The rainy day has arrived

The Republican American

May 1

Connecticut’s rainy day fund has a record balance, as Gov. Ned Lamont and other state officials have been quick to highlight. However, the coronavirus pandemic may prove devastating for the budget reserve. This demonstrates, as well as anything does, the need for Capitol policymakers to handle the rainy day fund wisely.

The rainy day fund was in dire straits for years after the 2008-10 Great Recession. A 2017 law, approved by then-Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, and a bipartisan group of legislators, injected new life into the budget reserve.

This law mandates that certain excess income-tax payments be deposited in the rainy day fund. It played an outsized role in the reserve achieving the $2.5 balance it now has.

When the pandemic hit, it almost was inevitable that the rainy day fund eventually would be tapped. The pandemic produced economic disarray and dry revenue flows.

In early April, Gov. Lamont estimated Connecticut’s 2019-20 and 2020-21 budgets were in deficit by $500 million and $1.4 billion, respectively. The governor has announced he will use the reserve to close the 2019-20 deficit, the Republican-American reported April 21.

What is more, Melissa McCaw, Gov. Lamont’s budget director, and state Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo have said it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the rainy day fund will be depleted when fiscal year 2020-21 ends June 30, 2021, the Connecticut Mirror reported April 30.

Hardly anyone will object to tapping the rainy day fund at present. After all, the pandemic has made for a true “rainy day.” However, in the not-so-distant past, Capitol policymakers have played games – or attempted to play games – with the reserve.

Two years ago this month, Mr. Malloy and legislators of both parties signed off on skirting the aforementioned 2017 law. Some excess income-tax payments from FY 2017-18 were spent in FY 2018-19, instead of being deposited in the rainy day fund, as the law required.

As recently as February, some lawmakers wanted to use the rainy day fund to support their pet projects; Gov. Lamont and Mr. Lembo had advised against this course, citing economic volatility.

The pandemic demonstrates just how unpredictable the economy and revenue flow can be. Accordingly, rainy day fund games are unacceptable.

We applaud Gov. Lamont and Mr. Lembo for calling for the reserve to be used only on a rainy day, and they should continue their hard line.

Using the rainy day fund for its intended purpose only can help Connecticut.




Lifting flavored tobacco ban would be wrong move

The Newburyport Daily News

May 1

There have been many cries in recent weeks for the easing of some state regulations to keep struggling operations — especially small businesses — afloat during a time of historic economic uncertainty.

There may be an argument for loosening or delaying some rules, and lawmakers and the Baker administration will have some tough choices to make in the weeks and months ahead.

One easy decision, however, would be to reject calls to delay the state’s ban on flavored tobacco products.

The ban on everything from menthol cigarettes to wintergreen tobacco is set to go into effect June 1. Mentholated vaping products would be banned as well. Industry groups representing convenience stores want to delay the ban for a year, saying their clients can’t afford the lost revenue.

The New England Convenience Stores & Energy Marketers Association says its stores are already hurting, with overall sales down 30 to 50%, gasoline sales down 60% and Lottery sales 20%.

However, it is important to remember Gov. Charlie Baker and the state Legislature worked together to enact the ban in the middle of an earlier health crisis. Flavored tobacco and vaping products were clearly being marketed to underage smokers, creating a new generation of addicts and spawning a myriad of related respiratory illnesses that are yet to be fully understood.

It is difficult to understand how anyone would think allowing that damage to continue is a good idea during the COVID-19 crisis.

“The middle of a lung disease pandemic is absolutely the worst time to delay necessary action to protect our kids from addictive tobacco products that harm the lungs,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

He’s right. The evidence is clear that smoking contributes to the underlying health conditions that make COVID-19 much more deadly.

“COVID-19 is a lung infection that aggressively attacks the lungs and even leaves lung cells and tissue dead,” Dr. Albert Rizzo, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association, wrote earlier this month. “While it’s important to prevent getting COVID-19 in the first place, it’s also essential that we do all we can to keep our lungs healthy to avoid the worst effects of the disease.”




Take swift action on distributing funds

Nashua Telegraph

April 28

On Monday, the Legislative Advisory Committee of the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery talked about getting agencies like the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation and the Business and Industry Association involved in helping to evaluate and distribute the more than $1.25 billion in CARES act funding received by the Granite State.

Frankly, after the recent dust-up between the governor’s office and the Legislature, this is a brilliant idea.

