A woman looks at a roller coaster sitting in the ocean after Hurricane Sandy, in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, Nov. 28, 2012. The roller coaster was on part of a pier that collapsed in the storm.

Sea level rise isn’t just happening, it’s getting faster

In at least the third such study published in the past year, scientists have confirmed seas are rising, and the rate of sea level rise is increasing as time passes.

Updated 3 mins ago     |    

Sea level rise isn’t just happening, it’s getting faster

Posted June 27, 2017, at 7:52 a.m.
Last modified June 27, 2017, at 1:26 p.m.

In at least the third such study published in the past year, scientists have confirmed seas are rising, and the rate of sea level rise is increasing as time passes — a sobering punchline for coastal communities that are only now beginning to prepare for a troubling future.

[ Scientists say the rate of sea level rise has nearly tripled since 1990]

What was a 2.2 millimeter per year rise in 1993 was a 3.3 millimeter rise in 2014, based on estimates of the mass changes of a number of key components of sea level rise, such as the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, the study in Nature Climate Change found. That’s the difference between 0.86 and 1.29 inches per decade – and the researchers suggest further sea level acceleration could be in store.

The chief cause of the acceleration was the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, which went from contributing less than 5 percent of all sea level rise in 1993 to contributing more than 25 percent in 2014, the study found. The loss of ice in Antarctica and smaller glaciers over the same time period also contributed to quicker sea level rise.

The increase in the rate of sea level rise “highlights the importance and urgency of mitigating climate change and formulating coastal adaptation plans to mitigate the impacts of ongoing sea level rise,” write Xianyao Chen of the Ocean University of China and Qingdao National Laboratory of Marine Science and Technology, and colleagues. Chen’s co-authors hailed from institutions in China, Australia and the United States.

“We understand why the sea level is accelerating and we’re understanding what the components are contributing,” Christopher Harig, one of the study’s authors and a researcher at the University of Arizona, said.

Earlier this year, a different group of researchers found sea level rise was only about 1.1 millimeters per year before 1990, whereas in the period between 1993 through 2012 it was 3.1 millimeters per year. NASA, at present, puts the rate of sea level rise at 3.4 millimeters per year.

But while the individual estimates differ, the broader picture is that researchers generally agree that the rate of sea level rise is increasing – and that this will have major consequences for coastal regions, which will have less time to adapt if sea level rise acceleration continues.

“I think it’s gotten to the point where the observation is pretty robust,” Harig said.

In the latest paper, researchers re-examined the recent satellite record to derive a clearer picture of sea level rise acceleration and considered each of the individual components of sea level rise, which make up the so-called sea level “budget.” They then found that the different parts of the budget matched up well with measurements of sea level change taken by satellite altimeters over the past two decades.

“We’ve known the bottom line total sea level change over the last couple decades, and we’ve known the individual components on a year-by-year basis,” Bob Kopp, a Rutgers University sea level expert who was not involved in the study but is familiar with the work, said. “We’ve known the two match up pretty well. The authors show that, when you look a bit more sharply at the year-to-year total, it’s quite close to the total of the individual components. The sums work, not just on average but in each year. This increases confidence in the overall result.”

The key components of sea level rise in this equation include thermal expansion of ocean water as it heats up – previously the dominant component but, as the study notes, not any more – and the melting of Greenland, Antarctica and smaller glaciers distributed across the globe. Finally, there is terrestrial water storage or loss if, due to rainfall or other factors, the continents end up storing more water on their surfaces, or alternatively, lose it to the ocean.

The new study finds that losses of ice, and from Greenland in particular, are now becoming a bigger contributor to sea level rise than thermal expansion. And it notes rather pointedly that this contrasts with what the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the top authority on climate science, predicted would unfold across the course of the century in 2013. The more Greenland and Antarctica contribute to sea level rise, the higher it can go, since these are the two largest sources of land-based ice on the planet.

For coastal communities, Harig said, the significance of the paper is that there’s no way to avoid the reality that sea level rise acceleration, which was already expected to occur based on scientific projections, is now here.

“It’s no longer a projection, it’s now an observation,” he said. “It’s not something that they can continue to put off into the future.”

 

Mike Goodman, of Madison, Wisconsin, joins anti-Trump activists during a “March on McDonald’s” for an increase in the minimum wage, in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., May 23, 2017.

‘Very credible’ study on $15 minimum wage has bad news for liberals

On the whole, the study estimates, the average low-wage worker in the city lost $125 per month because of the hike in the minimum.

Updated 42 mins ago     |    

‘Very credible’ study on $15 minimum wage has bad news for liberals

Posted June 26, 2017, at 7:41 a.m.
Last modified June 27, 2017, at 12:47 p.m.

When Seattle officials voted three years ago to incrementally boost the city’s minimum wage up to $15 per hour, they hoped to improve the lives of low-income workers. Yet according to a major new study that could force economists to reassess past research on the issue, the hike has had the opposite effect.

The city is gradually increasing the hourly minimum to $15 over several years. Already, though, some employers have not been able to afford the increased minimums. They’ve cut their payrolls, putting off new hiring, reducing hours or letting their workers go, the study found.

The costs to low-wage workers in Seattle outweighed the benefits by a ratio of three to one, according to the study, conducted by a group of economists at the University of Washington who were commissioned by the city. The study, published as a working paper Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research, has not yet been peer reviewed.

On the whole, the study estimates, the average low-wage worker in the city lost $125 per month because of the hike in the minimum.

The paper’s conclusions contradict years of research on the minimum wage. Many past studies, by contrast, have found that the benefits of increases for low-wage workers exceed the costs in terms of reduced employment — often by a factor of four or five to one.

“This strikes me as a study that is likely to influence people,” David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was not involved in the research, said. He called the work “very credible” and “sufficiently compelling in its design and statistical power that it can change minds.”

Yet the study will not put an end to the dispute. Experts cautioned the effects of the minimum wage may vary according to the industries dominant in the cities where they are implemented along with overall economic conditions in the country as a whole.

And critics of the research pointed out what they saw as serious shortcomings. In particular, to avoid confusing establishments that were subject to the minimum with those that were not, the authors did not include large employers with locations inside and outside Seattle in their calculations. Skeptics argued that omission could explain the unusual results.

“Like, whoa, what? Where did you get this?” Ben Zipperer, an economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in Washington, asked.

“My view of the research is that it seems to work,” he said. “The minimum wage in general seems to do exactly what it’s intended to do, and that’s to raise wages for low-wage workers, with little negative consequence in terms of job loss.”

Economists might not readily dismiss the new study as an outlier, however. The paper published Monday makes use of more detailed data than have been available in past research, drawing on state records of wages and hours for individual employees.

As a result, the paper is likely to upend a debate that has continued among economists, politicians, businesses and labor organizers for decades. In particular, the results could exacerbate divisions among Democrats, who are seeking an economic agenda to counter President Trump’s pitches for protectionism, reduced taxes and restrictions on immigration.

Meanwhile, states and cities around the country are continuing to implement increases in the minimum wage. In November, voters in Washington approved an increase in the statewide minimum to $13.50 per hour by 2020. The idea is popular in conservative states as well. In Arizona, for instance, the minimum wage will be $12 per hour in 2020 after voters there cast ballots in favor of a hike.

“If I were a Seattle lawmaker, I would be thinking hard about the $15 an hour phase-in,” Autor said.

Economists have long argued that increasing the minimum wage will force some employers to let workers go. In 1994, however, economists David Card and Alan Krueger published research on minimum wages in Pennsylvania and New Jersey that contradicted this theory, motivating dozens of studies into the issue over the coming years.

Card and Krueger conducted a survey of fast-food restaurants in the two states while New Jersey was implementing an increase in the minimum wage. They found that restaurants in New Jersey had, in fact, added more workers to their payrolls more than restaurants in neighboring Pennsylvania, where the minimum wage remained constant.

Since then, economists have brought better data and more sophisticated statistical methods to bear on the question of the minimum wage, but without resolving the debate.

Their studies examined the overall numbers of workers or their annual incomes, but lacked precise information on how much workers were being paid by the hour. As a result, past research might be less reliable because the results might reflect many workers who are not paid low wages, said Jacob Vigdor, an economist at the University of Washington and one of the authors of the new study.

Their research, using detailed records from the state of Washington, addresses that problem.

“That’s really a step beyond what essentially any past studies of the minimum wage have been able to use,” Jeffrey Clemens, an economist at the University of California, San Diego who was not involved in the research, said.

When the authors of the study took the same approach as Card and Krueger, measuring overall employment in the restaurant industry, they found similar results. The minimum wage did not substantially affect how many people were working in the industry or how many hours they were working.

The data, however, shows that about seven in 10 workers in Seattle restaurants make more than $13 per hour, suggesting that the overall level of employment in the industry might not be a reliable guide to how the minimum wage affects workers with low pay.

Indeed, while employment overall did not change, that was because employers replaced low-paying jobs with high-paying jobs. The number of workers making over $19 per hour increased abruptly, while the number making less than that amount declined, Vigdor and his colleagues found.

Vigdor said restaurateurs in Seattle — along with other employers — responded to the minimum wage by hiring more skilled and experienced workers, who might be able to produce more revenue for their firms in the same amount of time.

That hypothesis has worrisome implications for less skilled workers. While there those with more ability might be paid more, junior workers might be losing an opportunity to work their way up. “Basically, what we’re doing is we’re removing the bottom rung of the ladder,” Vigdor said.

There could be another explanation for the results, however: the fact that large employers are not included. It could be that even if employers with only a single location cut payrolls, large firms expanded at the same time, giving low-wage workers other opportunities to earn money.

Other researchers have found that large employers are better able to raise wages in response to changes in the minimum. Liberal economists often argue workers have less bargaining power when negotiating their contracts at larger firms, and that as a result, employees at those companies are often underpaid in the absence of a wage floor.

“I think they underestimate hugely the wage gains, and they overestimate hugely the employment loss,” said Michael Reich, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley who was part of a group that published its own study of the minimum wage in Seattle last week.

Reich’s study uses more conventional methods in research on the minimum wage, relying on a publicly available federal survey. His group’s data did not allow the researchers to distinguish between high- and low-wage workers at a given firm, but they were able to separate large firms’ locations in Seattle from those outside the city.

Their results from the University of California accorded with past research. The minimum wage increased wages for workers in the restaurant industry, without reducing employment overall — in contrast to the findings from the University of Washington.

“Their results are so out of the range,” Reich said.

One way of explaining the disagreement could be that small businesses in Seattle have been forced to downsize in response to the increased minimum wage, while larger firms have expanded.

Yet when Vigdor and his colleagues examined the overall number of workers at small firms with a single location, they did not find that employment had decreased. That fact could could suggest that small businesses have responded to the increase not by downsizing but instead by hiring more experienced workers.

There’s another explanation for the growth in high-paid jobs and the decrease in lower-paid ones. The authors of the study argue that that’s occurring because employers are focusing on high-paid workers and leaving low-paid workers out, but it’s possible that something far more positive is happening.

Seattle’s economy is booming, and in a booming economy, more workers are likely to get raises or find jobs that pay better, and it may be that phenomenon — of workers getting raises, promotions or better paying jobs — that explains the shifts in the labor market the researchers see in Seattle.

Vigdor and his colleagues sought to address this problem, in essence, by constructing an index based on data from other parts of the state of Washington where local economies performed similarly to Seattle’s before the increases in the hourly minimum.

Low-wage employment declined in Seattle relative to this benchmark. Even compared to parts of the state with similar economies, there was less low-wage work in Seattle, suggesting that the minimum wage might have forced employers to cut some of those positions.

The method Vigdor’s group used to develop this index is on the cutting edge of economic research, but it is not perfect. It is possible that Seattle’s economy simply took a different direction at the same time as the minimum wage began to increase — even compared to economies in other places that seemed similar to Seattle’s before the vote.

EPI’s Zipperer argued that was the best explanation, given how pronounced the gains were for workers making more than $19 per hour.

“You’re just seeing an independent shift in the Seattle labor market toward higher wage employment,” he said, calling the figures for better-paid workers “a red flag.”

The broader national economy could have an effect on the results as well. In the past, noted San Diego’s Clemens, increases in the minimum wage have occurred when the economy was expanding rapidly and prices are going up. Employers could expect to ask consumers to pay more and to give their workers wages anyway. Increases in the minimum wage might just have been part of the cost of doing business.

Currently, though, inflation is at historically low levels, and the minimum wage in Seattle will be indexed to inflation after it reaches $15 per hour, forcing firms to plan for the long term.

Vigdor agreed the effects of increasing the minimum wage could differ by time and place.

“The effect of the minimum wage depends on a lot of things. It depends on where you’re starting from. It depends on what kind of economy you’re raising it in,” Vigdor said. “There is no one ‘the effect of the minimum wage.’”

That means future research on the question could come to different conclusions. Vigdor said he looks forward to receiving criticisms of his group’s paper and suggestions for improving their approach.

“It’s really important to emphasize it’s a work in progress,” he said.

 

Mary Leaming sits in front of her tiny home that is nearly complete.

Americans have more square footage than ever

A 3,000-square-foot home that houses five people is not fundamentally different from a 600-square-foot studio apartment housing one person.

Published June 24, 2017, at 1:18 p.m.     |    

Americans have more square footage than ever

Posted June 24, 2017, at 1:18 p.m.
Last modified June 27, 2017, at 7:07 a.m.

Are Americans embracing smaller homes? The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that the average size of new-construction homes actually declined slightly, from an all-time high of 2,467 square feet in 2015 to 2,422. “New Houses Get Smaller,” the Wall Street Journal declared, spotting a trend; “U.S. Homes Are Finally Shrinking,” another piece here at Bloomberg concluded. Many other commentators jumped on the news to argue that at last the U.S. was giving up its addiction to living large.

As exciting as it seemed, McMansions are not exactly being absorbed by the “tiny house movement.” The statistic that started the fervor is actually a rather poor proxy for grasping long-term trends in housing because it fails to capture changes in household size, among other shortcomings. If the average home doubles in size but the average number of inhabitants triples during that same period, then these “bigger” homes would actually feel smaller to the people living in them. Each person has less space to themselves.

