Editorials from around New England:
The Brattleboro Reformer
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When Southern Vermont College closes at the end of the academic year, the effects will be felt throughout the region and for a long time to come. Data available from June 2017 shows that SVC paid a total of $6.76 million in salaries and benefits that year.
The loss of jobs, incomes and benefits, together with the departure of about 340 students enrolled this year, will have an indelible economic impact on Bennington County.
People will endure the emotional gut punch that comes with job loss, and the community of students, staff and faculty will lose a source of pride and identity that comes with being at a fine academic institution.
Sadly, the closing of small, liberal arts colleges ‚ÄĒ struggling with small endowments and declining enrollments ‚ÄĒ is trending nationwide. Since 2016, Vermont has seen several colleges close. Green Mountain College in Poultney is closing. Burlington College is closed. The College of St. Joseph in Rutland and Goddard College in Plainfield are on probation. The state’s underfunded public colleges are not immune: Castleton University made staffing cuts last year to close a budget deficit, and Lyndon State and Johnson State have merged to become Northern Vermont University.
That trend is being seen at other small colleges in New England which, like SVC, rely upon enrollment and lack the financial resources to ride out unforeseen storms. SVC did its best to overcome the financial hurdles in its way, but once accreditation probation was raised as a possibility, the resulting drop in projected admissions for next year all but sealed the school’s fate.
So now what?
First, state and federal government should get involved immediately to solve pressing needs like employment help, unemployment benefits and assistance to students needing transfer destinations.
Second, local leaders must pull together quickly and chart a strategy for how Bennington might turn this crisis into opportunity. On Thursday in Poultney, education, government, civic planners and community foundations will gather for a brainstorming session as the town copes with the coming loss of Green Mountain College and its 150 employees. We suggest a similar summit should happen in Bennington, and sooner rather than later.
The state of Vermont has a significant role. There are any number of adaptive reuses for the Southern Vermont College campus which could benefit our region and Vermont’s social and workforce development issues. Mental health and addiction treatment, for example, are compelling needs, as is training the next generation of nurses, a service Southern Vermont College was providing through a partnership with Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.
The resulting shortage of education and training opportunities caused by college closings needs to be addressed. The $25 million that state college presidents sought from the Legislature to make tuition more affordable should now be a question of “when,” not “if.”
A Senate bill that would put state college tuitions on a need-based scale ought to be approved. Workforce development starts with higher education and post-high school technical training. The state must start treating workforce development as a necessity.
The Concord Monitor
In the deeply crazy Werner Herzog film classic Aguirre, the Wrath of God, a group of Spaniards led by a crazed would-be conquistador float down the Amazon River on a raft in search of El Dorado, the City of Gold. On the bank, a group of indigenous people point to the raft and one says, “Meat floating by.”
What qualifies as meat is, apparently, in the eye, or mouth, of the beholder, which is why organizations like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association want to restrict the use of the word “meat” in labeling to products that come from an actual animal and not a plant or batch of dividing animal cells in a vat in a laboratory.
Missouri and several other states have passed laws to do just that to protect ranchers and, critics claim, meat industry profits. The debate mirrors the fight over the right of nondairy products like soy milk, almond milk and new entry oat milk to be called “milk,” which it clearly isn’t. The dairy industry lost that battle with the Food and Drug Administration, which is why the beef industry wants the U.S. Department of Agriculture rather than the FDA to make the call.
What we want in product labeling is truth, clarity, completeness and a lack of deception. Careful consumers are unlikely to be fooled into buying one form of faux meat or another instead of the real thing. But what harried shopper hasn’t purchased the flavored form of a nondairy product by accident or grabbed a package of breakfast sausage only to find that it was made from chicken or soybeans, not pork.
Sales of plant-based meat alternatives, backed by investors like Bill Gates, have been soaring, driven by concerns over health, animal welfare and the fate of the planet. Food scientists are also getting better at producing products that look and taste more like the real thing. And athletes such as Kyrie Irving of the Boston Celtics credit their improved performance to adding plant-based meat products to their diet, giving faux meat a marketing boost.
That’s fine, but we draw the line at plant-based burgers that bleed beet juice. Who’s fooling whom about what?
