Editorials from around New England
Posted August 4
Editorials from around New England:
The Day (New London)
In search of legislative victories, President Trump should move beyond executive orders in pushing his "Buy American" agenda. In doing so he would find plenty of bipartisan support, including from U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, Connecticut's junior senator.
Murphy has become a go-to Democrat when political cable news talk shows want someone to blast Trump policies. He has done so on the issues of health care, immigration, the firing of the FBI director, taxation and education, to name just a few.
Yet a July 24 press release issued by Murphy's office contained the headline, "Murphy applauds Trump executive order."
The order, "Assessing and strengthening the manufacturing and defense industrial base and supply chain resiliency of the United States," calls for a comprehensive study into the ability of the nation's manufacturing supply chain to support military weapons production.
Referencing the "loss of more than 60,000 American factories, key companies, and almost 5 million manufacturing jobs since 2000," the study will also examine "the ability of the United States . to surge in response to an emergency."
Recall that it was the quick conversion of America's strong industrial base to a war-time footing that gave it a competitive edge in World War II.
Murphy, meanwhile, has promoted legislation to assure that whenever possible federal agencies and defense contractors buy from American companies.
His "American Jobs Matter Act" would require the Department of Defense to take into account U.S. jobs when awarding government contracts to manufacturers. Under such a law DOD, in awarding contracts, would have to consider the number of jobs a manufacturing firm expects to create or retain in the United States. The Pentagon would weigh domestic job creation along with price and performance in awarding contracts.
Murphy has pointed to the case of Ansonia Copper & Brass, a brass manufacturer that served the U.S. Navy and employed up to 10,000 people. But the company closed in 2013, in part because it lost its Navy business to overseas companies that could provide materials at a lower cost.
The senator also notes that since 2007 the Pentagon has spent more than $200 billion on foreign-manufactured goods, a period during which the U.S. lost more than 1.7 million manufacturing jobs.
The "American Jobs" legislation, which includes as co-sponsors Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, all Democrats, has languished, in part because it challenges business as usual, in larger part because it is an idea from Democrats in a Republican-dominated Washington.
Trump should embrace such proposals, disregarding the politics of the matter. That is, after all, what he promised to do in campaigning to become the non-politician president whose focus would be on providing good American jobs, in particular by rebuilding its industrial base.
The executive-ordered study, expected to take nine months, is supposed to take a comprehensive look at the defense supply chain. The DOD will lead the review, but with interagency input from Commerce, Labor, Energy and the Homeland Security Departments. The study will also examine the manufacturing workforce and determine the training that may be necessary to supply the skilled craftspeople necessary to build air, sea and ground military weapons.
In the meantime, the Trump administration needs to set about making sure bureaucrats follow existing "buy American" laws. A recent report from the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Defense found that contracting personnel at the DOD frequently failed to comply with the Berry Amendment. The amendment dictates that the purchases of certain basic products (food, fabrics, hand tools, etc.) must come from U.S. companies.
However, in a random sample review of 32 contracts, the Inspector General found 19 failed to comply with the Berry Amendment, with a $453 million loss of U.S. business. The report pointed to poor internal procedures, including a lack of familiarity with the statutory requirements.
If Trump can bring Washington together on one thing, it would be this; assuring that money spent in defense of this nation generates American jobs and that U.S. citizens have the education and training to fill them.
The Providence Journal
Politicians are falling over each other to denounce a 53-percent rate hike sought by National Grid, an international company that is the Ocean State's largest energy provider. On the face of it, the size of the request seems outrageous. The hike would hit starting on Oct. 1.
But it is important that citizens understand why energy costs are spiking in Rhode Island and New England. They are the consequences of public policy decisions and they cannot be wished away.
National Grid is providing Rhode Islanders with an unfortunate reminder of an economic law: Reduce supply and prices go up.
The state Public Utilities Commission, far more expert in these matters than we are, will review the request to determine if the 53-percent figure is justified. But, as horrific as that number seems, it does not appear to be a case of price gouging. The hike is only applicable to the cost of electricity generation, which National Grid may not profit from under state law. (The utility makes its money from delivery charges.) National Grid spokesman Ted Kresse cited high prices in the regional energy market, driven by a declining number of energy plants.
"Several major power generating plants in New England have been retired recently, including Brayton Point, Vermont Yankee and Salem Harbor, just to name a few," Mr. Kresse said. "When these facilities go offline, the region goes from having a capacity surplus to a capacity shortfall, creating an increase in capacity prices."
Pipeline capacity bringing natural gas to the region is another recurring problem.
