Hearst Connecticut Media Editorial Board. April 8, 2021.
Editorial: CT must catch up with times on voting
There shouldn’t be anything partisan about voting rights. In an ideal world, expanding the franchise would be seen as a basic political goal of all parties, with a corresponding need to sell your ideas to an increasingly more diverse array of voters each election cycle.
We’re far from an ideal world, and partisanship is unavoidable even in otherwise unremarkable events. As a result, the move to make voting easier has been embraced by one side of the political aisle and demonized by the other. It’s a trend that is playing out nationally but one to which Connecticut is not immune.
It’s most visible in Georgia, where Democrats surprised the nation by winning the state’s presidential electors as well as two U.S. Senate seats in recent months. That was followed by a state law pushed by local Republicans that appears aimed at limiting turnout and stopping a repeat of 2020’s surprise results.
That in turn brought a backlash of its own, highlighted by Major League Baseball’s decision to move this year’s All-Star Game out of Atlanta. It’s a reminder that when public officials take stances that hold back progress, there can be unforeseen consequences.
The underlying truth in Georgia and around the country is the problem those laws are ostensibly aiming to solve — rampant voter fraud — doesn’t exist. There is simply no evidence of the kind of widespread wrongdoing that would change the results of an election. Voter fraud as an issue worth cracking down on is fictional, which puts the lie to laws aimed at stamping it out. The real goal is to stop people from voting.
In Connecticut, the situation is different. This state is held back by archaic statutes that limit absentee balloting to just a few circumstances and have no provision for early voting. To find the most restricting voting policies in America, you don’t need to go to the Deep South — it might be right here in New England.
The coronavirus allowed state officials to temporarily change those laws, and the result was a widespread embrace of no-excuses absentee ballots. To make those changes permanent, the Legislature needs to act.
Minority Republicans do not have enough members to stop this process, but they can slow it down. That seems to be their intent, and it follows the lead of the party nationwide. It’s a protest destined to go nowhere.
Connecticut has a long way to go to catch up to other states around the nation that have modernized their voting systems. Colorado, for example, has moved to all mail-in ballots, which has been a smooth process that makes casting a vote easy and convenient. Connecticut isn’t likely to go that far, but there is much more that could be done.
Voting is part of what makes our country great. We need to make it easier for more people to do it. The more people can vote, the better our government will represent the true will of the people.
Meriden Record-Journal. April 8, 2021.
Editorial: Connecticut’s prisons are shrinking
The inmate population at the Cheshire Correctional Institution has dropped below 1,000. This is part of a statewide decline in the number of incarcerated people, which is a positive trend in a country with shockingly high incarceration rates compared to other nations.
Connecticut’s incarceration rate is one of the lowest in the U.S. — 468 inmates per 100,000 population, according to the Prison Policy Initiative — but it is still six times as high as the rates in the United Kingdom or Germany, for example, and higher than in Russia, and twice as high as in Morocco. The U.S. states with the highest incarceration levels are Oklahoma (with 14 times the rate in the U.K.), Louisiana and Mississippi.
But Connecticut continues to lower its rate for a number of reasons, including “a concerted effort on the part of the Department of Correction to expedite those eligible for discretionary releases,” according to Andrius Banevicius, spokesman for the department, a “considerable drop” in the number of arrests made during the coronavirus pandemic, and an expansion in mental health, substance abuse treatment and other diversion programs which provide alternatives to incarceration.
However, the reduction could eventually lead to a loss of jobs or state funding by the towns that host state prisons, because of the state’s odd practice of counting inmates housed in each prison as residents of that town. If a prison closes — and the state does plan to close three correctional centers over the next year or so — the reduced population could lower state aid to the affected towns.
But this could actually bring more inmates to Cheshire when prisons are closed in other towns. With the projected closings, it’s impossible to predict how the inmate population in each town will be affected.
Prison host towns already complain that the payments in lieu of taxes they receive from the state fall far short of what they should be. Cheshire currently receives “only 27 percent of the revenue that we’re supposed to,” according to Town Manager Sean Kimball.
Prison populations have been declining since at least 2016, when the Cheshire facility, which now houses 998 inmates, held around 1,374, according to state records. CCI Cheshire remains the second largest in the state and is also home to the Manson Youth Institution, a high-security facility that houses inmates under the age of 21, which has seen its population hovering around 250 over the past few years, down from a high of around 600 in 2016.
Statewide, the incarcerated population now stands at 8,957, the lowest level since 1990. In 2020 the inmate population was 12,409. The highest recorded population was 19,894 in 2008.
While the issue of PILOT payments to the towns that host correctional institutions in Connecticut has long been a point of controversy, and may be overdue for change, it’s hard to see a downside to this state’s trend of locking up a smaller percentage of residents.
Boston Globe. April 9, 2021.
Editorial: Big dreams for transit need a dose of reality
President Biden’s infrastructure plan sets off a wave of Massachusetts dreamin.’
Will it be electric buses for Chelsea or a one-seat train ride from Boston to the Berkshires?