Last year, three researchers — Maria Cecilia P. Moura, Steven J. Smith and David B. Belzer — published a paper that clarifies much of the confusion over this subject by measuring the amount of floor space per capita: How much room, in other words, does the average American have at any given time? They mined data from federal housing surveys and other sources to construct a dataset that went back to 1891.

The results are illuminating. First, they found that the average size of the American home – not just new homes but all homes — has remained remarkably constant over the past 120 years. Between 1890 and 1919, the average detached single-family home was 2,232 square feet in size. In the 1920s, that number went down to 2,046 square feet.

In the Great Depression of the 1930s, the number dropped further down to 1,944 square feet, and then dropped again in the 1940s to 1,669, thanks to the construction of numerous modest suburban homes. And then the average size of the American home gradually increased, from 1,773 square feet in the 1950s to 2,673 in the 2000s.

In other words, between the 1890s and the first decade of the 21st century, single family homes increased in size by approximately 20 percent. That’s an increase, for sure, but it’s hardly a dramatic one. And if you add in the other kinds of housing that people occupy — multi-family units like apartments and condos — the increase in the average size of all housing units is even more modest. Indeed, if you look at 120 years of housing history, what jumps out how little the size of our dwellings has changed.

What has changed, however, is the number of people living in each housing unit. Put differently, it’s the square feet per capita figure that should command our attention, not the size of the house itself. And here you can see a steady, but dramatic, change.

Since the 1890s, household size has declined dramatically. As a consequence, the average square feet of living space for capita has grown. In the 1890s, Americans had an average of 400 square feet of residential space per person. But by the early twenty-first century, that figure had doubled to 800 square feet. This is a change worth noting, and it’s one that has progressed at a relatively steady rate, with little fluctuation.

The debate and discussion over the size of American residences is in many ways a misguided one. A 3,000-square-foot home that houses five people is not fundamentally different from a 600-square-foot studio apartment housing one person.

The big historical trend has been about per capita floor space growing, not overall house size shrinking. If the trends of the past century continue, it’ll be more still in the decades to come. Americans have more space than ever before — though what they are doing with it is a different question altogether.

Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to Bloomberg View.

 

Americans in rural areas and small towns see the world a lot differently from those living in and around cities.

Rural America’s population is aging and shrinking

Americans in rural areas and small towns see the world a lot differently from those living in and around cities.

Published June 24, 2017, at 1:08 p.m.     |    

Rural America’s population is aging and shrinking

Posted June 24, 2017, at 1:08 p.m.
Last modified June 26, 2017, at 7:37 a.m.

Americans in rural areas and small towns see the world a lot differently from those living in and around cities, according to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll that the newspaper has been reporting on this week.

A lot of the biggest differences in the poll have to do with values, or at least perceptions thereof: About 4 in 10 rural residents say their values are “very different” from those of people in cities and suburbs, while only 2 in 10 urban residents return the favor. But there are also some pretty clear economic contrasts: Only 30 percent of rural Americans rate job opportunities in their communities as excellent or good, compared with 50 percent in urban areas and 45 percent in suburbs.

I also can’t help but wonder if much of the rural sense of estrangement from the metropolitan areas where the great majority of Americans live has to do with a simple and striking demographic reality: Since 2010, for what appears to be the first time ever, rural America has been losing population.

This is from a fascinating new summing-up of rural population dynamics from U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service geographer John Cromartie. The metro/nonmetro divide makes for a more restrictive definition of rural America than the one used in the Post-Kaiser poll, which also classified residents of metropolitan areas with less than 250,000 people as rural. Counties outside of metropolitan areas make up only 14 percent of the U.S. population, while the Post-Kaiser’s rural America contains nearly a quarter of the country’s population. Also, when metropolitan areas are redefined every 10 years, lots of new counties are usually added to them, meaning that nonmetro America is systematically robbed of many of its fastest-growing parts.

Even with all those caveats, though, it’s apparent that something unprecedented is afoot in rural America. In all, 1,350 nonmetro counties lost population from 2010 through 2016, a new record. Migration to other counties accounted for all of that decrease and then some. But the percentage of residents moving away from rural counties was actually much higher in the 1950s, 1960s and 1980s. What’s changed is that a steady decline through the decades in natural population increase (births minus deaths) in rural America means that the natural increase is no longer big enough to offset the outmigration. In hundreds of rural counties, in fact, deaths are now outpacing births. From Cromartie’s report:

“Areas that recently began experiencing natural decrease are found in the Northeast, South, and especially in and around the margins of Appalachia, expanding a large region of natural decrease that extends from Pennsylvania through northern Alabama.”

Let’s say you live in a place where the population is aging and more people are dying than being born. Young people are moving away in search of better opportunities, which has happened before, but it’s getting to the point where there just aren’t that many young people around to start with. Immigrants from abroad, who have brought new vitality to many cities, are for the most part just people you see on television (as of 2013, foreign-born residents made up 2.4 percent of the population in nonmetropolitan counties and 7.9 percent in metropolitan areas). Oh, and TV is the essential source of information, because your internet connection is terrible.

This is not a state of affairs that lends itself to optimism or good feelings about the direction the country is headed in. It’s also not one that lends itself to much understanding between rural and urban residents. I would guess that there are fewer families that cross urban/rural lines than there used to be. Also, attitudes toward immigration seem to be split along urban/rural lines, with rural residents much more suspicious of immigrants despite (or, I guess, because of) the fact that there aren’t many immigrants living near them. And then there’s the aforementioned urban/rural gap in internet connectivity.

I am of course painting with an overly broad brush here. There are small towns with lots of immigrants, and there are rural counties (626 of them from 2010 to 2016) that aren’t losing population. But while in the previous decade there were lots of nonmetro counties on the fringes of metropolitan areas and in scenic mountain and coastal regions that experienced rapid population gains, since 2010, rapid growth has generally been confined to nonmetro counties with oil and/or natural gas under them.

These things can and do change, and it’s apparent from the above chart that the rural population decline is at least slowing. Outer suburbs are certainly growing again, which may spill over to neighboring rural counties. If that keeps up, of course, they’ll eventually just get added to the metropolitan areas — to repeat, part of the drag on rural population growth over time is that fast-growing rural areas cease to be rural. But with deaths overtaking births in so many rural counties, and little reason to think that will change anytime soon, there’s something going on here beyond just a statistical quirk.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

 

The State House shines through the the fog in Augusta.

How Maine reached the brink of a government shutdown

If Maine does not enact a two-year state budget within the next week, state government will have no money to operate, triggering a shutdown that could leave thousands of workers without pay and abruptly curtail all state services.

Published June 23, 2017, at 4:39 p.m.     |    

How Maine reached the brink of a government shutdown

Posted June 23, 2017, at 4:39 p.m.
Last modified June 26, 2017, at 5:32 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — If Maine does not enact a two-year state budget within the next week, state government will have no money to operate, triggering a shutdown that could leave thousands of workers without pay and abruptly curtail all state services but the ones Gov. Paul LePage deems essential.

A high-stakes political conflict involving legislative leaders, LePage and, to a lesser extent, backbench lawmakers whose votes will be needed to enact the budget as an emergency measure is entering its endgame. Here’s a rundown of where things stand.

Friction points

It has been a week and a half since the Legislature created a six-person conference committee to close the state budget impasse but progress has been minimal. House Republicans on Thursday presented a counter-offer that nudged their position closer to that of Democrats and Senate Republicans, but major differences remain, most notably on education. While negotiators agree on increasing state aid to public schools, they disagree on how much more than the current allocation should be included in the budget and how to account for that revenue, which in current law will come from a 3 percent surtax on income over $200,000 a year.

Democrats and Republicans also disagree on some policy changes, such as a LePage initiative to create a statewide teacher contract and a proposal to spend an additional $10 million to incentivize school consolidation projects.

Other sticking points include disagreements on changes to social service programs, sweeping $10 million from the Fund for a Healthy Maine into the General Fund and giving LePage a $1 million legal fund.

Avoiding a shutdown

While budget negotiations continue, largely in the background, the Legislature is pushing to finish its other works and is on track to do that on Tuesday. The budget conference committee was not expected to meet until Monday or Tuesday, although legislative leaders were expected to work on a compromise during the weekend.

The full Legislature, which voted Wednesday to extend the current session by five days, is not scheduled to return to Augusta until Tuesday. At that point, there will be only three days of session left unless they vote to extend it further.

Thursday’s conference committee meeting, the first in a week, saw House Republicans present an offer but little in the way of debate. Arguably more progress has been made on Twitter, where LePage said Thursday he will sign the House Republicans’ budget if the Legislature passes it and Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon countering that there is still a lot of work to do.

When the Legislature enacts the budget, it will have to be with a two-thirds majority to go into effect immediately, which makes a LePage veto irrelevant except in one regard: The Maine Constitution gives him up to 10 days to sign or veto bills and the deadline to preserve that time period for the governor went by last week.

Other fiduciary matters at play

On Friday, the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee met to consider carrying some bills with fiscal impacts to next year and to consider funding some bills from the Special Appropriations Table, where more than 100 bills, most of which will die because of a lack of funding, are mired. A number of bond requests also await action. There is no plan in place to hold work sessions and make recommendations on those before the end of the month.

State workers are growing jittery

The impact of a government shutdown will have ripple effects across Maine, but state workers will bear the most immediate effect: Their paychecks will stop, perhaps even for some of the time they worked in the end of June.

At a Friday news conference hosted by the state workers union, Jane Gilbert of Augusta, who served as labor relations manager for the Maine Department of Transportation during the most recent government shutdown in 1991, said the shutdown stopped highway and bridge projects across Maine.

“Contractors weren’t allowed to work. The DOT had no one to monitor them,” said Gilbert. “So private contractors laid off their workers — in the middle of the summer construction season. It was a big mess.”

Jonathan French, a civil engineer for the DOT, said he worries about how long a shutdown will last and how that will affect his ability to support his family.

“I want to keep working and my family wants me to keep working,” he said. “Like everyone else, we have bills to pay like our mortgage and my student loan payment.”

Wider impacts

A range of Mainers would lose services in some form under a shutdown but until LePage determines who will be forced to work — without pay — and who will be sent home, those questions remain unanswered. LePage said earlier this week that he has directed state department heads to develop recommendations but his office hasn’t shared those recommendations and did not respond to questions on Friday from the Bangor Daily News.

The Maine State Employees Association provided a county-by-county breakdown of what they say will be a statewide impact of nearly $1.5 million a day in lost wages for state employees.

The hardest-hit county, by far, would be Kennebec, where state employees earn about $540,000 a day in total. Steve Butterfield, director of information services for the union, said the multiplier effect — which takes into account those dollars being passed from person to person, business to business — could be closer to $2.5 million a day.

In addition to any economic fallout, voters are likely to punish the elected officials they hold responsible for failing to pass a budget that has been on the table since January. Individual players in the drama — LePage, Senate President Mike Thibodeau and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, all Republicans — cannot seek re-election because of term limits, but candidates from their party could suffer if they are deemed culpable for a shutdown. House Speaker Sara Gideon and Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson, both Democrats, can seek re-election in 2018 and would likely face tough questions about their roles in a shutdown.

On a broader political level, both parties could incur the wrath of voters. After the 1991 shutdown that pitted a Republican governor against a Democrat-controlled Legislature, Mainers elected independent Angus King as their next governor three years later, demonstrating that anger over partisan gridlock that spills out of the State House has a long shelf life.

 

Containing ‘Iranian mischief’ is no excuse for letting Yemen’s humanitarian crisis fester

Will Rep. Poliquin repeat Collins’ error, which is so costly to the people of Yemen?

Published June 23, 2017, at 5:45 a.m.     |    

Containing ‘Iranian mischief’ is no excuse for letting Yemen’s humanitarian crisis fester

Posted June 23, 2017, at 5:45 a.m.

U.S. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins of Maine are known for their thoughtfulness and deep background on foreign policy issues. But last week they were faced with a stark choice between enabling a brutal regional client and respecting basic human rights. They came down on opposite sides.

On June 13, the Senate voted on Joint Resolution 42, which would have blocked sales of smart bombs to Saudi Arabia unless it demonstrated it was protecting civilians and allowing free movement of humanitarian aid during its military campaign in Yemen against the Houthi rebels who control most of the country. Saudi Arabia also would have to show it is combating al-Qaida and Islamic State militants.

The bipartisan resolution emerged from concerns that the Saudi air force is dropping American-made bombs on schools, hospitals, markets, ports and bridges, and inciting a massive famine by blockading food shipments to Yemeni ports held by the Houthi. Furthermore, al-Qaida may be benefiting significantly from the Saudi military operation against their common enemy, the Shiite Houthi rebels. The terrorists may be receiving American arms from and even fighting side by side with the Saudi-led coalition.

Forty-seven senators voted to block these sales, including most Democrats, a small group of anti-war Republicans led by Rand Paul, and independent King. But 53 senators voted against, allowing the arms sales to go forward. Among them was Collins.

A year ago King voted against a similar resolution to block arms sales to the Saudis. But the awful human toll of the Yemen war seems to have changed his mind, with 7 million people on the edge of starvation and a child dying every 10 minutes from preventable disease.

At a foreign policy lecture he gave at Colby College in April, I asked his position on arming the Saudis. He said gravely, “I think it’s a mistake … we need to really have deep thought before we get further engaged, and I think we should have a review of our current policy. Because we can’t be complicit. We can’t avoid our responsibility by saying that we don’t know where that jet fuel went.” (King is referring to the U.S. Air Force’s aerial refueling of Saudi jets.)

King is well aware that Saudi Arabia is a key ally to the United States, whose confidence in our alliance was shaken after President Barack Obama signed the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. But he does not believe that we should reassure them of our support at the price of starving to death Yemeni children. And he doesn’t want their war to distract us from confronting terrorism in the region. “We may not be sympathetic to the Houthis or Iran, but nobody likes ISIS,” he told CNN in 2015.

This suggests that he believes the warning of his Senate colleague Chris Murphy, who co-sponsored the resolution to block the arms sales: “If you are interested in radicalizing the Yemeni population against the United States and pushing them into al-Qaida’s arms, then continue to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia.”

But Collins was swayed by neither blood-curdling reports of Saudi war crimes nor the concerns that we are strengthening the hand of our terrorist enemies in the Arabian Peninsula. Given her strong stances on combating terrorism, what could have motivated her vote?

