Editorials from around New England:
Building a wind industry across Connecticut
In meeting with officials from Orsted and Eversource, the offshore wind power partnership eyeing the New London port as a staging site and, more recently, with Lars Pedersen, the CEO of Vineyard Wind, which has focused on Bridgeport as its staging site, what has become apparent to the editorial board is what an enormous opportunity this is for Connecticut.
Soon the state will announce the awarding of contracts for 2,000 megawatts of offshore wind power, enough to supply about 1 million homes. Connecticut has approximately 1.5 million housing units, though this electricity would feed into a grid that distributes power throughout New England.
Both Orsted and Eversource, operating in Connecticut as Constitution Wind, and Vineyard Wind have submitted various bids under this process. How the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection divvies up the award will go a long way in determining the viability and the scope of these two potential port projects.
While we may have a home-team interest in seeing the bulk or all of the energy supply awards go to Constitution Wind, the best choice for the state and for the viability of the industry is to see the awards divided up in some relatively equal fashion between the two.
In his visit last week with the editorial board, Pedersen made the point that the ramping up of wind farm construction off the Eastern Seaboard could well be so enormous that multiple ports will be needed to meet the demand. Given the electricity demands of the Northeast, the diminishing contribution of nuclear power, and the desire to reduce fossil fuel use and the associated greenhouse emissions, electricity provided by offshore wind could grow to 25,000 megawatts over the next decade, Pedersen said. That would power 12.5 million homes.
Vineyard Wind is a joint venture of Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and Avangrid Renewables.
Also in the bidding, but with a less clear upside for Connecticut, is Mayflower Wind, backed by Shell as it moves into the renewable market.
Providing a substantial portion of the award to Constitution Wind would only make sense. While a final deal has not been revealed, Gov. Ned Lamont announced months ago the outlines of a plan to invest $93 million in the state-owned State Pier in New London, with $57.5 million of that investment committed by the Orsted and Eversource partnership. While the Orsted and Eversource venture has already secured awards to provide Connecticut and Rhode Island with 700 megawatts, expanding that portfolio through the current bid process would expand the scope, size and sustainability of support operations in New London.
But if Connecticut can, sooner than later, get solar-wind support operations underway in both New London and Bridgeport, the state could find itself as a staging area for wind turbine construction serving multiple states in the Northeast. The two ports have the good fortune of having no bridges between their ports and the Atlantic Ocean, a requirement for moving the towering turbine stanchions from the land to their installation in the sea.
Then there is the politics of the matter. Dividing the electric supply award and having ports in New London and Bridgeport feeding into offshore wind development will assure that a broad and powerful legislative voting bloc is in place to support an industry that could have a profound and positive economic impact on Connecticut.
A study co-authored by New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and the Clean Energy States Alliance — of which Connecticut is a member — found that developing 8,000 MW of offshore wind from Maryland to Maine by 2030 could create up to 36,000 full-time, good-paying U.S. jobs. If Pedersen’s prediction of triple that amount of offshore wind energy materializes, the job creation could increase substantially.
Connecticut can share a major portion of the benefits that flow from this industry that is new to our shores but well established in Europe. That is, if it doesn’t mess things up.
Maine, federal lawmakers should rein in facial surveillance
Portland Press Herald
Facial recognition technology is such a powerful tool for surveillance that it raises profound questions about privacy and law enforcement. But before we’ve even gotten around to considering how the technology affects our daily lives, in many ways it’s already a part of them.
That’s why Maine should waste no time in creating a legal framework under which facial recognition can be used. Technology with such a potential for abuse should not go unregulated.
The issue recently came up in the city of Portland, where councilors this week delayed a vote on a proposal to prohibit city employees from using facial recognition technology until a committee can review it.
The technology is not being used currently in Portland, though police said it may at some point be considered for use in conjunction with the body cameras every police officer now wears.
It doesn’t appear to be in use elsewhere in the state, but it could have applications not only in general law enforcement but also at ports, airports and the border.
Facial recognition works by mapping the distance between points on a person’s face, creating a unique profile that can be compared to existing databases, such as those containing mugshots or driver’s license photos – about half of Americans now have a photo on such a database.
Law enforcement can use the technology to match, say, footage of a robbery with a mugshot of the offender.
More worrisome, they can also use it to analyze a crowd and put names to faces in a matter of seconds – facial recognition is already used in this way at big athletic events, at airports and at the border.
