Boston Globe. April 20, 2021.

Editorial: There’s too much secrecy in state government. It’s time for a constitutional amendment to change that

Many of the documents that are readily accessible to the public in other states are off-limits here.

Massachusetts’ state government has long been one of the least transparent in the country.

Want to know how your representative voted in committee on a crucial climate change or police reform bill? Good luck with that. There’s no requirement the information be made public.

Curious about who testified before the committee before it took its top-secret vote? You’re going to have trouble with that one too.

And many of the documents that are readily accessible to the public in other states — e-mails, contracts, and memos at the heart of the people’s business — are off-limits here. Massachusetts has the dubious distinction of being the only state in the country where the governor’s office, the legislature, and the judiciary all claim they are exempt from public records law.

Open-government advocates have been calling on these institutions to change their ways for years. The rationale is clear: Knowing how elected officials’ deliberate, oversee critical services, and vote allows the public to hold them accountable for their actions. But the state government has hardly budged. The latest affront? Just a couple of months ago, House lawmakers rejected a measure that would have taken the modest step of making committee votes public and publicizing testimony.

It may be time, then, to up the ante to press for a constitutional amendment, via ballot measure, that would smash through the obfuscation strengthening Massachusetts’ weak public records law and making it applicable across state government.

There’s precedent for this sort of effort. Washington state voters approved public records reform in 1972. And a group called Progress Michigan announced a ballot measure push just last month.

The promise of greater transparency is reason enough to pursue a constitutional amendment; we should all know what our government is up to.

But the amendment could have a wider effect than that — encouraging the Legislature to pass important legislation that too often withers in darkness.

Every year, bills with wide support — some claiming dozens and dozens of cosponsors — die in committee, with no record of who killed them and no way to hold those legislators accountable.

Getting a constitutional amendment approved would be no small task. Open-government advocates would have to commit substantial resources to collecting the tens of thousands of required signatures. And then, at least one-quarter of the Legislature would have to approve of the measure in two consecutive sessions before it could go on the ballot.

Given lawmakers’ longstanding resistance to transparency, even that low threshold could be tough to meet. But a high-profile push for a constitutional amendment would put new pressure on Beacon Hill to act.

It could also activate support among a public typically more concerned about education and health care than public records reform.

Recent history suggests voters will back open government when given the choice. Last year, voters in 16 House districts overwhelmingly approved nonbinding ballot measures calling on their representatives to make the committee process more transparent.

Anyone who’s paid attention to state and national affairs in recent decades knows the rules of the game really matter — the Electoral College, campaign finance, transparency. Some of the rules are hard to change.

These are rules we can alter — and should.

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Hartford Courant. April 23, 2021.

Editorial: We’re still fighting coronavirus, political division and injustice in Connecticut, but 2021 is looking a lot better than 2020 — and that’s worth celebrating

Despite the New Year’s hype, the first few days of 2021 were starting to look a lot like 2020.

Donald Trump’s efforts to undermine the election were heating up, rather than cooling off, culminating in a shameful and deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol.

Fueled by holiday gatherings and in spite of the early rollout of the vaccine, coronavirus deaths and hospitalizations were skyrocketing. In late January, the number of COVID-19-linked deaths in Connecticut surpassed 7,000.

There was renewed talk here and across the nation about racial justice, but the prospect of any real accountability in the killing of George Floyd was tenuous.

Three months later, we are in a better place. And after a nightmare of a year marked by division, death and despair, that’s something we should take a moment to appreciate. Celebrate even.

The conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd was described by many Black activists and leaders in Connecticut and across the nation as a critical juncture in the struggle to combat historic abuse and discrimination.

“This verdict is a real, real pivotal point in the struggle in the Black Lives Matter movement, in the awareness of people of color,” said Natalie Langleise, a Hartford activist. “People are starting to learn that if we speak up, others will listen. They have to listen.”

The conviction of one white officer in the death of a Black man was, as many noted, far from an end point. The struggle for justice and equality, for removing systemic barriers that stand in the way of America truly becoming a more perfect union, did not end with a jury’s verdict in Minneapolis.

But over the last year we have seen more Americans acknowledge not just their sympathy but their responsibility. We are not where we need to be, but we are in a better place.

We are still living in the grip of a deadly pandemic, but there are signs of improvement. As more and more Americans get vaccinated, fewer are dying. Connecticut is still adding new names to the death toll daily, but there is no question the pace has slowed.

And, while it may take some time to readjust to this new world, we can begin thinking again about going out and seeing our children, our parents, our friends, our brothers and sisters. As we emerge from isolation, we will — perhaps ironically — begin to more acutely feel the loss of this last year. Some will be ready to reengage more quickly than others. But we can start to get back to the business of living. We are in a better place.

