Editorials from around New England

  • Jun 15, 2019
  • Rutland Herald

For a state desperate to shed a reputation that it's not business-friendly, the news that United Technologies Corp. would no longer make its headquarters in Connecticut could not have come at a worse time.

UTC is the largest private employer in Connecticut, with some 13,000 jobs. Many of its components are household names themselves — Pratt & Whitney, Otis Elevator, Carrier and, until 2015, Sikorsky Aircraft. With its home in the Hartford suburbs, UTC defines high-value manufacturing, with products including jet engines, heating and ventilation apparatus, and security systems.

Now, following the high-profile departure of General Electric to Boston three years ago, UTC is itself headed to Massachusetts following a merger with fellow industrial giant Raytheon. The combined company will be based outside of Boston, taking a small number of high-paying headquarters jobs but leaving in place most of its workers.

On Tuesday, the Lamont administration announced UTC would in fact add to its local workforce, with 1,000 new hires planned at Pratt & Whitney in Connecticut over the next few years, as well as a promise that Otis would remain in Connecticut after it is spun off from the new mega-company.

That's good news. It doesn't change the fact that losing UTC's headquarters is a serious blow.

It follows not only GE out the door, but also other corporate giants including liquor producer Diageo, which traded its Norwalk address for one in New York City, and Aetna, whose own move to New York was only scuttled when the insurance company was acquired by CVS.

Worse news is that there isn't all that much that can be done about this trend.

Republicans disagree, of course, saying that moves like UTC's back up their doomsaying as to the state's tax and regulatory policy, with the likely reintroduction of highway tolls, in this view, only adding to the burdens driving mega-corporations to more welcoming climes.

But one look at the companies' new destinations ought to disabuse anyone of that notion. New York City and Boston are high-cost, high-tax cities that are not going to save money for their new arrivals but will make them more appealing to potential hires. Connecticut can cut costs all it wants — and to Republicans' point, it could stand to cut some expenses — but it won't matter much unless the state can make itself as appealing as the competition.

That's a long-term project, and one that state leaders seem to recognize is essential. A suburban headquarters simply doesn't have the cachet it once had, leaving suburban Connecticut at a severe disadvantage.

Closely related is the issue of corporate subsidies, of which UTC was a recipient to the tune of some $400 million in tax breaks.

In the end, that amount of money meant nothing in UTC's decision-making. It's a lesson that needs to break through as the state pursues a new economic strategy — if a location isn't appealing enough on its own, no amount of subsidies is going to change that.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly stated UTC was part of the First Five program.

If you believe the hype, one little bottle of CBD contains miracles. It treats diabetes; reduces stress; alleviates chronic pain and anxiety; even cures acne. Trouble sleeping? Panicky pet? CBD to the rescue.

All that, and so much more — at a bargain price as low as $40 for some formulas. This potent potable also comes mixed into body lotions, bath salts, coffee, smoothies, gummy bears, chocolate, cheese pizza, and dog biscuits.

The fad for cannabidiol, or CBD, has clearly gone mainstream. From virtually nothing a few years ago, sales of the cannabis-related compound have exploded into a billion-dollar market. CBD's true believers tout one miraculous health claim after the next.

In light of the wide dissemination of these beliefs, CBD claims deserve careful scrutiny from the Food and Drug Administration — and some attention from state regulators, too. Despite its ubiquity, CBD is still largely an unresearched substance in the United States. Exaggerated or unproven claims need to be challenged, and the industry shouldn't be permitted to introduce CBD into food products until the compound is better understood.

CBD is the nonintoxicating, natural molecule extracted from the cannabis plant. CBD is found in marijuana, of course, but it's also present in hemp, the related plant whose cultivation in the US was legalized by Congress in December.

Its proven medical uses are confined to a drug the FDA approved last summer to treat two rare forms of pediatric epilepsy. It's the first — and only — medicine derived from cannabis that has been green-lighted by the federal agency.

Because CBD is already sold as a drug, federal law technically bans its use in food and drink that crosses state lines. "Selling unapproved products with unsubstantiated therapeutic claims is not only a violation of the law, but also can put patients at risk, as these products have not been proven to be safe or effective," Scott Gottlieb, then the FDA commissioner, wrote in a statement when hemp production was legalized.

But enforcement is largely left to states, where it has been uneven. Earlier this year, New York City health officials banned bakeries and restaurants from selling food and beverages with CBD. Ohio and Maine have also moved proactively.

In Massachusetts, though, the sale of products containing hemp-derived CBD is still loosely regulated. For instance, the state has not addressed sales of food and drink made with CBD. But it has at least issued guidance for commercial growers and processors of industrial hemp. Among other things, the state Department of Agricultural Resources requires producers to label any product they make for human consumption that contains CBD with a warning stating the product is derived from industrial hemp, that it "has not been analyzed or approved by the FDA," and that it "has not been tested or approved by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources."

