Boston Globe. May 5, 2021.

Editorial: Count counties out of federal aid program

The six vestigial county governments in Massachusetts aren’t equipped to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in federal economic relief.

As part of the latest economic relief bill, the federal government is showering billions of dollars onto county governments to help them overcome the impact of coronavirus on the economy.

Sounds great — and in parts of the country where counties pave roads and operate schools and provide police services, it is.

But in Massachusetts, most of the state’s 14 counties ceased to exist as legal entities years ago and endure only as lines on a map. The county governments that do still exist only handle minor tasks like providing courthouse maintenance and administering land records — and they’re hardly equipped to handle the sudden arrival of a giant check from Washington.

Instead of trying to spend the money themselves, the counties should either turn it over to municipalities or the state, a step that may require federal approval. It’s essential that the money is well spent; the parts of government that play a day-to-day role in the state are in a much better position to ensure the dollars go to help Massachusetts communities recover from the pandemic.

That’s happening automatically in Massachusetts communities where county governments have been formally abolished. Federal lawmakers, when writing the relief bill, made it clear that the money should be disbursed on a per capita basis directly to the cities and towns in nonexisting counties. For instance, the four communities in Suffolk County — Boston, Chelsea, Winthrop, and Revere — are expected to receive an additional stream of federal aid from the county allocation.

But Barnstable, Bristol, Dukes, Nantucket, Norfolk, and Plymouth counties are estimated to receive a total of nearly $400 million themselves. Norfolk’s estimate is $134 million — roughly quadruple its annual budget. The funds must be spent by the end of 2024 on broad categories such as expenses related to COVID-19 response, government services affected by the pandemic, or investments in public infrastructure like broadband.

It makes little sense in those cases to have these county governments in charge of such an unprecedented amount of cash. Counties — which, in Massachusetts, are led by commissioners picked in little-noticed down-ballot races — don’t have the capacity or expertise to administer funds, or even interpret government rules to keep track of all the spending. Although the exact services provided by the remaining counties differ, none of them provide the kind of services typical in many states.

The US Treasury Department is expected to soon issue clear guidelines on direct local aid. The Treasury Department should allow county governments with limited functions, such as the six in Massachusetts, to pass responsibility for the funds to the state or send the money directly to cities and towns on a per capita basis.

Plymouth County went through a similar dilemma last year when the first coronavirus relief bill was enacted, the CARES Act. Under that law, certain eligible local government entities could receive aid directly and, with some controversy, Plymouth County chose to do so. It got $90 million in federal funds, an amount nearly nine times larger than its annual budget. State officials asked Plymouth to let them administer the money, to no avail. As a Brockton city councilor, who was against the commissioners controlling the funds, told the Globe at the time: “Is there anything more frightening than putting $90 million into the hands of three part-time officials?”

Plymouth County commissioners even ignored timely objections and warnings from the state inspector general and set up a program to disburse the coronavirus aid to its 27 communities. Glenn Cunha, the state’s IG, should know: In 2019 his office criticized the county’s dredging program in a report concluding that the program had been “poorly executed and provided little value to the communities it serves.” For instance, an excavator that the county bought in 2015 for $212,000 sat unused in a garage for years.

To date, Plymouth has only disbursed a little over a third of that $90 million. And now it’s slated to get an additional $100 million.

County governments are quirky, vestigial parts of Massachusetts government, dating from before the Revolution. In other states, where counties provide important services, it made perfect sense to give money to counties. But the implementation of the law needs to be flexible enough to recognize that some counties aren’t suited to such an important job. The federal government should mandate counties like Plymouth either transfer the money directly to municipalities — or hand the funds off to the state.

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Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. May 5, 2021.

Editorial: Protect our kids

This week’s walkout at the University of Vermont should send three clear messages: Rape culture won’t be tolerated; individuals who commit sex assaults need to be held accountable; and institutions need to do everything they can to keep such atrocities from happening — at any cost.

Thousands of students on Monday afternoon walked to the administration building, where they blocked traffic on South Prospect Street. In a stunning display of solidarity, students listened to multiple accounts of rape and examples of what they said demonstrated myriad ways that UVM did not protect them or their rights. They held clenched fists above their heads — a crowd of resilience in protest.

We stand with these students. They are young people from every town in Vermont; we know these individuals. They are our neighbors; they are the kids we have watched grow up.

They are our kids.

Monday’s march is considered one of the largest protests the school has seen in years. This is not just another piece of the #metoo movement that needed to happen. This is a poignant example of injustice — another violent elbow thrown into the face of far too many victims.

For all of the times we use this space to condemn social media for its toxicity, this time it provided the platform that must prove to be a tipping point.

An Instagram post by junior Athena Hendrick, who revealed their rape in February 2020 by a fellow student, started the vocal outrage. Hendrick indicated they received little support from the university. A mountain of supportive students came to their defense, creating widespread outrage and concern. Also, the post ignited ShareYourStoryUVM, which became a place on social media where students could anonymously share stories of sexual violence. Those posts (and comments) are heartbreaking and tragic.

