- Associated Press - Friday, September 15, 2017

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



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Valley News, Sept. 14

We suspected that New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu might have an agenda problem, or maybe a hidden agenda, when his first legislative initiative was right-to-work legislation. While right-to-work is a darling of the Koch brothers and kindred spirits, it was difficult to see why it would be a priority in New Hampshire, where unions are hardly on the rise. Sununu’s proposal deservedly died in the House. We can only speculate whether the impetus came from New Hampshire - or from sources with a national agenda.

We were momentarily caught off guard when Sununu came to the rescue in May of a Hanover mother bear and her cubs who were going to be euthanized after becoming habituated to human food and environs. Sununu rejected the advice of his own experts, but he gave in to the hearts of online petitioners and Facebook-posting humans when he ordered the bears relocated to New Hampshire’s far north. When a politician must choose between cute bears and earnest wildlife biologists, we suppose the bears will win.

We were surprised when he intervened forcefully in the Lake Sunapee boat ramp controversy, shutting down a 20-year effort by the Fish and Game Department to build a new boat ramp on the lake’s western shore. Fish and Game commissioners blasted Sununu’s intervention, saying “a few wealthy individuals” had influenced him. We can’t know who has the governor’s ear, but it’s not the commissioners, apparently.

And we are mystified, at least a little, now that Sununu says he is considering a proposal to require school districts to start classes after Labor Day. He said he has been talking with parents, educators, students and administrators about the notion. “Every person I have talked to thinks this is a home run of an idea,” he said.

The governor might want to hold off on that home run call, however. According to the Concord Monitor, Sununu said a later opening date could boost the state tourism industry, since retaining summer staff could help with the Labor Day rush. But it would do nothing to stop the exodus of college-age students, that being beyond a governor’s powers.

And then there’s the issue of local control of schools, which Republicans often advocate. Sununu portrays himself as a champion for school choice who would increase funding for private schools and home schooling. How does a preference for decentralized education systems jibe with a state-mandated opening day?

There are arguments for both sides on whether to open schools before Labor Day - or after - and people in different school districts might have different answers. We’d rather it be settled locally, on the basis of what is best for students and families, not the labor needs of ice cream stands and what used to be called tourist traps. On the list of New Hampshire issues, a statewide school opening date isn’t in the top 10, 20 or maybe even 50. We have to wonder: How did it get on the governor’s agenda, and whoever has he been talking to?

Online: https://bit.ly/2jxsKTJ



The Portland Press Herald, Sept. 14

Hunger is getting no better here in Maine while it improves across the country, and although everyone should be angry, no one should be surprised.

To Gov. LePage, a few free meals a month has a corrupting influence on poor Mainers. Take those away, he says, and people will have no choice but to pull themselves out of poverty.

But that’s not what’s happening. Instead, it turns out that making sure low-income Mainers have less money to spend on food means that more of them end up hungry.

Who could have guessed?

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - SNAP, formerly food stamps - is one of the most effective anti-poverty initiatives because it is so simple and direct. Recipients are given a modest monthly stipend that can be spent only on food, and that is crucial in pulling Americans drowning in hardship just above the water.

In Maine, where so many people are living paycheck to paycheck, or sporadically employed, just one emergency away from a full-blown crisis, SNAP has helped a lot of people with one of the essentials of life.

But LePage has instituted a number of barriers under the guise of fiscal responsibility. He declined to seek federal waivers for Maine for SNAP’s work requirement and asset test - both mandates that the U.S. government has been willing to suspend in the past, recognizing that the economy remains depressed in parts of the state.

These requirements sound reasonable, but in practice they hurt Mainers. People are not as easily categorized as LePage’s changes suggest, so cutting out broad categories of Mainers, and implementing other bureaucratic roadblocks, often delays or denies benefits for Mainers who actually qualify.

What’s more, taking the benefits away doesn’t magically erase the need. If LePage’s plan was for all the people he kicked off SNAP to find another way to feed themselves, it’s clearly not working.

A recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that 12.3 percent of American households are food insecure, meaning that they do not have enough food for a healthy, active lifestyle. That includes the 4.9 percent who have very low food security, meaning that members of these households have been forced to skip meals.

That’s down from the high of 2011, when the troubles caused by the recession reached their peak.

Maine, however, is one of 15 states where food insecurity is worse than the national average - 16.4 percent of households on average from 2014 to 2016.

And while most of the country has been improving, the state has actually seen a small increase in hunger since 2011-13.

Meanwhile, the state’s food pantries are setting new records for the number of people served each year, with Good Shepherd Food Bank, the state’s largest charity food supplier, experiencing huge increases since 2011. Once emergency sources of food, they have become a foundational resource - families use them month after month, year after year, to fill permanent shortcomings in their cupboards and refrigerators.

That’s an indication not that Mainers are too lazy to go find good jobs, but that something structural is keeping so many from getting the food they need just to get by.

Cutting SNAP - and withholding millions in federal funds for job training and other initiatives that help poor Maine residents, as LePage has also done - won’t fill those structural gaps. It will only make them deeper.

Online: https://bit.ly/2fas8SW



The Bennington Banner, Sept. 13

Privacy is dead.

