The Hartford Courant. April 1, 2021.

Editorial: COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations are climbing in Connecticut, despite the vaccine. Here are three mistakes Gov. Ned Lamont is making

In the early weeks following the introduction of the COVID-19 vaccine in Connecticut, signs were pointing to a steady easing of the pandemic’s unrelenting grip. Infection rates and deaths began tumbling quickly. With the elderly and those in nursing homes protected against the coronavirus, the closely-watched metrics gave hope that we were finally winning a war that has devastated lives and livelihoods.

But that sense of impending victory has faded with two developments. First, a new variant, originating in Europe, has taken root in Connecticut and is spreading quickly. Second — and this one is more a self-inflicted wound — Connecticut is trying to return to normal too quickly after a year of cautious progress.

The ill-advised charge is being led by Gov. Ned Lamont, who has put more focus on the state’s impressive vaccination rate than our return to the ranks of high infection states. As of Wednesday, Connecticut was No. 4 in daily cases per capita, trailing only Michigan, New York and New Jersey. While Connecticut may be vaccinating its population rapidly, the level of protection we now have does not warrant the laxity now being seen.

Despite clear, cautionary advice from local doctors and pleas from officials at the federal Centers for Disease Control, Lamont on March 19 restored indoor dining to 100 percent capacity, allowed indoor gatherings at commercial venues of up to 100 people and removed caps on retail stores, offices, houses of worship, gyms, libraries and salons. The message included the usual warnings about masks and distancing, but it was clearly a drop the flag moment. The vaccines work. Spring is here. Let’s go.

We were then — and still are — at a critical moment with the chance to act more prudently and let the vaccines get ahead of the virus. But, instead, the virus is getting ahead of us. There are several mistakes the governor is making that he needs to move quickly to correct before the situation deteriorates further:

1. Lamont is not listening closely enough to the experts

In the days leading up to the March 19 reopening, experts across the state sounded the alarm.

Joseph Fauver, part of a group at Yale tracing the B117 variant in Connecticut, was blunt in his assessment: “I think it’s premature,” he said. “We should wait until we can continue to increase vaccination coverage, until more folks across the state are fully vaccinated and we see how B117 plays out before the quote-unquote reopening happens.”

Federal officials have been equally blunt in their warnings that governors were moving too quickly and have repeatedly implored them to slow down. The CDC’s guidance for vaccinated people — not the population in general — warns against large gatherings. Under the Lamont plan, an indoor wedding with 100 people, some vaccinated, others not, is just fine.

Why does the governor think he knows better?

Lamont himself admitted there was opposition to his plan:

“Was it unanimous? No,” Lamont said in early March. “(Some said) ‘Why not wait? Why not wait? There are variants we don’t know exactly. We could wait.’ But I think there was general consensus that we know what works. We know we have capacity at our hospitals. We know we can turn and change if we have to.”

Despite warning signs everywhere, Lamont pushed forward. And now we are again seeing the numbers spike up, with just about every town in Connecticut posting a red alert warning due to the concentration of COVID-19.

2. Hospitalizations aren’t just about capacity

One of the more troubling danger signs has been a steady increase in hospitalizations, which have jumped more than 20% over the last 10 days. As of Wednesday, Connecticut had 513 patients hospitalized with COVID-19.

At Yale New Haven Hospital, a particularly disturbing trend is emerging, with younger people showing up in greater numbers. Those under its care, the hospital said, included a 21-year-old on a ventilator.

Speaking about the climbing hospitalization rate at a news conference earlier in the week, Lamont focused on the question of capacity as opposed to the human toll of seeing more and more people sick enough to end up in a COVID-19 unit.

Hospitalizations are “creeping up,” Lamont said, adding there remains “tons of capacity” in hospitals and there is “nothing to worry about there.”

“It’s a younger age group,” he said. “They are getting infected. Maybe they are a little more casual than they should be, but I think in terms of capacity in our hospitals, I still feel pretty confident.”

All Connecticut residents 16 and older can get the COVID-19 vaccine starting Thursday. Here’s what you need to know about registering for a vaccination »

After a year of acute sickness and death, the specter of rapidly increasing hospitalizations should not be a conversation about capacity. While those in the hospital are dying at a slower rate, these are still people suffering from an acute illness with potential long-term consequences.

We didn’t need to be in this position.

3. The recent rollbacks were premature, but Lamont won’t admit it

In announcing the reopening plan in early March, Lamont acknowledged the tenuous nature of the improvement we’d seen in Connecticut since the beginning of the year and said he hoped to avoid any rollbacks so long as the numbers continue to decline.

“I hope to God that we don’t have to turn back this time, that the metrics stay in a positive direction,” Lamont said, in early March.