But while the public may have no problem being under such watchful eyes in a stadium or at an airpot terminal, many would feel differently about it being deployed more widely in the public square.
What’s more, the technology is not reliable when it comes to identifying people of color, making mistaken matches as much as a third of the time.
“Face surveillance is dangerous when it works, and when it doesn’t,” Kade Crockford of ACLU of Massachusetts told the Press Herald. “The government has no business using technology that can facilitate the mass tracking of our every movement in public space – every visit to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, a doctor’s office, city hall, or even just a friend’s house. But that’s exactly what this technology enables, in its most dangerous form.”
With that mind, the public needs to know that when facial recognition is being used, it is being used correctly, with all the limits and oversight that entails. Finding the right limits requires an open discussion about the power of facial recognition and our own concept of privacy in public spaces.
Unfortunately, the use of the technology is moving forward without that discussion, and without any real policy in place. The Washington Post reported earlier this year that federal law enforcement had accessed hundreds of millions of photos, mostly from motor vehicle departments, in completing searches without any explicit permission or public governing policy.
In November, the ACLU filed suit against the federal government because it would not say how the technology is being used by the Department of Justice.
Absent defined laws and policies, the use of facial recognition technology is entering our lives under the radar and largely unscrutinized. It’s time for state and federal lawmakers to step in.
House hearings show foreign policy gone wrong
The Boston Globe
The bitter political battle underway on Capitol Hill between House Democrats investigating President Trump and House Republicans clinging to any explanation that excuses the president’s actions may seem bad enough. But the recent public impeachment hearings serve as a reminder that an actual war is taking place in Ukraine as it fights to protect its independence. Amid that war — which puts human life, not just political power, at risk — the public testimony in the House impeachment hearings suggests the president of the United States has failed to uphold American national security interests.
Since 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea and seized a large swath of Ukrainian territory, Ukraine has been fighting against Russian forces to maintain its independence in a conflict that, as career diplomat and deputy assistant secretary of state George Kent told lawmakers on Nov. 13, has claimed more than 13,000 lives. As Kent, acting US ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor, and former US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch underscored in their testimony, Ukraine’s independence is not incidental to the United States’ interests or, for matter, to that of the world’s democracies: It is a critical bulwark in a decades-long strategy to contain Russian aggression and dominance and to secure our NATO allies against the proven expansionist ambitions of Russia’s leadership.
The most alarming information in Taylor’s public testimony was his account of the moment his colleague, David Holmes, also an American diplomat in Ukraine, overheard President Trump asking US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, on the phone from Kyiv, about the status of “the investigations.” His testimony — and Holmes’ private testimony — further support the argument that the president personally sought the investigation of a political opponent in exchange for releasing military aid to a foreign ally — what would amount to extortion. (That the aid was released after a whistle-blower filed a complaint about the exchange does not diminish the magnitude of the offense. A failed extortion is still a crime and impeachable offense, just as the failed 1972 robbery at the Watergate Office Building was still a crime, and its coverup an abuse of power.)
Taylor, who has five decades of experience in military and diplomatic service, testified that he had never before seen a US president make foreign aid conditional on his own personal or political interests. That doing so would be a historic aberration should bolster the case for impeachment if the evidence continues to support this version of events.
Perhaps equally important for the American public to know as it looks to 2020 is that Holmes privately testified that he was told by Sondland that President Trump cares more about the investigations of former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden than he does about the war in Ukraine. To hear the nonpartisan diplomat’s impression stated so clearly — that the president of the United States was more deeply invested in digging up dirt on a political opponent than in his own administration’s strategy for Ukraine — might not surprise Trump’s most cynical critics. But it ought to wake up his more ambivalent supporters, especially those who profess to care about the nation’s security and the long-term prospect of US leadership around the globe. Taylor and Holmes described a leader with a callous disregard for the lives of Ukrainians, the interests of the United States and our European allies, and the fate of a democracy that faces an existential risk. The president should have looked at Ukraine and seen a country whose vulnerability meant it needed US help; instead, it seems he looked at that vulnerability and saw an opportunity for a shakedown.
Republicans in Congress should pay attention to the nonpartisan career public servants who spoke on Capitol Hill, and to their insistence that what they have witnessed in our foreign policy with Ukraine this year is without precedent — and moreover, wrong. And even if the impeachment process does not lead to the removal of Donald Trump from the presidency, these are grounds for Republicans, Independents, and Democrats alike to abandon him at the ballot box in favor of a leader who will put the country first — and fiercely defend its interests above his or her own.