Organizations like the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation are used to dealing with the distribution of funds and the handling of hundreds or thousands of applications. They know the ins and outs of these sometimes long and complex precedes.

What is clear, is that action is needed on distributing these fund. Officials need to come to a concensus and get this all important money into the pockets of those who need it most.




Modeling was grossly inaccurate

The Providence Journal

April 30

Something very strange has been going on with COVID-19 models that precipitated Rhode Island’s drastic response.

Models still posted Thursday on the Rhode Island Department of Health’s website showed that the peak need for hospital beds for COVID-19 patients will occur this Sunday, May 3, with 2,250 beds needed.

In truth, there were evidently 339 people hospitalized yesterday, though the state seems to be having trouble accurately counting the number.

That is an enormous magnitude of error. Yet no one has apologized, and Rhode Island has been so lethargic in correcting the error that the clearly faulty model was still up Thursday morning.

Obviously, we will not have a run on hospital beds by May 3. According to the state Wednesday, daily new hospital admissions for COVID-19 in Rhode Island had plummeted from a high of 36 on April 16 to two on April 28.

And some of the terrifying projections in April were even wilder. The modelers warned that 4,300 people could need hospital beds in Rhode Island on April 27. That was almost 13 times greater than the actual number proved to be. Gov. Gina Raimondo even said the number could reach a horrifying 6,000.

As we have noted, no one could have been certain a month ago how the virus would impact Rhode Island’s hospitals and mitigation was called for.

But the fast-and-loose nature of the models was clear on April 16, when the more conservative (though still inflated) estimate of 2,250 beds was rolled out.

The modelers did not even bother to make their new chart reflect reality. It over-inflated the number of hospital beds needed in Rhode Island on April 16 by about three times. You would think the modelers would at least begin their revised chart with an accurate number.

It would be one thing if these models had no public policy implications. But they formed the entire basis of the state’s shutdown, which has left Rhode Island’s economy in smoldering ruins. The idea was to “flatten the curve” of infections so that hospitals would not be overrun with patients.

The actions taken by Rhode Islanders, in practicing social distancing, must have been helpful in stemming the spread of this scary virus. But the frightening models are so out of whack that it seems unlikely mitigation efforts alone made the difference.

All of this modeling has been rather cloaked in obscurity. Legislative leaders this week had no idea who did the modeling and how much it cost. Jennifer Bogdan, the governor’s press secretary, revealed in an email: “the model was developed collaboratively with the R.I. Department of Health, Brown University and the Brown University Policy Lab based on a framework from Johns Hopkins University.”

“There are no costs associated with the model,” she added. The state certainly got its money’s worth.

Though it is important to “trust the science,” it is always a good idea to insist on full transparency when dealing with government. In the months ahead, as Rhode Island picks up the pieces, we hope the media and the legislature will look into how these models were created and whether we could have done better.




Wear the mask

Times Argus

April 29

The arrogance is astounding and dumbfounding at the same time.

Vice President Mike Pence chose not to wear a face mask Tuesday during a tour of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, an apparent violation of the world-renowned medical center’s policy requiring them.

Video feeds show that Pence did not wear a mask when he met with a Mayo employee who has recovered from COVID-19 and is now donating plasma, even though everyone else in the room appeared to be wearing one. He was also maskless when he visited a lab where Mayo conducts coronavirus tests.

And Pence was the only participant not to wear a mask during a round-table discussion on Mayo’s coronavirus testing and research programs. All the other participants did, including Food and Drug Administration chief Stephen Hahn, top Mayo officials, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn.

Mayo tweeted that it had informed the vice president of its mask policy prior to his arrival. The tweet was later removed.

“Mayo shared the masking policy with the VP’s office,” the health care system said in its response.

Pence explained his decision by stressing that he has been frequently tested for the virus.

“As vice president of the United States I’m tested for the coronavirus on a regular basis, and everyone who is around me is tested for the coronavirus,” Pence said, adding that he is following CDC guidelines, which indicate that the mask is good for preventing the spread of the virus by those who have it.

“And since I don’t have the coronavirus, I thought it’d be a good opportunity for me to be here, to be able to speak to these researchers, these incredible health care personnel, and look them in the eye and say ‘thank you.’”

Pence is not the only White House official who has shown a reluctance for face masks. When President Donald Trump announced new federal guidelines recommending that Americans wear face coverings when in public, he immediately said he had no intention of following that advice himself, saying, “I’m choosing not to do it.”

