Several High-Achieving States in Education Tackle Their Academic Achievement Gaps

. March 27, 2015

Education Week recently spotlighted a report featuring the efforts of Connecticut and three other states in closing their achievement gap between economically disadvantaged and minority students and their peers.  Massachusetts, Washington, and Wisconsin, along with Connecticut, have created task forces to study the gap or implement gap reduction efforts.

The report, by the Education Commission of the States, found several common themes among the states’ efforts, including:

  • offering teachers and administrators professional development on topics tailored to low-performing schools,
  • providing special programs and extra teacher training to assist English language learners and their teachers,
  • creating initiatives to address housing and food insecurity, and
  • exploring disciplinary measures other than suspensions or expulsions, which disproportionately affect students of color.
The full report can be read here.

New Report: Homebuyer Financial Assistance Programs

. March 26, 2015

OLR Report 2015-R-0054 describes the state’s homebuyer  financial assistance programs.

The state, through the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority (CHFA), administers 13 financial assistance programs for homebuyers. These programs offer mortgages at below-market interest rates to homebuyers; interest rates vary among programs and with market changes. Some programs, such as the HFA Preferred Loan Program and Downpayment Assistance Program, also provide reduced mortgage insurance premiums or downpayment assistance. Eligible buyers can use the programs to finance the purchase of one-to-four family residences and units in certain condominium complexes and planned unit developments. Generally, to participate in CHFA homebuyer programs, an individual must meet certain income and sales price limits and (1) be a first-time buyer or (2) purchase a house in an area targeted for revitalization. Some of the programs are open only to certain populations, for example people with disabilities, public housing tenants, or veterans.

Click here to read the full report.

The Move From Suburban to “New Urban”

. March 25, 2015

The American suburb, the pride of the post-WWII housing boom, is falling on hard times.  According to New Geography, a website dedicated to analyzing and discussing the built environment, many older suburbs are in decline, falling into poverty and suffering the blight and rising crime rates that young suburbanites once sought to leave behind in America’s cities. 

The article focuses on Carmel, Indiana, a near north suburb of Indianapolis, which has, for the past twenty years, invested in a long-term building and renewal project.  The project’s aim is to build a town that remains essentially suburban but incorporates the best of urban life—like a high “walk score” to shopping, restaurants, and work, and “high quality aesthetics.”  The planners have the long view in mind and are envisioning Carmel as an attractive and productive center of life and commerce for the next one hundred years.  No one knows what life in America will look like in 2115, but recent trends suggest that young people do not want it to resemble the suburban model in which many of them grew up.  A driver’s license—once an essential rite of passage in America and, if only temporarily, the ticket out of suburban sprawl—is apparently no longer the first thing 16-year-olds think about.   Some suggest that our love affair with the automobile is over; according to Business Insider, the average number of miles driven in the U.S. began to decline in 2006 after sixty years of steady growth. The preference for cars over public conveyances made the suburbs possible in the first place.

The trend toward the “new urbanism” that has been discussed for the past two decades has implications for fiscal and public policy and city plans being made now.  If driving is on the decline, how much of our transportation budget do we want to spend on new roads and highways?  Do we want to invest in public transportation with the potential to link together the new urban areas like Carmel that may well emerge to replace the suburbs? Do social services for the poor—traditionally more available in cities—need to be made available in the suburbs?  As a 2013 Time magazine article pointed out, questions like these may have more urgency in the Midwest than in the more densely settled Northeast, where, “city-suburbs like Stamford, Greenwich, West Hartford and others exist in relatively close proximity.” 

More (and more rapid) change in American life is a certainty; how we and the towns and cities we have built will be shaped by that change is yet to be seen.

New Report: Crimes with Mandatory Minimum Sentences

. March 24, 2015

OLR Report 2015-R-0055 lists  Connecticut criminal offenses that have mandatory prison sentences. The report updates a 2013 report to reflect changes from the 2013 and 2014 legislative sessions.

It identifies 74 crimes that carry a mandatory minimum prison sentence of a specific duration. The mandatory minimum sentences range from a low of 48 hours, for a first offense of driving or boating under the influence if the offender is not sentenced to community service, to a high of life without possibility of release for murder with special circumstances.

The report also notes several changes to mandatory minimum sentencing laws since the 2013 report. These changes relate to gun offenses and kidnapping crimes.

Click here to read the full report.