This should concern us all. High energy prices are tough on households. Should the rate hike go through, the average home-owning family would see its monthly power bill jump from less than $90 a month to more than $106. And high power costs are (yet another) disincentive for businesses to grow jobs in our area.
To stabilize prices or bring them down, the region would need to generate more power.
That's not happening yet. Numerous power plants are being taken offline, and newer power sources are not yet filling the gap. While we support green technologies such as wind and solar, they don't have nearly the production capacity to power our area. The few wind turbines that do sit off Block Island — heavily subsidized, and expected to cost New England ratepayers $440 million in 20 years of above-market electricity prices — represent drops in the ocean of energy demand.
Natural gas provides an excellent solution. It's a "bridge" fuel — a cleaner fossil fuel that we can rely on until green technologies are sufficiently advanced to meet the area's demands for energy. It's much cleaner than oil, and especially coal, producing less than half the greenhouse gas emissions of coal.
Natural gas is used to produce half of New England's electricity these days, up from only 15 percent at the turn of the century, a win for our environment.
Skyrocketing energy costs are a big reason why the construction of a state-of-the-art, $700 million, privately owned and operated natural gas power plant in Burrillville would be in the public interest.
Clearly, leaders owe it to the public to focus on the real energy challenges the region faces, rather than pretending that they do not exist.
The Lowell Sun
A recent monthly report by the Massachusetts Association of Realtors showed the median sales price for a home in this state had risen to $410,000 in June, a record figure and almost an 8 percent increase over the same time last year.
That's not an average price, but it indicates that half of the homes sold for at least that amount. Obviously, sales prices in the immediate Boston suburbs skew that figure, but there's ample evidence that housing costs are on the rise everywhere.
As the Realtors report described, these escalating prices simply reflect the basic law of supply and demand. That's because in this same period, the number of homes on the market decreased by 30 percent.
Now, residents of Gateway Cities like Lowell and Fitchburg may believe these inflated housing costs don't affect them. Wrong. It all revolves around affordability, and individuals living there experience the same or even more serious challenges, in part because their incomes limit their options.
And on a relative scale, it's becoming more difficult to buy or rent housing in these "affordable" communities.
According to a recent report by the website Apartment List, the median rent in Lowell was 5.3 percent higher in July 2017 than it was in July 2016, while the statewide median rent was 4.5 percent higher in the same span. That translates into a median $1,550 rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Lowell.
Fitchburg experienced an even more dramatic increase. According to Rainmaker Insights, which maintains rental market intelligence databases, the average apartment rent over the prior six months in Fitchburg has increased by $132 -- 15.6 percent. As of June, average apartment rent in Fitchburg was $979.
Fitchburg's housing market also picked up noticeably. Zillow, an online real estate database company, describes the Fitchburg housing market as "hot" - in other words, a sellers' market.
Now someone living in the suburbs might say housing prices in Lowell and Fitchburg still look more than reasonable -- just not for the people who actually live there. Those residents already expend far more of their disposable incomes to either pay that mortgage or come up with that rent. And since they're already at the lower rung of the economic scale, they can't afford to move -- certainly not to the suburbs.
Ironically, a Lowell or Fitchburg risks becoming too pricey for the population it serves.
All of which means there's a huge need for the construction of housing -- single-family homes, condominiums and apartments -- that the average working person can afford. And that obviously varies according to where one lives. But it's a statewide problem that, if not addressed, will eventually curb economic growth due to this state's unaffordable housing costs.
Certainly, there's no lack of housing construction incentives. The massive pent-up demand created by the lack of inventory surely should be sufficient. We can't let NIMBYism restrain reasonable proposals to alleviate this housing crisis.
All communities -- from the toney to working class -- must be part of the solution.
The Portland Press Herald
Maine is the oldest state in the nation and has one of the highest rates of asthma, so when the Trump administration takes steps that imperil senior citizens and those with lung problems, Mainers have to push back.
With that in mind, we're glad to see Maine, through Attorney General Janet Mills, join a lawsuit, along with 14 other states and the District of Columbia, against the Environmental Protection Agency and its administrator, Scott Pruitt, for slowing down an initiative that would help Mainers breathe easier.
Second District Rep. Bruce Poliquin, too, recently acted in defense of clean air, bucking his party and joining Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, in a futile attempt to force stricter ozone standards.
There's a reason this issue reaches across party lines. Exhaust from coal-fired power plants in the South and Midwest, and from vehicles in the crowded D.C.-to-Boston corridor, puts heavy amounts of ozone into the air, and that ozone doesn't care if the lungs it attacks are in Democrats, Republicans or independents.
In Maine, more than 24,000 children and 120,000 adults have asthma, and another 87,000 adults have chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. Every time the ozone in the atmosphere spikes, they risk an emergency room visit, hospitalization, even death.