Wear the mask.

It’s common sense. It’s public safety. It’s good leadership.

And wearing the mask does not prohibit one from looking someone in the eye, unless you are wearing it improperly.

Pence, who has been put in charge of overseeing the pandemic, does not strike everyone as the media darling his boss is. But it does appear that he wants to be in maskless, lock step with his boss on this one.

“I just don’t want to wear one myself,” President Donald Trump has said. “It’s a recommendation. ... Somehow sitting in the Oval Office behind that beautiful Resolute Desk, the great Resolute Desk, I think wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, dictators, kings, queens, I don’t know, I don’t see it for myself.”

This is not a test of manhood. It’s not a game. It’s not a hoax.

As a matter of course, leaders who ask the people they lead to do something should probably do the same themselves. Makes sense.

And now social media is alight with factions defending Pence and the president for not wearing masks, stating it makes them look stronger than COVID-19.

A virus does not care how much money you have, how big your ego is, or whether you are a pathological liar or not. It has one purpose: to wreak havoc on your system.

Assuming one is above the coronavirus — or that it will simply be beaten like any other foe — sends a horrible message to the world. It shows a lack of caring, a lack of compassion, a lack of respect for those who are on the front lines, and for those who are sick and especially for those tens of thousands who have died as a result of it.

The current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance is that if you have to be in close contact with others in places where social distancing is not possible, you should wear a mask, to protect them in case you have it yourself and are asymptomatic.

Put on the mask so we can at least pretend we are not looking you in the eye in utter disdain.




Maine summer tourist season full of questions

Portland Press Herald

May 1

No matter how you look at it, Maine’s summer tourism season is full of uncertainty and peril. In the coming weeks, elected officials, business owners, workers and visitors will make decisions on how to proceed, weighing the economic well-being of the industry, its members and the state as a whole against the need to protect individual and public health.

It’s unlike anything the state has faced before, and as of now there are no clearly safe options.

However, there is still time to find some. The state must use it wisely.

Gov. Mills this week released her phased economic recovery plan, and it reflects the uncertainty surrounding this summer.

On Friday, a few kinds of businesses that have been closed for the last few weeks will be allowed to reopen.

The second phase is set to start June 1, when restaurants can once again serve in-person diners. Lodgings and campgrounds could reopen then, too, but only for Maine residents and out-of-state visitors who have isolated themselves for 14 days after their arrival here.

From a business perspective, that’s untenable. No one is coming here on vacation only to stay in a hotel room for two weeks. It’s as good as banning out-of-staters outright, and it would mean an end to this year’s tourist season.

State officials have said as much, and they promise to revisit the 14-day requirement in the coming weeks and months.

As with most coronavirus-related decisions, Gov. Mills should opt for the least-restrictive method that still credibly protects public health, which should remain her priority. Right now, unfortunately, the only available method is the quarantine, which is a blunt instrument.

But think of how far we’ve come in our response to the coronavirus in just the last few weeks. Perhaps in another month or so, we’ll know more about the virus and how it spreads. Perhaps we’ll finally have the testing capacity we need. Perhaps a method will emerge that allows visitors to come here as usual, with some modifications. If so, there is still time to change how the state treats them.

However, there is more to consider. Even if Maine can allow visitors to come here and enjoy, with physical distancing, what the state has to offer, that in no way ensures a successful tourism season – and the billions of dollars and all the jobs that come with it.

After all, there will likely be no festivals or concerts. With physical distancing, beaches, bars, shops and restaurants won’t be the same. Some business owners will choose not to open, either because they have been knocked down by the swift economic downturn, are uneasy about the health risks, or can’t make a go of a restaurant with limited seating. Some visitors, maybe a lot, will take the year off.

So Maine has to plan for a way to allow visitors, many who will come from the COVID-19 hot spots of Massachusetts and New York, without endangering public health. It has to plan for a summer season that allows as many businesses and workers to do what they do to get by.

And it has to plan for a year in which that’s not enough, and Maine loses out on the benefits that the $6 billion-a-year tourism industry brings it – regardless of what Mills decides.

Finally, it has to plan for a summer, or fall, in which an outbreak occurs, and all the drastic measures abandoned in the next few months must be put back in place rapidly.

It’s a healthy lift. There is a lot in front of us.

The forecast right now for Maine’s summer is cloudy. Let’s use the next several weeks to bring it some clarity.