Cultured beef, which (trigger warning) is made from the cells of cattle fetuses killed in slaughterhouses, according to an article in American Agriculturist magazine, is another matter. What can you call it if not meat? Yet a qualifier is in order.
A package of meat grown in a vat in an industrial facility may look, and perhaps someday even taste, just like burger from a cow, but consumers should be told, in big letters and not mouse print, just what it is they’re buying and the product’s provenance.
Be wary of claims that buying alternatives to meat will combat climate change, improve health or cure hunger. They show promise of doing all those things but too little is known to justify mounting a moral high horse over the matter. Meat alternatives may not even be cheaper than the real thing, at least for long.
Pharmaceutical companies are among the investors in the nascent cultured meat market, which, if they end up being its major producers, will probably lead to the $100 hamburger.
The Portland Press Herald
There is no cure for Type 1 diabetes. People who have it need to inject themselves with insulin every day or they will die.
And the medicine is not cheap ‚ÄĒ at least not in America. Over the last 20 years, the price has soared from $20 a vial to $300 or more, doubling in just the last five years. There is no generic version, 90 years after researchers first discovered that animal insulin could treat the disease.
This is just one drug. Americans are paying the top prices in the world for thousands of different medications, many of them as crucial to survival as insulin is to a diabetic. It is good to see that the Maine Legislature plans to take on this issue.
On Tuesday, Democratic leaders rolled out their proposals to protect Maine residents from a distorted market that put life-saving medicine out of reach, even for people with insurance. The legislative package includes:
‚ÄĒ A bill to permit Mainers to fill their prescriptions in Canada.
‚ÄĒ A proposal to create a Prescription Drug Affordability Board that would, among other things, require manufacturers to justify prices the board deems excessive.
‚ÄĒ A measure that would require pharmacy benefit managers to disclose the system of rebates they negotiate with manufacturers.
Each of these bills could have a positive impact on insulin-dependent diabetics who live in Maine.
For instance, the same brand-name life-saving product that costs $300 a vial on this side of the border sells for $32 in Canada, according to a recent report by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. The difference is not what’s in the vial, but the Canadian health care system, in which the provincial government sets the price it considers fair.
And one of the reasons the price has increased so much in this country is the way that drugs are marketed here. The New England Journal of Medicine looked at insulin pricing last year, and found that as more expensive new drugs came on the market, older but still-effective alternatives disappeared.
The study concluded that the new medicines had the benefit of aggressive marketing to doctors, who prescribed them even when the older versions had been working.
And the effect of pharmacy benefit managers on drug pricing also needs more public oversight. Created in the 1990s to negotiate with drug manufacturers and lower prices for consumers, they have not delivered. Costs have been climbing at historic rates, and even consumers with insurance are rationing their medications because they can’t afford to fill their prescriptions.
Other bills affecting prescription prices are still being drafted. The number of them speaks to the complexity of the problem. None of these bills on its own will make medicine affordable, and the prescription-drug cost problem won’t be solved one state at time.
But Maine’s government can do more than it is doing now to protect its citizens from price gouging.
While this is a national problem that will require a federal solution, we hope the state’s Republicans will reach across the aisle to join with Democrats to do what’s possible now.
The Journal Inquirer
To toll or not to toll, that is the question.
Both parties have toll backers and opponents in their midst. Even Gov. Ned Lamont, who has proposed tolls on state highways, is an uneasy proponent.
Income may be sorely needed by the state, but why resort to a tactic that will require a person earning a minimum wage and driving a 10-year-old jalopy to be tolled the same as the driver of a new BMW SUV?
Equality in taxation derives from an income tax, not a sales tax or tolls that do not differentiate between the wealthy and the minimum-wage worker.
Former Gov. Lowell Weicker is often blasted for instituting the state income tax. But instead that move should be recognized as Weicker’s attempt to equalize Connecticut’s tax base and be a model for any taxation that is necessary.
A tax that is obtained through tolls is not an equal tax.
Tolls should be imposed only as a last resort.
The Berkshire Eagle
The explosion of student debt is a problem that some older Americans have trouble understanding, because there once was a time when students were actually able to pay their way through college by working part-time jobs while pursuing their studies. Unfortunately, working one’s way through school has become a quaint concept that new economic realities have thrown on the ash heap of history, along with single-earner families and a living entry-level wage.
