New Report Tracks Trends in State Financial Aid Programs Enacted by Legislatures

. November 28, 2014

The Education Commission of the States (ECS), a nonpartisan organization created by the states that tracks education policy, recently released a report examining the types of financial aid programs enacted by state legislatures during the 2013 and 2014 sessions.  ECS found that major trends included (1) changes to need and merit-based programs, (2) linkage of financial aid programs and workforce demands, and (3) creation of two- to four-year transfer student pathways.


The report also focused on states that passed laws creating commissions to examine college affordability, as well as those enacting programs related to loan repayment assistance or forgiveness.  It concludes with predictions for legislative financial aid policy issues in upcoming sessions.
For more information, read the report at:


http://www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/01/15/62/11562.pdf

Geoengineering to Counter Climate Change


The New York Times reports on a possible solution to global warming: olivine, a green-tinted mineral that naturally removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere when exposed to the elements. Dr. Olaf Schuiling, a retired geochemist, suggests that people could speed up the removal process by spreading olivine, which is found throughout the world, on fields, beaches, and other places. By spreading large quantities of olivine around, Dr. Schuiling believes we could remove enough carbon dioxide to slow the rise in temperatures that climate change causes, although it may take decades to see an impact. This is an example of geoengineering, intentionally manipulating nature, which scientists are currently considering. According to the article, the National Academy of Sciences is expected to publish a report on geoengineering later this year.


Click here to read the full New York Times article.

Tips to Avoid Home Fires During Winter Months

. November 26, 2014

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) have teamed up to “Put a Freeze on Winter Fires.”  The NFPA and USFA are working together to inform the public about ways to keep the public fire-safe this winter.  They are targeting home heating and cooking, which are the leading causes of home fires, particularly during winter months.


According to a recent NFPA report, in 2010, heating equipment was involved in 57,100 reported U.S. structure fires, with associated losses of 490 civilian deaths, 1,530 civilian injuries, and $1.1 billion in property damage.


NFPA and USFA recommend these safety tips:

  1. stay in the kitchen when frying, grilling, or broiling food;
  2. if leaving the kitchen, even for a short time, turn off the stove;
  3. keep anything that can burn at least three feet away from space heaters;
  4. check electrical cords and replace damaged ones;
  5. do not use an oven or stovetop to heat the home;
  6. do not put a Christmas tree up too early and take it down before it dries out;
  7. use “flameless” candles; and
  8. only use fire-safe cigarettes and smoke outside.
For more information, go to:
 

Slight Decrease in Household Food Insecurity

According to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service, the percentage of American households that experienced food insecurity declined slightly from 2011 (14.9%) to 2013 (14.3%). During the same period, the number of households that experienced very low food security remained essentially the same (5.7% in 2011 and 5.6% in 2013). The report defines households with (1) “food insecurity” as those in which “access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources” and (2) “very low food security” as those in which “the food intake of one or more household members was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food.”  The chart below shows how these statistics have changed since 2000.

According to the report, the prevalence of (1) food insecurity ranged from 8.7% (North Dakota) to 21.2% (Arkansas) and (2) very low food security ranged from 3.1% (North Dakota) to 8.4% (Arkansas). For 2013, 13.4% of Connecticut’s population experienced food insecurity and 5.0% were, at times, very food insecure.

In a related USDA blog post, one of the researchers noted that households with children generally have higher rates of food insecurity than those without children. “Most parents try to protect their children from food insecurity to the extent they can. So in about half of these food-insecure households [with children], only adults were food insecure.” In 2013, approximately 0.9% of households with children (360,000 households) faced such severe food insecurity that the children had to skip a meal, go hungry, or not eat for a whole day because they had insufficient food.
Click here to read the full report.

IRS Increases 2015 Pension Plan Contribution Limits

. November 25, 2014

The IRS recently announced increases in annual contribution limits for certain retirement savings accounts for tax year 2015.  According to the IRS announcement, the 2015 adjustments are triggered by the cost-of-living index.


Per the IRS announcement, the contribution limits increased for employees who participate in plans such as:

  • 401(k) plans,
  • 403(b) plans,
  • most 457 plans, and
  • the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan.
The elective contribution limit in these plans increased from $17,500 to $18,000 per year.  The catch-up contribution limit for employees aged 50 and over increased from $5,500 to $6,000 per year.


According to the IRS announcement, not all pension plans will see a cost-of-living adjustment in the annual contribution limits.  For example, for tax year 2015, the annual contribution limit for an Individual Retirement Arrangement (IRA) remains unchanged at $5,500. The additional catch-up contribution limit for an IRA for individuals aged 50 and over will also remain unchanged at $1,000 per year.