The answer is Iran.

Collins belongs to a dominant foreign policy bloc in the Senate that thinks any action is justified if it helps us “contain Iranian mischief.” In opposing the nuclear deal in 2015, she described how Tehran sows chaos in the Middle East: “Whether it is Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Shiite militias in Iraq, or the Houthis in Yemen, Iran’s proxies are terrorizing innocent civilians, forcing families to flee their homes, and causing death and destruction.”

The senator is right that the Houthis have victimized civilians by shelling residential neighborhoods, kidnapping and executing critics, and obstructing movement of aid. But why is she so indifferent to the massive suffering caused by our Saudi allies, who have done the most to push Yemen into a humanitarian catastrophe? Is her outrage over human rights violations reserved for instances when it intersects with America’s cold-blooded regional interests?

Collins’ blinkered view of the conflict is best summed up by her colleague U.S. Sen. John McCain. When asked last week whether he had human rights concerns about Saudi conduct in Yemen, McCain said, “I’m very worried about Iranian conduct in Yemen.” When asked again, McCain responded, “I’ve answered all your questions.”

During the debate over Resolution 42, leading Republicans stated that selling the Saudis smart bombs would make their attacks more accurate, thus lowering civilian casualties. They should have listened to their colleague Rand Paul, who said of such deadly airstrikes: “This was no mistake, there was no error. This was them pointedly dropping the bombs on civilians.” Just days after the vote the Saudi air force proved him right by killing 25 civilians in a crowded market in the rebel-held city of Saada while they were buying food to break the Ramadan fast.

Furthermore, characterization of the Houthis as simple proxies for Iran is misguided. Tehran has sent small arms and possibly military advisers to the Houthis, and supports them rhetorically. But this assistance is a tiny fraction of their support for Shiite militias in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, and it is much less important than the fact that much of the Yemeni army crossed over to the Houthi side. Washington and Riyadh are confronting Iran most forcefully in the one place it is engaged the least — perhaps because they know the risk of inciting an actual war is limited. But millions of Yemeni civilians are paying the price for this symbolic posturing.

King and the 46 other senators who voted for Resolution 42 demonstrated that awareness of the Yemen war’s terrible human toll is growing in our capital. But Collins helped create a slim majority that is willfully denying crimes against humanity. Soon a parallel resolution will go before the U.S. House of Representatives for a vote. U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree has come out strongly against supporting the Saudi military campaign. Will U.S Rep. Bruce Poliquin repeat Collins’ error, which is so costly to the people of Yemen?

Brian Milakovsky is from Somerville, and he works at a humanitarian organization in eastern Ukraine. He blogs at http://yemenmaine.blogspot.com/ and on Facebook at Maine for Yemen.

Maine senators raise their right hands as they are sworn in during the first session of the 128th Legislature.

Your guide to what stands between Maine and a state budget

The legislative divide is mostly about education funding, but with LePage’s backing, House Republicans also want significant school reforms.

Published June 21, 2017, at 4:33 p.m.     |    

Your guide to what stands between Maine and a state budget

Posted June 21, 2017, at 4:33 p.m.
Last modified June 26, 2017, at 5:47 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — With no budget deal in sight, the Maine Legislature has the state teetering on the edge of a government shutdown, which is likelier now than at any other time in the tumultuous era of Gov. Paul LePage.

And the path to averting one runs through the offers, counter-offers and attacks leveled at the State House during the past few months.

The legislative divide is mostly about education funding, but with LePage’s backing, House Republicans also want significant school reforms. But leaders in both parties have to mind their own divides and they’re here in part because of LePage, who will loom larger the later debate goes.

Democrats and Senate Republicans are only about $25 million apart on education funding. These are the groups that have moved most in negotiations so far.

In April, Democrats insisted on the 3 percent surtax on high-income earners approved by voters last year that is expected to generate more than $300 million over two year. Republicans said they wouldn’t accept a budget that doesn’t fully repeal the tax.

Last week, Democrats came down to $200 million in additional education funding over the last budget. Republicans are holding firm on the surtax, but they came from $110 million to $175 million last week.

But House Republicans are holding out for education policy changes that have proved to be hard sells to Democrats. This LePage-friendly caucus, led by House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, hasn’t engaged in much dealmaking so far.

For them to agree to increase spending on education, House Republicans say that some of the money must be earmarked for reforms, including a pilot program for a statewide teacher contract. The problem? The Democratic-led House voted Tuesday against a bill for a statewide contract.

It’s also worth noting that two education experts — Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, and Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor — have already presented 45 pages of education ideas for a budget compromise, including expanding a LePage initiative to incentivize regionalization and consolidation.

Democrats want to blame any shutdown on House Republicans. They say they don’t want one, but they’re openly toying with the idea. House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, told WCSH last week that if government shuts down, it’ll be because of House Republicans.

House Republicans have pushed back on that sentiment, with members calling it in Facebook posts “the biggest lie” in Maine and saying that they’re fighting “special interest groups” — like the Maine Education Association, a Democratic-aligned teachers union, to work for reform.

But Rep. Jeff Timberlake, R-Turner, a budget committee member and key LePage go-between, said Monday while “in no circumstance” does he want a shutdown, he likened Republicans’ push for education reform to his party’s 1991 effort to reform workers compensation that led to Maine’s last shutdown. Fredette made a similar comparison Wednesday on WVOM.

“You have to get this fixed once and for all,” Timberlake said.

Not everyone is happy with their leaders’ negotiating tactics. Gideon and Fredette have considerable influence on their caucuses — that’s why they’re the leaders — but it only goes so far, and caucuses’ positions will weaken if leaders anger their fringes because a budget needs two-thirds approval in both chambers.

Many Democrats and progressive groups were irked when Gideon offered earlier this month to trim the surtax from 3 percent to 1.75 percent, seeing it as a capitulation. Last month, 52 Democrats signed a pledge saying they wouldn’t vote for a budget that doesn’t fund 55 percent of education.

One of them, Rep. Mike Sylvester, D-Portland, said Tuesday that there are likely 20 members of his caucus who would have “questions” about a budget that negotiates away the surtax in exchange for regressive taxes.

Fredette hasn’t been spared, either: After he told the Bangor Daily News last week that a special budget panel convened by Gideon and Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, was “doomed to fail,” the moderate Rep. William Tuell, R-East Machias, criticized “people who have tried their darndest to sabotage, derail, and destroy the budget process” in a Facebook post.

LePage hasn’t done the budget process any favors so far, but as time goes on, he holds more power over the budget. Maine’s last two budgets in 2013 and 2015 were enacted over LePage vetoes. His January proposal was similar to his last one, proposing welfare and income tax cuts alongside proposals to overhaul the public education system — ideas that have previously been turned back. Legislators haven’t been able to put the pieces back together so far.

But LePage has benefited from House Republicans’ holdout. The budget is due on June 30, putting the Legislature within the governor’s 10-day window to hold legislation before signing or vetoing it, leaving legislators at his mercy on an eventual deal and unable to simply bypass him.

On Tuesday, LePage told WVOM that he’s directing his Cabinet to prepare for a shutdown while predicting one won’t happen. At the same time, he wants any budget to contain ideas that the Legislature has rejected before, such as tightening a tree growth tax break and taxing property owned by land trusts.

And it wouldn’t be LePage without a bit of trolling: From a Belfast event on Wednesday, he tweeted to Gideon, saying his Rotary Club audience “would like to know where the budget is.”

“Budget coming,” she replied — perhaps too hopefully. “Will you pledge to act immediately and avoid shutdown?”

 

Gov. Paul LePage addresses the chamber during the 2017 State of the State address at the State House in Augusta.

LePage’s leverage grows with each day Maine gets closer to government shutdown

“Every hour that ticks away, the window to avoid a shutdown closes. I don’t think the citizens of the state of Maine are fully understanding of the ramifications of a shutdown.”

Published June 20, 2017, at 1 a.m.     |    

LePage’s leverage grows with each day Maine gets closer to government shutdown

Posted June 20, 2017, at 1 a.m.
Last modified June 20, 2017, at 10:31 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — With every passing day, the prospect of a state government shutdown on July 1 becomes more probable.

On Monday morning, a group of state employees, organized by their labor union, took to the State House to urge lawmakers to abandon the entrenched positions that have developed during the past three weeks and break the impasse. The number of people at the rally — a couple of dozen at most — was underwhelming, but Ramona Welton, a rally organizer and president of the largest state workers union, said that will change over the next 11 days if there is no movement.

“This is very real,” she said while the Senate plowed through bills down the hall. “Every hour that ticks away, the window to avoid a shutdown closes. I don’t think the citizens of the state of Maine are fully understanding of the ramifications of a shutdown.”

Talk of government shutdown remains hypothetical as long as we’re still in the month of June — the state’s new fiscal year begins July 1 — but progress has been scant for more than two weeks.

Gov. Paul LePage and his Republican allies in the House of Representatives are bucking calls from Democrats and Senate Republicans for significant new education spending, especially if its source is the 3 percent surtax on income above $200,000 per year, which Maine voters approved by referendum last year.

The stalemate, which many lawmakers say is as serious as the partisan split over workers compensation that led to a 16-day shutdown in 1991, isn’t due to a specific government crisis or falling revenues. Instead, the fight is over how much to increase spending.

LePage’s budget proposal, introduced in early January, called for roughly $6.8 billion in spending during the biennium. House Republicans argue that, even if state revenues increase, the budget should not exceed $7 billion. For context, LePage’s first two-year budget in 2011 pegged spending at $6.1 billion.

What can Mainers expect if an impasse continues? A lot of it revolves around LePage, whose office failed to respond to questions posed by the Bangor Daily News.

LePage has suggested a plan to avoid a shutdown, but it’s never been done in Maine. LePage has said on multiple occasions that the state could enact a congressional-style continuing budget resolution, which would pay for government operations after July 1 at the same spending level as now. LePage proposed a 60-day continuing resolution in 2013, but it failed to gain any traction — possibly because lawmakers were able to compromise on a tax reform package.

Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat who also was attorney general in 2013, wrote then in a letter to legislative leaders that a continuing resolution violates Maine law, which requires the Legislature to enact a balanced budget in odd-numbered years.

“Even if it did not do so, any short-term emergency budget, passed with a two-thirds votes, would throw the state into financial uncertainty and would face significant opposition from bondholders, schools, hospitals and thousands of entities to whom the state has continuing and long-term obligations,” Mills wrote.

Another option would be for LePage or legislators to craft and pass a budget bill that has a sunset clause for later this year. That would buy some time to let partisan rancor cool, but it’s hard to imagine a permanent solution being more possible in two or three months. It also almost certainly would require a special legislative session later this year, which would trigger costs not included in the budget.

Grant Pennoyer, executive director of the Legislative Council, estimated in the past that a special session costs nearly $43,000 for the first day and $38,000 for subsequent days.

LePage can use his power to define what “government shutdown” means to his advantage. If a shutdown happens, it’s the governor’s job to determine which state employees qualify as essential personnel. Anyone deemed essential would be required to work, probably without pay, though backfilling that pay ultimately would be a decision of the Legislature.

It’s all but certain that state troopers, prison guards and psychiatric unit nurses would remain on the job, but thousands of state employees would be told to stay home without pay.

“In 1991, no notice was given,” Welton, who works in the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, said. “You got up one morning, and it was shut down. It’s not a planned layoff. It’s an emergency layoff.”

Sen. Michael Carpenter, D-Houlton, was attorney general during the 1991 shutdown. That he was a Democrat and then-Gov. John McKernan was a Republican didn’t turn out to be a problem, but Carpenter said the situation today is much different.

“To his undying credit, Gov. McKernan checked with us on a regular basis,” Carpenter said. “I think what will be different now will be that Gov. LePage will not agree to allow anybody or any agency to check him. He will make the decisions and, candidly, I don’t think any court is going to step in and say no to him because it’s a political question.”

In 1991, state parks and other public lands closed, disrupting the tourist trade through the Fourth of July holiday and beyond. A wide range of state offices also closed. Department of Transportation crews stopped construction projects and payments to entities such as schools, and municipalities were delayed.

The pressure will mount as shutdown day draws near. Without a budget in place, by June 30 the State House would be packed with protesters, and lawmakers would be heavily lobbied there and at their homes. With driver’s licenses to be renewed and other business to conduct with state government, growing numbers of Mainers would tune in and presumably demand a solution.

Again, LePage holds increased leverage in that scenario, as lawmakers have gone past the deadline to present him with a budget requiring his action before July 1. He has 10 days, excluding Sundays, to sign or veto a budget. With no budget on his desk, that interval extends past July 1.

Most of the pressure will be on the House of Representatives, and not necessarily just on Republicans. Democrats in both chambers and Senate Republicans are more aligned with each other than House Republicans are with the others, but that’s only in terms of the budget proposals on the table.

When it comes time to vote, the fate of the budget — and whether state government will have any money on July 1 — will depend on legislative leaders’ efforts to muster two-thirds support in each chamber. That could lead to unorthodox alliances, with legislators whose political aspirations could be damaged by the stigma of a shutdown becoming increasingly open to compromise.

If the budget proposal that goes to a vote contains $110 million or more in new education funding over the current biennium, which is the floor for how much Senate Republicans have committed to, the question will be how many Republicans vote with the Democrats.

If it’s a lower number, Democrats are likely to back away from a deal, but the debate won’t be just about the number. A bloc of 52 House Democrats previously said they won’t vote for a budget that doesn’t include a “progressive and sustainable funding source” to continue that level of state aid to schools in future years.

Those 52 Democrats, along with two independents who also signed the pledge, have as much power to block budget enactment as do House Republicans. They also are the target of the protesters who rallied Monday at the State House, hoping to pressure them to stand by their pledge to significantly higher state aid to public schools.

Talk of state shutdown is common at this time of year as negotiators routinely use that specter as a leveraging tool. However, this year is different. The deadline to deliver a budget to LePage in time to override a veto — which the previous two legislatures did — has passed.

With the termed-out governor more focused on his legacy than keeping government open and the political damage the 1991 shutdown left in its wake a distant memory, the current impasse could stretch well into July and necessitate court intervention if the continuing resolution becomes a legal sticking point. One thing is certain, as the common phrase at the State House goes: “It will include something for everyone to hate.”