U.S. Supreme Court Hears Affordable Care Act Case

. March 23, 2015

On March 4, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in King v. Burwell, a case about the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA). At issue is whether the federal government can provide premium subsidies to people who purchase health insurance in states that did not establish their own insurance exchanges. Thirty-four states rely on the federal government to run an exchange for their residents. (Connecticut runs its own exchange and likely will not be affected by the outcome of this case.)

The ACA requires states to create health insurance exchanges, which are online marketplaces where people can shop for insurance. If a state fails to create an exchange, the ACA allows the federal government to establish an exchange within the state. People meeting certain income criteria are eligible for premium subsidies in the form of tax credits to help them afford the insurance.

The ACA states that subsidies are available to people who enroll in an exchange “established by the state.” The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) adopted implementing regulations that allow subsidies in states that use a federally run exchange as well as in states that established their own exchanges.

Plaintiffs in King v. Burwell argue that a federally run exchange is not an exchange established by the state and therefore the IRS exceeded the authority Congress gave it when adopting the implementing regulations.

The Court is expected to issue a ruling in June.

For background on the case, including a look at the legal arguments and the legal test the Court may apply in the case, see this Kaiser Family Foundation Issue Brief.

New Report: Connecticut’s Penal Code

. March 20, 2015

OLR Report 2015-R-0046 lists all of the crimes in Connecticut’s Penal Code.  It organizes them by classification and lists their prison penalties.  The report updates prior reports to include changes from last year’s legislative session. 

Statutes with criminal penalties exist throughout the statute and not just in the Penal Code.  This report does not include all crimes, just those in the Penal Code.

Click here to read the full report.

DECD Accepting Applications for Additional $7.5 Million in Brownfield Funding

. March 19, 2015

The Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) is currently accepting applications for a new round of up to $7.5 million in funding for the Brownfield Remediation Program. The program provides grants of up to $2 million to eligible grantees, which include municipalities and economic development agencies, to use for a range of brownfield assessment, remediation, and redevelopment activities. Of the total funding, $6.5 million is earmarked for remediation and $1 million for assessment projects.

DECD will prioritize applications according to a rating and ranking sheet, which can be found here. Applications are due by April 14, 2015.

DECD will host a series of informational sessions around the state for potential applicants between March 16 and March 24. The schedule is available here.

New Report: Board of Firearms Permit Examiners

. March 18, 2015

OLR Report 2015-R-0041 describes the statutes governing the Board of Firearms Permit Examiners.  It describes the board’s membership, statutory hearing requirements, and right to appeal a board decision.

For more information, read the full report.

Credit Usage and Delinquency Data for Late 2014

. March 17, 2015

According to a new report from the New York Federal Reserve, overall consumer credit balances increased by 1% in the 4th quarter of 2014.  The report, based on a representative sample of credit data, found an increase in all types of credit during the quarter, except for home equity lines of credit (HELOC).

The report also examines delinquency rates.

  • “The delinquency rates for mortgages, HELOCs, auto loans, and credit cards peaked noticeably in the years following the recession, and have since fallen.”
  • For mortgages, 3.1% are at least 90 days delinquent, which is well above the 1% to 1.5% rate before the recession.
  • Credit card delinquency rates continue to improve and are near the lowest rates since data collection began in 1999.
  • Student loans that are at least 90 days delinquent continue to increase.
Click here to read more.

Top 10 Consumer Complaints for 2014

. March 16, 2015

The Department of Consumer Protection (DCP) recently issued its annual “Top Ten” list of consumer complaints.

The complaints in the following 10 categories accounted for 54% of the written complaints DCP received in 2014.

  1. Telecommunications (26.8% of all complaints), primarily involving billing and service issues related to broadband Internet services.
  2. Telemarketing (8.2% of all complaints), often about entities not currently covered by the “Do Not Call” law.
  3. Home improvement and new home builders (6.5% of all complaints), involving issues such as unfinished work, improper contracts, damage to home or property, shoddy materials, or not returning deposits.
  4. Motor Fuel (3.4% of all complaints), including gas pump malfunctions, unclear signs, and bad gas.
  5. General Retail (2% of all complaints), generally involving problems with refunds, exchanges, lost deposits, warranties, rebates, advertising, or services.
  6. Internet Sales (2% of all complaints), including non-delivery, overcharges, or duplicate billing.
  7. Auto Dealers (1.8% of all complaints), including non-delivery of ordered vehicles, overcharges, warranty or rebate disputes, advertising complaints, or aggressive sales tactics.
  8. Electrical trades (1% of all complaints), involving work performed by electrical workers.
  9. Heating and cooling trades (1% of all complaints), involving work performed by heating and cooling workers.
  10. Mail order sales (1% of all complaints), including non-delivery, overcharges, incomplete orders, receiving wrong merchandise, and not receiving refunds for returned items.
Click here to read more.