See the IRS’s full list of 2015 pension plan adjustments at:
http://www.irs.gov/uac/Newsroom/IRS-Announces-2015-Pension-Plan-Limitations;-Taxpayers-May-Contribute-up-to-%2418,000-to-their-401(k)-plans-in-2015

New Report: Small Business Express Program

OLR Report 2014-R-0258 provides an overview of and data on the Small Business Express (SBE) program.

The legislature created SBE within the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) in 2011 (Public Act 11-1, October Special Session). According to DECD, SBE assists small businesses by providing access to capital, supporting job creation, increasing skill development, and encouraging private investment.


To be eligible for SBE financial assistance, a business must: (1) employ no more than 100 employees on at least half the working days in the previous 12 months, (2) operate in Connecticut, (3) have been registered to conduct business in Connecticut for at least 12 months, and (4) be in good standing with the payment of all state and local taxes (CGS § 32-7g).


For more information, read the full report.

Lake-Effect Snow vs. Sound-Effect Snow?

Buffalo, New York is digging out from its most recent snowstorm, which dumped up to seven feet of snow in parts of the city. Buffalo is prone to high volume snowstorms, often the victim of lake-effect weather.


The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration describes how lake-effect snow occurs:

  1. cold air masses move over warmer lake waters;
  2. the warm lake water heats the bottom air layer, causing lake  moisture to evaporate into the cold air;
  3. the evaporated moisture rises, cools, condenses, and forms clouds;
  4. snow falls!
Lake-effect snow is most common and heaviest in the Great Lakes region, but it can occur downwind from other large water bodies if the water is free of ice. This includes Long Island Sound, albeit not often.


According to the National Weather Service, reported in a CTNews blog, although the air around the Sound can be cold enough, the area of open water is not long enough for the air to blow over and pick up the moisture needed to produce significant ‘Sound-Effect’ snow. (The longest area over Long Island Sound is 75 miles, whereas over Lake Erie it is 220 miles and over Lake Ontario it is 170 miles.)

Tips for Protecting Your Data When Internet Shopping

. November 24, 2014

According to a USA Today article citing retail data from Adobe Systems, 2013 Cyber Monday sales reached a record $2.29 billion, a 16% increase from the year before. (Cyber Monday is the first full workday after Thanksgiving.)


The article cites several reasons for the increase in online shopping, including (1) convenience, (2) an increase in online promotions, and (3) the rise in mobile device users.


To help consumers with online shopping, the Connecticut Attorney General’s Office provides several tips, including:

  1. making sure the online company lists its name, address, country where it is based, and contact information;
  2. looking for easily accessible, clear, and accurate information about the products;
  3. understanding the sale’s terms, conditions, and costs;
  4. ensuring the electronic transaction is secure;
  5. shopping with vendors that protect shoppers’ personal data; and
  6. understanding customer satisfaction and return procedures.

Can Brain Training Video Games Delay Mental Decline?

The answer is unclear, according to a recent article from The New York Times Magazine. The article notes that Americans spend an estimated $1.3 billion on these games annually, while “nearly all neuroscientists agree there’s very little evidence yet that these games counter the mental deficits that come with getting older.”  However, some games may hold promise.


Among other things, the article discusses the work of Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a neurology professor who has studied the effects of games on mental abilities.  His research lends support to the idea that games requiring the use of several abilities simultaneously may increase brain function generally (and not just train users to be better at the game). 

But the article notes that Gazzaley is “reflexively cautious” about his findings.  According to the article, the published research in this area “is a grab bag of contradictory findings.”


This issue is not without controversy.  A group of scientists recently issued “a withering statement denouncing the hype by both companies and media” as to claims promoting these games.  The article notes that “Gazzaley himself signed the letter, though he pushed the group to use less pessimistic rhetoric.”


For more, read the full article here.

Minimum Wage Goes 5 For 5 in Ballot Measures

. November 21, 2014

Voters in five states approved minimum wage ballot measures earlier this month. This means that the minimum wage will increase in four of the five states, according to NCSL and various news sources. In the fifth, Illinois, the ballot question was only advisory and still requires the Illinois General Assembly to act in order to change the law.