The EPA, however, wants to delay by a year identifying the places in the country most affected by unhealthy levels of ozone, a designation that would then force those areas to reduce pollution.
In addition, the bill passed in the House over Poliquin's objection would delay the implementation of tougher ozone standards designed under the Obama-era EPA, back when the agency cared about things like clean air. The standard, now at 75 parts per billion, was set to be lowered to 70 ppb; if the Senate approves, that wouldn't change until 2025. Even that is not low enough — 72 ppb is harmful even to healthy people, and research backs a level as low as 60 ppb.
Critics, like Pruitt, argue that clean air measures hurt businesses. Yet an EPA study of clean air standards put in place since 1990 say they cost the economy $65 billion, but saved almost $2 trillion in health care costs. In that time, the stricter standards will prevent more than 230,000 early deaths.
And a recent nationwide study of 60 million Medicare recipients linked long-term exposure to ozone to an increased risk of death. The study found that lowering standards by 1 ppb would save 1,900 lives a year.
California is reacting to the EPA's anti-breathing actions by going at it alone — officials have pledged to hit the 70-ppb standard regardless of federal rules.
That isn't an option for Maine. Our air, particularly bad in the southern part of the state and along the coast, is dirtied from afar. That can only change significantly if the polluters along the jet stream are forced to lower their emissions.
Otherwise, we'll keep having days when, for thousands of Mainers, going outside could mean a trip to the hospital.
The (Nashua) Telegraph
We know in New Hampshire, some of our neighbors need a little more than a blanket to warm up in the winter.
There are more than 30,000 applications for an estimated $28 million in heating aid for the current year of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program in New Hampshire.
That is an average benefit of $622 for each Granite State application, according to the Associated Press. And those of us who brave the New England winters know that may not be enough to heat a home.
For a decade, this Health and Human Services program, better known as LIHEAP, has helped homeowners who cannot cover the monthly cost of their energy bill or repair broken or ineffective furnaces.
There are good cuts to federal spending, slashing red tape and some of the unnecessary community block grants; but the heating fund is vital to low-income families across Northern New England.
Frankly, this program has been critically underfunded in previous years.
Only about 20 percent of qualifying households receive assistance before the funding goes dry.
Any further cut, or the complete elimination of LIHEAP, would be a tremendous hit to those in our region who need the most assistance.
In addition to the 30,000 applications in this state, Vermont has been given $18.9 million to aid about 20,000 people. Roughly 77,000 Mainers benefited from the program, and the AP reports that is less than a quarter of eligible households.
The Campaign for Home Energy Assistance said LIHEAP aids more than 6 million households nationwide.
To date, more than 30 consumer advocates and attorneys general have called upon Congress to retain the federal heating program. We join in this campaign to fund LIHEAP and urge New Hampshire's congressional delegation to do everything possible on Capitol Hill to remedy this blunder.
Congress should not gut LIHEAP, they need to expand funding immediately.
To play off a popular "Game of Thrones" motto, "Winter is Coming," and in New Hampshire it is coming sooner than we anticipate despite the thermometer topping 85 degrees in Nashua this week.
But before we know it, those heavy blankets will be coming out from the cedar chest, and there is no reason for our friends and neighbors to face another frigid weather without a helping hand.
Duncan Kilmartin is well-known in this part of the Northeast Kingdom as a former state representative, a member of the Six Pack of Republicans that swept to office in 2000 opposing the civil union law.
Kilmartin, a widower who is semi-retired from his law practice, has seen a lot of things in politics and in court. He admits he has mellowed considerably in recent years.
A religious man, Kilmartin believes he witnessed history and divine action while he was a defense attorney in hearings after the infamous Island Pond raid of June 22, 1984.
The state acted on child abuse allegations of the Northeast Kingdom Community Church in Island Pond, where members followed the Bible rule that to spare the rod would spoil the child.
The numbers tell why it's remembered: 112 children were taken from 20 homes belonging to church members at 6 a.m. that day by about 90 police officers and about 50 social workers.
Children and parents were taken by buses to Derby's Elks Club for breakfast and to the Newport City municipal gym to await court hearings in Orleans District Court across the street on whether the state could take custody of each child.
One district court judge, the late Frank Mahady, denied each petition for temporary custody, later calling the state's action "a grossly illegal scheme." Church members and other Vermonters appalled by the state's raid heralded his rulings. Others lamented the state's inability to address perceived abuse in religious communities.
Kilmartin said that Mahady, who died not long after the raid, presided over the raid hearings for one reason, and one reason only .
. Because Thomas L. Hayes, the state's first administrative judge, put him there.