It’s been dead for a while now, actually, only it’s just beginning to raise a smell.

Friday, it was announced by Equifax, a credit reporting agency few had likely heard of until recently, that the personal information of just about half of all adult Americans had been compromised by hackers. Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, driver’s license numbers, credit card numbers, all gone and possible up for sale to identity thieves all over the globe.

If you’re wondering what you should do, or how much trouble you’re in for, there’s numerous sources online offering advice. We recommend you read our own Fraud Watch column and follow the advice of Elliott Greenblott, the Vermont coordinator of the AARP Fraud Watch Network.

You should also get used to this sort of thing happening and become savvy in mitigating or avoiding the consequences.

Credit reporting agencies like Equifax weren’t invented recently. Equifax was founded over 100 years ago. What’s relatively new is that the information it collects is stored on computers and that data can be accessed anonymously, secretly, and remotely.

You don’t use a computer? That doesn’t matter. Some aspect of you is stored on a machine somewhere, be it with the Internal Revenue Service, the hospital, credit card company, the bank. If you exist, your personal information is out there, waiting to be compromised.

This sort of theft occurs on a smaller scale as well. Last week, we reported that “skimming devices” were found at gas pumps at Martin’s Mini-Mart and at Midway’s Tenneybrook Market in Bennington. The devices are fixed to legitimate card scanners and used to steal data from your credit or debit card. They’ve since been removed.

The Equifax breach shows us there really is no way around having your information stolen. Credit reporting agencies get their information from credit card companies, banks, and other lenders so they can formulate your credit score. If you’ve borrowed money, they’ve got your information.

No doubt the companies holding this sensitive data will take further steps to guard it. No doubt those wanting to steal it will find ways to beat the new security measures. There’s no miracle cure for this problem. It isn’t going away. People are simply going to have to factor the risk of their identity being stolen into their daily lives.

What we’ll likely see going forward is a much a greater awareness among the public about the status of their personal financial information. Years from now, if they’re not doing so already, schools may even teach older students how to protect themselves and what to do in the event of a problem, in much the same way they’re taught to drive safely and what do when there’s a crash.

A few years ago, folks would routinely call us saying how someone had tried a phone scam on them and to print their story so everyone would be aware. We ran several such articles, but after a while it became clear that this was the new normal. You lock your car door because people steal. You lock your home doors for the same reason. Now you also pay attention to your bank and credit card statements as well as your credit rating.

Online: https://bit.ly/2jwvKzX



The Providence Journal

Sept. 13

One of the saddest topics we have tackled all year was the miserable performance of Rhode Island public school students on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests. Poor and minority students, in particular, are so far from basic proficiency in English and math that thousands seem condemned to a future of struggle and poverty.

But we would be remiss not to mention that some heroic schools have performed well in the urban core. Elementary school students at Providence’s Achievement First Mayoral Academy, for example, outperformed the state’s students as a whole in English, though many of them come from immigrant homes where English is a second language. In math, they outshone not only the state but tony East Greenwich, one of Rhode Island’s wealthiest communities.

More locally, Achievement First elementary school students outperformed all 22 Providence elementary schools in English and math, with one exception. Vartan Gregorian Elementary School on the East Side scored 7 points higher in English.

Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy in Cumberland, which draws on students from some of the state’s poorest neighborhoods, also performed at a level comparable to or better than the state’s richest suburbs.

The Learning Community, a charter school in Central Falls, is filled with poor and minority students. Some 96 percent of its students are of color, and 85 percent receive free or reduced-price lunches, a measure of poverty. These students outperformed Rhode Island’s white students in literacy, and eclipsed the state average in math. Indeed, the students outperformed more than half of Rhode Island suburban districts, including schools in East Greenwich, South Kingstown and Lincoln.

And there are other shining examples.

What’s the point? The old canard that poverty is an insurmountable barrier to achievement in public schools is just plain false.

The real barrier is apathy - acceptance of a status quo that cheats poor and minority students. Powerful special interests work 24/7 at the State House to prevent reforms that might threaten their financial interests. Absent serious resistance from the public, this will continue, and another generation will be condemned to life as second-class Americans.

Parents of poor students seem reluctant advocates for their children. Many do not speak English well, or fear retaliation if they rock the boat. But nothing will change in Rhode Island public education until they, and caring wealthier citizens (including those rich enough to send their children to top-notch private schools), get organized and involved. They need to demand serious reform, and to threaten incumbent politicians with defeat if they fail to deliver it. We know there are countless teachers in traditional urban schools who care deeply about their students, and desperately want them to succeed.

The pockets of excellence in Rhode Island are not a mystery. Such schools are allowed to experiment with different ideas: among them, longer school days, longer school years, and the right of principals to choose teachers, instead of being bound by iron-clad seniority rules.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of “the fierce urgency of now.” It is long past time for Rhode Island to break some of the chains on the students in its urban schools and permit proven, effective approaches to be rolled out to thousands more children. The only things holding the state back are cowardice and politics, both of which could be changed by courage and determination.

Online: https://bit.ly/2x2nxZJ



The Day (New London)

Sept. 14

What is the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative trying to hide?