Here are brief descriptions of the proposed increases:

State
Brief Description
Alaska
Proposed a two-step increase to the minimum wage: to $8.75 effective Jan. 1, 2015 and to $9.75 effective Jan. 1, 2016.
Arkansas
Proposed a three-step increase to the minimum wage: to $7.50 effective Jan. 1, 2015, to $8 effective Jan. 1, 2016, and to $8.50 effective Jan. 1, 2017.
Illinois
An advisory question that asked voters whether they supported increasing the minimum wage to $10 by Jan. 1, 2015.
Nebraska
Proposed a two-step increase in the minimum wage: to $8 effective Jan. 1, 2015 and to $9 effective Jan. 1, 2016.
South Dakota
Proposed an increase in the minimum wage to $8.50 effective Jan. 1, 2015.


For more details and links to the ballot measures, see NCSL’s website

Public Hearing on Possible Additional Qualifying Medical Conditions for Medical Marijuana Use

On November 26, the Department of Consumer Protection (DCP) will hold a public hearing on petitions to add four conditions to those that qualify for medical marijuana use.  The hearing will consider the following conditions:
  • sickle cell disease,
  • Tourette’s disorder,
  • post laminectomy syndrome with chronic radiculopathy (sometimes referred to as failed back surgery syndrome), and 
  • severe psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis.

Connecticut’s medical marijuana law allows doctors to certify an adult patient’s use of marijuana for certain debilitating medical conditions, under specified procedures.  The law lists 11 qualifying conditions and allows DCP to add other conditions through regulations.
 
The law also required DCP to establish a Board of Physicians who are knowledgeable about medical marijuana use. Among other duties, the board must conduct public hearings and evaluate petitions seeking to add medical conditions to the list of those that qualify for marijuana use.  The board can also recommend adding conditions on its own initiative (it has not done so thus far).  The November 26 hearing will be the first such hearing to assess public petitions.

By regulation, after the hearing, the board must make a written recommendation to the DCP commissioner as to whether to add the condition to the list of qualifying conditions. A majority of board members present at the hearing must concur in the recommendation. The decision on whether to add the condition to the list rests with the commissioner, subject to legislative approval.
 
Currently, the qualifying conditions include cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord with objective neurological indication of intractable spasticity, epilepsy, cachexia, wasting syndrome, Crohn’s disease, and posttraumatic stress disorder.

Detailed information about Connecticut’s medical marijuana program is available on DCP’s website.

Survey of Street Youth Suggests They Need Help Meeting Basic Needs

. November 20, 2014

In a recent study commissioned by the federal Department of Health and Human Services’ Family & Youth Services Bureau, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln surveyed street youth in 11 American cities to gather information on their service utilization and needs.  The survey found, with regard to the surveyed population, that:
  • 51.2% initially became homeless because they were asked by a parent or caregiver to leave home;
  • 29.5% had the option of returning home;
  • 60.8% had been sexually assaulted or raped, beaten up, assaulted or threatened with a weapon, or robbed;
  • 20% identified as bisexual, 9.9% as gay or lesbian, and 6.8% as transgender;
  • 61.8% struggled with depression;
  • 79.5% experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress for more than one month;
  • 51.6% agreed to be sexual with someone in exchange for money or a place to spend the night; and
  • 51.8% slept or rested outside on a street, in a park, or on a bench.
With regard to service needs, the surveyed youth most needed help meeting basic needs, including safe shelter, education, transportation, clothing, and laundry facilities.  The study suggests that street youth would benefit from:
  • a larger investment in emergency shelters and family reunification programs;
  • intensive case management services, including careful screening and assessment, treatment planning, and crisis counseling; and
  • intensive interventions and supports, especially for the many youth who have experienced trauma.

New Report: Paint Recycling Program

OLR Report 2014-R-0264 describes the state’s paint recycling program created by Public Act (PA) 11-24.  The report also answers the following questions:  how much money has the program collected, how is the money used, and why did the legislature decide to create the program?

Connecticut’s paint recycling program provides consumers and businesses with a way to manage unused architectural paint. Administered by a non-profit organization called PaintCare, the program collects, transports, and processes the unused paint. The program is funded by an assessment (i.e., fee) added to the purchase price of paint sold in the state. Paint retailers serve as the primary collection locations.

For more information, read the full report.

Do Increases in Tax Revenue Signal a Reviving Economy?

photo: Maui Now
Maybe, according to a recent state-by-state analysis of the state and local taxes businesses paid in FY 13.  The analysis, prepared by Ernst and Young for the Council on State Taxation (COST), found that overall, state and local business taxes increased 4.3% from the prior year, suggesting “relatively broad, yet still gradual, economic recovery.”  State and local business tax revenue increased 1.1% in Connecticut.

