Editorials from around New England

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Editorials from around New England:

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CONNECTICUT

The Hartford Courant

Nov. 29

This state is fortunate to have some of its sharpest minds determined to get Connecticut out of its financial pickle. They've given Gov.-elect Ned Lamont a handful of terrific ideas, and the cover, to fix the state's financial problems.

The Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth could have disbanded in March, when it delivered its report to the governor and legislature. But the 14 members continued working on their own. They've narrowed and refined their ideas to six priorities in a report released Wednesday.

Now all that's needed is for Mr. Lamont to have the political courage to break through the likely resistance of a majority Democratic legislature reluctant to change much in this Land of Steady Habits and implement the ideas.

At the risk of oversimplifying the commission's latest report, those six ideas laid out in detail are, in short:

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They include leaders of iconic Connecticut businesses, people who love the state and have a big stake in it. Among them are Cindi Bigelow, president and CEO of Bigelow Tea; Christopher Swift, CEO of The Hartford; Bruce Alexander, who led downtown New Haven's renaissance while at Yale; Roxanne Coady, owner of R.J. Julia Booksellers; and co-chairmen Bob Patricelli, former CEO of Women's Health USA, and Jim Smith, former CEO of Webster Bank.

At times, the report is scary. A sampling of its bad news:

Fixed costs, such as retirement benefits and Medicaid, are growing so high that they will reach "a staggering" 53 percent of the budget in a few years. "Our budget deficits are growing by $500 to $600 million per year. This is simply unsustainable."

The money the state owes, both in debt and in promises made without the funds to fulfill them, is "equivalent to an approximate $100,000 mortgage on every home in the state."

Average pension benefits for state retirees are almost $38,000, "well ahead of the average in the Northeast and U.S." Post-retirement benefits are worth another $43,00 to $71,000 a year. The state spends 13 percent of its general fund just on required pension contributions. "These numbers are more than our budget can bear."

But "while our problems are severe, we are convinced they are fixable," the report says. Among the fixes:

Reopen the 2017 state employee labor agreement. "Achieving fiscal stability for Connecticut simply cannot happen without a re-opener."

Raise teacher pension contributions from 7 to 9.85 percent, and stop paying a third of teacher retiree health care benefits, "since the state has no control over health plans at the local level."

Increase state employee pension contributions to 6 percent. The Tier II contribution of just 2 percent "is the lowest contribution rate in the country."

Lower the top income-tax rate from 6.99 to 6.7 percent and ease the burden of other taxes while broadening the sales-tax base to services that are now exempt, such as dentistry and tax preparation.

Sell or lease or enter into a joint venture for UConn's John Dempsey Hospital to "eliminate the hospital's drag on the state's operating budget of close to $100 million a year."

To say the fixes won't be easy is a great understatement. Unions will resist reopening the 2017 agreement, saying they've sacrificed enough. But the commission's report points out that Connecticut public employees are among the best-paid in the nation, with benefits that are unknown in the private sector - and that are unsustainable for a state that will soon face more bills than it has the money to pay.

The commission has done an invaluable service with its intelligent blueprint for fiscal sanity. Let's hope the new governor has the fortitude to do what it makes clear is needed.

Online: https://cour.at/2SjjjE7

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MASSACHUSETTS

The Boston Globe

Nov. 27

In Cambridge, earlier this month, a man allegedly yelled anti-Semitic slurs at a 66-year-old woman and pushed her against a wall. In Reading, racist graffiti and swastikas have repeatedly appeared in bathroom stalls and benches at Reading Memorial High School. And in Framingham, a 10-year-old Muslim girl recently received a couple of threatening hate letters calling her a terrorist.

Sadly, no one should be shocked anymore at the increased level of hate incidents in America. The FBI recently announced that reported hate crimes increased 17 percent last year, compared with 2016. The figure represents the third consecutive annual increase and the single largest spike since 9/11. In Massachusetts, hate crimes rose 9 percent in 2017.

One of the first steps to combating hate incidents will be for the government to get a better handle on when, where, and to whom they are occurring.

While the data suggest an increasingly ugly landscape in America, hate-crime statistics are erratically assembled. For one thing, participation in the FBI hate crimes reporting program is voluntary. While more than 1,000 additional agencies started contributing to the federal database this year, there are still many who don't report. Hawaii, for example, doesn't participate in the FBI program at all. Second, there is no single definition of "hate crime incident" across states. Third, five states don't have a hate crime law.