 

The State House in Augusta in a 2015 file photo.

As adjournment looms, Maine lawmakers to vote on slew of vetoes but no budget

With the exception of the state biennial budget this Legislature has completed most of its workload.

Published June 19, 2017, at 11:15 a.m.     |    

As adjournment looms, Maine lawmakers to vote on slew of vetoes but no budget

Posted June 19, 2017, at 11:15 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Wednesday marks the statutory adjournment date for the Legislature, which means that’s the day that was set months ago for lawmakers to wrap up their work. To go beyond that day will require a vote of the Legislature, a routine matter which in the past has caused controversy.

Lawmakers are not paid salaries for additional days at the end of the legislative session but do receive meal allowances of $32, mileage and a housing and travel allowance of up to $38 per day. Added costs also would accrue from compensating some legislative staff who work only when the Legislature is in session.

With the exception of the state biennial budget, which as you know is stuck at an impasse that threatens to trigger a government shutdown on July 1, this Legislature has completed most of its workload, according to the Office of Policy and Legal Analysis.

Jon Clark, its deputy director, said that as of Friday there were fewer than 100 active bills left in the possession of the House and Senate. There are 65 still in committee, most of those in the Appropriations Committee and many of those bond proposals.

That reflects a rather frantic decision-making pace — by legislative standards — since mid-February, when lawmakers had dispensed with only four of roughly 1,800 pieces of proposed legislation.

Clark said that about 75 bills are waiting for Gov. Paul LePage to sign, veto, or let go into law on their own. The odds that many of those will be vetoed are high, judging by recent history. On Friday alone, LePage issued eight new vetoes. Among those is LD 1326, which provides a “medical assistance” exemption from criminal liability for a person who seeks treatment for an overdose.

That is similar to another bill that sought to provide exemptions from prosecution for reporting another person’s overdose, which LePage vetoed and which the Legislature sustained earlier this month.

LePage also vetoed LD 1010, which would put new regulations and new fees on transportation networks that operate at airports, such as Uber, and LD 454, which would require the state to set up an outreach program to urge people to have their well water tested for contaminants.

Also vetoed Friday were LD 591, LD 1062, LD 507, LD 929, and LD 1462.

The vetoes and remaining unresolved bills give rank-and-file lawmakers something to occupy their time as leaders continue to try to hash out a budget that would win two-thirds support in both the House and Senate. In pursuit of that elusive compromise, leaders met Saturday morning but failed to move the ideological boulder that blocks their path to a deal. Saturday’s meeting was so unproductive that leaders abandoned plans to resume discussions on Sunday.

Democratic leaders continue to insist that the next budget provide 55 percent of the total cost of public K-12 education. Republicans continue to demand a way to negate the impact of the 3 percent surtax on income over $200,000 that voters approved in November 2016,

House Republicans also insist that the total budget not exceed $7 billion for the two-year period that begins July 1. LePage’s original biennial spending plan, which he unveiled in early January, called for approximately $6.8 billion in state spending.

Legislators also have to respond to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court’s opinion that ranked-choice voting as passed by voters in November violates the Maine Constitution. And some lawmakers want answers to lingering questions about this year’s referendum on whether to allow a new casino in York County.

On top of all that work is the governor’s right to introduce new bills at any time during the session. There are many uncertainties when it comes to ending a legislative session. This year in particular, starting any kind of countdown with so many moving parts would be foolhardy.

This item was originally published in Daily Brief, a free political newsletter distributed Monday through Friday by the Bangor Daily News to inform dialogue about Maine politics and government. To read more of today’s Daily Brief, click here. To have the Daily Brief delivered daily to your inbox, click here.

 

Jeff Sessions’ grilling highlights tension between chumminess of Senate, seriousness of Russia probe

The tribalism that has infected our politics has also transformed the Senate. Republicans, for the most part, either pulled their punches or batted cleanup. Democrats whacked at the former senator like a piñata.

Published June 16, 2017, at 8:38 a.m.     |    

Jeff Sessions’ grilling highlights tension between chumminess of Senate, seriousness of Russia probe

Posted June 16, 2017, at 8:38 a.m.

WASHINGTON – It is widely presumed on Capitol Hill that Jeff Sessions chose to testify before the Senate Intelligence committee, rather than the committees that have jurisdiction over his department, because he has more friends there who would run interference on his behalf. If that was indeed the attorney general’s strategy, Tuesday’s hearing validated it.

The tension between the chumminess of an old boys’ club that traditionally looks after its own and the seriousness of a Russia investigation that clouds the presidency was neatly captured in the closing minute of the two-and-a-half-hour hearing.

Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the committee, expressed displeasure that Sessions was not forthcoming about his role – and the role of the Russia investigation – in Donald Trump’s decision to fire James Comey as FBI director. “There were a number of very strange comments that Mr. Comey testified last week that you could have, I believe, shed some light on,” the Virginia senator lamented.

Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the committee, concluded by pointing out that Alabama Sen. Luther Strange, who was appointed to replace Sessions when he stepped down earlier this year, had sat through the session in the audience. “He’s made us regret that we don’t have an intramural basketball team because he’s six-foot-nine,” said the North Carolina senator, who has been in Congress for 22 years.

“Big Luther is a good player,” Sessions replied with a knowing chuckle, noting that his successor played college ball at Tulane.

“You have helped us tremendously,” Burr said as he gaveled the hearing to a close, “and we’re grateful to you and to Mary for the unbelievable sacrifice that you made in this institution and also, now, in this administration.”

– The tribalism that has infected our politics has also transformed the Senate. Republicans, for the most part, either pulled their punches or batted cleanup. Democrats whacked at the former senator like a piñata.

– Sessions pleaded for some old-fashioned senatorial courtesy in his opening statement. “I was your colleague in this body for 20 years, at least some of you,” he said, “and the suggestion that I participated in any collusion, that I was aware of any collusion with the Russian government, to hurt this country . . . or to undermine the integrity of our democratic process, is an appalling and detestable lie.”

Speaking in the vernacular of the Old South, Sessions said he had come to “defend my honor against scurrilous and false allegations.” “I’ve earned a reputation for (integrity) . . . in this body, I believe,” he said. A minute later, he implored them again: “Please colleagues, hear me on this. . . . Colleagues, that is false.” Then Sessions corrected himself. “I cannot say colleagues now,” he said. “I’m no longer a part of this body.”

– But in the process of trying to clear his name, Sessions antagonized Democrats and suggested that he doesn’t believe in the chamber’s Golden Rule: Treat your colleagues as you’d like to be treated. The nation’s chief law enforcement officer acknowledged that he met twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak – once during the Republican National Convention and once in his Senate office – and that he did not disclose these contacts during his confirmation hearing. But his excuse for what some legal experts think might have constituted perjury was that Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., had asked him “a rambling question.” Referring to “the so-called dossier,” Session complained: “I believe that’s the report that Sen. Franken hit me with.” In fact, Franken didn’t even ask Sessions about his interactions with the Russians. Without prompting, he volunteered: “I did not have communications with the Russians.”

Sessions incensed other former colleagues by reneging on his commitment to appear before the Appropriations subcommittee that controls the Justice Department’s budget. It was the second time he backed out. He sent a deputy in his stead. “You’re not the witness that should be behind that table,” Pat Leahy, D-Vt., told Rod Rosenstein Tuesday morning. “You’re not who I’m interested in speaking with at the hearing today.” Leahy, the longest-serving Democrat in the Senate, said Sessions “provided false testimony” and questioned how he “can credibly lead the Justice Department.” He also called the DOJ’s budget request “abysmal.”

During the Intelligence hearing, Sessions suggested that he won’t necessarily agree to answer additional questions about Comey or Russia before the committees tasked with overseeing his department. “I don’t think it’s good policy to continually bring Cabinet members or the attorney general before multiple committees going over the same things over and over,” he said. (Sessions undoubtedly would have complained if Eric Holder or Loretta Lynch ever made this comment.)

– If Sessions thought he’d get special treatment from his Democratic counterparts because he spent two decades in the Senate, he thought wrong. The attorney general struggled not to let their tough questions – which he is unaccustomed to answering – get under his skin.

Kamala Harris, D-Calif., pressed harder than anyone else on the committee. She served as California’s attorney general for the past six years and San Francisco’s district attorney for the seven years before that. With the savvy of a seasoned prosecutor, the freshman Democrat peppered Sessions with specific yes-or-no questions. It didn’t take long for him to become exasperated. When she asked if he had contacts with Russian businessmen last year, he said no. Then he began to clarify that it’s possible he met some at the Republican convention because there were lots of people he met with. Harris noted that she didn’t have much time and wanted to move quickly. “Will you let me qualify it? If I don’t qualify it, you’ll accuse me of lying,” Sessions shot back. “So I need to be correct as best I can. I’m not able to be rushed this fast! It makes me nervous!”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., cut in. “The witness should be allowed to answer the question,” he told Harris. “Senator Harris, let him answer,” Burr, the chairman, admonished. Sessions then didn’t directly answer her question – and Burr announced that Harris’s time had expired.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., asked Sessions what Comey was cryptically referring to last week when he said that he had been aware of “problematic” facts that he knew would force Sessions to recuse himself. The fired director said he couldn’t discuss them outside of a classified session. The question peeved the attorney general, who responded: “Why don’t you tell me?!?! There are none, Sen. Wyden! There are none! This is a secret innuendo being leaked out there about me, and I don’t appreciate it.”

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, pressed Sessions on why he was talking about some private conversations with Trump but then clamming up about others. “I just don’t understand the legal basis for your refusal to answer,” he asked. “I am protecting the right of the president to assert it if he chooses,” Sessions said. “You’re being selective,” King replied. “No, I’m not intentionally,” said Sessions.

– Tuesday’s hearing offered a fresh illustration of a long-term trend away from senatorial deference:

The watershed moment was 1989, when Democratic senators rejected John Tower’s nomination to be secretary of defense despite his 24 years as a senator from Texas.

In 2013, Republicans tried to blockade Chuck Hagel- a former GOP senator from Nebraska – after Barack Obama appointed him as secretary of defense. They used the confirmation fight to try extracting information about Benghazi. It was the first time a pick for defense chief had ever been filibustered, though he eventually made it through.

In January, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., spoke against Sessions at his confirmation hearing — the first time in U.S. history that a sitting senator had testified against a colleague’s nomination for a cabinet post.

Booker said he could not stay silent, even though he knew some of his colleagues weren’t “happy that I am breaking with Senate tradition.” “In the choice between standing with Senate norms or standing up for what my conscience tells me is best for our country, I will always choose conscience and country,” he said.

Just last week, senators also excoriated Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who until last year was a Republican senator from Indiana, when he declined to discuss whether Trump asked him to try reining in Comey’s investigation.

– Part of this shift is generational. A changing of the guard is underway. Booker is 48. Harris is 52. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., who lectured Sessions on the rules of executive privilege during Tuesday’s hearing, is just 45. These are relative youngsters by Senate standards.

Other Democrats fell more into the throwback category. “You and I are about the same vintage,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., who is 69, told Sessions, who is 70. Manchin politely referred to Sessions as “sir” and noted that the attorney general understands what it’s like to be a senator. “All in all, it’s better on that side,” Sessions replied with a smile. “Nobody gets to ask you about your private conversations with your staff!”

– Friendly Republicans on the committee helped Sessions offer a full-throated defense:

Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., read a statement in the attorney general’s defense from the Center for the National Interest, which hosted Trump’s April 2016 speech at the Mayflower Hotel, where the AG acknowledges he might have interacted with Kislyak for a third time. Lankford asked Sessions: “Do you have any reason to disagree with that?” He did not, of course. “You speak as a man eager to set the record straight,” Lankford told him.

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, noted that senators meet with ambassadors all the time, and even run into them at the grocery store.

He asked Sessions, “Is that a fair statement?”

It’s very rare for a top administration official to bring his wife to what he knows is going to be a contentious oversight hearing. But Mary Sessions sat in the front row Tuesday, offering moral support to her husband of 48 years.

“It’s good to see Mary,” Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said at the start of his five minutes of questioning. “I know there are other places you’d both probably rather be.” Blunt praised the couple for approaching public service as a joint enterprise. “I’ve been blessed indeed,” said Sessions. “I agree with that,” Blunt replied.

– Meanwhile, after the hearing, some Democratic members who used to be friendly with Sessions said that the attorney general’s unwillingness to give straight answers only stiffened their resolve to pursue him as part of the ongoing congressional inquiries. Dick Durbin, Ill., who is number two in Democratic leadership, voted against Sessions in January, but he reminisced about how they worked out together in the gym and came up with a compromise on drug sentencing after one workout. In a statement Tuesday night, the Illinois senator said: “It is hard to see how he can continue to serve.”

Minority Leader Chuck Schumer complained that Sessions “repeatedly refused to answer pertinent questions . . . without offering a scintilla of legal justification for doing so.”

Franken called Sessions’ testimony “very unsettling” and said he didn’t buy his explanations. “I believe he’s trying to downplay the gravity of and whitewash the fact that he misled the Senate Judiciary Committee under oath and failed to correct the record until he was forced to do so seven weeks later after reporting by the Washington Post,” the Minnesotan said in a statement.

With Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve

 

A used needle sits on the ground in a park in Lawrence, Massachusetts, U.S., May 30, 2017, where individuals were arrested earlier in the day during raids to break up heroin and fentanyl drug rings in the region, according to law enforcement officials.

The drug crisis is now pushing up death rates for almost all groups of Americans

Since the beginning of this decade, death rates have risen among people between the ages of 25 and 44 in virtually every racial and ethnic group and almost all states.

Published June 09, 2017, at 8:27 p.m.     |    

The drug crisis is now pushing up death rates for almost all groups of Americans

Posted June 09, 2017, at 8:27 p.m.

The opioid epidemic that has ravaged life expectancy among economically stressed white Americans is taking a rising toll among blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans, driving up the overall rate of premature death among Americans in the prime of their lives.

Since the beginning of this decade, death rates have risen among people between the ages of 25 and 44 in virtually every racial and ethnic group and almost all states, according to a Washington Post analysis. The death rate among African Americans is up 4 percent, Hispanics 7 percent, whites 12 percent and Native Americans 18 percent. The rate for Asian Americans also has increased, but at a level that is not statistically significant.