In absolute terms, nationally businesses paid close to $671 billion in state and local taxes in FY 13, constituting 4.7% of private sector gross state product (GSP).  They paid $7.6 billion in Connecticut state and local taxes, about 3.4% of private sector GSP.
Hmmm . . . Although businesses are helping to fill tax coffers, they “continue to pay more in state and local taxes than they receive in benefits on average,” Ernst and Young stated. “On average, businesses paid $3.26 for every dollar of government spending benefiting business, assuming that education spending does not benefit local businesses,” the report stated. If one assumes that half the education spending benefits such businesses, businesses still wind up “paying 20% more in taxes than the cost of state and local government spending benefiting business.” (In this study, the authors assigned health and human services benefits entirely to households and split police, fire, and highway infrastructure costs between households and businesses.)

According to COST president and executive director Douglas Lindholm, the study “allows policymakers to evaluate state and local business tax burdens beyond corporate income taxes, and provides a truer picture of business tax burdens than commonly perceived,” he stated.  
Here are some of the study’s key findings:
  • Property tax revenues picked up 3.7% in FY 2013, after three straight years of growth rates below 1%. The property tax is still the largest state and local tax businesses pay, accounting for $242 billion or 36% of the total business tax contribution.  Connecticut businesses paid $2.3 billion in property taxes, 30% of total business taxes.
  • State sales taxes on the goods and services businesses buy and the capital investments they make increased 3.8% while comparable local taxes remained flat. State and local sales taxes combined totaled almost $140 billion, almost 21% of total state and local business taxes. Connecticut businesses paid $1.4 billion in sales taxes, about 18% of total business taxes.
  • State and local corporate income tax collections totaled $53 billion or 7.9% of the total business tax contribution. Connecticut businesses paid about $600 million in corporation business taxes, about 8% of total business taxes.
  • Personal income taxes on pass-through business income totaled $36 billion, marking a 13% increase over FY 12. In Connecticut, pass-through businesses generated about $900 million in personal income taxes, almost 12% of total business taxes.

Incorporating Play into Urban Landscapes

. November 19, 2014

photo: KaBOOM!
KaBOOM! — a nonprofit dedicated to bringing play to children —released a report urging cities to consider building play into their landscapes. The idea is that by putting play opportunities where people have idle time, such as waiting for the bus, it will be much easier for children to get the amount of play they need without having a parent bring them to a playground.

KaBOOM!, with behavioral economics research organization ideas42, identified the decision-making process that occurs when an adult thinks about bringing a child to a playground. There were three potential psychological barriers to play: parents and other caregivers may not even think about play, there is unclear feedback on different types of play activities, and the process of getting ready to leave the home to play may be difficult.

The report argues that these barriers can be sidestepped when play opportunities are easily available and built into the landscape, such as swings at a bus stop or a mini-playground on the corner.

Falls an Increasing Problem Among Seniors

According to a recent New York Times article, an aging population coupled with an increase in people living with chronic health conditions has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of seniors who fall and suffer serious, sometimes fatal, injuries.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 24,000 seniors died after a fall in 2012, almost twice the number of such deaths in 2002. In 2012, more than 2.4 million seniors were treated in emergency departments for fall-related injuries, representing a 50% increase in the last decade.

Likewise, the article notes a parallel increase in the rates of diseases linked to falls, such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke, arthritis, and Parkinson’s disease.
This presents a challenge for long-term care facilities, who must balance residents’ safety with their desire to live autonomously. Some facilities have taken measures such as:

  • installing floor lighting that automatically turns on when a resident gets out of bed;
  • requiring facility architects and designers to wear tinted glasses to see rooms as a senior might;
  • consistently measuring bed and toilet heights to determine a resident’s need for grab bars;
  • installing energy-absorbing flooring in bathrooms to lessen the impact of a fall;
  • adding accent stripes on stairs so residents can clearly see the line in between each step; and
  • conducting fall education programs and safety fairs.
The article notes that Medicare will not pay to treat an injury resulting from a hospital fall. Some health policy experts suggest that the agency extend this policy to nursing homes. In many states, if a nursing home is found responsible for a resident’s fall, it must pay the state a fine. 

The Link Between Sofas and SIDS

. November 18, 2014

According to a study recently published in Pediatrics, “sleeping on sofas increases the risk of sudden infant death syndrome [SIDS] and other sleep-related deaths.” Researchers sought to shed light on the environmental and situational factors that make sofa sleeping so risky for infants.