Those gaps and omissions lead to statistics that don't necessarily tell us much. For instance, half of the 7,175 reported hate crimes in 2017 came from six states: California, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Ohio, and Washington. Does that mean that the Bay State is more hateful? Not necessarily: It may just mean we do a better job at reporting the data. In contrast, other state and local governments grossly underreport. For instance, the City of Miami reported zero hate crimes in 2017.

There's also evidence that some of the data is compromised. According to the FBI statistics, the city of Olathe, Kan., where an Indian-born engineer was fatally shot at a bar last year after the alleged shooter yelled, "Get out of my country!" at him, also reported zero hate crimes. But Olathe's police department disputed the figure and confirmed it had indeed reported six hate crime incidents last year, including the fatal shooting. It was apparently a data aggregation mistake.

Whatever the cause, it's clear that much hate-motivated activity isn't reflected in FBI data. A recent paper by the Brennan Center for Justice on domestic terrorism cites the US Department of Justice's own data, collected via periodic victim surveys, showing that approximately 250,000 hate crimes were committed every year from 2004 to 2015. Until there is a unified, standardized way of recognizing and reporting hate crimes, it'll be harder to identify trends.

Congress should require that all law enforcement agencies that gather hate crime data use the same definitions and metrics. The authors of the Brennan Center for Justice report suggest a model: the FBI's own data collection on bank robberies, where standard metrics must be reported no matter the jurisdiction.

The heightened prevalence of hate incidents puts all Americans at risk, not just the targeted individual or group. If we are serious about fighting hate, then we need to start from the same place, with reliable and consistent data about what is happening.

Online: https://bit.ly/2E7LzX0

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RHODE ISLAND

The Providence Journal

Nov. 26

There is something to be said for looking at what is, and wondering: What if?

Buddy Croft, the executive director of the Rhode Island Turnpike Road and Bridge Authority, has been doing some of that as the 50th anniversary of the Pell Bridge linking Jamestown and Newport approaches.

His authority has determined that it would be feasible to add a path for pedestrians and bicyclists to three spans under its control: the Pell, the Jamestown-Verrazzano and Mount Hope bridges.

But it wouldn't be cheap. Initial cost estimates are between $25 million and $50 million.

The authority is also contemplating another idea it has deemed to be feasible: putting an observation tower atop one of the two main towers on the Pell Bridge.

No price tag for that yet.

As Mr. Croft sees it, the lead-up to the big anniversary, which falls next June, is a time to reflect.

"It's time for us to look at the next 50 years," he told the Newport Daily News. "And you can't look at the next 50 years without connecting people and communities. We just thought it was the ideal time to at least have the public discussion to see if there's an appetite for this."

Fair enough. We're interested in what our readers think.

Our initial reaction is to do some head-scratching.

There's no doubt that these bridges are some of the most impressive structures in Rhode Island, offering stunning vistas of the state's great natural beauty.

The top of the Pell Bridge - now accessed by a tiny two-person elevator - offers dazzling, if somewhat terrifying, views of Newport, Jamestown, beautiful boats tacking on Narragansett Bay, even Block Island off in the distance. The rare visitors who get to go up there wear safety harnesses with clips locked to metalwork. An enclosed deck accessed by a bigger elevator would surely be popular.

"People are fascinated with going up to see height," said Evan Smith, president and CEO of Discover Newport. "This has the potential to be one of the top attractions in the state."

Proponents note that cities around the world have made use of bridges to serve as pedestrian spans. Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park is a magnificent 1.3-mile-long span across the Hudson River, making use of a former railroad bridge.

Still, we have to confess to skepticism about the public's appetite for this.

Rhode Island is facing deficits that could soar into the hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming years, forcing some degree of austerity on legislators.

Many will wonder whether spending well over $25 million to $50 million on these purposes would produce enough of a bang for the buck in increased tourism or public enjoyment.

Even a new Triple-A baseball stadium, an economic engine in other cities that would have generated more tax revenue than it would have cost, ran into opposition in Rhode Island. That led the owners of the Pawtucket Red Sox to abandon their loyal fans and grab a lucrative deal from Worcester.

Are pedestrian and bike paths and an observation deck the best way to spend tens of millions of taxpayer dollars? They are a nice idea, but critics are sure to note: You could fill a lot of potholes with that kind of money.

Online: https://bit.ly/2FRshqS

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VERMONT

Rutland Herald

Nov. 28

On Monday, Dictionary.com announced that it had selected "misinformation" as 2018's word of the year.