After a century of decreases, the overall death rate for Americans in these prime years rose 8 percent between 2010 and 2015.

The jump in death rates has been driven in large measure by drug overdoses and alcohol abuse, according to The Washington Post’s analysis of mortality data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“What it reflects is an out-of-control epidemic right now,” said Josh Sharfstein, director of the Bloomberg American Health Initiative at Johns Hopkins. “It’s affecting the economy. It’s affecting the entire community. This is an absolute call to action for public health.”

Ashish Jha, a health policy professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, added, “These are people who are in the most productive years of their lives – the years where they’re supposed to be raising kids and becoming leaders of the next generation.”

The Post confirmed the contours of the rise in death rates with CDC officials. The rate is adjusted for the nation’s changing age profile, and every five-year age group (for example, 35 to 39, or 40 to 44) showed an increase in mortality.

Preliminary data from the first half of 2016 suggests that the trend is continuing, said Robert Anderson, chief of mortality statistics for the CDC.

“I think we’re in for another steep increase in the drug overdose deaths overall,” Anderson said.

The rash of deaths is a statistical echo of the 1980s and early 1990s, when the combination of the crack cocaine and HIV epidemics took a heavy toll on young Americans.

Many factors are likely contributing to the current spike, but opioids stand out. The widespread abuse of prescription drugs has become a national crisis, with addicts overdosing on prescription opioids; their illegal cousin, heroin; and, increasingly, synthetic drugs such as fentanyl and carfentanil, which are far more powerful and deadly.

Alcohol-related deaths also have increased among whites, blacks and Hispanics, the data show. Meanwhile, homicide, the leading cause of death among young blacks, also has risen since the beginning of this decade.

The new mortality spike is seen in almost every state. The breadth of the nation’s deteriorating health has not been widely appreciated. Academic researchers and the news media in recent years have focused on the most intensely affected regions, such as Appalachia and rural New England, and on premature deaths among white Americans, a trend that began around 1999 and continues unabated.

For more than a century, Americans lived much longer lives because of improvements in medicine, sanitation, control of contagious diseases, nutrition and individual health care. But American mortality appears to have reached an inflection point around 2010, in the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession. Generally positive mortality trends among blacks and Hispanics flattened out, then gradually worsened.

For blacks and Hispanics, the biggest increase in deaths came in 2015, data for which was released earlier this year.

The geography of the epidemic also expanded dramatically. From 1999 to 2010, only seven states showed an increase of more than 10 percent in the death rates of people ages 25 to 44: West Virginia, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. All have predominantly white populations and few if any big cities.

The data from 2010 to 2015 tell a different story. During that period, 33 states showed death rates rising by at least 10 percent in the 25-44 age bracket, including all of New England and the Midwest Rust Belt. The death rate in Illinois is up 31 percent. Only in Hawaii and the District of Columbia has the death rate continued to decline since 2010.

Moreover, a phenomenon most pronounced among whites in small cities and rural areas appears to be spreading to the nation’s suburbs and biggest cities. Before 2010, death rates had been declining for whites, blacks and Hispanics in metropolitan areas of at least 1 million people. Since 2010, the rates are up everywhere.

“The data is very concerning,” said Leandris Liburd, director of the CDC’s Office of Minority Health and Health Equity. “We do not want to see death rates going up for any age, or any ethnic or racial group. The rise in mortality is likely due to multiple factors, and opioids are certainly a part of the problem.”

One clear distinction remains: education level. The only 25-to-44 group whose death rate is not climbing is people with four-year college degrees.

“People with four-year degrees overall are doing fine in this economy, and everybody else overall is doing pretty poorly,” said Joan C. Williams, a University of California law professor, author and scholar on work and class. “This whole large segment of society is seeing their grip on the American Dream slipping away.”

Deaths from drug overdoses among whites are still more than double the rate for blacks, and are rising rapidly. But the data suggest that this is a contagion that will not recognize boundaries of race or ethnicity.

In Cuyahoga County, which encompasses Cleveland, coroner Thomas Gilson testified in the Senate last month that he has seen deaths double in one year among African Americans from fentanyl, a deadly synthetic opioid, often taken in combination with cocaine.

“With seemingly purposeful intent, cocaine is now being mixed with fentanyl and its analogues in an effort to introduce these drugs into the African American population,” Gilson testified.

“Fentanyl is playing a major driving force in increasing overdose deaths,” said Michael Botticelli, director of the Grayken Center for Addiction Medicine at Boston Medical Center and the former head, under President Obama, of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “Fentanyl is much more powerful than heroin or morphine. Often drug users don’t know it’s in their supply. It’s increasingly fast acting. We know that the window of our opportunity to respond and resuscitate people is dramatically shortened.”

Botticelli said dealers make a risk calculation when selling fentanyl or fentanyl-laced drugs: Addicts want the strongest drugs available, even if they are potentially fatal. He said a dealer arrested in Massachusetts had sent a text message to a colleague: “We don’t want to kill them, we just want to bring them to that point.”

The country is beginning to recognize the scale of the crisis, said Sharfstein, and turning to the question of how to fix it. But, he said, a criminal, judgmental or moral approach will block effective solutions.

“A really important barrier is to set aside ideology and say, ‘This is killing our children. What can we do to make a real difference?’,” he said. “In many parts of the country, there is not access to treatment that is effective for people, and in fact there is opposition to treatment that is effective for people. They say people should be put in jail.”

A report in March, the 2017 County Health Rankings, produced by the University of Wisconsin and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, also highlighted a rise between 2014 and 2015 in premature deaths among people ages 15 to 44 and the broad geographic and demographic spread of those deaths.

In modern times, increases in mortality have been rare. One of the most dramatic occurred during and after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, when the economy went into free-fall and anti-alcohol campaigns were abandoned. Life expectancy for men dropped precipitously.

National attention to rising death rates in the United States flared following a November 2015 study by Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, who noted that whites in their midlife years (45 to 54) have been dying at surprisingly high rates since the end of the 20th century. Case and Deaton earlier this year said the “deaths of despair” from drug overdoses, alcohol abuse and suicide appear to be associated with the deteriorating labor market since the 1970s among people without a college degree.

Deaton, a Nobel laureate, said the bigger picture for America is “catastrophic.” Death rates are supposed to go down, not up, he said. “A society where this is going the wrong way, there’s something very, very seriously wrong with it.”

Why not try ‘Medicare for all’? Glad you asked

A long battle has been going on over whether — and to what extent — Medicare controls its costs by offloading them onto private insurers, a phenomenon called cost shifting.

Published June 09, 2017, at 6:33 a.m.     |    

Why not try ‘Medicare for all’? Glad you asked

Posted June 09, 2017, at 6:33 a.m.

When arguing about national health care in this country, those favoring some sort of government-led system always come back to one argument. “But everyone loves Medicare,” they say. “If Medicare’s so great, why not expand it to everyone?”

Indeed, Alan Grayson, a Democratic congressman from Florida, recently introduced a bill that would allow people of any age to buy into the program.

And what’s wrong with that? After all, if people buy in, it won’t cost the government a dime, right?

I’m so glad you asked.

For one thing, as Obamacare has shown, “people will be paying for it, not the government, so what’s the problem?” is not quite as simple as it sounded when you were saying it in front of a room of cheering supporters. For whom is it likely to be a good deal? Sick people. Medicare can adjust the buy-in premium to take account of this, but then next year, folks are going to be looking at the new higher premiums, and who is likely to opt in at that high price? The sickest folks in the insurance pool. Better adjust those premiums again …

Yes, it’s our old friend, adverse selection, which pops up whenever you build an insurance market without underwriting. Medicare is a government program, so it can’t death spiral out of existence. However, there will be considerable political pressure to set the premiums well below the expected actuarial expenditure on care for beneficiaries. So instead of a death spiral, you get a fiscal crisis in Medicare.

Yet here’s a measure of how badly thought out this idea of expanded Medicare is: Adverse selection isn’t even its biggest problem. A far bigger problem is what this might do to hospital budgets. Why? Because Medicare doesn’t necessarily pay enough to keep those hospitals running.

Deep in the weeds of health wonkdom, a long battle has been going on over whether — and to what extent — Medicare controls its costs by offloading them onto private insurers, a phenomenon called cost shifting. Conservatives often promote a somewhat simplistic version of this argument: Medicare pays too little, so hospitals have to charge insurers more to make up the lost reimbursements.

As stated, this is probably wrong. The empirical evidence to support it is weak, and even just theoretically, this misunderstands how market actors behave. It treats costs as a budget problem: Companies have to cover certain costs, and if one customer pays less, another customer has to pay more. (Liberals often make this mistake in reverse when talking about drug prices, assuming that if the U.S. cracked down on pharmaceutical reimbursements, European governments would have to raise their reimbursements to make up for the lost cash, thereby ending their free riding on the new drugs produced from U.S.-derived profits.)

In fact, economists generally assume that sellers are charging each buyer as much as they can. Having one customer refuse to pay so much doesn’t make your other customers more willing to pay, so there’s no reason to think that you’ll be able to raise the price you charge them.

However, there remains an undeniable fact: Medicare pays significantly less than private insurers. And this can’t simply be explained by the fact that Medicare covers a huge number of people, because so do Aetna and Humana and Anthem and Blue Cross.

There’s some evidence that Medicare reimbursements don’t quite cover the average cost of having a patient in the hospital. The hospital’s fixed costs are mostly getting covered by higher reimbursements from private payers. (Though this varies by hospital, and is difficult to tease out, and therefore disputed.)

Note that this isn’t necessarily somehow “cheating.” There are plenty of people flying around the country whose fares don’t cover the average cost of their flight. It still makes good economic sense to sell them tickets at low fares, because the airlines are getting more revenue from a cheap ticket than from an empty seat. Ditto hospitals deciding whether to have empty beds.

In businesses like this, people often look at the prices paid by marginal-cost consumers, and conclude it would be great if everyone got that price. But someone has to cover those fixed costs, or the seller goes bankrupt.

Data from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey suggests that people on Medicare account for about a third of all national health expenditures; folks 44 to 65 for another third; and the rest of us for the final third. And those folks are the ones most likely to use hospitals, because they’re more likely to be really sick, not just getting an annual checkup and a few pills.

If we followed Clinton’s plan, and lowered the Medicare eligibility age, one effect would be to take some pressure off Obamacare’s exchanges, by moving the sicker and older patients out of the pool. But that cost has to go somewhere, and where it’s likely to end up is in hospitals, as their patient load shifts dramatically toward lower-reimbursed Medicare patients.

Like the critics of the cost-shifting thesis, I doubt that hospitals could simply turn around and jack up rates to private payers. On the other hand, I do kind of wonder what the hospitals would do to cover the now gaping holes in their budgets. Hospital profit margins are in the low-to-mid single-digits, which is probably not enough to absorb a large loss.

One thing they might do is go bankrupt. Ha! I’m kidding. Hospitals are politically powerful. They’d ask for, and get, a bailout from the government, because no lawmaker is going to let the local hospital close. But that would make this program pretty expensive, because that bailout would most likely involve moving all Medicare reimbursements closer to what private payers pay.

Or they also might refuse to handle so many Medicare patients (a phenomenon you see among doctors, though doctor opt-out is nowhere near as bad as it is with Medicaid, which basically tries to pay doctors in cigar bands). Of course, you can’t turn away someone who’s having a heart attack. But you could, say, decide that you’re only doing so many Medicare-funded knee replacements a year. That would fix the budget problem. But all those folks with bad knees are apt to get pretty cranky while waiting for a hospital bed.

And of course, hospitals could cut costs. There’s evidence that this is what they have done, in response to previous cuts in Medicare reimbursement. Unfortunately, there’s also some evidence that mortality might have gone up as a result, as hospitals cut back on service quality. That may be a tradeoff we’re willing to make for lower health-care costs, but it should be explicitly discussed.

And just because hospitals may have successfully cut costs in response to a previous round of reimbursement cuts, doesn’t mean we can necessarily expect that to work again. Cost cutting is like dieting — the first few pounds of fat go easy, but getting to that perfect size 10 may never happen. Those hospitals that do get there would probably have to result to draconian measures — which might result in patient lives lost.

So how you feel about this proposal should probably depend on how sure you are that there are vast, easily obtained cost efficiencies to be had in hospital operations. Myself, I’d want to be a lot surer than I am before I started running a mass experiment, for our nation’s physical and fiscal health.

McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. For more columns from Bloomberg View, visit http://www.bloomberg.com/view.

 

President Donald Trump speaks as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell looks on during a meeting with House and Senate leadership on June 6, 2017, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

President Trump blocked some people from his Twitter account. Is that unconstitutional?

Normally, a user blocking another on Twitter is no big deal. Some might consider it petty, but nobody tries to make a lofty constitutional issue out of it. But Trump is the president.

Published June 07, 2017, at 11:27 a.m.     |    

President Trump blocked some people from his Twitter account. Is that unconstitutional?

Posted June 07, 2017, at 11:27 a.m.
Last modified June 07, 2017, at 12:18 p.m.

Holly O’Reilly tweeted a GIF at the end of May to President Donald Trump on his @realDonaldTrump account. The image displayed an awkward-looking moment between the president and Pope Francis with the caption, “This is pretty much how the whole world sees you.”

Almost immediately, she was blocked from his account.

Joe Papp had a similar experience about a week later, when he tweeted a question to Trump. “Why didn’t you attend your #PittsburghNotParis rally in DC, Sir?” he asked, adding “#fakeleader.” Trump blocked him, too.

In response, Papp tweeted a screenshot of his blocking with the message “a @POTUS so mentally weak & intolerant of dissent he blocks U.S. citizens critical of his politics from even reading his latest pronouncements.”

Once blocked, neither O’Reilly nor Papp could view Trump’s tweets or comment in the threads created by them.

Normally, a user blocking another on Twitter is no big deal. It happens every day. Some might consider it petty, but nobody tries to make a lofty constitutional issue out of it.

But Trump is the president. And just Tuesday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump’s tweets are “considered official statements by the president of the United States.” And since his account, like others, provides the opportunity for a response, some think that would make it a kind of public forum.