The very notion of billions of new dollars in federal infrastructure funds — much of it geared for transit, rail, and electric vehicles — sets planners to daydreaming and politicians to promoting pet projects.
President Biden’s $2 trillion proposal hasn’t had a vote yet in Congress, but to hear some of the more powerful members of the delegation talk, it sounds as if the checks are already in the mail.
They aren’t — far from it — but that’s not to say Massachusetts shouldn’t be putting together that wish list of must-haves, nice-to-haves, and a “dream big” project just in case.
The dream big project the state’s congressional delegation seems to have settled on is East-West Rail — a shiny object of a transit plan that would carry passengers from Boston to Springfield and possibly beyond. Since the last regular passenger service ended in 2004, only one pokey Amtrak train a day has served the route. Part of its current appeal can be found in the political clout of House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, who represents most of western Massachusetts, and Rules Committee Chair Jim McGovern, who represents Worcester — where the MBTA’s commuter rail now ends.
Sure, for years, the western part of the state has been neglected, while the South Coast commuter rail and Green Line Extension proceed apace. But geographic equity and political clout alone can’t make the case to prioritize a venture estimated at somewhere between $2.4 billion and $4.6 billion.
Federal dollars only fall out of the sky so often, and the state needs to carefully rank its priorities. Shoring up existing commuter rail lines and improving public transit in urban centers are among the competing needs. Far more backup will be needed than an “if we build it, they will come” promise of prosperity along the new corridor for East-West rail to top the list.
Now the president’s American Jobs Plan is still just that, a plan, not yet drafted into legislation. But it does promise $85 billion to “modernize existing transit and help agencies expand their systems to meet rider demand,” including “rail service to communities and neighborhoods across the nation.” Another section would set aside $80 billion for passenger and freight rail service, a large chunk for Amtrak, to improve existing service and to “connect new cities.”
So it’s easy to see why members of the state’s congressional delegation are starry-eyed about future funding for East-West Rail.
Representative Seth Moulton, newly arrived on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, wants to go one better — promoting the notion of a high-speed rail line.
“If we could have a 25-minute ride from Boston to Springfield, that would be huge,” he told the Globe. “That would be transformative.
“And if you could get from Springfield to Chicago (via high speed Amtrak) in four hours that would be good for Boston and good for Chicago and even better” for cities in between, he added. “It’s a better policy choice for housing and for economic development.”
Even the most expensive option evaluated by the state in its East-West rail study comes nowhere close to the kind of speed Moulton is talking about.
Chris Dempsey, Director of the coalition Transportation for Massachusetts, is more focused on maintaining some of those must-haves. He estimated that based on traditional federal funding formulas, the state is likely to see about $3 billion in new federal funds from that $85 billion transit pot.
“That’s a lot of money,” he said in an interview. “It could be transformational for the MBTA in particular. But we’re not going to turn into Wakanda,” the futuristic fictional homeland of Marvel’s Black Panther.
The $174 billion proposed by Biden to advance the use of electrified vehicles, included replacing diesel buses with electric ones, could certainly be a boon to, say, Chelsea and communities where asthma rates are high.
Electrification of the Providence Line, Fairmount Line, and a portion of the Newburyport/Rockport Line — backed by the MBTA Fiscal Management and Control Board in 2019, but estimated to cost more than $2 billion — might also qualify.
But when it comes to the transit section of the bill, “We’re still going to have to be thoughtful about making trade-offs,” Dempsey said. “We have to remember that any expansion means we’re also signing up for enormous operational costs.”
If the state does indeed go for East-West Rail, the new infrastructure bill is likely to provide “only a down payment on it,” he added.
In its latest report on the project issued this January, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation described a number of “next steps” — each a potential pitfall:
▪ It would require an agreement with freight rail operator CSX about using its rights-of-way for passenger lines. A complete separation of passenger from freight tracks adds $1.5 billion to the project.
▪ The current cost-benefit analysis (how many riders vs. total cost) would not qualify the project for federal funding. MassDOT said it will “work with the congressional delegation and other key stakeholders to advocate for changes to the cost-benefit analysis method to better capture all of the potential benefits. . . ”
▪ What entity will govern and run this system is still unknown. “MassDOT does not have the capacity to operate as a railroad or to manage rail operations,” and the MBTA’s legislative mandate to operate ends in Worcester.
None of the problems are unsolvable, but none of the solutions will be easy. And key to making a sound economic decision will be a study that looks at changes in travel patterns, in work-life patterns (including a post-pandemic analysis), possibilities for housing and economic development along the new corridor. Those things truly matter and no smart politician should make a decision without knowing the answers.
MassDOT has committed to getting the answers, but as of its last report had “not yet identified either the state or federal funding to support such a study.”
That must be Step 1 for East-West Rail. The prospect of this much money coming from Washington calls for a statewide evaluation of where it can do the most good. That’s not sexy. It’s not a bright shiny object. It’s just common sense.
Gloucester Daily Times. April 9, 2021.