Trump’s EPA continues to attack science
In a revolting exercise in sophistry, nonscientist Andrew Wheeler, Donald Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, has turned the principles of science against science itself.
Recently Wheeler, a lawyer and former coal industry lobbyist, announced that the EPA would no longer consider scientific studies that form the basis of proposed or past environmental regulations unless they meet the agency’s new standards for transparency.
“Good science is science that can be replicated and independently validated, science that can hold up to scrutiny. That is why we’re moving forward to ensure that the science supporting agency decisions is transparent and available for evaluation by the public and stakeholders,” Wheeler sanctimoniously advised a congressional committee.
Sounds reasonable on the surface, but what Wheeler, continuing a campaign launched by his disgraced predecessor, Scott Pruitt, meant is that the agency now feels free to discount any scientific evidence that, to encourage participation and protect the privacy of participants, relied on confidential medical records.
Scratch studies that promised anonymity to participants who share their health history and out goes much of the evidence that justifies environmental regulations. Which is exactly the point of the proposed new EPA standard. Such studies have demonstrated that air pollution reduces life span; that lead or mercury consumption is harmful, especially to children; that certain pollutants in drinking water increase cancer risk.
Wheeler’s change, should it be permitted to stand, could harm or destroy the state of New Hampshire’s pioneering effort to limit the damage caused by PFOAs, a class of chemical compounds found in nonstick coatings, firefighting foam, stain removers and other commonly produced products. Growing evidence suggests that the chemicals, which have found their way into the groundwater in many New Hampshire communities, especially on the Seacoast, are linked to a variety of cancers. The compounds are long-lived and not removed by municipal water treatment systems. Because they are present in the sewage biosolids used as farm fertilizer they can be found far from the source of their use.
Earlier this year, New Hampshire set the nation’s lowest permissible limit of PFOAs in drinking water. That regulation is now under legal attack on a number of fronts. It’s too soon to say, but the EPA’s new policy could conceivably come into play in the debate over whether the new limits will stand.
History is replete with examples of science suppressed to protect prevailing beliefs and entrenched wealth or power. The 16th-century Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for defending astronomer Copernicus’s contention that the Earth revolved around the sun. A generation later, Galileo was imprisoned by inquisitors for the same alleged crime. Charles Darwin was vilified for contending that humans were the product of evolution. Tennessee teacher John Thomas Scopes was fined in 1925 for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution to public school students. The chemical industry attempted to suppress the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the book that launched the modern environmental movement. Now there are attempts by Trump and Wheeler, among others, to suppress or ignore evidence of global warming, and eliminate references to it in government publications.
The EPA’s newfound concern for transparency in scientific studies is a fraud concocted to reduce the influence of science on public policy. It is an attempt to poison science in pursuit of profit.
Spending so far outstrips collections
It was one of those Rhode Island government stories that make people in the real world scratch their heads.
The state in June 2018 created something called the Central Collections Unit to collect millions of dollars owed to state agencies. It was fleshed out with seven employees, and was expected to rake in $3.1 million in its first full year.
When it proved less lucrative than expected, lawmakers acceded to the governor’s request and added a dedicated lawyer.
But by last month, it had only collected $196,000.
What are the taxpayers spending for that $196,000? According to Department of Revenue spokesman Paul Grimaldi, the annual budget for the unit is $899,649.
The unit is using “previously empty cubicle space” in the Department of Revenue headquarters at One Capitol Hill, so no rental of office space was required.
Still, people who run businesses look at that and wonder what the state is thinking.
A unit of new full-time employees is expensive, with salaries, health benefits, retirement costs and associated expenses for telephone, electricity, travel, overtime, etc.
Private sector businesses trying to collect debt often hire collection agencies or law firms that specialize in that work. There are no up-front costs, no overhead and relatively little risk, since those agencies and firms usually take a percentage of the debt collected. The people collecting the money are experts in assessing what debts can be collected, and which collection efforts would constitute a waste of their time and money.
With government, the first instinct seems to be to spend money, hire new people and hope for the best.
Mr. Grimaldi argues that we should not get too concerned about the initial collection figures. He calls it “an innovative way” to improve the state’s finances. It is too early to rate its effectiveness, he says.