They didn’t stay positive. Now, the numbers show a dangerous trend. Positivity is up, infection rates are climbing and hospitalizations have jumped over the past 10 days. The one metric that has continued to trend downward, thankfully, is deaths.

But Lamont has held a hard line in recent days when asked about the prospect of rolling back the reopening plan. That is unfortunate and unwise. The governor must recognize that his decision to remove or reduce capacity limits from restaurants, indoor events, retail stores and other locations was premature. He should undo some of those changes until the vaccine program can protect a greater share of every age group.

The governor also must recognize that there has long been a gap between the rules and the reality. So while he states publicly that the new guidelines still will require 6-foot separation and mask wearing, it doesn’t take a ton of imagination to see how quickly those practices will fade. The March 19 reopening sent a clear message to Connecticut: We’re just about back to normal; it’s OK to start dropping your guard.

It was absolutely the wrong message to send.

The desire for normalcy is powerful. The hope the vaccine has instilled in us is real. The impatience to break out of our isolation is acute.

But Gov. Lamont has unnecessarily pushed too far, too fast. Connecticut proved its resiliency through the dark months of both the first wave last spring and the second wave over the winter. We had more in us. We still have more in us.

We need the governor to reassess his decisions and return Connecticut to a safer place.

___

Portland Press Herald. April 1, 2021.

Editorial: State budget delivers much-needed stability to Maine

Partisan rivalry should not be allowed to get in the way of the steady operation of government.

Mainers can’t look forward to the usual drama from the State House this spring. Legislative leaders will not be disappearing behind closed doors in June to hammer out a last-minute budget deal and head off a government shutdown.

Instead, the new $8.3 billion budget passed with little debate and only Democratic votes Tuesday.

It will go into effect in 90 days after the Legislature’s pro forma adjournment, which guarantees that there won’t be a shutdown at midnight June 30. The speedy budget also guarantees that cities, towns and school districts will know what to expect from the state when they work on their budgets this spring.

It would be kind of a boring story, if not for the Republican complaints that they have been shut out of the process. A budget can’t pass after April 1 without two-thirds support in both houses of the Legislature, which gives outsize power to minority parties, a power that the Republicans have shown they are quite willing to use.

Republicans say they were “silenced” in this process, and they accuse the Democrats of wrecking bipartisan comity by pushing through a “majority budget.” But that bipartisan spirit has not always been on display.

In August 2019, Republicans used their clout to block bond issues from going to the public for approval, denying voters the chance to be heard on investment in broadband, worker training and land conservation. Those were all popular initiatives that were “silenced” by a minority of legislators.

And just last month, Republicans used all of their leverage to slow the passage of a supplemental budget for the current year, squeezing out state tax breaks for profitable companies that had also received federal pandemic aid through the Paycheck Protection Program. If Democrats were anticipating another minoritarian shakedown on the two-year budget, they had good reason.

Republicans point out that this is the third majority budget in recent history, and all of them have been passed by Democrats.

That’s true, but they are less likely to acknowledge that in 2012, when Republicans had control of both the Legislature and the Blaine House, they passed a supplemental budget on a partisan, majority vote that dropped 32,000 people from MaineCare.

The budget passed Tuesday was not nearly as controversial. It was essentially a continuation of the current budget, which received bipartisan approval two years ago.

And the Legislature’s work is far from done. There are still many bills that have been introduced and worked on by committees but have not received votes in the House and Senate.

When they come back into session, Republicans and Democrats will have a role in determining how to spend the $1 billion the state is expecting to receive from the federal American Rescue Plan.

You can’t have bipartisanship without two parties that trust each other. There is clearly work to be done in Augusta to rebuild trust across parties, but in its absence, a budget that keeps the government running smoothly is good for Maine.

___

Boston Globe. April 1, 2021.

Editorial: Time for state lawmakers to act on school integration

A decades-old problem is still a problem. And possibly worse.

In Massachusetts, we tend to think of school segregation as something that happened 50 years ago in Boston — if we think of it at all.

But racial segregation is still a serious problem in this state. And by some measures, it’s getting worse. In the last decade alone, the number of “intensely segregated” nonwhite schools — that is, schools with student populations that are at least 90 percent students of color — has grown by more than one-third, according to research from the Beyond Test Scores Project and the Center for Education and Civil Rights.

And while Boston hosts plenty of these racially isolated schools, they’ve also become fixtures in old industrial cities like Lynn, Lawrence, Chelsea, Brockton, and Springfield.

In Massachusetts, we tend to think of school segregation as something that happened 50 years ago in Boston — if we think of it at all.