The difficulty of finding adequately paying jobs as well as the explosive cost of obtaining a college education have created a whole class of people who work hard but spend a large proportion of their lives repaying old college debts. This can have a depressing effect on the general economy, causing debtors to postpone raising families and buying houses as well as restricting their activities.
In an attempt to confront and relieve this problem, state Sen. Eric Lesser, D-East Longmeadow, has filed a bill designed to protect student borrowers from lenders’ abusive and predatory practices, which are particularly egregious as lenders seek to take advantage of the relative financial illiteracy of young people. It would establish a student loan ombudsman, require student loan services to get a license and enable officials to investigate abusive practices. According to Sen. Lesser, 855,000 borrowers of student loans owe a combined $33.3 billion in the Bay State, out of whom almost 95,000 are delinquent. The Massachusetts problem, moreover, comprises only a fraction of the national student loan crisis. The problem has become so pervasive that debt is even being passed through generations, as students ask parents who still haven’t paid off their own loans for help.
There is talk that this is the year for meaningful legislation to pass, since more and more young representatives are being elected, and some of them still carry their own loans ‚ÄĒ adding a sense of immediacy to the problem. One of the sponsors is state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield who sees the current student loan environment in social justice terms. As he told The Eagle, “Our current system is morally wrong and bad policy. We tell students you need a college degree to make more money, and then make it near impossible to achieve financial stability by taking that path.”
Part of the solution to the problem is to bring it to the full attention of the public, along with the economic ramifications that can have a chilling effect on the state’s economy. This bill, then, has a twofold purpose: to educate and rectify. Considering the potential good it can do, it should be passed and signed forthwith.
The Providence Journal
What is your government doing on your dime? Can you tell? Do public officials want you to know, or would they prefer to keep you in the dark?
What happened with that settlement money? Why did a young man commit suicide and a football coach lose his job? What did the Police Department find when it investigated the actions of its employees? What happened when a town council violated open meetings law by voting behind closed doors?
Unfortunately, people with an interest in these and other matters ‚ÄĒ especially taxpayers who fund these public agencies ‚ÄĒ frequently find their requests for information stymied by delay, heavy redactions and absurd fees.
Rhode Island officials, like those in many states, seem to prefer that citizens and members of the media would leave them alone. The examples above are drawn from cases around the state.
This is, in a word, outrageous.
In a March 10 Special Report (“Transparency under assault”), Journal Staff Writers Tom Mooney and Amanda Milkovits detailed situations in which members of the public sought information about situations clearly in the public interest, but encountered official resistance from officials who didn’t want people to know.
Officials who responded in the story cited a litany of objections, from the need to protect the personal privacy of police officers to concerns about lawsuits. Other observers say public employees focus more on their reputations than serving the public, worried that their antics will linger in internet searches.
Of particular note is the way former Rhode Island attorney general Peter Kilmartin responded to requests for information. He charged former state Rep. Patricia Morgan $3,750 for access to public records, including a three-paragraph document that was entirely redacted, except for the subject line. When the ACLU requested the same document, the new attorney general, Peter Neronha, commendably provided the entire, un-redacted document. It turned out Mr. Kilmartin’s redaction served no public purpose.
In another disservice to the public, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea took it upon herself to remove the birth dates from a database of 778,000 registered Rhode Island voters. She said she did so because she had been advised that the dates of birth could make voters vulnerable to identity theft.
This is information that has long been in the public record, helping news outlets like The Providence Journal determine how well voter lists are being maintained, key to protecting honest elections. In 2006, for example, journalists used the database to identify 10,000 duplicates and 5,000 registrations for dead people. More recently, reporters found the database contains tens of thousands of entries more than should exist, given census numbers.
Of course, such findings are embarrassing to the secretary of state’s office, which is charged with protecting the integrity of Rhode Island’s elections. Ms. Gorbea’s newfound opacity will appeal to a handful of state bureaucrats, while leaving the other citizens of the state in the dark about this important matter.
There’s a natural tension between officials who do the public’s business and those who report about the way they do it. The Journal strives every day to make information available to the public so that voters and taxpayers can understand how their government is being run. It’s the public’s government, after all ‚ÄĒ not the bureaucrats’.