Connecticut Post. February 10, 2021.

Editorial: Lamont’s budget an encouraging first step in a long process

As he stated in Wednesday’s address to the state, Gov. Ned Lamont has always been clear about his priorities in holding the top elective office in the state. The priority is the budget, and specifically getting Connecticut out of a long-running pattern of crises that had characterized the state for far too long. He hasn’t wavered in that focus.

And while virtually nothing has gone according to plan these past two years — how could it, with a pandemic thrown into the mix — Connecticut finds itself in surprisingly better shape than might have been expected. There is plenty of work to do and many obstacles to overcome to develop long-term sustainability and a better future for everyone. But we are on a better track, and Lamont deserves no small amount of credit.

Wednesday’s budget address is only the first step in a long process. It now falls to the Legislature to pore over the details, assert its own priorities and work to find a solution that works for everyone. But the governor’s plan is a starting point that will go a long way in driving the discussion over the coming months as Connecticut looks to once again meet Lamont’s goal of an on-time, balanced plan for the next two years.

The pandemic trumps everything, for, as Lamont said, if we don’t defeat it, “nothing else matters.” While the pain suffered by small businesses that have been shuttered for almost a year is still being felt, the need to contain the spread of COVID-19 remains, even as vaccinations gain momentum. Making those businesses whole must be a top priority for the state and federal governments.

Action on the federal level is key to Lamont’s strategy, as the governor is once again resisting plans for a broad tax increase despite insistence from some members of his party that such a move is key to the state’s future. But Lamont is unlikely to budge on what has been a core tenet of his governorship, and aid from Washington, even as many details remain to be decided, will be vital to keeping the state whole.

Affordability takes center stage in Lamont’s plans, and Connecticut prices are notoriously out of reach for many people trying to get by, especially in the southwestern corner. There’s only so much a governor can do about that, and in many ways it’s a good problem to have, as it shows the state remains a desirable landing spot for many people of means. But opening previously closed doors to even more people is key to our economic future, and it’s encouraging to see Lamont make the issue a focus of his budget.

Health care, transportation and broadband infrastructure also stand out as highlights of Lamont’s budget plans, any one of which could, with well-planned reform, put Connecticut on a better path. Much will be determined as the Legislature gets to work.

The key, as Lamont says, is getting COVID under control and then growing the economy. Connecticut is on a path toward renewed prosperity, with many unexpected factors contributing to that encouraging direction. But it will be up to the governor and lawmakers to ensure we stay on the right path.

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Portland Press Herald. February 10, 2021.

Editorial: CMP’s high connection costs threaten Maine solar industry

Gov. Mills is right to demand answers after the company springs costly upgrades on solar project developers.

Maine entered the year with dozens of solar power projects at different stages of development, large and small, all across the state – good news for local economies, and a necessary step toward meeting the state’s aggressive goals for lowering carbon emissions.

Just a few weeks in, however, the future of many of those projects is now in question, after Central Maine Power, out of the blue, said it would require from developers costly upgrades far exceeding what the parties had agreed to, as reported last week in the Portland Press Herald.

Gov. Mills, who has asked the Public Utilities Commission to investigate the matter, is right to demand answers. Why are the additional costs just coming out now, after contracts have been signed and developers have moved forward in good faith?

And if adding solar projects now puts so much stress on the grid, how will it handle the electrified economy that is a critical component of the fight against climate change?

To meet its climate goals, Maine will have to shift away from the use of oil and gas, including for heating and transportation. With more of our lives running on electricity, we’ll need to generate a greater share of power from renewable sources – a much greater share.

Solar power is a big part of that effort, and new state laws and policies encouraging solar development are working, with projects totaling hundreds of thousands of panels planned for the next several years.

Each of those projects has to connect to the grid at some point. Before a project starts, the utility determines whether the substation and local distribution network can handle the new load. If upgrades are needed, they are the responsibility of the developer – if the costs are too high, the project may not be feasible.

But if the numbers work out, the developer and the utility sign an interconnection agreement, and the developer can move forward knowing their business plan is solid.

CMP, however, is now telling developers that the upgrades will cost much more than their contract states. The cost of upgrades for one project in Oakland rose from $250,000 – agreed to in December as part of the interconnection deal – to $9 million, the Press Herald reported. Another jumped from roughly $618,000 to $8.4 million.

A Maine Renewable Energy Association survey found more than 100 solar projects in 74 Maine communities have received revised cost estimates totaling millions of dollars.

The unexpected costs have made a mess of solar development in Maine. They put in danger millions of dollars in investment. Some projects may be canceled. Businesses and municipalities counting on the power produced by them may be out of luck.