Now, maybe adding CBD to food is safe. And maybe it really can deliver medicinal benefits. But sorting through the safety and efficacy claims requires a more muscular FDA role. Last month , the FDA held a much-awaited hearing on how to regulate CBD consumer products and got an earful on the need for a science-based approach to regulation. "Currently, states are struggling with the lack of sound scientific research available in CBD and long-term health impacts, including those to children," said a Virginia state official. Most medical experts agreed that CBD holds potential medicinal properties, but more clinical trials are needed before allowing the hemp extract to be added to food and drink.

The hazy legal status of hemp-derived CBD until December, coupled with lack of funding, deterred studies in the past. Now researchers need to determine how different doses affect consumers; how CBD affects children; how it interacts with medical conditions and medications; how it affects pregnant women; whether long-term use carries risks; and if the purported benefits are scientifically verifiable.

None of which is to say that CBD itself should be banned. Coke is still available, after all; the company just no longer claims that the beverage cures headaches and upset stomach. Ironically, Coca-Cola is reportedly now exploring a CBD-infused "wellness" drink. Hopefully by the time it hits shelves, consumers will have the research needed to separate CBD fact from fiction.

The eight years Maine spent with a staunch opponent to solar power in the governor's office has been called a wasted opportunity — and it certainly was.

But it also showed that you can't keep a good idea down. Despite the opposition of Gov. Paul LePage and the institution of bad policies, individuals, businesses and local governments moved forward with solar projects because they make economic and environmental sense.

Now with a friendly face in the Blaine House, the solar industry is ready to grow. The Legislature can help.

Lawmakers already passed a bill that among other things restored net-metering, the process by which consumers are credited for the energy they produce through their own solar panels. In doing so, they brought some welcome certainty to the industry — but it was only a start.

Even under the poor circumstances of the last few years, the solar industry showed us what is needed. Communities of all kinds want to come together to take advantage of the rapidly dropping price of solar generation, and Maine needs to put in place policies that will make that easier.

L.D. 1711 contains a number of those polices. From Sen. Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, the bill lifts barriers to distributed generation of solar power - that is, power produced right next to where it is used.

The bill encourages the development of all kinds of distributed solar generation, large and small. It would help businesses that want to power their own operations, and municipalities that want to provide clean energy to residents and local businesses. It further reduces barriers to solar energy by mandating solar farms serve low- and middle-income residents.

Maine has seen these sort of projects pop up in recent years. Colby College has a solar array of 5,300 panels contributing 16 percent of campus power. Madison Electric Works built a 26,000-panel array that covers 20 percent of their power needs. Cianbro Corp. in Pittsfield has a 41,000-panel array.

Many more projects wait in the wings, and are ready to go once the various barriers are removed. These projects, and others that follow them, will allow Maine to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy. They will help keep more of Maine's energy dollars here in the state. And they will promote an industry that is growing in leaps and bounds.

There are about 600 solar power-related jobs in Maine, an increase from a few years ago but still lagging far behind most of the rest of the country. Massachusetts, with some of the best solar policy in the country, has more than 10,000 jobs in the industry.

Maine was once right next to Massachusetts on this issue, but now we've fallen behind. The Legislature shouldn't let the session end without playing catch-up.

New Hampshire has gained by losing its ability to kill in the name of the state and its citizens. It joined 20 other states and every developed nation in abolishing capital punishment. It joined every other New England state in saying that as a society we won't allow a murderer to turn us into murderers. It claimed higher moral ground by replacing death with the possibility of change and redemption.

Thursday's Senate vote repealed the death penalty, replacing "may be punished by death" as the penalty for what was a capital crime with the words "imprisonment for life without the possibility of parole" as the ultimate punishment. It was a vote for civilization over barbarism.

The death penalty, despite arguments to the contrary, is not a deterrent. States that abolished capital punishment have not seen an increase in homicides. Nor are they at risk of killing an innocent person.

To date, at least 165 death row inmates have been exonerated, often thanks to DNA evidence.

In Oklahoma, which has executed 112 people and seen 10 death row inmates exonerated, Marven Goodman, a county commissioner who opposes capital punishment, said: "As a conservative, I wouldn't trust the government to regulate shoelaces let alone administer a program that kills its citizens." Humans make mistakes. Systems are imperfect.

Perversely, death penalty proponents, including Gov. Chris Sununu, opposed the repeal because they say the process in New Hampshire has worked. The state last executed someone in 1939. That history is not justification for keeping the death penalty but proof that it isn't needed.

Many inmates sentenced to life without parole have said they would prefer to die if they couldn't live free. A life sentence may be the harsher punishment, but it gives a convict a chance to change, a chance to attempt to atone for their crime.

Imposing a death sentence adds $1 million or so to the cost of case, money far better spent on prevention, domestic violence counseling and victim services. The decades-long delay before a death sentence is carried out is cruel to the families of victims, yet necessary to protect against a fatal mistake.

New Hampshire has one inmate on death row, an African American who grew up amid poverty, drugs, violence and neglect. Tried at essentially the same time for a capital offense was a white millionaire found guilty of murder for hire. He was sentenced to life without parole.