The researchers analyzed data on infant sleep-related deaths from 24 states for 2004 to 2012 and found that the following factors made sofa sleeping particularly hazardous for infants:
  • An infant sleeping on a sofa is often sharing the surface with a parent or caregiver. “Sharing a sofa with an infant is becoming increasingly common in some countries and may be done to calm or feed the infant, and the parent may inadvertently or intentionally fall asleep with the infant.” According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), surface sharing is a risk factor for infant sleep-related death.
  • Researchers cited a previous study’s findings that “sleeping with an infant on a sofa was 79% more likely if the mother was a smoker.”  Prenatal and infant exposure to cigarette smoke are also risk factors for sleep-related death.
  • In cases of sofa-related SIDS deaths, infants are more often found on their sides or prone (i.e., lying on their stomachs), as opposed to the supine position (i.e., lying on their backs).  The AAP recommends that infants be placed to sleep on their backs.
Researchers noted the importance of educating parents and caregivers about safe sleep recommendations and the dangers of using a sofa as a sleep surface for an infant.
 
The AAP has guidelines for a safe infant sleeping environment

New Report: Dangerous Weapons

OLR Report 2014-R-0266 answers the question: What laws govern possession and carrying of dangerous weapons in Connecticut?

State law prohibits the possession of dangerous weapons by most people. The only people authorized to carry all of the prohibited weapons are peace officers, and they may carry them only in pursuit of their official duties.

Other exemptions apply to security officers, who may carry batons or night sticks when pursuing their official duties; martial arts students or instructors, who may carry martial arts weapons while in classes or at authorized events or while transporting the weapons to and from such places; and participants attending or returning from authorized Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts events or competitions, who may possess BB guns. The law also contains limited exceptions for long knives.

For more information, read the full report.

Decoration or Distraction? Study Finds Less Is More on Kindergarten Walls

The Hechinger Report recently highlighted a Carnegie Mellon University study published May 2014 in Psychological Science.  This first-of-its-kind study attempted to measure whether classroom decorations affect kindergarteners’ learning. 

Photo credit: Flickr user striatic
Researchers observed 24 kindergarten students who were taught in two different classrooms.  One room had commercial decorations and children’s artwork on the walls, while the other had nothing.  Students were observed during lessons where teachers read to them in five- to seven-minute periods about the Solar System, bugs, and plate tectonics. 
Researchers observed 24 kindergarten students who were taught in two different classrooms.  One room had commercial decorations and children’s artwork on the walls, while the other had nothing.  Students were observed during lessons where teachers read to them in five- to seven-minute periods about the Solar System, bugs, and plate tectonics. 
During the lessons, researchers noted how often the students focused on the teacher versus being distracted by themselves, others, or the visual environment.  The kindergarteners took multiple-choice picture tests after the lesson in both classrooms. 

Findings revealed that kindergarteners taught in a “highly decorated” classroom scored lower on tests and were more distracted during lessons than those taught in a room with bare walls.  Admittedly, even in the sparse classroom students were distracted by other students or themselves.  However, in the decorated classroom, the study found that children were more likely to be distracted by the visual environment and spent much more time “off task.”

The Carnegie Mellon team is now observing children in kindergarten through fourth grade to test the hypothesis that students in the upper grades are less distracted by decorations, since concentration improves with age.  The study’s lead author, a psychology professor, admits that further research on the kindergarten results is needed due to the study’s small size and controlled setting.

Investment in Electricity Distribution System Increases

. November 17, 2014

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), U.S. investor-owned utilities increased their annual investments in their electric distribution systems from about $13 billion in 1994 to a peak of $20 billion in 2012.  In general, the electric distribution system consists of the street level power lines, substations, and transformers (as opposed to the electric transmission system, which brings power from power plants to substations on high voltage lines).

EIA reports that much of the increased spending was related to making the distribution system more resistant to weather-related outages by (1) burying power lines, (2) updating equipment, (3) installing smart grid technologies like automated circuit breakers and feeder switches, and (4) increasing standby equipment.  From 1998 through 2008, spending on underground lines equaled spending on overhead lines because underground facilities were installed in almost all new residential and commercial developments and many critical overhead lines were moved underground.

Which Hurts Your Credit Score More-A Missed Mortgage Payment or Foreclosure?

A working paper from the Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank reaches a surprising conclusion.  Using individual data from a credit bureau and mortgage loan data, the author “debunks the common perception that ‘foreclosure will ruin your credit.’”