And, for the first time in four years, Americans can wake up in the morning without rushing to their phones fearing the president had unleashed a tirade on Twitter. To many, it was clear early on that the presidency of Donald Trump was fueled by fear and anger, by a man who reveled in tapping the well of insecurity and hate that still runs deep through the fault lines of our nation. Trump damaged us all.

There are those who disagree with the politics of President Joe Biden, many in fact. And that’s fine. That’s democracy. But perhaps in hindsight even those who agreed with Trump’s policies will see the consequences of his vitriolic approach. With the temperature reduced, we have the chance to relearn that political disagreement does not need to be a source of anger and derision. When it comes to leadership, we are in a far better place.

We have lived through a year that challenged us in ways we might never have been able to imagine. It is easy to be cynical; it is necessary to demand better. There is still much work to do.

But it’s also critical to take note that right now, as we look ahead to the gentler days of spring, we have come to a better place. And that we’ve helped one another to get here.

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Hearst Connecticut Media. April 21, 2021.

Editorial: Is Lamont rushing COVID strategy before clock runs out on executive authority?

There’s always been a bit of magical thinking when it comes to COVID-19 strategies.

No one has a crystal ball to anticipate the arc of the virus. As he revealed major next steps Monday, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont was candid in sharing that “We had no idea the scope of the tragedy we were confronting a year ago.”

Back then, Lamont earned kudos as a model of caution. He earned measures of criticism as well, largely from conservative pundits parroting that “the cure is worse than the disease.”

That hackneyed phrase thankfully withered as Connecticut’s death toll rose — lapping 8,000 in recent days.

Lamont is now pivoting further from the cautious approach embraced by President Joe Biden and inching closer to the cowboy attitudes of Texas.

Despite Biden’s warning that Texan Gov. Greg Abbott’s lifting of restrictions March 10 represented “Neanderthal thinking,” that gamble seems to be paying off. The numbers of daily cases and hospitalizations have continued to decline. Vaccinations helped, as has warmer weather and Texans — including merchants — who ignored the protocol and continued to wear masks.

So Lamont has had the advantage of seeing how scenarios such as that are playing out as temperatures rise in the northeast. But he’s still playing with lives without the benefit of absolute answers. There’s still no reliable crystal ball. It’s closer to a Magic 8 ball leaders shake in hopes of getting a better answer than “reply hazy try again.”

Nevertheless, Lamont is taking his boldest steps yet. Most outdoor-related mandates will vanish May 1. That means no one has to wear a mask outdoors. And other business restrictions are slated to disappear May 19.

This should be good news, though after more than a year we suspect many residents will continue to be vigilant. If speed limits were suspended for a day, we maintain some faith that many people would still stay in their lanes at safe speeds.

We are also wary that Lamont may be trying to hasten the process before his clock strikes midnight. Since the outbreak in mid-March 2020, he has acted swiftly through executive order. But the last extension of such authority will expire May 20.

After that, the governor will have to work with legislators on when to lift the restriction on indoor masks.

State officials anticipate that about 70% of eligible residents will have gotten at least one vaccine dose by the end of April. But there’s a substantial difference between one shot and two, as well as the additional few weeks before the vaccine becomes effective. By that logic, it would make more sense to drop the mandates a full month later.

There’s also a chasm between arenas having to limit audience sizes and being able to fill seats to capacity as of May 19.

We hope Lamont’s answers are the right ones. We all want the same thing, an end to social distancing. Ultimately, though, these decisions will be personal.

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Portland Press Herald. April 23, 2021.

Editorial: Give young people in state with the oldest population more input in Augusta

A new bill would create the Youth Impact Commission to inform and advise policymakers.

As all state lawmakers are certainly aware, Maine is the nation’s oldest state – it’s a fact that plays a role in nearly every discussion at the State House, from housing and health care to education and workforce development.

Despite all the attention, however, the Legislature has had little success reversing this demographic decline.

Maybe they haven’t been hearing from the right people.

While Maine’s median age is around 44, the average age in the Legislature is much older – in 2015, it was 55 in the House and 57 in the Senate. At the time, more than 70% of lawmakers were baby boomers or older.

So while legislators may have the best of intentions, they may not fully understand what younger Mainers want out of life in Maine, and what challenges they face in making it a reality.

And even though lawmakers provide opportunities for residents to weigh in on issues, those proceedings typically are dominated by lobbyists, former legislators and others with experience at the State House.

As a result, the views of younger Mainers are not always well represented as policy is developed and brought up for the vote.