Maine Considering Taxing Nonprofits

. March 13, 2015

As part of his proposal to overhaul the state’s tax system, Maine Governor Paul LePage has proposed rolling back the property tax exemption for nonprofit organizations.

The governor proposes to do this in conjunction with his budget plan, which includes eliminating revenue sharing grants to municipalities.  To mitigate the financial impact of this revenue loss, the plan would allow municipalities to collect property taxes from nonprofit organizations (e.g., hospitals, museums, and private colleges and universities) with property valued at more than $500,000.  These nonprofits would pay taxes on the portion of the property’s value above $500,000, at 50% of the host municipality’s mill rate.

As Bangor Daily News explained, the tax would be mandatory for all municipalities.  However, municipalities could decide to appropriate the property tax revenue back to the nonprofit organizations.

Connecticut’s Health And How It Compares To That Of Other States

. March 12, 2015

Are you looking for information on how Connecticut is meeting health targets, or how the state’s health compares to that of other states?

For Connecticut-specific information, one source is the Healthy Connecticut 2020 Performance Dashboard.  The dashboard, launched by the Department of Public Health in January,  shows how the state is doing according to various health improvement measures, such as (1) maternal, infant, and child health; (2) chronic disease prevention and control; and (3) health systems.

The dashboard displays:

  1. population indicators that “identify the health status of Connecticut residents for which DPH, other state and local agencies, and community partners all share responsibility;”
  2. performance measures that indicate whether DPH interventions that affect those indicators are working; and
  3. strategies “that DPH and its partners are using to improve health to meet targets for improvement.”
For information comparing health information across states, one place to look is the Kaiser Family Foundation’s State Health Facts website.  It contains various tables comparing states in health-related areas such as health status, budgets, and insurance coverage.
For example, the website reports that in 2013, 15.5% of Connecticut adults were smokers.  This was lower than the national average of 18.1%, and lower than the other New England states, which ranged from 16.2% (New Hampshire) to 20.2% (Maine).

Laboratories for Growing Businesses and Creating Jobs

. March 11, 2015

In New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said a “state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” A recent OLR report describes the range of “economic experiments” states are running to grow businesses and create jobs. These experiments include general strategies providing tax and regulatory relief, programs targeting key business sectors or businesses in specific developmental stages, and comprehensive policies aimed at creating or sustaining local and regional “ecosystems” for growth.

Tax Debt Relief Companies May Not Provide Relief

The state Department of Consumer Protection (DCP) is warning residents to avoid doing business with companies offering to settle tax debt or avoid tax liens. According to a recent DCP press release, the agency is investigating several debt relief companies for deceptive and fraudulent practices. There is concern about the (1) misleading nature of the companies’ ads and (2) companies’ failure to live up to their claims.

The DCP press release states that these companies hold no licenses in Connecticut. The agency suggests that people seeking debt relief work with state licensed and registered accountants or attorneys.

Treatment Programs for Arrested Veterans

. March 10, 2015

A recent New Haven Register article highlighted two programs that help arrested veterans avoid jail time by receiving treatment for mental health and substance abuse problems. The Veterans Health Administration and the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services run the programs in the courts statewide and report success in helping veterans get their lives back on track.

If a veteran agrees to enter the programs, a social worker recommends treatment options to the court and, upon the judge’s approval, guides the veteran through the treatment process.  The crimes for which these programs are available range from motor vehicle violations to domestic violence charges to car thefts.

Both agencies cite statistics attesting to their programs’ success.  Around 81% of veterans who participated in the Veterans Health Administration program have not been arrested again.  The Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services’ program reports a 36% drop in illegal drug use and a 44% decrease of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms.

Alzheimer’s Costs Could Reach $1 Trillion a Year by 2050

. March 9, 2015

According to a recent Washington Post article, a February 5th report on the financial impact of Alzheimer’s disease in the U.S. projects that it could soar to over $1 trillion per year by 2050.