But racial segregation is still a serious problem in this state. And by some measures, it’s getting worse. In the last decade alone, the number of “intensely segregated” nonwhite schools — that is, schools with student populations that are at least 90 percent students of color — has grown by more than one-third, according to research from the Beyond Test Scores Project and the Center for Education and Civil Rights.

And while Boston hosts plenty of these racially isolated schools, they’ve also become fixtures in old industrial cities like Lynn, Lawrence, Chelsea, Brockton, and Springfield.

But responsibility for desegregation does not lie with urban school systems alone. Indeed, there are limits on what cities like Boston, where only 15 percent of public school students are white, and Lawrence, where just 3 percent are white, can do. There are simply not enough white children to go around in those districts to meaningfully integrate their classrooms. Districts can, of course, strive to create more of the high-achieving schools that would draw white middle-class families and create more diverse classrooms.

But in this moment of racial reckoning, the state must take a leadership role — encouraging both intradistrict and regional, interdistrict integration.

A good place to start is with a series of bills put forth by state Senator Brendan Crighton, a Lynn Democrat, who says he learned the virtues of integration as a child in the city’s schools — once among the most diverse districts in the state, but now one of the most racially isolated.

The first measure would establish a commission to study school segregation and the residential segregation that undergirds so much of it — and come up with recommendations for ameliorating both.

Talk of a Beacon Hill commission sometimes gets the eyes rolling; too often, a commission is where a good idea goes to die.

But in a state that hasn’t paid serious attention to segregation in decades, a careful examination of how our affordable housing and school assignment policies have fostered a destructive racial isolation is a crucial first step in building support for meaningful reform.

A similar bill from state Representative Chynah Tyler, a Boston Democrat, would add another worthy task to the commission’s charge: examining successful integration strategies in Massachusetts and nationwide.

We have at least one proven model here. The Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, or Metco program, has been sending students of color from Boston and Springfield to high-achieving suburban schools for decades. And the results — substantially higher graduation and college enrollment rates than peers in urban public schools — have been nothing short of remarkable. But there has been little effort to expand Metco. In fact, just maintaining funding for the program has been a struggle.

There’s plenty to examine beyond the Massachusetts border, too. A recent survey by the Century Foundation found almost 200 school districts and charter schools nationally taking active steps to integrate their schools, alongside hundreds of others subject to a legal desegregation order or voluntary agreement.

Some jurisdictions use magnet schools with themes that attract students from all sorts of backgrounds. Others have redrawn attendance boundaries to encourage integration or have established race-conscious weighted lotteries.

A second bill authored by Crighton would establish a state grant program for districts, or regional consortiums of districts, to develop and implement these sorts of integration strategies. One forward-looking provision would give priority to applicants who pursue the interdistrict or regional approaches that hold the greatest promise.

Crighton says the measure is modeled, in part, after the federal Strength in Diversity Act, which passed the House of Representatives last year with unanimous support from Democrats and, in a rare bit of bipartisanship, votes from 21 Republicans as well.

That legislation has a better chance of making its way through the Senate now that Democrats control the chamber. And whether Congress acts or not, advocates hope the Biden administration will move to revive a separate Obama-era school integration grants program.

The potential for a new federal investment in integration is all the more reason for state lawmakers — and local school boards — to start focusing on the issue now. Massachusetts needs to be ready to seize the opportunity if Washington sets a grant competition in motion.

A third Crighton bill would alter the state program that helps pay for the renovation of aging school buildings and the construction of new ones.

It would double the amount of sales tax revenue set aside for the program, provide more state aid for low-income districts like Lynn, and — here’s where the desegregation piece comes in — add a bonus for projects that promote integration. A regional school that drew from a city and its surrounding suburbs might qualify — or a city school built on the border of white and Latino neighborhoods.

The school construction bill probably won’t pass, as is, in the short term. Its call for major new spending will take some time to gain traction in the Legislature. But there’s no reason lawmakers can’t move on the integration bonus now.

A grant program for districts that want to integrate shouldn’t be controversial either. And a commission to study the problem is the least Beacon Hill can do.

For too long, Massachusetts has tried to forget or ignore its segregation problem. Too many students have paid the price.

___

Boston Herald. March 31, 2021.

Editorial: Lottery revenue points to riches from sports betting

Massachusetts lawmakers have been debating, discussing and dissecting the issue of sports betting for ages.

But those who take a wait-and-see approach to the issue just got a rich demonstration of how lucrative gaming is for Massachusetts.