A bill now under consideration could change that. L.D. 1497, from Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, would create the Maine Youth Impact Commission, an independent panel of 15 Mainers between the ages of 15 and 30 who would help inform and advise policymakers on issues affecting youth in the state. Appointed, respectively, by the governor, speaker of the House and Senate president, the members would be “geographically, politically, racially and economically diverse.”

The commission’s work could be an invaluable resource for legislators and state departments, and could build on the work already underway, including through the Governor’s Children’s Cabinet, the state’s student cabinet and Maine Climate Council, all of which contend with youth issues and solicit input from young Mainers.

To its credit, the Legislature, and the voters who put them there, have been open to young leaders. A number of recent legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle have been in their 20s, including Ryan Fecteau, the youngest speaker of the House in the country.

But it takes a special kind of young person in just the right kind of circumstances to get to that position. As a result, too many Mainers are left out of the conversation altogether, and the process loses valuable voices.

Chloe Maxmin, a 28-year-old Nobleboro Democrat who did her part to lower the Legislature’s average age last year when she defeated Republican leader Dana Dow, said it can be hard for young people to navigate the political system. If they are left out, she said in testimony supporting the commission, then legislators aren’t making informed decisions.

Maxmin is right. Young people won’t stay here, nor will they move here, if Maine doesn’t have the opportunities and amenities they desire – and policymakers won’t know what young people want unless they are given a chance to influence policy.

The Youth Impact Commission would make sure more young Mainers had that chance. It would connect them directly to the highest reaches of state government.

If Maine is going to turn around its demographic decline, then nothing less should do.

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Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. April 22, 2021.

Editorial: Not for Sale

A bipartisan group of lawmakers, including U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders, has proposed banning police from buying access to user data from data brokers, including ones that “illegitimately obtained” their records.

“The Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act” is sponsored by 20 members of the U.S. Senate.

The proposed act:

— Requires the government to get a court order to compel data brokers to disclose data — the same kind of court order needed to compel data from tech and phone companies.

— Stops law enforcement and intelligence agencies buying data on people in the United States and about Americans abroad, if the data was obtained from a user’s account or device, or via deception, hacking, violations of a contract, privacy policy or terms of service.

— Extends existing privacy laws to infrastructure firms that own data cables and cell towers.

— Closes loopholes that would permit the intelligence community to buy or otherwise acquire metadata about Americans’ international calls, texts and emails to family and friends abroad.

— Takes away the attorney general’s authority to grant civil immunity to providers and other third parties for assistance with surveillance not required or permitted by statute. Providers retain immunity for surveillance assistance ordered by a court.

In effect, it would present significant action against the widespread proliferation of facial recognition technology using images scraped from social media and the warrantless supply chain of location data from ordinary smartphone apps, through middlemen, and eventually to agencies.

“The Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act is, in my view, a critically important bill that will prevent agencies from circumventing core constitutional protections by purchasing access to data they would otherwise need a warrant to obtain,” said Kate Ruane, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU and a host of civil, digital and race activism groups have endorsed the bill, according to the office of Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, who is spearheading the legislation.

Wyden announced the intention to introduce the bill last year after reports that several government agencies had purchased citizens’ location data through a service called Venntel rather than obtaining it through a warrant. “There’s no reason information scavenged by data brokers should be treated differently than the same data held by your phone company or email provider,” Wyden said in a statement today. “This bill closes that legal loophole and ensures that the government can’t use its credit card to end-run the Fourth Amendment.”

“The Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure ensures that the liberty of every American cannot be violated on the whims, or financial transactions, of every government officer,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. “This critical legislation will put an end to the government’s practice of buying its way around the Bill of Rights by purchasing the personal and location data of everyday Americans. Enacting the Fourth Amendment is Not For Sale Act will not only stop this gross abuse of privacy, but also stands for the fundamental principle that government exists to protect, not trade away, individual rights.”

The House has introduced a similar bill. And there is widespread support

It is rare for a bill to be so bipartisan, and have civil rights and technology groups endorsing the legislation, including: Access Now, Accountable Tech, American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Prosperity, Center for Democracy and Technology, Color of Change, Demand Progress, Due Process Institute, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fight for the Future, Freedom of the Press Foundation, FreedomWorks, Free Press Action, Interactive Advertising Bureau, MediaJustice, Mozilla, NAACP, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Network Advertising Initiative, Open Technology Institute at New America, Open The Government, PEN America, Project on Government Oversight, Public Citizen, Public Knowledge, Project for Privacy and Surveillance Accountability, Restore the Fourth, Mijente, Just Futures Law and Brennan Center for Justice.

It is well past time for Congress to pass a law like this. Federal agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) seem to think they don’t need legal process to access location data on millions of U.S. citizens as long as they can buy it on the open market. That’s wrong, and this act would help everyone rest a bit easier.

END