Editorials from around New England
Editorials from around New England:
It’s not the raises, it’s the sneaking
The Hartford Courant
Hundreds of legislative employees are going to see two 3.5 percent raises over the next two years, thanks to language that was shamelessly hidden inside the massive budget bill that the legislature recently passed.
The Courant’s Jon Lender reported Friday that the raises — for nonpartisan and political staff who work with and for legislators — will take effect July 1.
The issue at hand isn’t whether legislative staff deserve raises that match the raises state union employees will receive— although that is certainly debatable. The issue is that legislators, again and again, use deception to get what they want by circumnavigating the public.
Mr. Lender reported: “Deep within the budget bill — which Democrats pushed through the House and Senate without any Republican votes — is Section 46, which says that effective on July 1, ‘the Office of Legislative Management shall apply terms consistent with those contained in section I (c) of Attachment F to the ratified 2017 SEBAC agreement, dated June 25, 2017, between the state and the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition ... to nonpartisan legislative employees for the fiscal years ending June 30, 2020, and June 30, 2021.’”
That SEBAC agreement gives 3.5 percent raises to union employees in each of the next two years.
Even sneakier: Although the bill only states that the raises will go to “nonpartisan legislative employees,” it will also go to political employees — those who work for the Republican and Democratic parties. Jim Tamburro, executive director of the Office of Legislative Managment, said money for the raises is in the budget, but by including only the nonpartisan employees in the bill language, “I don’t have to get a signature from the leadership” of the political parties. In other words: They’re off the hook.
The raises, now applied to legislative staff who are not part of the SEBAC deal, will cost taxpayers millions of dollars. Of course the legislature should have made it abundantly clear that this was in the works. They should have had the courage to explain to the people of Connecticut why these state workers deserved the raise, at a time when every dollar matters. They should have included the public in the discussion.
But they did not, and to judge from the sidestep they used to put this language in the bill instead of language clearly spelling out what they were up to — one has to presume they were hoping nobody would notice.
Is it any wonder there is such distrust in the political system? Is it any wonder that the biggest objection to tolls is that people don’t believe the government will keep its promise to devote toll revenues to transportation?
This kind of behavior has been normalized. It happens again and again, as “rats” sneak into last-minute legislation. This year is no exception — Deputy House Republican leader Vincent Candelora of North Branford said the budget has “more rats than a New York sewer,” referring to tens of thousands of dollars handed out to Little League teams and a Boy Scout troop.
Last year, House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz snuck an amendment into an unrelated bill that let University of Connecticut football coach Randy Edsall’s son Corey remain on the team’s staff.
This is not how democracy is supposed to work.
What recourse do the voters have, aside from their votes? Legislators have come and gone, but the tendency persists among too many of them to succumb to subterfuge to get whatever they want. It’s patently undemocratic, and the threat to vote them out of office clearly isn’t enough. There need to be legal checks on the legislative process to prevent this.
It’s time for a brave legislator to initiate bold changes to the way bills are written, debated and amended to prevent secret last-minute insertions into unrelated legislation.
Supremes turn blind eye on meaning of cross
The Republican of Springfield
Just a short distance from Washington, D.C., on a busy highway median in Maryland, stands a 40-foot-high cross built of granite and cement.
Imagine someone who knew nothing of the history of the so-called Bladensburg Peace Cross seeing the looming structure, as tall as a four-story building, as he drove along his way. Would he likely think it a secular monument?
Of course not. He’d see the cross, the universal symbol of Christianity, for what it is. No matter the intent of the builders.
Nonetheless, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled that the cross is not what it appears to be. If only they’d take a short ride from their cloistered building into Maryland, past the huge cross, they’d see the folly of their decision, which they reached on a 7-2 vote, with two of the generally liberal justices joining the five conservatives in looking away from what should have been obvious.
It’s supposed to be Lady Justice who is blind, not the members of the court.
Money for the Maryland cross, built in 1925, came from families, businesses and the American Legion. It was constructed to memorialize 49 veterans from Prince George’s County who had been killed in World War I. Since 1961, the land on which the cross stands has been owned by a state commission, which maintains the memorial.
But it was the intent that was the focus of the decision written by Associate Justice Samuel Alito, who said that the cross was more than a cross.
Wrote Alito: “For some, that monument is a symbolic resting place for ancestors who never returned home. For others, it is a place for the community to gather and honor all veterans and their sacrifices for our Nation. For others still, it is a historical landmark.
“For many of these people, destroying or defacing the Cross that has stood undisturbed for nearly a century would not be neutral and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment.”
Well, that’s one way to look at it. Or to look away from it, more accurately.
If you see someone wearing a cross on a chain around her neck, you see a cross, the symbol of Christianity. You don’t wonder about the wearer’s intent, her deep-seated feelings about cultural signifiers.
And that, of course, is only amplified -- way amplified -- when the cross is 40-feet high, is standing on public land, and is maintained with taxpayer money.
Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the two who dissented in the case, had her eyes wide open and saw this clearly. Wrote Ginsburg:
“Making a Latin cross a war memorial does not make the cross secular. Quite the contrary, the image of the cross makes the war memorial sectarian. The Peace Cross is no exception.”