From July 2020 through February 2021, eight pandemic-filled months, the Massachusetts Lottery sold $3.78 billion worth of its products and turned an estimated profit of $747.9 million — a 4.1% increase in sales and a 7.2% increase in profit over the same eight months leading up to the pandemic, the State House News Service reported. Lottery Executive Director Michael Sweeney told the Lottery Commission on Tuesday morning that February sales “held their own” and that six of nine products on the Lottery’s roster have seen sales increases so far this fiscal year. “We’re doing very well. Actually, in my opinion, outstanding overall. Just about 4% over sales compared to the prior year. Instant tickets are very strong, up over 6%,” Sweeney said. February sales of $420.8 million were up $3.6 million over February 2020 sales.

The Massachusetts Lottery had its third-best year in terms of revenue in fiscal year 2020 and generated a net profit of $986.9 million for the state to use as local aid.

Imagine tacking on sports betting to that number.

In November, New Hampshire Public Radio reported that since launching the previous December, sports gambling has netted the state $4.6 million in tax revenues.

N.H. Lottery Commission officials said that revenue figure would likely be higher if the pandemic hadn’t forced the cancellation of professional and collegiate sports games, and shortened playing seasons.

We’re slowly reopening, games will rebound — and that’s a nice slice of the pie that’s waiting for Bay State to take a bite.

It’s time for the Legislature to act, not wait.

___

Rutland Herald. April 1, 2021.

Editorial: Old vs. new

After months of back-room consideration, there will be a plan announced to begin charging a fee on Vermonters who leave uninspected and unregistered vehicles that are in plain sight of our public roads. The plan — a Junker Tax — would have two consequences: to clean up the Vermont landscape and to generate revenue.

Putting forth such an idea will not be popular. While there are strict laws (and financial penalties) for driving unsafe vehicles, the Junker Tax feels like an encroachment on the rights of property owners. It feels like overreaching on behalf of government, and the idea raises many more questions, especially when it comes to enforcement and how it gets paid for.

Right now, across our beautiful state, there are derelict vehicles parked in dooryards and fields that could not be moved without owners hiring tow trucks (or excavators) to have them removed. That would need to be done at significant cost, and in many cases, the vehicles likely were abandoned because owners could not afford the costly repairs. Plus, many Vermonters have — for more than a century now — taken great pride in the ingenuity and resourcefulness of dooryard junkers. They have been used for storage, chicken coops, recycling bins and — in some cases — converted into guest rooms.

In as much as Vermont’s landscape has rolling hills and rounded mountains, a working landscape and now fields of cows alongside fields full of solar panels, we have old vehicles. Photographers seek out old relics left to rust, oftentimes capturing iconic moments where either wildlife or ecosystems are co-mingling with metal and glass. Our bygone vehicles are part of what makes Vermont so unique.

Lamenting them and treating them as eyesores is one thing. Thinking about charging a tax on a household that has an old Ford up on blocks is an outrage. It is like punishing us for our personal history. And you have to wonder where such an idea would possibly take root. Who could come up with such an idea?

Flatlanders, of course. No fifth- or sixth-generation Vermonter would ever consider such a thing. Sure, we get homeowners upset with an impromptu junk yard (and many Vermont towns have gone out of their way to regulate against that), but Poppa’s old Chevy parked in an old bay next to the barn? Let us have our nostalgia. Let us keep our memories. Let the parts and the sum of the parts be our own burden.

Out of curiosity, one has to ask: What is so appalling? What is so outrageous that we need to regulate what is in our yards? Perhaps the old junker is part of an art installation, which brings us well into the realm of Freedom of Expression. Paint a greeting or a message on the van sunk up to its running boards and you delve headlong into issues of Freedom of Speech. “It’s our junk. It’s our problem” might be the next statewide rallying cry.

Over the next weeks and months that the Junker Tax is discussed, we will — without question — see some hard feelings as the opinions from people “from away” clash with those grizzled voices of people “from here.” There will be across-the-fence arguments about whether it’s “junk” if it is simply waiting for a part from the salvage yard. There could be renewed concerns about neighborhood policing, and community snitching. This Junker Tax has the potential to change us as Vermonters, to drive us to that slippery slope where we are not only acting as Big Brother for the aesthetics of the state, but — without a driver’s manual-sized set of guidelines and procedures — arbiters in a highway of subjectivity. This is not the Vermont we want or need.

Let’s make sure that if any such proposal gets any traction, it gets parked where it starts. Let’s refuse to accept the notion that our old ways and other new views can’t co-mingle, like the loud rooster perched atop the hood of an old Ford. We do not need the money so much that we end up turning on our neighbors and townspeople (and maybe even our kin).

Sad is the day that Vermont can’t be that place where a tired old vehicle can’t have its eternal resting place in the Back 40. Or like a centerpiece in the front yard. We can afford to allow that juxtaposition of the past and the present. Because if we can’t live with that then we really are kidding ourselves.

Editor’s note: For an explanation of the Junker Tax, look at the first letter of each paragraph.

___