The author concludes that:
  1. the first missed mortgage payment causes the biggest reduction in a person’s credit score,
  2. later payment problems cause smaller credit score reductions, and
  3. foreclosure has a minimal effect (by this time, a person’s credit score has already fallen substantially).
The author also found that “credit scores improve substantially a year after borrowers experience 90-day delinquency or foreclosure.”  The author believes this may be due to borrowers’ financial ability to rebuild their credit when they no longer have mortgage payments to make.

Read the full working paper here.

Proposed Accounting Rule Could Shed More Light on the Costs of State and Local Tax Abatement Programs

. November 14, 2014

State and local governments often use tax incentive programs to promote business, stimulate job growth, and develop blighted areas, but according to the nonprofit General Accounting Standards Board, there is currently no way to discern a program’s effect on the financial health of state and local governments from their financial statements. Consequently, GASB recently issued for public comment proposed rules that require state and local governments to disclose information about property and other tax abatement agreements.

GASB believes that adhering to the proposed rules would help interested parties understand how tax incentive programs affect the government’s future ability to raise resources and meet financial obligations. The public comment period ends January 30, 2015. Under the proposed rules, state and local governments would include the following information in the notes to their financial statements:
  • descriptive information, including
    • each tax abatement program’s purpose,
    • the abated taxes,
    • recipient or project eligibility criteria
    • the mechanisms for abating the tax,
    • the recipients’ commitments,
    • and the conditions under which recipients must repay abated taxes (“clawbacks”);
  • the number of abatement agreements the government has entered into; and
  • the amount tax revenues that was forgone or were reduced under the abatement agreements.
GASB’s chair discusses the proposed rule in this short video.
GASB is an independent, nonprofit organization that develops standards of accounting and financial reporting for state and local governments. But its standards do not have the force of law, and GASB has no enforcement authority. Some states though have enacting laws incorporating GASB standards and enforce them through the audit process, when auditors render opinions on the fairness of financial statements.

The Trends and Implications of Aging Prisoners

The percentage of inmates over age 50 in California state prisons has more than doubled, to approximately 21%, in just over 10 years, according to a November 2014 Governing Magazine article.  The article attributes this trend to (1) an aging prison population and (2) a 2011 prison system realignment that sent lower level and typically younger offenders to county jails.  Over the past few decades, federal and state prison populations have also increased dramatically, with a demographic shift to older prisoners, the article stated.

A recent Urban Institute analysis, which the article cites, looked at the trends and implications of aging prisoners in the largest correction system in the United States—the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The aging trend is most prominent among older female prisoners, violent and property crime convicts, and non-Hispanic white prisoners.

The analysis points out that older prisoners require special attention that tends to drive up operational costs. Many suffer from diabetes, heart failure or other chronic diseases, and are often vulnerable to victimization.   To address this predicament, the Urban Institute recommends policy and research that includes:
  • identifying the age at which older prisoners pose minimal risk of recidivism and can be more cost-effectively managed through noncustodial means;
  • expanding data-driven knowledge on older prisoners, including estimates for the operating costs of incarceration; 
  • monitoring of older prisoners’ population growth; and
  • developing cost-management plans for aging prisoners.
The proportion of prisoners age 50 and older is projected to increase at a fast rate and could make up nearly 28% of the prison population by 2019, according to the analysis. OLR Report 2013-R-0166 provides examples of initiatives to cope with the aging prison population in California, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington.  Connecticut law allows the release of inmates with serious medical conditions, including age-related illnesses, under certain circumstances (see OLR Report 2014-R-0213).

Gender Reassignment Surgery May be Covered Service

. November 13, 2014

Aetna Inc. announced that the health plans it offers to federal workers for 2015 will provide coverage for gender reassignment surgery, as reported by The Hartford Courant. According to the article, sex change operations are being covered more often in recent years as a medically necessary service for people with “gender dysphoria,” a condition in which a person is intensely uncomfortable with his or her biological gender and strongly identifies with, and wants to be, the opposite gender.

Connecticut’s Insurance Department issued a bulletin on December 19, 2013 advising insurers that discrimination against a person based on his or her gender identity or expression is prohibited, and the prohibition extends to health insurance coverage. In the bulletin, the department describes Connecticut’s statutes on (1) mental health parity in insurance coverage and (2) antidiscrimination for gender identity or expression. It directed all health insurers to review their policy documents and claim practices to ensure that people with gender dysphoria are not denied access to medically necessary care based on their gender identity or expression.