Further, she wrote: “Just as a Star of David is not suitable to honor Christians who died serving their country, so a cross is not suitable to honor those of other faiths who died defending their nation.”
One would think it difficult to feel otherwise. Sadly, fully seven members of the Supreme Court found a way to do just that, saying that a cross isn’t exactly a cross, and that the wall of separation between church and state isn’t so inviolate after all. One rightly worries about what might come next.
Maine budget’s drama-free passage a good sign
The Morning Sentinel
With no name calling, no hostage taking, no threats to shut down the government, the Maine Legislature passed a budget Friday. It was so quiet, you might have missed it.
The $7.9 billion budget agreement ping-ponged back and forth between the House and Senate, getting the necessary votes in each chamber, including the all-important two-thirds supermajorities needed to keep the government in business when the current budget expires June 30. The new budget went to Gov. Mills, who - without suspense - signed it Monday afternoon.
What is there to say about such a boring event? After all, everyone is just doing their jobs.
First, that it is a good budget.
It puts resources into health care, education and local property tax relief, responding to the priorities voters expressed during the 2018 election. It does this without raising taxes, keeping a commitment Mills made in her campaign. It sets the course for state government for the two-year period that begins July 1, to the extent that it’s possible to see that far into the future in an uncertain world.
But what’s more impressive is the process that produced the budget. Even though the amount spent was criticized by Republican lawmakers, who will find plenty in it to run against in 2020, this budget was the result of bipartisan compromise, supported by a majority of the Republicans on the Appropriations Committee.
Republican leadership deserves credit for making their best case in the negotiations and accepting the result rather than using every ounce of leverage that would have been available to them had they threatened to shut down the government. Democrats also deserve credit for not using their majorities in both houses to push through a majority budget in April that would have not required any Republican votes.
Even though both sides walked away with something less than they might have preferred, they have built a foundation of mutual trust that they will likely have to draw on if there is a recession or some other crisis that will require cooperation.
At least, we hope so. The 2011 budget, the first under then-Gov. Paul LePage, passed when there were Republican majorities in both houses and had the same kind of bipartisan support even though it promoted major Republican policy goals of cutting taxes and eligibility for social services. The next time LePage proposed a budget, however, Democrats controlled the Legislature and he was never willing to work with them, making the next three budgets rocky affairs.
It’s too soon to say whether this budget blazes the trail for a cooperative relationship between the parties, or if it will be remembered as a momentary pause in the dysfunction that characterized the LePage era. But it’s not to soon to say that this is a positive first step that should give Maine people reason to hope.
Lawmakers should pass these bills
The Nashua Telegraph
No federal program protecting natural areas and assisting local and state recreation projects has had the reach and the importance of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Thousands of individual initiatives - some possibly affecting you and your family directly - have been assisted by the LWCF.
Yet the fund, established by Congress in 1964, has lived a perilous existence. It is subject to periodic reauthorizations and annual hat-in-hand requests to keep the money flowing.
Earlier this year, Congress voted to reauthorize the LWCF. Now, however, the question of funding is up again.
In April, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, introduced a bill (S1081) to grant the fund at least some permanency. His measure, now with bipartisan support from 41 cosponsors, would ensure the program receives $900 million a year - without the need for annual battles over appropriations.
Now, U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, D-New Jersey, has introduced a similar measure (HR3195) in the House of Representatives. Already, it has 10 cosponsors, both Republican and Democrat.
It is clear from the bipartisan nature of early support for both bills that this is not a Democrat vs. Republican issue. It is simply a matter of ensuring that a vitally important federal program remains not just in existence, but also funded adequately to do the important work in which it has engaged for more than half a century.
Still, politics being the messy activity that it is, even bills that are obviously important sometimes fall through the cracks or are held hostage to partisan bickering. That should not be allowed to happen with S1081 and HR 3195. Lawmakers of both parties should ensure the bills are high on the agenda for action in the Senate and House of Representatives - and are enacted.
A worrisome dependence
The Providence Journal
America is struggling mightily to rein in China. The Trump administration is trying to reduce America’s trade imbalance with China, which has helped fund the regime’s frightening military buildup, as well as stop China from stealing our intellectual property. But some experts fear China may have a means of retaliation: rare-earth minerals.
That may sound arcane, but those minerals are used in the construction of smartphones, computers and flat-screen TVs — and more ominously, in the production of virtually all of our advanced military technology.
The United States used to be the world’s largest producer of rare-earth minerals. They are not all that rare, in fact. But they are difficult to extract from the ground.
At one point, California’s Mountain Pass, America’s only rare-earth mining and processing facility, supplied most of the world’s rare-earth elements. The mine ceased production in 1998, and closed down in 2002 (although previously-mined ore continued to be processed).
As Americans farmed out production to other countries, China caught up in the 1990s. China now has more than 30 percent of these reserves — and, according to a 2017 U.S. Geological Survey, 80 percent of the world’s rare-earth production.
A May 30 piece by NBC News staff writer Erik Ortiz noted the U.S. “imported about $160 million worth of basic rare earth materials last year, mainly from China.”