If that’s the case, some think Trump’s blocking of users is a violation the First Amendment, the equivalent of the government kicking citizens out of a public square or town hall meeting because it doesn’t like their political viewpoints.

That may be a stretch, in part, because the Twitter account is Trump’s personal account.

But among those willing to make the leap is the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. It sent a letter to the president Tuesday requesting that he unblock two particular users: O’Reilly and Papp. It was signed by the Knight Institute’s founding director Jameel Jaffer and senior Knight Institute attorneys Katie Fallow and Alex Abdo.

The Knight Institute claimed that a space doesn’t have to be physical to constituent a forum — instead it could be “metaphysical.” As its letter said:

“Your account constitutes a designated public forum. It is a forum for expression in which you share information and opinions relating to government policy with the public at large and in which members of the public can engage you, engage one another, and sometimes elicit responses from you. Your Twitter account is a designated public forum for essentially the same reasons that open city council meetings and school board meetings are.”

That’s key, because if that’s the case and the government has created a public forum, “it may not constitutionally exclude individuals on the basis of viewpoint.”

And, as Adbo told The Washington Post, “The people that we talked to all seemed to have been blocked after tweeting pretty direct criticism at the president. That in our mind raised a pretty suggestive inference they were blocked on account of their views.”

He could not confirm how many people the Knight Institute spoke with, though he said since sending the letter and posting it online, “We’ve had a dozen or more people … who have reached out to us.”

One main question, Abdo said, is whether the account is considered a personal or an official one.

Trump tweets from two different accounts. One is @POTUS, the official Twitter account of the presidency, which has 18.6 million followers.

His more famous and closely watched account, though, is @realDonaldTrump, which he used well before the election and on which he has more than 31.5 million followers. This is the account he has used to routinely insult the mainstream media, offer his opinion about issues such as the “travel ban” and issue statements about upcoming policy changes — such as when he would announce his decision on the Paris accord.

“This is not a Twitter account dedicated to personal interests and family affairs,” Adbo said. “This is for all intents and purposes the official account of the White House.”

Abdo said he isn’t aware of another case involving a public official blocking his or her constituents on Twitter. It’s unlitigated and lacks a clear precedent.

Among those who think it’s a stretch is constitutional law scholar Michael W. McConnell, the director of Stanford’s Constitutional Law Center and, from 2002 to 2009, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.

“The president is entitled to communicate with whoever he wants to whenever he wants to,” McConnell told The Post. “No one has the right to compel someone else to communicate with them.”

“If Trump or anyone else wants to limit his Twitter audience, he can do that,” McConnell added. “As can any other public official or any private person.”

And even in a public form, McConnell said, presidents can “go to public arenas and meet with audiences of their choice. Public forum doctrine has to do with the right of people to speak, not the right of anyone being forced to communicate with them.”

Adbo, though, argued that an important part of the public forum is the exchange of ideas. When Trump sends out a tweet, other users reply to it, creating a long thread that sometimes includes thousands of tweets.

“The significant harm, and one for which there aren’t obvious workarounds, is that you’re excluded from the comment threads discussing the president’s tweets,” Abdo said. “That is the forum that is created by each of the tweets about his policies. … You could create another account and tweet anonymously to those threads, but what you’re excluded from is contributing to those debates as yourself.”

Others, such as UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, think the question is “borderline.”

On the one hand, as he wrote in his blog hosted by The Washington Post, “my sense is that the @RealDonaldTrump account — though run by Trump on government time and from government property — is the work of Trump-the-man … just as it was before November, and not Trump-the-president. His decisions about that account are therefore not constrained by the First Amendment.”

But “what if I’m mistaken,” Volokh wrote, “and it’s viewed as run by Trump in his capacity as a government actor, and thus subject to the First Amendment? Can he then block users?

“The most constitutionally significant effect would be that blocked users apparently can’t post to Twitter comment threads, at least without some complicated workarounds. If @RealDonaldTrump is seen as a governmental project and thus a limited public forum, then viewpoint-based exclusion from posting to such threads likely would be unconstitutional, just as viewpoint-based exclusion from commenting on a government-run Facebook page would be,” he wrote.

What worries Abdo most is that “whatever is allowed by the president will quickly trickle down to more local officials.”

“That comes at a real cost,” Abdo said. “If even those more local forums become echo chambers by virtue of the ability to block, that’s a real problem.”

At present, of course, this is only a letter. If Trump does not unblock O’Reilly and Papp, however, “we will very seriously consider litigation,” Abdo said.

As of early Wednesday morning, the White House had not responded to the institute’s letter.

 

Bangor voters cast ballots at the Cross Insurance Center in a 2014 file photo.

Maine lawmakers will decide fate of ranked-choice voting. Signs point to repeal.

Legislators are caught between defying voters’ will and the Constitution.

Published June 06, 2017, at 1:30 a.m.     |    

Maine lawmakers will decide fate of ranked-choice voting. Signs point to repeal.

Posted June 06, 2017, at 1:30 a.m.
Last modified June 06, 2017, at 7:08 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Protected by Maine’s high court, a key group of Democrats looks open to eventually joining Republicans in repealing the state’s pioneering ranked-choice voting law before the 2018 election.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court issued a unanimous opinion in May finding the law unconstitutional after it passed with 52 percent support from voters in 2016, saying it violates a provision allowing elections to be won by a plurality — and not necessarily a majority — of votes.

The opinion is non-binding, but it threw the law into question and led to dueling legislative proposals to deal with the problem: Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon Falls, wants to repeal the law, while Sen. Catherine Breen, D-Falmouth, wants to amend the Constitution to allow it.

With legislative Republicans and Gov. Paul LePage united on repealing the law, Democrats hold the cards on whether it’ll survive and, if so, in what form. Some key Democrats are open to repeal.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, a former secretary of state, said the court’s opinion makes it “clear that it has to be repealed.” Diamond said he wouldn’t support a constitutional amendment, calling it a bad practice to pass a law first and an amendment allowing it later.

“Now that it’s been determined to be unconstitutional, I don’t think it’s our job to necessarily find a way to make it work,” he said.

Positions like Diamond’s cast repeal as the likeliest option of five choices that are less than ideal for legislators caught between defying voters’ will and the Constitution.

They could repeal the law, which takes majority votes in the House and Senate.

To pass a repeal, they need a simple majority vote in both legislative chambers. Republicans control the Senate and Democrats only have a 75-71 majority in the House of Representatives, with five independents.

If all the independents vote against repeal, Republicans need just five Democratic votes there to pass it. Mason’s bill is co-sponsored by three House Democrats and others expressed openness to it in interviews.

Rep. Gay Grant, D-Gardiner, said she told her caucus last week not to expect her support for an amendment and that her party’s leaders aren’t pushing any position on the issue.

Other Democrats may vote for the amendment, then vote for repeal if the amendment vote fails. Rep. Martin Grohman, D-Biddeford, said on Monday that was his probable course of action.

They could pass a constitutional amendment allowing ranked-choice voting, but Republicans would block it.

Breen’s amendment would need a two-thirds vote in both legislative chambers before going to the voters for ratification in November. That threshold positions Republicans to block it, and Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, has said it won’t pass.

At a rally last week, Kyle Bailey, who managed the $2 million campaign that passed the law, said legislators will defy voters’ will unless supporters “knock some sense into them.”

But some rank-and-file Democrats aren’t persuaded by that kind of argument, with Grant saying, “the same people that voted for ranked-choice voting also voted for me to come here and use my common sense and to weigh all the issues and to do the right thing.”

They could implement ranked-choice voting for primary and federal elections, but even Democrats aren’t fans of the dual system that would create.

The court’s opinion didn’t address the law’s constitutionality when it comes to primary and general elections because the parts of the Constitution that affect ranked-choice voting apply only in state general elections.

While proponents want an amendment, they have a backup plan, arguing on Friday that the Legislature could implement the law, but only for primaries and congressional elections.

Sen. Michael Carpenter, D-Houlton, has proposed that after initially backing Mason’s bill, saying on Monday that legislators should “respect what the voters did in every instance where we can.”

But Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, a Democrat whose office supports either dumping the law or amending the Constitution, said a dual system would create as much work and expense for his staff as a fully ranked-choice system and would be confusing to voters, saying it’s “not practical.”

Grohman, Grant and Rep. Louis Luchini, D-Ellsworth, the co-chairman of the Legislature’s committee with oversight of election laws, all said that they’re against that kind of partial solution. Republicans also wouldn’t go for it, so it’s unlikely.

They could do nothing, which would fully implement the law, yet invite a potentially disastrous legal challenge.

“Nothing” is seen as the Legislature’s worst option, forcing Dunlap to implement for the 2018 election a law that has already been deemed unconstitutional.

So, a losing candidate could contest an outcome formally or informally. At worst, that could put the legitimacy of somebody poised to become Maine’s governor in the middle of a messy court battle during the winter, when the winner should be leading a transition of power.

Dunlap called doing nothing “the equivalent of leaving a loaded revolver on a swingset,” saying “disaster’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of when.”

They could delay the law, but that seems unlikely for now.

There’s precedent in the Legislature for delaying implementation of voter-approved measures by studying bills or carrying them over to another session.

However, House Speaker Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, said in a statement after the court’s opinion that it’s “imperative that we move quickly in order to remove any uncertainty in our electoral process.”

For now, Maine is tracking toward action, and it doesn’t look good for ranked-choice voting supporters.

Sarah Diment, owner of The Beachmere Inn, is stepping in as a housekeeper because she can't find enough people to work at her inn. Labor shortages are plaguing the hospitality industry in Maine.

Trump’s red tape keeps Maine businesses from hiring workers they need

Maine’s tourism industry could be short more than 1,000 workers this summer if the federal government keeps in place limits on seasonal foreign workers.

Published June 05, 2017, at 7:01 a.m.     |    

Trump’s red tape keeps Maine businesses from hiring workers they need

Posted June 05, 2017, at 7:01 a.m.
Last modified June 05, 2017, at 12:49 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Maine’s tourism industry could be short thousands of workers this summer if the federal government keeps in place limits on seasonal foreign workers.

Through March, Maine employers had 919 positions certified to be filled by foreign workers and about a third of those are in bureaucratic limbo.

That’s because getting certification is just the first step in the process. It’s immigration officials that set the cap on new foreign workers. Businesses have to apply to them after getting Labor Department certification.

If word of change does come from Washington, it sounds the starting gun for attorneys like Marcus Jaynes to get their clients’ applications in the mail.

Attorneys like Jaynes are at the front lines in the fight to clear the backlog, which in Maine is full of tourist-industry businesses wondering how they’re going to staff up for a summer rush starting Memorial Day weekend and growing as public schools close.

More and more of those businesses are looking to foreign workers to fill those positions.

According to federal statistics, Maine businesses were certified to bring in almost twice as many foreign workers in the first three months of 2017 as in 2016. And most of the state’s applications come in later, for the summer season.

The spike in demand clashes with newly enforced federal limits on foreign workers coming into the country for non-agricultural jobs, on H-2B visas. Those jobs include positions as housekeepers or cooks at some of Maine’s key tourist destinations.

Meanwhile, Maine’s unemployment rate hit its lowest point ever in April after more than a year of holding steady at low rates.

In an April email, Glenn Mills, the Maine Department of Labor’s chief economist, wrote that the consistency of low unemployment for Maine during the past 16 months “is historically unusual, previously occurring only two other periods,” from 1987 to 1989 and 1999 to 2001.

Annual uncertainty

Jaynes, a Portland-based immigration attorney, said anyone who hadn’t started the second step — applying to immigration officials — by the time the cap was hit in March was likely out of luck. And Maine’s demand for foreign workers on the latter end of the second quarter, which starts April 1, doesn’t help in conforming with those deadlines.

“When it comes to this time of year, we all kind of scratch our heads and wonder why do we keep signing on to work within this program because there’s so much uncertainty,” Jaynes said.

According to federal statistics, at least 302 positions in Maine were certified after immigration officials declared the cap. And that number is certainly ballooning. In 2016, two-thirds of all the certified jobs got approval during the second quarter of the year, between April and June.

That crush of second-quarter applications remains stalled. Nationally, at least 13,725 were certified by labor officials after immigration authorities declared the cap.

The currently approved applications don’t yet reflect requests from businesses such as the Pentagoet Inn in Castine, whose owners went on a radio show hosted by U.S. Sen. Angus King to detail their predicament.

“What we’re seeing in Castine and on the entire Blue Hill peninsula is that businesses are cutting back on services and what they can offer because they don’t have the right staff,” co-owner Julie Van de Graff said.

[ With tourist season around the corner, Maine’s hospitality industry is facing a crisis]

She and her husband Jack Burke have yet to open the hotel’s adjacent restaurant for want of five qualified cooks and housekeepers, she said. Their company, WC Inc., qualified last year for six foreign workers in applications approved in late April and early May.

The figures show why King, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and the state’s top tourism industry official are pleading for the federal government to raise a cap to allow in more foreign workers for the range of jobs that pay between $9 and just under $15 per hour.

A short-term spending plan passed earlier this year allowed the Department of Homeland Security to raise that cap, but the department has not approved the increase. Separately, a rule expired in September that allowed returning workers not to count against the cap.

[King, Collins support bill to reform H-2B visa process for seasonal help from abroad]

Steve Hewins, the head of the Maine Restaurant Association and the Maine Innkeepers Association, said during King’s radio broadcast that about 10 percent of the state’s hospitality jobs are filled with foreign temporary workers.

What are these jobs?

The H-2B program requires employers to document recruiting steps taken locally as a way of proving they couldn’t fill the positions and need the temporary help from abroad.

For the upcoming tourist season, the bulk of those jobs are as maids or housekeepers, positions that pay an average of $10.26 per hour across all of the approved employers in the state.

By the end of the first quarter of 2016, Maine employers got Labor Department permission to bring in 210 foreign workers for maid and housekeeping jobs. That number rose to 321 this year.

The jobs are also concentrated geographically along the coast, particularly in the south. A separate batch of jobs related to the maple harvest started earlier this year around Jackman.

Critics of the guest worker program argue that it allows foreign workers to take jobs away from potential domestic employees. A Buzzfeed investigation found cases in which agricultural employers under the related H-2A visa program bent program rules to show they couldn’t fill the jobs with workers in the state.

