.

Today, with the early-release proposal, the goal remains the same: to give teachers time for professional development, to incorporate new mandates and ways of teaching that will help students.

Here’s the thing: In order to do this, students will lose 13 afternoons - some would say 13 days - in the classroom.

Parents didn’t like the plan in 2012 and are opposed to the one now.

One obvious reason is timing.

One of the chief complaints in 2012 was that the Auburn School Department revealed the idea of late-start Wednesdays quite suddenly, with very little explanation to the community. The backlash was immediate.

The same thing appears to have happened again, with many parents unaware of the details of the new plan even as the School Committee is scheduled to vote on it tonight.

Do Auburn teachers need more time for training, to learn and share new techniques?

They do, and there is plenty of evidence to support effective training results in better teaching.

Do Auburn students need as much time in the classroom as possible?

Absolutely.

These two needs are not at cross-purposes.

And parents deserve a full say in how the school department fulfills both needs.

Parents and students - and even some teachers - already say that in the elementary grades, where 11:30 a.m. release on Wednesdays is the norm, those Wednesday morning academic schedules are half-hearted. It’s hard to get motivated for a half-day. Especially when a lunch period is also squeezed in.

But there’s really much more to this.

Parents have legitimate concerns about student supervision, about transportation and family schedules.

Then there’s the ability for parents to accept that losing school days will streamline learning.

Here’s an example of something else hard to accept: The proposal would include shortening the time students have to change classes from seven to four minutes - moving three minutes into the classroom between each period.

There’s no question that time would be saved on the clock, but would there truly be a gain in learning? Are students really going to settle down three minutes earlier in each class? And will it actually make a difference?

Remember back to your high school days and think about whether that seems likely.

Adopting the current early-release Wednesday proposal - which calls for more half-days for teacher training than other school districts in Maine - should be a discussion with parents, not a directive to parents.

If there was ever a topic that would benefit from a broad public discussion, this is it. It would give the School Department an opportunity to present evidence that early-release days are effective, and would give parents an opportunity to bring their concerns forward. And, it’s worth looking at those districts that are backing away from early release after years of short Wednesdays because the disruption to student learning and attendance is too great.

Sure, there will be public input at tonight’s meeting, but it’s an item on the School Committee’s business meeting agenda. It’s not a focused forum.

Grondin acknowledged the department’s plan is being considered early for parents to have time to get organized, and if that’s the case there’s no need to rush.

The best thing right now would be for the School Committee to hold off on its vote tonight and, instead, schedule at least one special community meeting to hear all sides.

It could be quite an education.

Online:

https://bit.ly/2pe0XW7

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NEW HAMPSHIRE

Concord Monitor, May 3

President Donald Trump appears to support a plan to steal some of the land from all of the people and give it to a relative few.

Last week, Trump ordered the Department of the Interior to report on every monument over 100,000 acres created by presidential declaration since 1996. He did so with an eye to shrinking them or undoing them.

Trump called the monuments “a massive federal land grab” and said “it’s time to end these abuses and return control to the people, the people of Utah, the people of all the states, the people of the United States.”

We don’t quite know what the president was talking about. The land involved is all federally owned - that is, owned by the people of the United States. The federal government didn’t grab any land, it already owned it.

National monuments, under the 1906 Antiquities Act signed by Republican President Teddy Roosevelt, can be created only on federal land by order of a president. The president can’t designate Hampton Beach State Park a national monument or, for that matter, somebody’s backyard.

The thinly populated Western states are home to the vast majority of federal lands: 85 percent of Nevada is federally owned, 65 percent of Utah, 62 percent of Idaho, 61 percent of Alaska, 48 percent of Wyoming and so on.

Republican members of Congress in those states had long sought the transfer of some or all of that land to the states. Mining, oil and other extractive industries support the transfer, as well as ranchers and other agricultural interests.

“Any national monument created through the use of the Antiquities Act is a travesty and an affront to the democratic process,” said the Capital Press, which calls itself the “West’s Ag Website,” in response to a proposal to create a new national monument in Oregon.

The ceding of federal lands to states is opposed by those who want to protect the nation’s historic, scenic and environmental resources, by residents of those states who know that federal lands and the visitors they draw do more for the economy than the sale or lease of those lands to private developers.

Field and Stream magazine, founded in 1895, typically tells sporting men and women how to catch bass, avoid the grizzlies that aren’t busy terrorizing schools and bag a big buck. The current issue, however, carries an editorial and six pages of photos, articles and infographics that support keeping public lands public.

The track record of states in protecting their own lands or lands transferred to them by the federal government to finance schools and other essential institutions hasn’t been good. The magazine pointed to Utah, whose congressional delegation supports ceding land to the states. That state’s land trust sold 3,700 acres of public land, including a scenic parcel adjoining Zion National Park. The state made $5.5 million on the deal but the public, and local residents, lost. Not all states have to manage public lands for public use, so when they choose - or lease the land to interests that want to close it to the public - property can be gated, public recreation terminated or use fees charged.

Many of America’s priceless natural treasures, including Grand Canyon and Grand Teton National Parks, began life as national monuments. They and the rest of federally owned public lands should be held in trust in perpetuity for future generations and the good of the planet.

Don’t let this president and this Congress give our land away.

Online:

https://bit.ly/2pGCWuK

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