CT lawmakers can’t correct justice issues in a short session
The Connecticut Post
Exactly when did all that chatter in Hartford about tolls fade so far back in the rear-view mirror?
Remember those heady summer days of 2019 when Gov. Ned Lamont kept alluding to a special session dedicated to a deep dive into the tolls issue? That never happened, and the issue that hogged the road in the first half of the year stalled out by Christmas.
Here we are, back in July anticipating a special session, and there’s a lot more traffic for legislators to negotiate.
Lamont sounds adamant about limiting the goals of the session for the week of July 20 to one or two.
“I’m pretty cautious what you can do on a two- or three-day special session,” he said. “I like what we’re focused on right now, which is voting and voting rights and absentee (ballots) as well as police accountability.”
The absentee ballot issue is probably the only sure thing, but even that faces considerable opposition. To us, it sounds like a no-brainer — even without a pandemic — to expand the use of absentee ballots on Election Day beyond those who are ill. The number of eligible voters who traditionally participate in this most cherished of rights is painfully low, and every effort should be made to ease the process.
One remedy is to revise state law to also open absentee ballots to anyone who fears being exposed to illness, a certainty this November when they would enter indoor polling places surrounded by strangers in masks.
But there is stark division on the issue, as the minority Republicans are following the party script that absentee ballots invite voter fraud.
While the voter issue is motivated by this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement is driving the call for enhancing police transparency.
Members of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus are understandably trying to seize the moment to drive deeper change. At a news conference Tuesday, they unveiled an outline of interests they hope could lead to systemic reforms, reaching beyond voting rights and police accountability to education and housing equity and economic and environmental justice.
Generations of racial injustices can’t be course-corrected in a special session that will last no longer than a holiday weekend. We’d like lawmakers to agree on an absentee ballot solution and stand united on assuring police accountability.
Lawmakers are floating the idea of a September session to catch up on more mundane matters, and there will likely be issues related to the pandemic that cry for immediate action. By that time, legislators trying to enhance their Election Day profiles will surely float distracting pet causes as well.
Lamont hinted that bigger issues requiring a public hearing should wait until such gatherings can be held beneath the gold dome, which at best means 2021.
Transformative reform calls for bold action, but will take months and years of refinement. These are issues that must not fade in the rear-view mirror.
An irrational assault on higher education
The Boston Globe
“When foreigners attend our great colleges & want to stay in the U.S., they should not be thrown out of our country.”
Those are the words of the president of the United States, Donald Trump. He tweeted them nearly five years ago. Trump, at that point, seemingly agreed with the most basic notion that foreign students enrich America.
Yet the Trump administration went out of its way to disrupt life for international students Monday, when US Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced new guidance for student visa holders. International students enrolled in the upcoming fall semester in colleges and universities that move classes completely online because of the coronavirus outbreak won’t be allowed in, or will have to leave the country or transfer to a different university if they are already in the country. Even if the school has a hybrid model, offering some classes online and some in-person, a foreign student won’t be allowed by this policy to enroll in just online classes while staying in the United States.
Such a policy was in place before the pandemic, and then it might have made some amount of sense — a student wouldn’t need a visa to be physically present in the United States if all classes are taught online anyway. But the new guidance is a departure from the more recent federal waiver policy set up to deal with the pandemic: As colleges shifted to online classes, their foreign students were allowed to stay in the United States. Considering the still-raging pandemic, it would make sense to keep those waivers in place.
But now, under the new rule, many foreigners are simply going to drop out, rather than face the prospect of taking virtual classes from their home countries. There are about a million international students in the United States, with half of them coming just from two countries: China and India. Massachusetts ranks in the top five states with the most foreign students with 77,000.
“Time zones are going to be a huge problem,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council. “Indian and Chinese students will have to attend classes from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. And there are countries where access to the right technology is going to be an issue, as well.”
The thinly veiled reason for the policy is to pressure universities to reopen for in-person instruction, using their foreign students (most of whom pay the full tuition price) as hostages. The administration has pretty much admitted that — on the record. “This is now setting the rules for one semester, which we’ll finalize later this month, that will, again, encourage schools to reopen,” said Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, on CNN.