For the H-2B program, employers are required to establish that they cannot find U.S. employees “who are able, willing, qualified, and available to do the temporary work” and that the program won’t depress wages or working conditions of other U.S. workers.

Advocates of the program argue that’s not the case, particularly for smaller hospitality businesses in the state, where it says the ability to scale up quickly in the summer helps retain year-round jobs in the highly seasonal industry.

Jack Burke at the Pentagoet said the Castine inn faces regional demographic challenges finding temporary workers and that the applications and process itself costs them about $24,000 before any workers arrive.

“If we could find people local, it would make no sense for us to hire foreign staff,” Burke said.

Here’s why some experts say Trump is right to pull US out of Paris climate deal

Remaining a part of the accord while blatantly ignoring climate goals could have done more damage than simply leaving altogether, some say.

Published June 02, 2017, at 6:38 a.m.     |    

Here’s why some experts say Trump is right to pull US out of Paris climate deal

Posted June 02, 2017, at 6:38 a.m.
Last modified June 02, 2017, at 8:09 a.m.

Now that President Donald Trump has announced that the United States will not remain a part of the Paris climate agreement, a case can be made that he made the right decision.

Even as climate scientists and activists urged the president not to withdraw from the agreement, citing the possibility of international blowback and a potential undermining of other nations’ commitment to it, a small group of experts argued that a withdrawal may actually be for the best.

According to them, it’s clear that the Trump administration would have failed to meet the climate goals that the Obama administration established under the agreement — namely, a pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent below their 2005 levels by the year 2025. And remaining a part of the accord while blatantly ignoring this commitment could do more damage than simply leaving altogether, they say.

Luke Kemp, a climate and environmental policy expert at Australian National University, made this argument in a recent comment published in the journal Nature Climate Change. There, he points out that most experts’ fears about a U.S. withdrawal revolve around its potential to inspire a kind of domino effect, in which other nations see a lack of commitment from one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters and also decide to pull out or backslide on their climate goals. But, he argues, this possibility may actually be heightened if the United States remained in the agreement as a laggard, weakening the compact from within.

“The success of Paris largely relies on its pledge and review process to create political pressure, and drive low-carbon investments,” he writes. “A great power that willfully misses its target could provide political cover for other laggards and weaken the soft power of process.”

It’s a clear minority opinion among experts who support action on climate change. Most other scientists, environmentalists and liberal policymakers fiercely advocated for remaining in the Paris agreement. Because the United States is the second-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, and was an early leader on the creation of the Paris accord under the Obama administration, many suggested that withdrawing could have a strong demotivating effect, clearing the way for other nations to abandon their own climate goals as well.

But Kemp suggests that the withdrawal by the U.S. might actually inspire other nations to step up their game in its place. In fact, there’s reason to believe this effect might already be occurring. While the Trump administration has relentlessly worked to roll back environmental and climate-related regulations since assuming office, dashing hopes that the United States might still meet its Paris climate goals, China and India — two other major global greenhouse gas emitters — are already on track to exceed their own commitments.

“On the balance of the risks and opportunities, I think it’s clear that a withdrawal is better for the world,” Kemp told The Washington Post in an interview.

And other experts have expressed similar opinions. Kemp’s colleague, Frank Jotzo, who directs the Centre for Climate Economics and Policy at Australian National University, agrees that staying in could be worse than withdrawing — or at least that pulling out is unlikely to be the disaster scenario some experts have predicted.

“The U.S. leaving the Paris agreement is unlikely to have a domino effect,” he told The Washington Post in an email. “And it is a long game: the next president might decide to rejoin the agreement, or join a successor agreement.”

It’s true that a withdrawal from the accord isn’t necessarily a permanent death sentence for U.S. involvement. As Kemp told The Washington Post, “A future president could rejoin Paris at the flick of a pen.”

Kemp and Jotzo may not be alone in their concerns about what would happen if the United States remained in the accord and failed to live up to the agreement’s mandates.

For instance, some — Kemp included — have noted that if the United States remained, it would continue to have a voice in its proceedings and potential future updates to its terms, with possibly damaging effects. Gabriel Marty, a climate and energy expert and former negotiator for France during the proceedings that led to the Paris agreement, recently told IRIN News that “it’s in this sense that staying in and misbehaving has the potential of being worse than a clean pullout.”

And others have pointed out the more obvious problem that staying in — but doing nothing to work toward a common goal — defeats the purpose of the agreement entirely. In a recent essay published by Climate Change News, senior research fellow Joseph Curtin of the Institute of International and European Affairs weighs the potential effects of both remaining and withdrawing and notes that staying in could be seen as something of a deceitful move.

“There are legitimate arguments in favour of staying in being made by many political leaders in the U.S., NGOs and others,” he writes. “Indeed, polling suggests that the vast majority of Americans favour staying in. Should the U.S. leave, however, the moral outrage of these constituents could be a powerful catalyst for change. There is a danger remaining in could muddy the waters and allow US citizens to believe they are contributing to resolving a global problem, when the opposite is the case.”

 

Northbound traffic at the Maine Turnpike toll plaza in West Gardiner.

How much LePage’s plan to end Maine Turnpike Authority could cost drivers

“The idea that the DOT has the money to take care of 109 miles of four-lane highway is not feasible, it’s not rational and it doesn’t make any economic sense.”

Published May 20, 2017, at 1 a.m.     |    

How much LePage’s plan to end Maine Turnpike Authority could cost drivers

Posted May 20, 2017, at 1 a.m.
Last modified May 20, 2017, at 5:23 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to eliminate the Maine Turnpike Authority is another demonstration that he is as aggressive as anyone when it comes to cutting government-imposed fees, no matter how small.

LePage has opposed, vetoed and legislated against everything from tax increases to unfunded mandates on the executive branch to pennies more on electricity bills. Now he has his sights set on the Maine Turnpike toll plazas in West Gardiner, where the toll is $1, and New Gloucester, where the toll is $1.75 or $2.25, depending on which direction you’re traveling.

“He does not believe it is right for Maine citizens and businesses to have to pay tolls just due to the fact they live in a certain part of the state where many other Maine citizens do not have to,” wrote Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s spokeswoman, in an email response to questions. “As you know, the governor has a history of opposing taxes and fees where they are unnecessary.”

But “unnecessary” means different things to different people and opposition to LePage’s proposal, which was just unveiled this week, is already mounting.

A legal path to the end of the road

“If you had to have a plan to end the Maine Turnpike Authority, there are only certain ways you can do it and this bill is well written,” said Peter Mills, the authority’s executive director, who was appointed by LePage. “So this is legally possible, even though politically and financially it’s a terrible idea.”

There is support as well, and from a key lawmaker: Assistant House Minority Leader Eleanor Espling, R-New Gloucester, who sponsored the bill on LePage’s behalf.

“I think it has some merit,” said Espling. “I think it’s worth some good discussion and a hearing.”

The bill is scheduled to be presented to the Transportation Committee on Thursday.

A vehicle for change

The bill would bar the turnpike authority from any new borrowing and require it to pay off its existing debt and dissolve itself into the Maine Department of Transportation within 10 years. The authority would sell off all unnecessary equipment, buildings and property and remove all turnpike toll plazas, with the exception of the one in York, where the toll is currently $3.

The York toll plaza generates about $60 million a year in revenue for the authority, which is less than half of the revenue the authority is taking in now. Mills estimates that a total of $140 million will be collected in fiscal year 2018, 95 percent of which will be from tolls. A full two-thirds of toll revenue is paid by motorists from out-of-state.

the authority employs approximately 330 full-time workers. If LePage’s bill is enacted, its impact on employment levels at the authority and Department of Transportation wouldn’t be decided for years.

Financial congestion

The bill’s provision to pay off the authority’s debt within 10 years would be difficult but not impossible, said Mills.

The authority has not had to borrow in several years, and Mills said it won’t for at least several more. However, due to a string of bridges on the 109-mile stretch of turnpike that all turned about 70 years old at the same time, the authority has about $380 million in debt, which according to the current schedule won’t be paid off for roughly 26 years.

Mills estimates that the only way to accomplish what would be to raise tolls to generate about $30 million more per year.

“We would have to raise tolls right now by quite a bit,” said Mills, who estimated that motorists could see a hike in the magnitude of 25 percent.

Under LePage’s plan, revenue from the York toll plaza would shift to the Department of Transportation, but overall the department’s revenue stream would be in trouble over the long term. Not only would the department take responsibility for upkeep of more roadways, but state and federal gas tax revenues, which make up 80 percent of the department’s more than $550 million annual budget, are decreasing as Americans transition to more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Many proposals around this problem have come and gone at the state and federal levels, but so far the question of how to maintain transportation infrastructure has gone unanswered. The LePage administration proposed a bill this year to place a $250 annual registration fee on hybrid vehicles and $350 on electric vehicles, along with re-routing municipal excise tax revenues to the state, but that bill died after the Legislature’s Transportation Committee unanimously recommended against it.

There are other attempts to similarly diversify the DOT’s revenue, including one bill aimed at a study commission to explore the issue.

“We have made it known that we are seeking needed revenue for the future, but that lands in the hands of policymakers,” said Ted Talbot, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation. “It does need to be dealt with but how we get there is really more of a legislative effort.”

Espling said while most of the attention centers on revenue, she wants to focus on the expenses.

“Right now we’re funding two systems, the Maine Turnpike Authority and the DOT, and all the operational costs for both,” she said. “Maine people are using these road and they’re paying for two systems. If you merge those together, there would be savings.”

Exit ramp

Caught up in the debate this week was a bill sponsored by Democratic Rep. Andrew McLean of Gorham, co-chairman of the Transportation Committee, to allow construction of a turnpike connector to Gorham. It received unanimous support in the Legislature but was vetoed by LePage, who said he wanted the project done by the DOT and not the turnpike authority. The veto was overridden this week, unanimously in the Senate and by a vote of 125-18 in the House.

“Recently, I stated publically that I support a connector in this area, but I don’t think that it should be a toll highway with the Maine Turnpike Authority,” wrote LePage in the veto letter. “Maine citizens already pay enough in tolls when they travel in certain areas of the state and we should not add additional toll costs to Maine citizens and businesses.”

LePage’s bill has only two legislative sponsors and both are Republicans: Espling of New Gloucester and Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn. Both are from communities whose residents would be affected directly by the removal of nearby tollbooths.

A bridge too far?

McLean said he views LePage’s proposal as a bad idea and said most if not all of his Democratic colleagues do too.

“Every year, the Maine Department of Transportation says they need an extra $160 million just to keep up with basic maintenance,” said McLean. “The idea that the DOT has the money to take care of 109 miles of four-lane highway is not feasible, it’s not rational and it doesn’t make any economic sense.”

McLean said the turnpike authority is working well under Mills, a former Republican lawmaker, and Bruce Van Note, the authority’s director of policy and planning.

“If you go from mile 108 to mile 110 on Interstate 95, you can see a difference,” said McLean. “The difference is that the Maine Turnpike Authority handles up to mile marker 109 and mile 110 is where the DOT takes over … The condition of the road is not as good.”

LePage’s latest proposal sits on top of a mountain of bold proposals he’s made this year, ranging from re-inventing the public school administration structure and funding formula to revamping social service access rules. If the last four years of divided majorities in the House and Senate is any indicator, the MTA bill and many of his other initiatives are destined to go nowhere.

That will neither solve nor erase the problem of maintaining roads and bridges, especially as gas-powered vehicles slowly give way to vehicles powered by other means. Whatever the solution is, it’s going to hit motorists in their pocketbooks.

As Mills put it in an email to the Bangor Daily News: “As we are chauffeured around in our self-driving electric cars, texting — and even drinking and smoking dope — without violating the law, the demands on our streets and highways will likely be greater than ever.”

At the center of Gov. Paul LePage’s latest push to reform the state’s Medicaid program is the assertion that many of those who benefit from the health insurance program should help pay for it.

Hidden costs lurk in LePage plan to charge, penalize MaineCare recipients

At the center of Gov. Paul LePage’s latest push to reform the state’s Medicaid program is the assertion that many of those who benefit from the health insurance program should help pay for it.

Published May 18, 2017, at 11:33 a.m.     |    

Hidden costs lurk in LePage plan to charge, penalize MaineCare recipients

Posted May 18, 2017, at 11:33 a.m.

At the center of Gov. Paul LePage’s latest push to reform the state’s Medicaid program is the assertion that many of those who benefit from the health insurance program should help pay for it.

People with coverage through work pony up for monthly premiums, after all. And those with taxpayer-funded health insurance should face financial consequences if they miss doctor’s appointments or make expensive trips to the emergency room for minor ailments, the administration’s thinking goes.

But critics of the new proposal, which will require approval from the federal government, argue that even a small monthly premium is unaffordable for many who rely on the program for low-income Mainers. Patients can have legitimate reasons for failing to make medical appointments and resorting to the ER too often, they say.

These provisions, as part of the LePage administration’s broader proposal, drew several dozen people to a public hearing Wednesday at the Cross Insurance Center in Portland.

Charging monthly premiums

Under LePage’s plan, “able-bodied” adults on MaineCare would be charged between $14 and $66 per month in premiums, depending on their income. Those who don’t pay the premium would lose their coverage after a 60-day grace period. This is among the provisions that would “support a level of personal responsibility” among MaineCare beneficiaries, the administration wrote in its proposal.

In other states that charge such premiums, collecting the monthly payments from beneficiaries is costing more than the program brings in, Mitchell Stein, an independent health policy consultant, said at Wednesday’s hearing. For example, Arkansas spent $12 million last year to implement its premium program after collecting only $384,000 from members the previous year, he said.

Critics also argue that many people who are eligible for MaineCare can’t afford to pay monthly premiums, so they’ll get dropped from the program or won’t bother to apply in the first place. Without insurance, they’ll likely fail to get needed medical care, grow sicker and end up costing the health system more, according to research by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Penalties for unnecessary ER visits

The LePage administration also proposes to charge MaineCare recipients if they visit the emergency department unnecessarily. Emergency department visits are among the most expensive settings for treatment, and patients who frequent them are considered a major factor in rising health care costs in Maine and across the country.

DHHS already reduced payments to hospitals for non-emergency visits to emergency departments and has targeted the MaineCare members who use them the most for case management. Now MaineCare members need an incentive to seek out primary care or treatment in other settings, such as urgent care clinics, the administration argues.