That means Chinese President Xi Jinping can use rare-earth minerals as a bargaining chip in the ongoing U.S.-China trade war.
The Wall Street Journal reported on May 21 that Mr. Xi and his top trade negotiator appeared publicly in a region of China “that calls itself a rare-earths kingdom.” This move was interpreted as China flexing its muscle in the ongoing tariff battle with President Trump, since such large U.S.-based companies as Lockheed Martin and Apple rely heavily on rare-earth minerals to make their products.
The threat could also be related to the White House’s recent decision to put South China-based Huawei Technologies, the world’s biggest telecommunications equipment manufacturer and second-largest manufacturer of smartphones, on a trade blacklist due to safety and security concerns. U.S. officials have long worried about the ties between Huawei and China’s communist government.
China’s ability to place an embargo on rare-earth minerals could create some short-term dislocations and disruptive price spikes. But the strategy could also backfire.
It already did once before.
In 2010, China and Japan got into a dispute. A Chinese fishing boat rammed two Japanese Coast Guard vessels. Japan arrested the boat’s captain and was going to put him on trial when China protested this decision. In the end, Japan never held a trial and released the captain back to his homeland.
Even though it had won the battle, China imposed a rare-earth embargo against Japan as a form of retaliation.
The world reacted to the threat. New sources for rare-earth minerals were identified in Canada, Australia and India. The shuttered Mountain Pass mine was reopened.
Having lost market share, China ended the embargo.
The moral of the story may be that China cannot really hold the world hostage over rare-earth minerals. But Western nations, especially the United States, must understand that China is not a friend, and plan accordingly. Notably, they should not depend on China to produce materials that are vital to their national security.
Out of reach
A report released this week only confirms what we have already come to know: Finding a place to rent in Vermont is nearly impossible.
Our state is symptomatic of a national problem, however.
In order to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment at the fair market rent in Vermont, renters need to earn $22.78 an hour, or $47,375 annually. That is considered the 2019 housing wage for Vermont.
The figure was part of “Out of Reach: The High Cost of Housing” that was jointly released by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a research and advocacy organization dedicated solely to achieving affordable and decent homes for the lowest-income people, and the Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition.
Each year, Out of Reach reports on the housing wage, the hourly wage a full-time worker must earn to afford a modest, safe rental home without spending more than 30% of their income on housing costs. The report covers all states, counties, metropolitan areas, and ZIP codes in the country, highlighting the gap between what renters earn and what it costs to rent.
What the report found is the average renter in Vermont earns $13.40 an hour, which is $9.38 less than the hourly wage needed to afford a safe, decent place to live. They can afford just $697 a month for their housing costs, while the average statewide fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,184 a month and $945 a month for a one-bedroom. Vermont’s one-bedroom housing wage is $18.18 an hour.
At Vermont’s current minimum wage of $10.78, a wage earner must have 2.1 full-time jobs or work 85 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom apartment, and have 1.7 full-time jobs or work 67 hours per week to afford a modest one-bedroom apartment. In no state, even those where the minimum wage is above $7.25, can a minimum-wage renter working a 40-hour week afford a modest two-bedroom rental home.
With over 76,214 renter households, Vermont has the sixth-largest affordability gap for renters of any state in the nation.
Additional findings from Out of Reach:
— The national housing wage is $22.96 for a two-bedroom home and $18.65 for a one-bedroom.
— Vermont is the ninth-most-expensive state for rural (non-metro) areas.
— Vermont is the 16th-most-expensive state in the nation for renters.
— The housing wage in the greater metropolitan area of Burlington is $29.69, fully $6.91 an hour higher than the state average. (The second-highest housing wage was Washington County, at $19.92. Rutland County came in at $18.06.)
Someone with a disability living on Supplemental Security Income can only afford $247 a month, leaving them $937 short for a two-bedroom and $698 short for a one-bedroom rental.
The struggle to afford modest apartments is not limited to minimum-wage workers. Of the 10 most-common jobs in Vermont according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only registered nurses and bookkeepers/accountants/auditing clerks have average wages higher than the one-bedroom housing wage. Seniors and others living on fixed incomes can’t afford housing anywhere in the state without a subsidy.
According to a news release on the annual report, U.S Sen. Patrick Leahy, vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said: “Each year the NLIHC Out of Reach report reminds us that we must remain sharply focused on increasing the affordability of housing in Vermont. A single mother with a minimum-wage job should not have to work 85 hours each week to afford a home for herself and her children.”
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, added: “Far too many Americans are working long hours at low wages and can’t afford a decent, safe place to live. Here in Vermont, we see renters paying 50, 60 and even 70 percent of their income for their housing, leaving little for other basic necessities.
“This important report makes it clear that we have our work cut out for us,” said U.S. Rep. Peter Welch.
The state made progress with the 2017 Housing Bond, but we must continue and continue investments — public and private — in affordable-housing creation, rental subsidies, and supportive services for our most vulnerable citizens.
Housing should not be out of reach for anyone. Yet this report suggests rental housing is a struggle for almost everyone who needs it. That’s wrong.