“(T)hank you so much for sharing your experience and how harmful these narratives about women/female-identifying folks can be, especially when we’re younger. Thank you also for sharing that it does get better and happy, healthy, sexually fulfilling relationships are possible for survivors. much love,” one person posted.

“Healing is a journey not an endpoint,” another student wrote.

This is only the latest outrage.

In October 2020, two students working for the student newspaper, wrote an investigative article that proved to be an indictment of what was called a “gross mishandling” of a student’s sexual assault investigation. Hayley Rosen and Emma Pinezich wrote the expose about the sex assault investigation of a female student-athlete, and the uprising that ensued, including students calling for systemic change and for school officials to step down.

Specifically, the article pointed out that the victim and other female athletes from other universities are suing the NCAA for failing to protect them from sexual assault — including from other athletes, whose accusations were downplayed or delayed. Gate receipts and winning appeared to be taking precedence over justice, students and critics said.

Those claims are being made even louder this week.

Pleas are being made to investigate and charge students — including student athletes — who are accused of sex assault.

Last year, students provided a list of demands to UVM administrators explaining how the institution could reform its Title IX system to better support survivors of sex assaults. Title IX prohibits sex-based discrimination in federally funded educational institutions and applies to complaints and investigations of sexual misconduct. At the time, the university agreed to all of those demands.

But, students say, the rape culture is pervasive, and they maintain the school’s attitude is not serious enough and needs immediate attention. Hence, 2,000 students massing before the administration this week.

As one poster on social media noted this week, “How about UVM tosses the rapists out instead of worrying about whether or not they can play (sports)? These guys should be thrown in prison and called criminals, not coddled and made out to be special because they happen to be good at some stupid sport that does nothing to help society. Rapists are rapists. … As far as I’m concerned that makes them worse because they get public recognition.”

No team — and certainly no individual — is more important than the safety and well-being of the rest of the student population.

These are our kids, friends. They must be protected.

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Portland Press Herald. May 7, 2021.

Editorial: Tooth care is health care, Mainers’ stories show

Legislators shouldn’t hesitate to expand dental care benefits under MaineCare.

A woman in Levant lost all her teeth and worries that her broken dentures will fall out at work; now she sees her college-age daughter starting to go through the same things.

One patient of a Bangor physician struggles with teeth infections while pregnant, raising the chance of pre- and post-natal complications; another has lost teeth, preventing her from following a diet that keeps her diabetes in check.

An Auburn mother of two has broken and missing teeth that leave her in constant pain and make worse her other health problems.

You can’t hear these stories, all given as testimony before the Legislature, and not see that dental care is as necessary as medical care – that dental care is medical care. Yet Maine is one of 14 states whose Medicaid program doesn’t treat it that way.

After two years of effort, that seems likely to change this legislative session – and for good reason. There are no shortage of stories from Mainers living without dental insurance who have watched helplessly as small problems turned into big ones for lack of care, leading to constant pain, infections and pulled teeth. They are left susceptible to various chronic conditions and embarrassed by their appearance. The physical and mental toll is enormous.

Not only does poor oral health make one’s life miserable, it also comes at a great cost to the rest of us, not only from the inevitable emergency room visit – Maine’s Medicaid program does cover some procedures, like extractions, but only once things get really bad – but from the loss of productive community members.

For the mother in Auburn, the lack of access to care has made her reluctant to participate in her community and in the workforce in the ways she would like to. “I could be doing so much more if I wasn’t struggling so much with my physical health, mental health and especially my dental health,” she told a legislative committee last month.

It’s simply absurd to treat oral care any differently from how we treat care for the rest of the body. MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, doesn’t deny a patient blood pressure medication and tell them to come back when they’ve had a stroke.

And it shouldn’t do the same with dental care, waiting until pain, infection and the loss of teeth have wreaked havoc on someone’s health, self-esteem and prospects in the workforce to do anything at all.

As the woman from Levant told lawmakers, all that delay does is make it more difficult for someone to get out of the circumstances that led to the problems in the first place.

“The cycle of poverty is a central reason why dental is so inaccessible,” she said. “My daughter will be blocked from getting ahead because our health care system does not see dental health as part of our overall health.”

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Hearst Connecticut Media. May 7, 2021.

Editorial: Tweed deal a major step for state economy

Connecticut is a small state and already has an international airport with service to nearly anywhere you might need to go. We’re also close to New York City and its plethora of air travel options. Still, there’s no question that something has been lacking.

The economic center of Connecticut is not in Hartford; it’s along the shore in Fairfield County and New Haven, home of a burgeoning bioscience sector and, of course, Yale University. Bradley International Airport is too far out of the way to serve as a reliable option for residents on the coast, and New York City airports, while closer, are a logistical nightmare.

Thursday’s announcement of an agreement to build a new terminal on the East Haven side of Tweed New Haven Regional Airport to go along with an extended runway and new commercial service ought to put an end to those worries. A revitalized Tweed will serve as an economic engine for the region and the state, and that it will happen with primarily private funding should count as a win for state leaders.

Tweed has long made sense as an expansion candidate, but was hamstrung by a state law that banned an extension of its runway that would make commercial service possible. With that law tossed out by a federal court in 2019, and the appeals process finally running out last year, the path was cleared for a new era. When completed, the airport would have the capacity for 500,000 to 750,000 passenger departures a year.