The repeal does not directly affect the death row inmate, Michael Addison, but it's unlikely that his execution will ever be carried out. But is the injustice that a black man who killed a white police officer and was sentenced to execution may instead remain imprisoned for life? Or is it that a wealthy white man who orchestrated the killing of a poor handyman, which was also a capital crime, received a more lenient sentence?

Thanks to the repeal, New Hampshire may never find out, nor suffer the international opprobrium that Addison's execution would engender.

Lawmakers like Hampton Rep. Renny Cushing and members of the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty labored for decades to bring an end to capital punishment. They've done their state and humanity a great service.

As everyone knows, newspapers that serve regional readers face historic challenges these days.

The traditional ad-generated revenue base has dwindled dramatically. Classified ads were cannibalized by Craigslist and others, many display ads found other outlets, and print subscribers declined as people saw less need to know about important matters or found some content free on their smartphones. To remain in business, newspapers have scrambled to inform the public with far fewer resources.

At the same time, the technology behemoth Google has been leveraging the content produced by newspapers and repackaging it online, generating advertising dollars on the backs of local publishers.

How much money? According to a study released this week by the News Media Alliance, a newspaper trade association, Google alone generated $4.7 billion — billion, with a B — from news publishers last year through its search and news function. All that money went to Google. None went to the people and organizations that wrote and edited those news stories and shot those news photographs. The amount of news in Google search results ranges from 16 to 40 percent, the study found.

Since they depend on the news industry, digital giants such Google, Facebook and others may at some point find it necessary to share some of that money with the news organizations that help them reap billions of dollars. Let us hope so.

Fortunately, members of Congress, including Rhode Island's own Rep. David Cicilline, have been considering bills that would grant news publishers a four-year antitrust exemption so they can negotiate with digital publishers like Google for a more equitable split of revenue.

"Our democracy is strongest when we have a free, open press that informs citizens, holds public officials accountable, and roots out corruption," said Mr. Cicilline, who commendably introduced the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act in the House. By allowing news organizations some operating room to negotiate with technology companies like Google, Congress can "ensure consumers have access to the best journalism possible," he said.

Google, by the way, contests the conclusions of the News Media Alliance study, calling its calculations "back of the envelope" and "inaccurate."

Yet the fact remains that newspapers pay reporters, photographers and editors to produce news that tech companies offer to their own clients, collecting ad dollars, none of which come back to the original producers.

If local and regional news organizations are starved of their ability to make money, the stories and photos will go away entirely. That carries a steep hidden cost to our society. Citizens will be less knowledgeable about their government, and more susceptible to liars and demagogues. This will be a boon to those who seek to gain unaccountable power, and a curse to freedom, which depends on transparency and an informed electorate.

We're at a critical juncture for the news business, and also for democracy in America. As the Pew Research Center has reported, the news industry has suffered a 54 percent drop in revenues since 2006. The growing clout of technology platforms, which have ominously taken to censoring political speech, has played a major role in this trend.

We can do nothing, and watch local news operations be reduced further, or we can take reasonable actions to reallocate the way technology companies profit from the efforts of local news organizations.

Yesterday the Justice Department filed a "Statement of Interest" in support of families who are suing the state of Maine for the right to use public education funds for tuition at a religious school.

The Trump administration is throwing its weight behind three families who sued the state of Maine (Carson v. Makin) after they were told the state's tuition voucher program could only be used at secular schools.

Last month the Justice Department made a similar filing in support of a group of Rice High School students who, earlier this year, sued the Vermont Department of Education for denying them access to the state's dual enrollment program that allows high school kids to earn college credit at public expense.

The state policy is to explicitly exclude religious schools from over $1 million in annual state funding. That's a violation of their civil rights, according to lawyers for the plaintiffs and the Trump administration.

"The State is penalizing parents for exercising their constitutionally protected right to choose a religious education for their children, and is discriminating against the faith-based schools they choose," lawyers for the Rice students said.

We agree, and think these legal challenges are long overdue.

Two years ago the United States Supreme Court (Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer) ruled that it was unconstitutional to exclude religious schools from state funding under certain conditions. We imagine that the current High Court will eliminate all conditions when it gets the chance.

It's too bad that state legislators don't just do the right thing. Recall that in 2014 the Vermont House rejected an amendment to H.876 (Branagan) to specifically allow religious school students to take advantage of the program.

The measure failed 76-65. Detractors said their concern was that any form of public support for religious school students might pose constitutional problems.

We thought that was pure hogwash and flew in the face of the Brigham decision - requiring equal access to educational opportunities and equal funding for all Vermont students. It's also a question of basic fairness and decency.

Unfortunately the state Department of Education is notoriously incompetent on those fronts.

The way we see it, the state discriminates against these kids in a cynical bow to public school hegemony. Why else would an education department, whose lone competency is wasting taxpayer money, go out of its way to deny educational opportunities to a tiny class of Vermont students?

We think these exclusions are nakedly partisan, mean-spirited and have virtually zero chance of surviving these long overdue legal challenges.

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