The agency most of you had never heard of was thrust into the local consciousness about one year ago when stories first broke that the cooperative had for four years bankrolled over-the-top junkets to the Kentucky Derby. Recipients were top executives at the municipal utilities that own and supposedly direct the operations of the cooperative. Family and influential people were taken along for the trip, 44 people in all in 2016. The total cost of the trips came to $1.02 million.

As noted in Thursday’s editorial, the process of hearing ethics complaints filed in Norwich and Groton - Norwich Public Utilities and Groton Utilities are two members of the cooperative - has been grinding forward for months, with only one penalty paid so far, despite multiple findings of ethical misconduct.

At the same time CMEEC has worked to impede efforts to get access to its financial records.

The cooperative lobbied against state legislation demanding greater transparency and improved oversight of the nonprofit. It waged a legal fight to try to block this newspaper’s efforts to get at its budgetary information.

These are not the actions of an agency with nothing to hide. In light of the Derby scandal, the CMEEC board of directors, made up of top executives from the municipal utilities that co-own it, should have ordered that its books be thrown open to demonstrate that while the trips were a mistake, they were not indicative of agency operations generally.

Instead the board has followed the lead of CMEEC CEO Drew Rankin in trying to stonewall at every turn.

But time is running out. There will be an accounting.

On Wednesday, acting on a complaint filed by The Day, the state Freedom of Information Commission voted unanimously in ordering CMEEC to publicly release its operating budget, including staff salaries and board expenses.

In seeming anticipation of this outcome, on Tuesday CMEEC General Counsel Robin Kipnis provided a seven-page budget summary to The Day. While lacking the detail required by the FOI order, it raises serious concerns. It shows the salary account increasing 16 percent over the prior year, and non-fuel operating and management expenses jumping 9 percent.

There are no breakdowns in any category, no line items for the management expenses or for individual salaries.

If that is the “budget” the CMEEC board approved, then it is guilty of fiduciary negligence. It’s more likely that the board saw the budgetary details but does not want to share them. The purpose of this nonprofit agency is to find the best deals for electric purchases and tap other revenue sources with the goal of holding down prices charged to customers of these government-owned utilities.

Its purpose is not to find ways to pay for lavish trips for executives or pump up big year-over-year salary increases.

It is said that the first thing to do when in a hole is to stop digging. The CMEEC board needs to stop digging. It should instruct Rankin to comply fully with the FOI order and then answer the questions that result from a thorough review of the CMEEC budget.

We know the FBI last November seized records from local utilities, we as yet don’t know why.

And having failed to block the state legislation, in which state Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, played an important and lead role, CMEEC will soon be obligated to provide more information.

On Oct. 1 it will be required to provide the General Assembly’s Energy and Technology Committee with the most recent audit, annual reports, its IRS 990 nonprofit form, and a listing of positions, salaries and benefits, among other things. The new law also requires a detailed, forensic audit going back four years.

It would seem those in charge of CMEEC want it to be held to the standards of a private business. It’s not. It’s a public agency. It’s time to come clean. Only then can CMEEC move forward in repairing its image and assure the public it is operating true to its core mission.

Online: https://bit.ly/2h89mIz



The Springfield Republican

Sept. 15

Ask someone to name the three branches of our federal government, and you might reasonably expect that most everyone in our nation would easily be able to answer such a simple question.

Not so.

Here was U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, who served in the House of Representatives from 1981 to 1999 and who is currently the Senate minority leader, speaking back in 2011:

“You know, we have three branches of government: we have a House, we have a Senate, we have a president.”

Well, not quite.

But still, he was closer than so many folk.

A new survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that fully one person in three cannot name even one branch of the federal government. Really. Thirty-three percent of the people.

(For the record, the three branches are the legislative (made up of both the House and the Senate), the executive (the president), and the judicial (the federal courts).

These are detailed in the first three articles of our nation’s Constitution.

And something so fundamental was once routinely taught in schools all across the land. In civics classes. Perhaps having given up on teaching the basics wasn’t such a great idea after all?

Another finding from the annual Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey

Nearly four people in 10 cannot name even one single right protected by the First Amendment to our Constitution. Really. Not one.

Fully 37 percent, asked to name the rights delineated in the First Amendment, the opening part of the Bill of Rights, drew a complete blank.

This is mind-boggling. People of all political leanings ought to be able to come together to fret and fume over such dismal results. How can we hope to protect and defend our fragile democracy when so many don’t even know the basics?

(For the record, the First Amendment protects five rights. It reads as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”)

Freedom of religion. Of speech. Of the press. These are enshrined in our founding document, and used to be learned by school kids across the land.

How can the people be expected to make wise decisions regarding who will represent them in the Congress, or who should serve as president, when so many don’t know much of anything at all about how our government works?

Ask a friend or a coworker how a bill becomes a law - and be prepared to cringe at the response.

Ask a friend or a coworker what he remembers from civics class, and get ready for a blank stare.

This annual survey must beget more than hand-wringing and eye-rolling. School boards across the land, take note. And then take action.

Online: https://bit.ly/2f1BWuK

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