More than that, they raise questions about whether the grid will be ready to handle all the new generation that must come our way. Experts say it’s alarming that these projects, some of them very small, would require such costly upgrades.

In her letter to the PUC, Mills asked commissioners to look not only at why CMP’s revised cost estimates are so high, but also whether the state’s utilities are up to the task of growing renewable-power generation.

The PUC should move quickly to find the answers, and to help put solar development in Maine back on track.

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Boston Globe. February 12, 2021.

Editorial: Congress must seize a once-in-a-generation chance to address child poverty

A permanent expansion of the child tax credit could make a profound difference in the lives of the country’s most vulnerable kids.

More than 1 in 10 American children live in poverty.

Many are anxious about their next meal. They fret about eviction. And too many are stressed by the threat of neighborhood violence.

The pandemic has only deepened the disadvantage.

A rolling census survey, designed to take the pulse of family life during the pandemic, shows that about one-third of low-income families with children in public and private schools consistently report their kids spent “much less time” on learning activities in the previous week than they did before the coronavirus struck.

Now, Congress has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a material difference in the lives of our most vulnerable kids. And it must act.

President Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package is best known for the $1,400 direct payments it would send to low-income and middle-class Americans and its call for an extension of unemployment benefits.

But the proposal also includes a one-year expansion of the child tax credit that, if made permanent, could make a profound difference in the lives of the country’s most vulnerable kids.

The measure, put forth by Representative Richard Neal, the Springfield Democrat who chairs the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, would increase the credit families get per child from the current $2,000 to $3,000 for children under age 6 and to $3,600 for children ages 6 to 17.

And, just as important, it would expand access to the poorest families in the country. At present, the tax credit isn’t available to a family making under $2,500 — say, a single mom who lost her job and is living with a sibling. Nor does it fully phase in until a family’s income reaches nearly $12,000.

The result, according to Columbia University researchers, is that more than one-third of American children don’t get the full benefit of the tax credit — including half of Black and Latino children and a stunning 70 percent of kids with single mothers.

“It does not reach the children and families who would benefit from it the most,” says Sophie Collyer, research director at Columbia’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy.

The center estimates that the Neal expansion and other measures in the relief package would cut childhood poverty in half. And research shows that giving low-income families cash has extensive knock-on effects for their kids, including better learning outcomes, fewer psychological problems, and higher earnings as adults.

But expanding the child tax credit would not just be a boon to the poorest American families. It would also help millions of middle-class families struggling to make ends meet; the tax credit only starts to phase out for heads of household when they earn $112,500 and married couples when they make $150,000.

One key feature: The Internal Revenue Service would pay out the benefit in advance of tax season, with the legislation calling for monthly payments beginning in July — $250 per month for older children and $300 per month for younger kids.

That steady stream of cash would be especially helpful to families facing job loss or other fluctuations in income.

But Congress cannot lift millions of children out of poverty only to let them fall a year later. It must work to make the child tax credit expansion permanent.

Wealthy countries in Europe and elsewhere have long provided cash allowances to families raising kids. And if America, which has one of the highest childhood poverty rates in the developed world, wants to improve its dismal standing, it will have to do the same.

Senate budget rules require Democrats to find a way to pay for the expansion if they’re going to cement it into law. And the best way to do that is to raise taxes on the corporations and wealthy individuals who got big cuts during the Trump years.

Senator Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, is floating a different idea: offsetting the cost with cuts to programs for the poor.

That should be a nonstarter in a Democratic-controlled Washington with a rare opportunity to take meaningful steps toward addressing the economic inequality that has warped American capitalism over the last half-century.

But the Romney proposal does include some interesting ideas for administering the benefit that Democrats should consider. He would have the Social Security Administration rather than the IRS make the payments, for instance — turning to an agency with a long track record of issuing monthly checks. As appealing as that approach may be, it comes with its own bureaucratic challenges: The Social Security Administration would have to coordinate with the IRS to make the system work. In the end, lawmakers will need to land on a policy with the smoothest delivery for poor and middle-class families.

Some other tweaks to the Neal proposal may be in order, too — like strengthening a “safe harbor” provision that protects parents from clawbacks if the government sends them too much in advanced monthly payments; an unexpected bill at the end of the year can be a real hardship for some families.

That’s all detail work, though. The larger task for Congress is to face up to one of the country’s great moral failings — letting more than 9 million children languish in poverty — and to take meaningful action to remedy it now.

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Rutland Herald. February 9, 2021.