Defined as, "false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead," the online dictionary said, "the rampant spread of misinformation poses new challenges for navigating life in 2018. As a dictionary, we believe understanding the concept is vital to identifying misinformation in the wild, and ultimately curbing its impact."

Different from its more insidious sibling "disinformation," which is defined as, "deliberately misleading or biased information; manipulated narrative or facts; propaganda," misinformation is, in online parlance, what happens when disinformation goes viral.

In 2018, misinformation has cast a long shadow. The spread of false information continues to plague social media despite, or perhaps because of, the modest efforts made by companies like Facebook and Twitter to better police their platforms.

To their credit, the companies did effectively purge scores of bot accounts that had flooded users' feeds with false news stories. They also, along with YouTube, successfully banned Alex Jones and his InfoWars conspiracy news outlet.

Unfortunately, recent revelations that Facebook executives' behind-the-scenes actions seem out of sync with their public assurances to combat misinformation suggest a troubling disconnect.

Now, the toxic misinformation ecosystem that exists online is beginning to have real-world consequences. Misinformation about vaccinations has led to historic outbreaks of previously contained diseases. North Carolina is in the midst of its worst chicken pox outbreak since the vaccine was made available 20 years ago. While the junk science that leads people to believe vaccines are harmful is nothing new, it has received a signal boost on social media by the exact same bots and trolls that meddled in the 2016 presidential election.

More disturbing is troubled individuals like Cesar A. Sayoc Jr., the President Trump fanatic who sent more than a dozen mail bombs to the president's political adversaries in October. Details about Sayoc's online activities, as well as his van, which was covered in alt-right memes, is a chilling glimpse into how misinformation can warp one's worldview and, subsequently, one's behavior.

While social media is currently the most effective delivery system for misinformation, the phenomenon will thrive as long as people's confirmation biases compel them to seek out and process information in a way that reinforces their pre-existing ideologies, and as long as there are public figures who are willing to intentionally mislead the pubic for political gain.

These disinformation campaigns birth the misinformation that muddies the waters of public discourse and casts doubt on fact-based, objective reality. This year we've seen numerous efforts by politicians and media personalities to deliberately misinform, from suggestions that the migrant caravan headed for the U.S. border was full of terrorists and gang members to allegations that the Parkland school shooting survivors were paid crisis actors.

This week, several right-wing news outlets floated a theory that the iconic photo of a migrant woman and her two young children fleeing a tear gas attack at the U.S.-Mexico border was staged.

Even armed with facts, misinformation is pernicious and difficult to debunk. That work is made doubly difficult when the president of the United States routinely and recklessly deals in disinformation. Last month, the Washington Post fact-checkers reported that Trump has made 6,420 false or misleading claims since becoming president, an average of 10 claims a day.

In the past month, Trump has dismissed a CIA assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of a journalist, gave credence to baseless allegations of election fraud and refuted a dire climate change report produced by his own administration.

These insinuations, even when demonstrably false, are believed by many Trump supporters who, in turn, share the misinformation on social media, making themselves complicit in Trump's propaganda machine.

That complicity, at times, extends to the news media, which, in the name of objectivity, often reports misinformation as another worthy perspective. Creating such false equivalencies sets a dangerous precedent that is difficult to walk back. We in the press must continue to build trust by remaining steadfast in our role as arbiters of objective truth. ...

Online: https://bit.ly/2KKzJD1

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MAINE

The Portland Press Herald

Nov. 30

With the country boiling from a never-ending string of exasperating events, our worst impulses bubbling to the top, let's take a moment to marvel at what we can do when we are at our best.

NASA's InSight lander successfully touched down on Mars on Monday a few minutes before 3 p.m. Eastern time, ending a journey of more than six months and 300 million miles.

The path to the successful landing, of course, started much earlier than that. It was the eighth successful Mars landing since Viking 1 in 1976, and each mission builds on the one before it.

You can go back even further, too, to the beginnings of the space program, to the first satellites launched nervously into orbit, to the eventual landmark landing of a manned spacecraft on the moon, and to every mission and experiment that came after.

All that experience and success may have over time made space exploration seem routine - oh, look, we landed on Mars again. However, it is anything but. It takes state-of-the-art technology operated by people with high levels of expertise and focus - and even then, only about 40 percent of Mars landings are successful.

Anyone watching this week can see why. InSight entered the Martian atmosphere traveling at about 12,300 mph. It had to do so precisely at the entry angle of 12 degrees; otherwise, it would have either burned up or bounced back into space.