DHHS wants to charge nearly all MaineCare beneficiaries who visit an emergency department but aren’t subsequently admitted to the hospital a $20 co-payment. Their bill also would break down the expenses associated with their emergency department visit to “provide information to members regarding the cost of their care to the taxpayers of Maine,” DHHS wrote in its proposal.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Peggy Marchand spoke against the emergency department penalty, describing how after the sudden death of her infant daughter decades ago, she took no chances in rushing herself and her other children to the hospital following various injuries.

“After 40 years of marriage and several rushed trips to the ER, our dying baby was the only family member ever to have been admitted to the hospital after an ER visit. … Who gets to decide what is and what is not an emergency?” Marchand, part of the Maine Health Care Is A Human Right Coalition, said.

Fees for missed appointments

Missed appointments are a significant problem for doctors, therapists and other providers who treat MaineCare patients, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the program.

“Not only is the provider denied payment. … But other MaineCare members, who could potentially have been seen in that time slot, miss an opportunity for care,” the department wrote in its reform proposal.

Some providers refuse to treat MaineCare patients for that reason, among others.

Under the plan, providers could charge MaineCare members for missed appointments, up to the amount that MaineCare would have reimbursed the provider for the service. That could easily run into the hundreds of dollars for many common health care services.

Opponents of the plan contend there are legitimate reasons for missing appointments. Many MaineCare members rely on state-provided transportation that several speakers at Wednesday’s hearing described as unreliable, while others may be too sick to travel or struggle to find child care.

Those three provisions are the “cost-sharing initiatives” within LePage’s proposal to further overhaul MaineCare. His administration also seeks to make MaineCare enrollees subject to work or service requirements and to impose a $5,000 asset limit.

If the federal government approves the proposal — DHHS is hoping for a green light in January 2018 — nearly all of the provisions would take effect within six months. The premium requirements would kick in on July 1, 2018.

The administration scheduled a second public hearing on the proposal for Thursday morning in Augusta.

 

Nursing student Courtney Wilson checks a patient's blood pressure under the watchful eye of nurse practitioner Gretchen Speed at the Greater Portland Health clinic on May 9.  Wilson is graduating this month from the University of New England's accelerated nursing program.

Maine doesn’t have enough nurses to care for people in their homes

Nursing often means caring for patients who are sicker than in years past, with more complex health problems, in a shorter amount of time.

Published May 18, 2017, at 5:57 a.m.     |    

Maine doesn’t have enough nurses to care for people in their homes

Posted May 18, 2017, at 5:57 a.m.
Last modified May 18, 2017, at 2:40 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Courtney Wilson and Josselyn Agura will graduate from nursing school Saturday, and already they’re worried about burning out from their chosen profession.

Nursing often means caring for patients who are sicker than in years past, with more complex health problems, in a shorter amount of time. Then there are the long hours on their feet and physical challenges of lifting and tending to patients.

But if Maine is to employ enough nurses to care for its aging population in the coming decades, it needs people like Wilson and Agura. Without action, the state will face a critical shortage of nurses by 2025, according to recent estimates.

Not only burnout threatens their ranks. Maine nurses are aging right along with the patients they treat — a coming wave of patients older than 65 will boost demand for nurses just as many are nearing retirement. In 2015, about a third of all registered nurses in Maine were age 55 or older, and younger workers who make up the biggest potential pool of new registered nurses are projected to drop by nearly 5 percent. Many nursing instructors, too, are approaching retirement age.

“What draws me to the profession and what I want to keep continuing with is developing a relationship that’s trusting and really getting to see the whole picture of each patient, as opposed to just what disease they’re being treated for,” Agura said.

That can prove a tall order in a hospital setting. So Agura and Wilson are taking a different tack in their nursing education, by getting clinical experience at Greater Portland Health’s community health centers during their final year of education at the University of New England. Rather than the pressure cooker environment of the ER or ICU, they’re focused on “community nursing” — primary care, preventing chronic diseases and ensuring patients stay or get healthy outside the walls of a hospital.

On a recent day at the Park Avenue clinic, Wilson stood in a narrow exam room, inflating a blood pressure cuff as patient Randy Cramm waited for the results.

“140 over 106,” Wilson said. That’s high. Cramm seemed unsurprised.

Then nurse practitioner Gretchen Speed stepped in, showing Wilson how to evaluate the swelling in Cramm’s legs. Speed suggested to Cramm that he get back on his medications and ordered some basic lab work.

This kind of nursing may not be as riveting as tending to a trauma patient in the emergency room, but Wilson values the ability to help people prevent or manage illness. For those who can’t avoid a hospital stay, community nurses are there to check in after patients are discharged, she said.

“You have to have people who can go out there and help people with their new medication regimens or diabetes education,” she said. “A little half-hour snippet about that when they’re being discharged, I mean they’re already stressed out. The hospital’s a stressful environment. We need more community nurses.”

Under the program, called Upstream and funded by a federal grant, Wilson and Agura spent about four weeks in Greater Portland Health’s clinics, which serve vulnerable populations including immigrants, refugees and the homeless. The students learn to scrounge up medical records and ask patients about their health histories, as well as help administer regular checkups and vaccinations.

They also learn how to communicate with patients and initiate sometimes difficult conversations. But seeing patients repeatedly over time allows for the building of a relationship that makes those conversations easier and ultimately improves their health, the women said.

After graduation, Wilson will head north to Bangor for a residency program at Eastern Maine Medical Center. Agura is still deciding where she’ll land next. Both recognize their transition to the working world may not be smooth, as they continue to learn on the job from seasoned nurses with less time and sometimes willingness to teach them.

“There’s a big learning curve,” Wilson said. “Some nurses are just there to work, and us being new students, we need that education and we want to be able to ask questions. The other staff may not as willing to teach us.”

“We know it’s hard to take on a new graduate and teach them,” Agura added.

Their coursework at UNE has included discussions about how to ease the transition, such as by learning how to identify stress triggers and either avoid or cope with them.

“If that’s five minutes alone in a stairwell, then that’s what it is,” Agura said.

Despite the challenges of the profession, both women see a future for themselves in community nursing.

“It’s such a huge part of nursing,” Agura said. “What’s happening when people leave the hospital?”

 

Alcide (left) and Benoit Giroux stand outside their sugar house in Big Six Township on Monday. They tap 80,000 trees each year but say they may have to close down if the landowner doesn't agree to a more fair contract.

Maine’s richest source of maple sugar faces uncertain future

“What other industry would put up with being threatened to have 25 percent of its output eliminated? Nobody would. There would be outcry everywhere.”

Published May 14, 2017, at 6 a.m.     |    

Maine’s richest source of maple sugar faces uncertain future

Posted May 14, 2017, at 6 a.m.
Last modified May 14, 2017, at 1:53 p.m.

BIG SIX TOWNSHIP, Maine — Benoit and Alcide Giroux are Quebecers, but because of the geographic oddity that is the largest American maple sugarbush, they’re third-generation Maine farmers.

In the 1950s, their grandfather started tapping trees in this Somerset County township, just across a one-lane St. John River bridge from Sainte-Aurelie, Quebec. Canadians living nearby have made maple syrup in this desolate corner of Maine for more than a century.

The brothers took over the family’s sugaring business in the 1980s, growing the operation from 2,000 taps to 82,000, producing around 350,000 pounds of syrup per year that fetches $2.25 per pound wholesale. Big Six is the largest U.S. sugarbush, comprising 340,000 taps and a quarter of Maine’s syrup production.

But it’s tied up with landowner Paul Fortin’s bottom line, which has created uncertainty about the heritage crop, leaving leaseholders and Maine’s maple industry to hover somewhere between eternal preservation and a devastating blow.

Big Six is expected to apply for an award under the Land for Maine’s Future program this year that would complete a deal giving Fortin a $5.7 million conservation easement, preserving the sugarbush and allowing access and recreational activities on more than 23,000 acres.

If the Madison businessman doesn’t get it by 2018’s end, the 20-year leases signed this year by producers can be terminated. The sugarbush could be cut. And a way of life that sustained generations of cross-border tenant farmers would likely perish.

The Girouxs are mostly ambivalent about the easement. Their concerns are more immediate.

After generations of easy relationships with landowners, the new leases raised the price that operators pay Fortin per tap from about 63 cents to $1.25. The Girouxs argue that they were boxed into signing because of their long-term investment there — a sugarhouse, cabins, pumping stations and other infrastructure.

Benoit, 57, of Saint-Prosper, Quebec, said he chose to speak to a reporter because he’d rather see his operation “die right now” in a conflict with Fortin “than die slowly” because of high costs. Fortin dismisses the Girouxs as difficult partners who snubbed chances to negotiate and said they’re the only unhappy producers.

Past threats by Fortin to cut the trees have led to the easement push. That and the leases — seen as high by neutral observers — illustrate his leverage over Maine’s maple industry. It has led to wide support for the easement, even if his tactics haven’t.

“What other industry would put up with being threatened to have 25 percent of its output eliminated? Nobody would. There would be outcry everywhere,” said Kathryn Hopkins, a maple expert at the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension. “And that’s what this situation is. Maine needs that production.”

The landscape changes

The Big Six Forest’s 340,000 maple taps are managed by eight leaseholders who belong to a Quebec cooperative that told the state in 2013 that it produced 90 percent of Maine’s maple syrup. The industry is centered near the international border in Somerset County, where Quebecers live closer to the trees than most Mainers.

They’re attracted to Maine because while Quebec makes more than 70 percent of the world’s syrup and controls world pricing, its industry is controlled by a government-sanctioned cartel that limits syrup sales to keep prices artificially high.

In the U.S., producers can sell all of what they produce. At Big Six, most is shipped to Vermont and New Hampshire. The Girouxs sell to Bascom, a New Hampshire wholesaler.

Fortin bought the land in 2012 from Timbervest, LLC. A company his family controls took out a $6.3 million mortgage alongside a real estate company controlled by two Quebec businessmen who are partners with Fortin in other Maine holdings.

The maple industry wasn’t on Fortin’s mind. He said he “bought the land to cut the wood.” But this came after a task force convened by the Maine Legislature released a 2011 report saying the maple industry should be expanded and better promoted, especially given Quebec’s quotas.

Gov. Paul LePage’s administration and the maple industry caught wind of Fortin’s plans to cut the sugarbush and urged against it. The state’s intervention led Fortin to nix the plans, a decision that he says cost him millions of dollars. If he “moved the feller bunchers in to cut that 4,000 acres” of sugarbush, he said, “all hell would have broken out.”

So, he set out to win a conservation easement with help from the Trust for Public Lands, a national conservation group that helped him broker a 2012 deal with the state to preserve 5,700 acres around Seboeis Lake near Millinocket.

In 2014, he gained $3.5 million from the federal Forest Legacy Program with wide support. The Land for Maine’s Future award would supplement the Forest Legacy money and could complete the easement for Fortin.

The LePage administration also supports the project, which has attracted attention since Fortin has donated to the governor’s political action committee and his 2014 re-election campaign. However, LePage backed the Forest Legacy award before then.

But Rep. Russell Black, R-Wilton, a logger and syrup producer who chaired the 2011 task force, said even though he supports the project, he “walked away” from aiding the Forest Legacy piece for a year because of Fortin’s “threats” to cut the trees and lack of assurance that they’d stay.

“He’s not the nicest person to do business with,” said Black, who nevertheless supports the award to maintain Maine’s maple capacity. “He’s a shrewd businessman.”

‘It’s their land and we can’t do anything’

Fortin’s ownership has triggered a culture change for the landowners. Until the 1990s, the land was owned by International Paper and the Girouxs said there were few problems.

The Timbervest contract with the cooperative — which charged just over 63 cents per tap in production — expired in April 2015. After an impasse, the terms of that contract were extended for the next maple season.

Before this maple season, Fortin wanted more. He said he arrived at the final per-tap price of $1.25 after looking at nearby leases and analyzing the value of the wood and sap.

Rheaume Rodrigue, a Big Six producer whose son, Bernard, is the president of the co-op, said while members “would like to have a better contract than that,” the terms still allow producers to make money.

“It’s OK,” he said. “It’s their land and we can’t do anything.”

The Girouxs signed the deal, but Fortin and Rodrigue said the brothers were the only members who didn’t attend meetings. Fortin said while other producers were “somewhat happy” with the deal, Benoit Giroux has tried to “throw a monkeywrench” into it.

Benoit Giroux called the deal “a one-way contract” that diminishes his ability to invest more in the operation. U.S. tax records provided by the brothers show they made a gross total $725,000 on syrup in 2016 under old lease terms, but split just over $330,000 in profit.

It’s a high-cost operation: The electricity grid doesn’t reach Big Six, so generators run everything and the Girouxs spent more than $40,000 on fuel alone last year to run their equipment.

Bill Jarvis, a forest manager who handles 10 maple leases comprising more than 200,000 taps on the Hilton Timberlands in Jackman, said per-tap prices there are confidential, but they’re less than state leases at nearby Sandy Bay Township, which run between 50 and 66 cents per tap.

Jarvis called Big Six an example of “short-term greed” on Fortin’s part and questioned whether he’d cut the trees, saying while Fortin may do better in the short term to harvest the maple trees than to lease them, Big Six would quickly pay off because of the per-tap prices that he called “too high” at the rural outpost.

“I manage land and I harvest timber all the time and I can tell you it just doesn’t make any sense any way, shape or form,” he said. “It’s solely — I don’t want to use the word, but it’s almost like extortion.”

But Black said the conservation project is still a valuable one, seeing just “one way forward” for Maine’s maple industry: Give Fortin the easement and “fight the next battle with him” if production is endangered by future conflict between the landowner and leaseholders.

Fortin said without the easement, he would have to consider cutting the trees. “I’ve got to make the payments” on the mortgage, he said, adding that his long-term plan is to pass it to his sons.

They may hold hope for Maine’s maple industry: He said they’re considering someday building a bottling plant for Big Six producers on the U.S. Route 201 corridor between Skowhegan and Moscow. That would keep more Maine syrup in Maine, but nothing’s certain.

“The younger half of the family is interested in that, not the older half,” he said. “No, I’m in the woods business and I’m getting long in the tooth for that.”