“The figures submitted to the Revenue Estimating Conference” — i.e., the $196,000 — “cannot tell the complete story. Some of the money we’ve collected goes directly to workers who were shortchanged by their bosses. Other people who owed the largest amounts to the state have been drawn into monthly payment plans by the CCU,” he said.
In the first year of its operation, the unit has been “working with its agency partners to create and refine their methods for working together, including deciding which regulatory efforts should get the new unit’s attention,” Mr. Grimaldi said.
Indeed, the Raimondo administration is “happy with the momentum the CCU has established this early in its history,” he said.
According to the Department of Revenue, the $900,000-a-year unit has made 1,140 calls and sent out 196 emails to debtors. It has closed 106 cases and put together 24 payment plans. That seems like an expensive operation for those results.
At some point, of course, the wonderful “momentum” the unit has established will have to translate into collections that not only exceed the budget of the operation but outstrip what might have been obtained through a professional collection service.
We hope the General Assembly, in its oversight capacity, will keep an eye on the unit to make sure that is the case, and that it does not merely constitute more state jobs at the expense of the taxpayers.
Report reveals flaws in Vermont’s remote-worker program
A new report by State Auditor Doug Hoffer strongly suggests that if Vermont’s much-touted remote-worker program is not exactly squandering taxpayer dollars, neither is it spending them prudently.
That comes as no surprise to those who were skeptical in the first place of the whole notion of paying people to move to the Green Mountain State, but Hoffer pinpoints a key structural weakness in the program that must be rectified if the Legislature decides to extend it when it expires.
The program was created by the Legislature in 2018 as part of the state’s strategy to bolster its economy and counteract its aging population demographic. The intent is to encourage people who use a computer to work remotely from their place of employment to move to Vermont.
To accomplish this, it offers to reimburse certain expenses incurred by those workers in making the move, such as relocation costs, computer hardware and software acquisition, broadband access and upgrades, and memberships in co-working spaces. Successful applicants can receive grants of up to $5,000 from the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, which administers the program.
So far, $400,000 of the $500,000 originally authorized has been spent to reimburse 112 recipients, resulting in a population gain of 290, according to Economic Development Commissioner Joan Goldstein. Hoffer studied a sample of 68 awards and concluded that in adhering to the Legislature’s intent to “keep (the program) simple and get the money out the door,” the agency made “numerous questionable choices” in awarding the grants and failed to interpret consistently the program’s guidelines.
For example, the program paid for one recipient to install a 100-yard underground conduit for broadband cable as well as for post-installation landscaping. Three recipients purchased in total three high-definition monitors, an office printer, an iPad Pro, an iMac desktop, and one Alienware Aurora high-performance gaming desktop. The program also paid for home internet bills, including a prepaid year of high-speed internet and router rental for one grantee.
The agency, however, did not verify that the costs were actually necessary for the recipients to perform their employment duties. So the taxpayers ended up subsidizing a higher standard of living for entire households who had access to the broadband service and hardware that the state paid for.
That’s certainly problematic, but it pales in comparison with the structural flaw in the program, which is that it requires applicants to provide proof of residency before they apply for grants. Hoffer points out that this means that they have already made the major financial and life-changing decision to move to Vermont before knowing they will receive grants to defray expenses. This in turn demonstrates that they already had the motivation and means to become Vermonters without any enticements from the state.
Moreover, the program does not require those applying to attest to the fact that they would not have come but for the incentive the state offered. Hoffer reviewed surveys and applications filled out by recipients and concluded that the prospect of reimbursements was, at best, a minor incentive for moving to Vermont and at worst, “the grants were gifts to those who would have moved here regardless of financial incentives.”
The Legislature can try to fix these shortcomings if it decides to continue the program, but all sorts of economic development efforts are plagued by the fact that it is enormously hard to determine if a particular incentive plays the decisive role, whether in a company’s decision to expand in or relocate to a state or in an individual’s decision to make a home there.
The survey data examined by Hoffer showed that for the grant recipients he studied, 74% were influenced by access to outdoor recreation and nature, and 66% by having a safe place to live and raise a family. Moreover, 74% had previously vacationed in the state.
We tend to think that a better approach than grants would be to let the state sell itself through its natural beauty and the lifestyle it affords, while investing in the social infrastructure that would make the state more livable for old residents and new, including affordable housing, child care, higher education, health care and broadband internet.