Connecticut About to Issue First Green Bonds

Starting this month, the Connecticut State Treasurer will begin issuing Green Bonds tailored to meet the needs of investors who must invest in environmentally friendly projects.   

The bonds will provide $60 million to finance wastewater infrastructure projects through the state’s Clean Water Program, which provides grants and loans to municipalities undertaking such projects. The state’s Green Bonds will be part of a larger $300 million general obligation bond issuance.

Green Bonds began in 2008 as a way for the World Bank to mitigate climate change or help people adapt to it. Some of the projects the bank finances include (1) solar and wind installations, (2) reducing greenhouse gas emissions, (3) reforestation, and (4) flood protection.

Conflicting Studies on Medicaid Expansion and ER Visits

. November 12, 2014

When states expand Medicaid coverage to previously uninsured populations, as Connecticut did in 2010, the fiscal implications may be difficult to predict. One big question: would Medicaid expansion increase costly emergency room visits over the long term or would those visits decrease over time as Medicaid recipients gained access to primary care providers?

Two studies, described in this Kaiser Health News story, provide two different answers. One study, recently released by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, used data from California Medicaid recipients, and found that, among those with the highest pent-up demand, ER visits did increase in the first year, but then dropped in the second year. In contrast, the other study, the Oregon Health Insurance Experiment, which was done in 2008, found that Medicaid coverage resulted in a 40% increase in ER visits in the 18 months after expansion, with no evidence of ER use declining over that period.

For information on ER use and its impact on Connecticut’s Medicaid budget, see the Office of Program Review and Investigations 2013 study on this topic.

New Report: Connecticut DUI Law

OLR Report 2014-R-0251 describes Connecticut laws on driving under the influence (DUI) and related offenses? This report updates OLR Report 2012-R-0279.

Connecticut's DUI law consists primarily of two statutes, CGS §§ 14-227a and -227b. The first prohibits a person from driving (1) while “under the influence” of alcohol or drugs or (2) with an “elevated” blood alcohol content (BAC). A person is under the influence if his ability to drive is affected to an appreciable degree. The maximum allowable BAC depends on the driver's age and the type of vehicle he or she is operating.

Drivers over age 21 have an elevated BAC if it is found to be .08% or more. Drivers operating a commercial motor vehicle (e.g., a large truck) have an elevated BAC if it is .04% or more. Under CGS § 14-227g, people younger than 21 have an elevated BAC if it is found to be .02% or more. The law specifies evidence admissibility criteria for alcohol and drug tests.

Connecticut law provides for a Pretrial Alcohol Education Program under which certain eligible offenders charged with DUI may successfully complete an alcohol intervention or substance abuse treatment program, as appropriate, and have the DUI charges dismissed (CGS § 54-56g).

All drivers convicted of DUI face fines and prison terms. In addition, penalties for first- and second-time offenders include a 45-day license suspension and ignition interlock restrictions. Third-time and subsequent offenders face license revocation and ignition interlock restrictions if a license is eventually reinstated (see Table 1 in the report). An ignition interlock device (IID) prevents a driver from operating a vehicle if his or her BAC is above a certain threshold.

Under the second statute, CGS § 14-227b, motorists implicitly consent to be tested for drugs or alcohol when they drive. The law establishes administrative license suspension procedures for drivers who refuse to submit to a test or whose test results indicate an elevated BAC. (These provisions are called “implied consent” and “administrative per se,” respectively.) Starting July 1, 2015, the law reduces the license suspension period to 45 days for all per se violations and requires people to drive only ignition interlock equipped vehicles for specified periods after this suspension ends (see Table 4 in the report).

The law also requires use of an IID for two years following the mandatory one-year license suspension following conviction for 2nd degree manslaughter with a motor vehicle (CGS § 53a-56b) or 2nd degree assault with a motor vehicle (CGS § 53a-60d). These crimes apply to drivers who cause the death or serious injury of another person, respectively, while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The court may also order an individual arrested for DUI, 2nd degree manslaughter with a motor vehicle, or 2nd degree assault with a motor vehicle to operate only motor vehicles equipped with IIDs as a condition of (1) release on bail, (2) probation, or (3) granting his or her application to take part in the Pretrial Alcohol Education Program (CGS § 14-227j(b)).

Someone who holds a commercial driver's license (CDL) faces disqualification from driving a commercial motor vehicle for one year if he or she is found to have: (1) a BAC of .04% or more while driving a commercial vehicle, (2) a BAC of .08% or more while driving any other type of vehicle, (3) refused a BAC test when driving any motor vehicle, or (4) been convicted of DUI. CDL holders who commit two or more of certain offenses, including DUI, face a lifetime ban on driving commercial motor vehicles, but may get their license back if they meet certain conditions.