The report, which was issued by the Alzheimer’s Association, suggests that the federal government will bear most of the increase, unless it funds research to find a cure or effective treatments by 2025. Effective treatments, for example, could save approximately $220 billion in the first five years, according to the article. Advocates suggest that failing to fund research now will cost the country significantly more in the future as its demographics shift to an older population susceptible to chronic age-related diseases.

The article notes that more than 5 million people currently live with Alzheimer’s disease and the number will increase to 13.5 million by 2050. Health care for people with dementia diseases currently costs $226 billion per year, of which 68% is paid for by Medicare and Medicaid. By 2050, the number of people with the most severe phase of the disease is expected to increase to almost 50% (6.5 million people) of those projected to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

New Report: Regional and Statewide Special Education Service Delivery in Selected States

. March 6, 2015

OLR Report 2015-R-0013 describes models in other states that take a regional or statewide approach to providing special education services. 

Almost every state in the nation has some type of regional entity that helps deliver special education services in a geographically broader area than a single school district.  When states and local school districts choose to create regional or statewide special education programs, they must still meet federal mandates, including the requirement to educate special education students in the same setting as non-special education students (i.e., the least restrictive environment).

This report looks at three types of models and provides examples of regional or statewide efforts to provide these services within the requirements of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

For example, some states provide special education services through entities called educational service agencies (ESA).  This report looks at models from California, Indiana, New York, and Rhode Island, as well as Connecticut, to present an array of regional service examples.

The report also describes and gives examples of two other types of regional efforts: special school districts and programs that assist with special education administrative services.

 For more information, read the full report.

Digital Driver's Licenses

Delaware is considering offering digital driver’s licenses, according to a recent article in The News Journal on  This optional digital license would be accessible through a secure smartphone application and would not replace state-issued plastic licenses.

The use of digital driver’s licenses would directly impact federal and state law enforcement in situations such as traffic stops and security checkpoints. The article raises various issues regarding the use of this technology, such as:

  1. What if a driver’s cellphone lost power during a traffic stop?
  2. What about the limiting effect of cellphone service availability?
  3. How does an officer seize a digital license after a drunken driving arrest?
  4. How would the technology address privacy and security concerns?
  5. Will states with only plastic licenses have the technology to read another state’s digital license?
  6. How would the technology be accommodated at security checkpoints, such as courthouse entrances, where people generally cannot enter carrying cellphones?
At the time the article was written, the state Senate had passed a resolution which requires the director of the Delaware Motor Vehicle Division to study and consider the use of digital driver’s licenses.  The House has since approved this resolution.

According to a CNN Money article, the Iowa Department of Transportation has been testing an app for digital driver’s licenses for the past year and will deploy such licenses to its employees as a test group. The state has not set a date for when the digital licenses will be available to the public.  

The Yin and Yang of Scarcity

. March 5, 2015
If necessity forces us to be inventive, then scarcity forces us to be efficient, right? Yes, scarcity can do that, but it also causes us to do some other things that aren’t so good, according to Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, the authors of Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How it Defines Our Lives (2013). Scarcity is as much about psychology as it is about economics. (Mullainathan is a Harvard economics professor, Shafir is a Princeton psychology and public affairs professor, and both conduct research in behavioral economics.) “Scarcity captures the mind” as “the mind orients automatically, powerfully, toward unfulfilled needs,” they wrote.

Lacking time, money, and other resources to fulfill all of our needs affects our thinking, for better and for worse. In capturing our minds, scarcity “focuses our attention on using what we have most effectively,” generating a “focus dividend.” But this dividend comes with a hidden, cognitive price tag. “The power to focus is also the power to shut things out.  Instead of saying that scarcity ‘focuses,’ we could just as easily say that scarcity causes us to tunnel: to focus single-mindedly on managing the scarcity at hand.” Consequently, “focusing on something that matters to you makes you less able to think about other things you care about.”

For example, many small businesses quickly cut their marketing budgets when times are tough. The sharp focus on the bottom line blocks out other important considerations. According to a business adviser the authors quoted, “lean times are exactly the times your small business most needs marketing.” Why? Because “consumers are restless and looking to make changes in their buying decisions. You need to help them find your products and services and choose them rather than others by getting your name out there.”

Can the same be said about policy makers trying to balance a budget? A recent OLR report on the steps California, Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island took to address 2008 budget deficits cited policy analysts who claimed that prior tax and spending policies, coupled with long-term structural change, made them especially vulnerable to recessions and undermined their ability to become fiscally solvent when the economy recovered.