But rather than relenting to the pressure, the reaction from universities to Trump’s new policy has been swift. Barely two days passed before Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed suit in US District Court in Boston challenging Trump’s move. The schools allege that the “directive is arbitrary and capricious because it fails to offer any reasoned basis that could justify the policy.”
With the lawsuit, Harvard and MIT are seeking a temporary injunction on the policy. “ICE’s decision reflects a naked effort by the federal government to force universities to reopen all in-person classes notwithstanding their informed judgment that it is neither safe nor advisable to do so. The effect — perhaps even the goal — is to create chaos for schools and international students alike.”
Foreigners are yet again being used as pawns by the Trump administration. But a move like this one will have far-reaching consequences. In 2018, foreign students spent nearly $45 billion on tuition, living expenses, books, and other costs. Chinese students alone were responsible for $15 billion of that expenditure. At a time when the higher education market is struggling economically due to the pandemic, the potential loss of foreign students could be a huge financial blow.
More importantly, foreign students are a critical source of talent and job-creation. If the policy prevails, it would be a textbook example of the United States shooting itself in the foot. Here’s hoping that the pushback from higher education institutions leads the Trump Administration to come to its senses and leave this group of foreigners in place.
A vote for Question 1 is a vote for the future of rural Maine
The internet is integrated into everything we do. It’s no longer something you log onto here and there, but a constant feature — a portal through which nearly every part of our lives is organized and operated.
As such, it’s not a luxury — in fact, it’s hard to see it as anything but a necessity anymore. For doing business. For staying in touch with friends and family. For receiving health care and an education. For participating in democracy.
That’s why we support a “yes” vote on Question 1 on the July 14 statewide ballot, which sets aside $15 million to invest in high-speed internet in areas of the state where it is unavailable.
That’s also why the state should continue to help fund these projects beyond this bond until fast, affordable internet is available in each corner of the state, and to every resident.
THREAT TO SURVIVAL
The problem is indisputable. By one estimate, more than 83,000 Maine households have a low-speed internet connection or no connection at all. The households are located almost solely throughout the most rural parts of the state, where the loss of people and jobs over the last few decades has stunted economic growth.
Where there is no high-speed connection, businesses can’t send or receive large files easily, or connect with customers or vendors. Health care providers forced to cover large areas in rural Maine have trouble connecting with patients. Students can’t participate in remote learning, and don’t have immediate access to all the resources their peers do. Residents can’t work remotely, or stream the meetings of their local government, or even their favorite shows.
All of it combines to make rural Maine a more difficult place to live and work. It forces people born there to consider moving to areas with more opportunity, and it makes the areas less attractive to prospective businesses, residents and visitors.
In short, it is a threat to their survival.
Maine’s rural communities know it, too. But they’ve got little help from the private sector. Because there are too few potential customers, it doesn’t make financial sense for private internet providers to build the necessary infrastructure in these areas.
In response, many communities have come up with plans of their own, typically using a combination of funding — local, state, federal, nonprofit and private — to give their residents access to high-speed internet.
The ConnectMaine Authority, the state entity charged with increasing broadband access, was created to provide funding and support to these communities. In the last 12 years, the group has awarded around $12 million in grants to 144 projects, extending internet access to nearly 40,000 households.
They’ve also issued planning grants totaling nearly half a million dollars to communities who want to figure out what they need when it comes to internet service, and the best way to get it.
According to ConnectMaine, more than 50 communities have already done this work and are ready to move forward with a project.
There are also communities throughout the state where providers are trying to fill in smaller gaps where fast internet is not available.
However, both kinds of projects need funding.
The $15 million bond would leverage up to an estimated $30 million in other funds, which would help make those small and large projects a reality. Every dollar spent from this bond will make a difference in Maine communities.
But it’s just the one step in an ongoing effort. A much larger investment — spread out over years — is needed to make sure all of Maine has high-speed internet.
ConnectMaine says it will take an investment of at least $600 million total to extend a high-speed fiber network to all unserved roads. In its action plan released in January, the group recommends a state investment of $40 million a year for the next five years.