"In my opinion Tom Hayes was divinely appointed to be the administrative judge," Kilmartin said.
Kilmartin shared that knowledge about Hayes as he looked back on that time.
The NEK Community Church arrived in Island Pond in 1978, establishing businesses and buying homes for their communal style of religious life. Children attended church school and worked in the family businesses. Locals were concerned.
"For some, the Northeast Kingdom Community Church looked unnervingly like the People's Temple, whose nearly 800 members committed mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978," known as the Jonestown massacre, according to a Burlington Free Press retrospective in 2000. "By 1984, the chorus of concerns about child abuse, combined with a number of highly publicized complaints filed against church elders, brought the state to a watershed. Then-Gov. Richard Snelling found himself in a fix. After days and days of debate, Snelling approved the raid."
But the raid's legal basis was problematic and rushed.
Kilmartin, who represented several church families in a truancy case that the state dropped, said the state became obsessed. The Free Press reported later that officials feared that church elders would take their children out of state.
"I had a very strong relationship with the church. While I didn't agree with some of their doctrine, I recognized that in my opinion they were not a cult," Kilmartin said.
Kilmartin said that the judge that issued the search warrant for the raid, the late Joseph J. Wolchik, was too involved.
"He was also a party to the planning" with the state's Social Rehabilitative Services Commissioner John Burchard and others.
Wolchik "knew what was going on. It was all part of the plan. He'd already made up his mind," Kilmartin said.
The state set up a detention and deprogramming center at Burke Mountain to house the children, and their parents if they would cooperate, Kilmartin said. If parents didn't cooperate, the children would become wards of the state, he said.
But the Wolchik search warrant didn't give the state the right to detain the children and a second set of court hearings were necessary, with Mahady presiding instead of Wolchik.
As the Free Press reported: "Mahady looked at the state's evidence, including its inability to name individual cases of child abuse, and ruled the raid unconstitutional. The children went home and, eventually, the state's case was dropped."
On the morning of the raid, one couple called Kilmartin at 7 a.m. at his family's Seymour Lake cottage saying state officials had just taken their grandchildren.
By the time Kilmartin made it to the courthouse in Newport City, he "knew the fix was in." He saw the court-appointed guardians ad litem, who advocate for children and others who need representation, "being told essentially their duty was to turn them over to the state."
"I went in the guardian's room and heard the guardians being indoctrinated and I protested that."
It was a long day, and Mahady was still hearing and throwing out custody cases when Hayes, who knew Kilmartin from days when they both were interns in Washington, District of Columbia, told a story that to Kilmartin's knowledge has never been told before.
Hayes revealed that it was he who put Mahady on that bench.
"The story starts like this: Judge Wolchik calls Judge Hayes ... and told him he needed more judges to help him when these children were rounded up," Kilmartin recalled.
"Hayes asked some questions of Wolchik and essentially said to Judge Wolchik 'I think you have a conflict of interest here. You issued the warrant. You should not be passing judgment on whether it's valid.'"
Kilmartin said that Hayes told Wolchik that Hayes would appoint "his own people to handle the results of the raid."
"Tom Hayes brought only one judge in: Judge Mahady. And Hayes was there in the backroom the entire day. The hearings went on to the late evening hours," Kilmartin said.
"What I am telling you about what happened was told to me at 9:30 at night in the back room ... with Tom Hayes smoking his cigarettes. He told me everything.
"He told me that story and Mahady is out sending all the children home."
Hayes died about three years later of cancer. He did not know he had cancer at the time of the raid, Kilmartin said.
Days after the raid, Mahady handed down his blistering opinions saying general warrants violated the Vermont Constitution.
Kilmartin said the raid and custody cases would not have survived appeal.
But "it would have been too late. It would have been irreparable damage" to the families and children involved, he said.
Hayes is remembered for other things.
The New York Times wrote in his obituary on May 5, 1987 that Hayes served as Vermont lieutenant governor from 1969-1971. He was appointed to Vermont Supreme Court justice in 1985 and was considered a champion of the state constitution, writing a precedent-setting decision that focused attention on the powers in the state document.
But he was also implicated in a scandal that rocked the Vermont Supreme Court involving an investigation into the activities of a former Chittenden County assistant judge, Jane L. Wheel, an involvement he vigorously denied.
Kilmartin wants Hayes remembered for what else he did.
"I've seen a lot of injustice in the courts. When I realized what Tom had done and that he appointed the right man for the job, I could only say this was divinely inspired. (It) was an example of justice being done.
"Because the power of the state was just shattered by one person doing the right thing under the constitution.
"In my opinion, Tom Hayes was divinely appointed to be the administrative judge."