Police must impound for 48 hours the motor vehicle of someone arrested for DUI who was driving while his or her license was suspended or revoked. The owner may reclaim the vehicle after paying towing and storage costs (CGS § 14-227h).

In addition, people found to be “persistent operating under the influence felony offenders” are subject to an increased criminal penalty.
For more information, read the full report.

Oregon Set to Be First State to Test Pay-As-You-Drive Program

Officials of the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) have embarked on a state “listening tour” to hear comments and questions from residents, motorists, local officials, and other key stakeholders before rolling out the new program in which volunteer drivers would pay a 1.5 cent per mile driving tax.

ODOT is seeking 5,000 drivers to volunteer for the program, slated to start July 1, 2015. The program, the first of its kind in the nation, is a dry run for a “Vehicle Miles Travelled” (VMT) fee that might someday serve as the primary means of financing highway and bridge projects. VMT fees, which would charge people for each mile they drive, are seen as one possible way to raise the money needed to keep the nation’s infrastructure from falling into disrepair.

There has been growing concern that traditional federal and state gas taxes will soon be unable to keep up with the rising costs of maintaining, repairing and building highways and bridges. The idea of raising state gas taxes has so far been a non-starter in most states. It’s been more than two decades since Congress increased the federal 18.4 cent per gallon gas tax.

In 2013, Oregon’s legislature approved legislation allowing ODOT to establish a pilot volunteer VMT program. Volunteer drivers will be able use a variety of methods to track their mileage, including a GPS tracker, a device on their odometers, or a daily diary. Volunteers will be billed monthly, and receive rebate checks to recoup the money they spent on Oregon’s 30 cent per gallon gas tax.

University Endowments Post Double-Digit Returns

. November 11, 2014

After experiencing negative returns during the recent recession, college and university endowments posted an average return of 15.8% in FY 14, the fourth time in the previous five fiscal years that the returns exceeded 10%. That’s according to preliminary findings of an annual survey conducted by the Commonfund Institute and the National Association of College and University Business Officers as reported by Inside Higher Ed. The final results are expected in early 2015.

However, these recent increases in endowment values are nearly offset by the losses they suffered during the recession, including an average decrease of nearly 20% in FY 09. Overall, endowment values have increased by an average of only about 7% in the past 10 fiscal years.

Should Alcoholic Beverages have Calorie Labels?

According to an MSN health & fitness article, neither the United States nor the European Union (EU) requires alcoholic beverage labels to contain nutritional facts (including calories), a finding that led the Royal Society for Public Health, a British nonprofit organization, to release a report calling for alcohol products in the EU to be labeled with calorie information.

Such labels, the Society argued, could help fight obesity, which affects about 25% of adults in England and 34.9% of adults in the U.S.   A survey of adults in the U.K. found that 60% to 80% did not know or underestimated the amount of calories in alcohol.

Labels seem to make sense, so why aren’t they required? The article cited several reasons, including the cost to the industry of analyzing alcoholic products for nutritional content and, in the U.S., the division of regulatory duties among different agencies. The Food and Drug Administration generally regulates nutritional food labels, but the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau regulates alcohol labels. According to one food and beverage lawyer, the bureau does not have the resources to review nutritional facts panels.

FDA Approves New Meningitis Vaccine

. November 10, 2014

The federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved the first vaccine licensed in the U.S. to prevent invasive bacterial meningitis in people ages 10 through 25 caused by the N. meningitides serogroup B bacteria. Previously, approved vaccines used in the U.S.  covered only four of the five main serogroups of N. meningitides bacteria: A, C, Y, and W.

Meningitis is a life-threating illness caused by bacteria that infect the (1) blood and (2) lining of the brain and spinal cord. It is transmitted between people via respiratory or throat secretions, such as kissing, coughing, or sharing utensils. Treatment with antibiotics may reduce the risk of death or serious, long-term effects of the illness, but only when administered immediately.

The new vaccine, Trumenba, is manufactured by Wyeth Pharmaceuticals Inc., a subsidiary of Pfizer Inc. The FDA used an accelerated process to approve the vaccine. Its safety was assessed by studies conducted in the U.S., Europe, and Australia, that included 4,500 participants who received the vaccine. The most common reported side effects included: pain and swelling at the injection site, headache, diarrhea, muscle and joint pain, fatigue, and chills.