Avports, which has years of experience running operations at Tweed, is spending its own money — some $70 million over the next two years — and the centerpiece will be a new 74,000-square-foot terminal. Still, this is the definition of a public-private partnership, one that officials say could be a model for smaller cities nationwide. There’s a clear demand for more service, and it’s been a difficult balancing act to get all parties on board with the plan.

As always, there’s the question of local opposition. Though East Haven Mayor Joe Carfora was on hand Thursday to celebrate the deal, there could still be push-back from local residents, as well as on the New Haven side, who would much prefer a quieter airport to an economic engine for the region.

Those complaints shouldn’t be enough to stifle a deal, but they can’t be ignored, either. It’s a welcome sign that both cities’ mayors believe this to be a good deal that will benefit each community as well as the region. Without local buy-in, a deal of this magnitude becomes that much more difficult.

Connecticut has no shortage of economic challenges that will not go away with the addition of a new air-travel option. Still, this is an important step and one that should be celebrated. Southern Connecticut both needs and deserves an airport suitable to its status. If we’re going to grow the state economy, we need the infrastructure to do it. The deal to expand Tweed is a major step in that direction.

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Bangor Daily News. May 7, 2021.

Editorial: Federal relief money will allow Maine to invest in its people and our future

As Bangor Daily News columnist David Farmer wrote earlier this week, Gov. Janet Mills’ plan for investing the more than $1 billion in pandemic relief funds that the state is expected to soon receive from the federal government is about people.

“While the language of the plan is typical of policymakers — heavy on words like workforce, research and development, and infrastructure — the heart of the proposal is much simpler and easier to understand,” Farmer wrote. “The American Rescue Plan (which passed without a single Republican vote in Congress) and the governor’s ‘ Jobs and Recovery Plan’ are about people and making their lives better.”

It may sound hyperbolic to say that these funds are a once-in-a-generation opportunity to re-envision Maine, such a description is pretty accurate.

The $1 billion from the American Rescue Plan, which was passed by Democrats in Congress in March, amounts to roughly a quarter of Maine’s annual budget. Another $3.2 billion from the rescue plan will come to Maine for various recovery efforts, including significant support for COVID-19 testing and vaccinations, enhanced unemployment benefits, stimulus payments to families, and funds for businesses, counties and municipalities.

Together, this money will allow the state to make investments that have long been on wish lists but remained out of the realm of fiscal reality.

Mills, for example, proposes to make big investments in broadband, affordable housing, research and development, higher education and state parks. Such investments have been debated in Augusta for years and some funding has been allocated to these priorities. But, the scale of the rescue plan funds will allow the state to put substantial amounts of money to Maine’s most pressing priorities — and those priorities must be focused on improving the lives of Mainers.

Smaller, but no less important, investments would be made to expand access to childcare, to lower health care costs for small businesses, to sustain Maine’s farming, fishing and forestry industries, to improve energy efficiency in homes and businesses, to attract and retain new workers and many other initiatives.

“This federal funding represents an unprecedented opportunity to address the longstanding challenges that have constrained our state’s ability to thrive over the years. By encouraging innovative small business growth, investing in our workforce, and building essential infrastructure, like housing, child care and broadband, we can accelerate our recovery from the pandemic and build a stronger, more prosperous Maine,” Mills said in a press release. “This plan will help us ensure that Maine is renowned as a place where you can get a good education, have a rewarding career that pays well, raise a happy and healthy family, and live comfortably in a community that you love.”

As the governor explained Tuesday, her plan focuses on three goals: immediate economic recovery from the pandemic; long-term economic growth for Maine; and infrastructure revitalization.

We can quibble about some details about the plan, such as the choice to allocate federal funds to investments that could be made through bonds such as roads and bridges and R&D, and the need for oversight to ensure these funds are appropriately targeted and spent. But, overall, the governor’s proposal, which is based on the 10-year economic strategy and recommendations from the Governor’s Economic Recovery Committee, meets the three goals.

It is now up to the Legislature to consider the governor’s proposal. In light of the federal funding and projections of state revenues being more than $900 million higher than expected in the next two years, Republicans in Augusta have proposed tax relief. This is complicated by the fact that the U.S. Treasury Department has said that American Rescue Plan funds cannot be used to pay for tax cuts.

Any changes the Legislature makes to this spending should be guided by the same goals, and an emphasis on improving the lives of Maine people.

Thursday’s announcement of an agreement to build a new terminal on the East Haven side of Tweed New Haven Regional Airport to go along with an extended runway and new commercial service ought to put an end to those worries. A revitalized Tweed will serve as an economic engine for the region and the state, and that it will happen with primarily private funding should count as a win for state leaders.

Tweed has long made sense as an expansion candidate, but was hamstrung by a state law that banned an extension of its runway that would make commercial service possible. With that law tossed out by a federal court in 2019, and the appeals process finally running out last year, the path was cleared for a new era. When completed, the airport would have the capacity for 500,000 to 750,000 passenger departures a year.

END