Editorial: Restraint

It is alarming to see that the number of COVID cases is not going down. We have been banking on the opposite. We are looking to have the economy restart. We are looking forward to local winter sports. We were hoping the vaccine distribution would start to stem the flow of cases.

But everything takes time, and we are impatient.

It makes 10 months of lockdown feel like an eternity — a jail sentence.

And yet, in jails, we have witnessed a concentrated microcosm of what is happening elsewhere. No one is immune, even isolated populations. In fact, Vermont has seen COVID cases repeatedly showing up in statewide facilities, and in prisons out of state, where Vermont prisoners are being held.

The Associated Press last weekend published a startling investigation that pointed to an unprecedented string of U.S. executions and a spike in COVID cases among death row inmates.

Seventy percent in fact.

Records obtained by The Associated Press show employees at an Indiana prison complex where 13 executions were carried out during six months had contact with inmates and other people infected with the coronavirus, but were able to refuse testing and declined to participate in contact-tracing efforts and were still permitted to return to their work assignments.

Other staff members, including those brought in to help with executions, also spread tips to their colleagues about how they could avoid quarantines and skirt public health guidance from the federal government and Indiana health officials.

The executions at the close of the Trump presidency likely acted as a superspreader event. It was something health experts warned could happen when the Justice Department insisted on resuming executions during a pandemic.

According to the AP analysis on the topic, “It’s impossible to know precisely who introduced the infections and how they started to spread, in part because prisons officials didn’t consistently do contact tracing and haven’t been fully transparent about the number of cases. But medical experts say it’s likely the executioners and support staff, many of whom traveled from prisons in other states with their own virus outbreaks, triggered or contributed both in the Terre Haute penitentiary and beyond the prison walls.”

Of the 47 people on death row, 33 tested positive between Dec. 16 and Dec. 20, becoming infected soon after the executions of Alfred Bourgeois on Dec. 11 and Brandon Bernard on Dec. 10, according to Colorado-based attorney Madeline Cohen, who compiled the names of those who tested positive by reaching out to other federal death row lawyers. Other lawyers, as well as activists in contact with death row inmates, reported to AP that they were told a large number of death row inmates tested positive in mid-December.

In addition, at least a dozen other people, including execution team members, media witnesses and a spiritual adviser, tested positive within the incubation period of the virus, meeting the criteria of a superspreader event, in which one or more individuals trigger an outbreak that spreads to many others outside their circle of acquaintances. The tally could be far higher, but without contact tracing it’s impossible to be sure.

Also, active inmate cases at the Indiana penitentiary spiked from just three on Nov. 19 — the day Orlando Cordia Hall was put to death — to 406 on Dec. 29, which was 18 days after Bourgeois’ execution, according to Bureau of Prisons data. The data includes the inmates at the high-security penitentiary, though the Bureau of Prisons has never said whether it included Death Row inmates in that count, according to the AP.

In all, 726 of the approximately 1,200 inmates at the United States Penitentiary at Terre Haute have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to Bureau of Prisons data. Of those inmates, 692 have recovered.

There are plenty of arguments against capital punishment. But this might just be an argument for a delay in any executions until after the pandemic.

Up to this point, all requests to do so have been rebuffed repeatedly and their litigation failed.

Fortunately, no more executions have yet been scheduled under Biden.

At a minimum, we can say there have been two killing sprees. And perhaps with some restraint, common sense, and a review or our actual senses, we might come to some different conclusions before we proceed once again.

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Boston Herald. February 6, 2021.

Editorial: Baker gets COVID-decision company

After allowing Gov. Charlie Baker to run the state’s response to this pandemic through emergency executive decree, legislative leaders have decided to insert themselves into the state’s COVID-19 response.

House Speaker Ronald Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka announced jointly Wednesday they’ll be creating three new standing committees in the 2021-2022 session aimed at specific areas that they feel require “sustained attention and policy expertise.”

One of three will target COVID-19 oversight and emergency management.

In a separate, more pointed statement, Mariano said the Baker administration’s vaccine rollout has been “marked by communications and operational shortcomings” that need to be corrected, in part guided by feedback from the Legislature, as the effort continues.

Early on in the pandemic, the Legislature agreed to defer most emergency management decisions to the Baker administration.

That now could change.

Given the need to act quickly and decisively — not the Legislature’s strength — during this worldwide health crisis, governors nationwide took the lead in mitigating the effects of this virus.

We understand lawmakers’ concern, but the commonwealth must speak with one voice on COVID-19 programs and policy.

The governor should take these developments as a sign that future COVID-19 steps should include greater input from the legislative branch.

But all involved should understand the coronavirus buck still stops at the corner office.

END