Editorial: Hopeful signs with vaccinations
Even as Massachusetts passed 17,000 confirmed deaths from COVID-19 Wednesday, there were still hopeful signs in efforts to get through the pandemic.
For one, residents of the state have steadily streamed into vaccination clinics at senior centers, school gymnasiums and church auditoriums – anywhere the vaccines have become available. State Department of Public Health data this week shows more than 2.5 million Bay State residents have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. That’s 36% of the population, and rising.
With the increase in vaccinations the number of people in hospitals and intensive care units had dropped, but has started to tick up again; Tuesday’s report from DPH said 755 people were hospitalized, up 30 from Monday.
But on the positive side, as access to the vaccine opened up for adults 55 and over, people got on board and the data shows that’s paying off. State House News Service reported this week that confirmed cases of COVID-19 among people 60 and older represented nearly 21% of the total infections in early January across the state. By late last month, that age group represented only 11% of the total.
Gov. Charlie Baker, who as a 64-year-old was able to get his first shot this week, noted the number of infections among people in their 70s and 80s has gone down even more significantly.
“If you just look at the data from January forward, the number of people over the age of 75 in Massachusetts who are testing positive has dropped like a rock and the number of people who have ended up in the hospital has also dropped like a rock,” Baker said Tuesday.
Now, the concern is for younger people who aren’t yet eligible for vaccinations. With most public schools back to in-person classes this week, and many teachers and school staff receiving at least one shot, all eyes will be on the pool testing in coming weeks to see whether COVID-19 infection rates rise in these younger age groups.
With the vaccination numbers going up and the rules loosening for schools and other public gatherings, officials will be paying close attention to infection rate trends in different age groups. Adjustments, recalibrations and maybe even temporary shifts back to fully remote classes or meetings are to be expected as we move toward the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.
Lowell Sun. April 8, 2021.
Editorial: Tyngsboro ruling clear win for open government
Although this ruling came down after the annual nationwide celebration of access to public information and open government, the decision by the Secretary of State’s office regarding previously withheld records in the matter of the town of Tyngsboro’s animal-control officer stands as an unequivocal victory for the public’s right to know.
Sunshine Week, held this year from March 13-19, was launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors — now the News Leaders Association — to shed light on the dealings of municipal government, and the effect it has on its citizens and community as a whole.
In Tyngsboro’s case, the Public Records Division of the Secretary of State’s Office sided with the public’s right to know by ordering the town to release previously withheld records concerning racially charged Facebook posts made by Animal Control Officer Dave Robson Sr.
The newspaper and former Tyngsboro Selectman Robert Jackson both filed public-records requests late last year for documents related to the selectmen’s 3-1 vote, in an Oct. 29 executive session, to reinstate Robson to his position as animal control officer.
David Robson Jr., Robson’s son and a member of the Board of Selectmen, recused himself from the vote involving his father.
Robson was on administrative leave pending an investigation into Facebook posts he’d made, including one that said “Shoot the protesters” in reference to Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody.
The town rejected both Jackson’s and the newspaper’s requests, saying it considered records of the disciplinary proceedings — in which Police Chief Richard Howe recommended that Robson be fired — to be personnel records exempt from public scrutiny, not internal affairs records subject to release under previous Supreme Judicial Court rulings.
The town argued that even though the animal control officer reports to the police chief, it’s not a sworn law-enforcement position, and therefore didn’t qualify as an internal-affairs probe.
But on Monday Supervisor of Public Records Rebecca Murray ruled in Jackson’s favor, which settled the issue at hand in both appeals, making the records public and ordering the town to release them within 10 business days.
“This exemption requires a balancing test which provides that where the public interest in obtaining the requested information substantially outweighs the seriousness of any invasion of privacy, the private interest in preventing disclosure must yield… The public has a recognized interest in knowing whether public servants are carrying out their duties in a law abiding and efficient manner,” Murray wrote in her decision, citing case law.
Murray did allow the town to make redactions “where appropriate” due to privacy concerns.
Tyngsboro Town Administrator Matt Hanson said selectmen will be meeting with the town’s attorneys, after which time he expects the town counsel to release a redacted version of the reports within the timeframe set by the Public Records Division.
We’re not certain how this case would have been resolved prior to the long overdue revisions to the state’s public-records law that took effect in January 2017.
It took Massachusetts 40 years to finally catch up with the rest of the country in acquiring information from municipalities and state agencies.
The atmosphere of awareness that followed — defended by an engaged press – certainly played a part in the changed perception of government’s responsibility to public access.
On too many occasions, those seeking information, from individuals to news organizations, had been frustrated by toothless, archaic laws interpreted subjectively, designed to thwart the public’s right to know. From charging outrageous fees to ignoring requests, government oftentimes kept a lid on every citizens’ basic right by discouraging legitimate inquiries.
But as this Tyngsboro situation demonstrates, it can still sometimes take individual persistence – or a media organization acting as the public’s proxy — to extricate information from an unwilling government entity.