The entry into the atmosphere begins the "seven minutes of terror," as NASA officials call it, named after the time from entry until the landing of earlier Mars missions. In that time, through the use of a parachute and rockets, and with the help of atmospheric drag, the lander dropped from 12,300 mph to 5 mph right before it settled into the soft soil.

InSight, launched in May from Vandenburg Air Force Base in California, landed at Elysium Planitia, a flat, barren landscape from which the lander will begin the first-ever investigation of the interior of Mars, sending images at regular intervals back to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Working slowly with only those occasional images as guides, NASA operators will over the next few months confirm that InSight is working. Then it will get to work. An arm on the lander will be used to place seismometers on the ground to listen to the planet's tremors, or marsquakes - the red planet's equivalent of earthquakes. A separate instrument will burrow 16 feet into the ground.

Together, those instruments will over the course of two years try to tell us something about how Mars formed. In doing so, scientists hope it will also tell us how Earth, a rocky planet just like Mars, may have formed as well.

In that way, InSight is like a time machine, taking us back to see what Earth might have been like millions of years ago, providing elusive answers to our own origins.

It is an amazing accomplishment, one that should be free of rancor and cynicism. When we want to, we can reach the stars.

Online: https://bit.ly/2AGpGtJ

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NEW HAMPSHIRE

The Portsmouth Herald

Nov. 28

Dr. Arthur Hilson's decision to step down immediately from the Portsmouth Police Commission due to health challenges is cause for reflection on his decades of significant contributions to the people of the Seacoast and New Hampshire as a whole.

Police Commission Chairman Joe Onosko announced Hilson's departure Tuesday in a brief statement.

"Regrettably, but understandably, Dr. Hilson has decided to resign from the commission effective immediately," Onosko announced. "Commissioner (Jim) Splaine and I, along with the Chief (Robert) Merner and the rest of the PD, wish Dr. Hilson the best as he works to regain his health."

Dr. Hilson has made no secret of the fact he has been battling prostate cancer for more than a decade.

We're confident we speak for the entire community in wishing Dr. Hilson a full and speedy recovery.

While Dr. Hilson is best known for his work beginning in 1991 as the pastor of the New Hope Baptist Church, he came to the Seacoast decades earlier, when he was still enlisted in the Navy, working as a counselor at the prison at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. He retired from the Navy in 1973, after having served as a race relations education specialist and earning the Navy Achievement Medal, one of that service's highest honors.

Following his military retirement, Hilson earned two graduate degrees and went on to serve 18 years as an administrator and adjunct professor at UMass Amherst.

Gov. Jeanne Shaheen appointed Dr. Hilson to the state's Human Rights Commission and he worked with Jim Splaine, then a legislator, and Nate Holloway, a local civil rights leader, to educate New Hampshire on the need to set aside a day to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1999, New Hampshire was the last state in the union to officially honor Dr. King, causing Dr. Hilson, watching from the House gallery, to declare: ?Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I'm free at last!?

Closer to home, Dr. Hilson has served on numerous boards and committees including those for AIDS Response Seacoast, Portsmouth Regional Hospital, Piscataqua Community Foundation, Portsmouth Rotary and the Portsmouth School Board. He has also been a leader of the state's religious community, including serving as president of the NE Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a leader of the local interfaith Ministerium.

When the City Council debated Hilson's appointment to the Police Commission in January, Councilor Chris Dwyer, who worked with Dr. Hilson on the African Burying Ground memorial park, highlighted the positive influence he had during his 14 years teaching at Portsmouth High School, a duty from which he retired in 2016. "People would always come up to him, particularly parents, who said what he had meant to their high school students," Dwyer said.

Recently, Hilson participated in a Junteenth celebration at the African Burying Ground, a site which has become a source of deep civic pride in Portsmouth.

In 2016, at a celebration of his 25th year leading New Hope Baptist Church, Mayor Jack Blalock described Dr. Hilson as the perfect citizen, and we heartily second this sentiment; not a perfect man, but a perfect citizen who inspires all who have had the opportunity to work with him.

When Dr. Hilson retired from teaching he said: "I love teaching, but I'm 80 years old... I want to leave on top."

Dr. Hilson leaves the Police Commission at the top of his game, with the respect and gratitude of his fellow commissioners, the Police Department and the entire Seacoast community.

Online: https://bit.ly/2Q9O8i4

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