That may sound like a lot. But Maine voters have approved a bond for highway improvements for more than twice that amount in each of the last five years, and will likely approve another $105 million for that purpose on July 14.
Increasingly, living without the internet is like living without a phone or electricity — or without a road leading to your front door. Maybe you can get by, but you’ll miss out on a lot, and you’ll be way behind everyone else.
That’s not the future we should want for rural Maine.
Strange or dangerous?
It’s hard to know whether we are living in strange or dangerous times.
While there is a lot of heated debating about key issues facing Americans – race, social justice, police brutality and immigration, to name a few – we are seeing an uptick, even here in Vermont, in the number of incidents of vandalism done under the guise of free speech and political statements.
Last week, there was an incident in which Vermont State Police stated they had identified white supremacist graffiti found at Waterbury Reservoir.
A worker found the graffiti painted on the east side of the dam — a location that has little visibility to the public and is not viewable from the water.
According to troopers: “The graffiti was identified as coming from the hate group Patriot Front and was applied using a stencil, allowing ... the offender to apply the images quickly then leave. There is no video of the site on the dam where the graffiti was applied, and there are no known witnesses or suspects.”
Previously, after a Black Lives Matter mural was painted along a length of State Street in Montpelier, an individual – in full view of surveillance cameras – defaced the mural to state, “Black Lies Matter,” and then proceeded to deface the granite sidewalk leading to the State House. Within that same week, individuals in vehicles as large as loaded tractor trailer trucks squealed tires or braked hard enough to leave large tire marks across the giant mural.
Yesterday, state police announced they were investigating “potential bias-related incidents in Jericho and Underhill in which unknown subjects damaged Black Lives Matter artwork painted on three roads in the communities.”
All three incidents were discovered by a trooper on patrol Monday morning, and involved evidence that vehicles had burned out tires over the artwork. Two of the locations, on Browns Trace and Pleasant Valley roads, had “Black Lives Matter” painted in the roadway. At the third location, on Irish Settlement Road, “Black Trans Lives Matter” was displayed. At the Browns Trace Road location, white and brown paint had been poured on the artwork.
Reports of all of these cases have been sent to the Attorney General’s Office under the Bias Incident Reporting System.
But bold statements are being made elsewhere, as well.
Less than an hour after it was finished this past Saturday afternoon, vandals came for a Black Lives Matter street slogan in Martinez, California.
In broad daylight, with witnesses recording on phones, a woman in flip-flops and a patriotic shirt splattered a can of black paint over the bright yellow “L” in “Black” heaving her paint roller over the letters outside the Contra Costa County courthouse in California. Her companion, a man in a red “Four More Years” shirt from President Trump’s campaign and red “Make America Great Again” hat, told onlookers, “No one wants Black Lives Matter here.”
“What is wrong with you?” someone asked the unidentified vandals from off-camera, in a viral video of the incident also shared by police. “We’re sick of this narrative, that’s what’s wrong,” the man responded. “The narrative of police brutality, the narrative of oppression, the narrative of racism. It’s a lie.” The woman scrubbed away with her black paint roller, looking up to say, “Keep this s- — in f--- — New York. This is not happening in my town.”
The Martinez Police Department is searching for the suspects in this high-profile incident of vandalism targeting. Incidents also have been reported in Cleveland and several other communities nationwide.
Across the nation, consensus is growing about the existence of systemic racism in American policing and other facets of American life, and longtime organizers of the Black Lives Matter movement are trying to extend its momentum beyond the popularization of a phrase.
Activists are sensing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to demand policy changes that once seemed far-fetched, including sharp cuts to police budgets in favor of social programs, and greater accountability for officers who kill residents.
But activists’ demands to “defund” police departments already have become a point of division politically, with some prominent people who have expressed support for the movement saying they do not support what they see as an extreme policy position.
Looking at the massive social media response to the graffiti at Waterbury Reservoir, which accused both the police and this newspaper’s staff of propagating lies and attempting to incite fear and divisiveness among citizens, we are leaning more toward “dangerous” over “strange.”