New Report: Natural Gas In The Electric Power Market

. January 30, 2015

OLR Report 2014-R-0267 discusses the relationship between the natural gas and electricity markets in New England, particularly in light of constraints on the interstate pipeline system.

Over the past decade, technological advances in drilling techniques have brought substantially more gas to market in North America, resulting in larger quantities of natural gas and lower natural gas prices. At the same time, an increasing amount of New England’s electricity comes from natural gas. Many coal and oil plants have retired or indicated they will retire in the near future, and gas-powered power plants are expected to replace them. From 2009 to 2013, these factors lowered electricity prices in New England.

Interstate gas transmission lines, however, have not expanded in proportion to this increase in supply and demand. Gas-powered power plants generally purchase natural gas through intermittent (or interruptible) contracts, and transmission pipelines generally expand based on firm commitments. During episodes of extreme cold weather, when heating customers have high demand for natural gas, gas-powered plants risk losing access to their supply.

Several groups have proposed or taken various actions to address the issues arising from natural gas in the electricity market. Click here to read about those actions in the full report.

Banking Legal Marijuana Money

According to a recent article in The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Stateline magazine, nearly all banks refuse to take money from marijuana sales because it is an illegal narcotic under federal law.

However, marijuana is legal in many states for medical, recreational, and research purposes, and this trend is growing. Even though the nation’s legal marijuana industry is expanding, most banks do not do business with growers, processors, retail shops, and medical dispensaries, or with their employees and contractors.  The article cites the director of the U.S. Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FINCEN) who stated that only 105 banks and credit unions, out of more than 100,000 in the country, take money from legal marijuana businesses.

Since legal marijuana remains a cash-and-carry business, the retail shops and dispensaries are targets for criminals.  The article also states that some businesses are working with closed payment systems, in which a third-party middleman handles banking and bookkeeping to relieve some of the burden on the financial institutions.  Some in the industry are hoping that Congress will act on this issue, the article says.
Last year FINCEN released guidance to clarify how financial institutions can provide services to marijuana-related businesses and comply with the Bank Secrecy Act.  The department feels that the guidance should enhance the availability of financial services for marijuana-related businesses.

Court Vacates Department of Labor’s “Companionship Exemption” Changes

. January 29, 2015

Last year, the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL) revised its regulations on the “companionship exemption,” which exempts domestic workers who provide companionship services to the elderly or sick from the federal Fair Labor Standards Act’s minimum wage and overtime pay requirements.  The revisions (1) eliminated the companionship exemption for domestic workers employed by third-party employers (e.g., home care agencies) and (2) significantly tightened the definition of “companionship services.”

The revised regulations had been scheduled to become effective on January 1, but on December 22, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia vacated the revision that eliminated the exemption for third-party employers.  Then, on January 14, it also vacated the revision that redefined “companionship services.”  In both instances, the court found that USDOL had overstepped its authority by “trying to do through regulation what must be done through legislation.”      

More Than Half of Connecticut’s Hospitals Exceed Federal Infection Standards

. January 28, 2015

According to a recent Connecticut Health Investigative Team article, federal Medicare data shows that more than 50% of Connecticut hospitals had hospital-acquired infection rates that exceeded federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) benchmarks in 2012 and 2013. Connecticut had the highest percentage of hospitals failing to meet these benchmarks, with most states having less than 20%.

Medicare’s “Hospital Compare” website has been tracking and publishing hospital-acquired infection rates since 2012 as part of an infection-reduction program established under the Affordable Care Act. Hospitals with the worst infection rates in 2012 and 2013 will lose 1% of their Medicare reimbursements for federal fiscal (FFY) year 2015.

According to Kaiser Health News, 14 Connecticut hospitals will face such a penalty: (1) the Hospital of Central Connecticut; (2) the Hospice of Central Connecticut; and (3) Bridgeport, Danbury, Hartford, John Dempsey, Johnson Memorial, Manchester Memorial, Norwalk, Rockville General, Stamford, Waterbury, Windham Community Memorial, and Yale-New Haven hospitals.

While all Connecticut hospitals met CDC benchmarks for central-line bloodstream infections, several exceeded the average for other types of hospital-acquired infections, such as urinary tract infections, colon surgery-site infections, and “C. diff” (C. difficile, a bacterial infection that causes colitis).

Is Hunting a Form of Conservation?

. January 27, 2015

A recent National Geographic article tackles this question by summarizing a pending permit request before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

Before USFWS is a request to bring into the United States the head of an endangered black rhino from Namibia. (International law generally prohibits the trade of rhino parts; a special permit is needed to import them.) The person seeking the permit won an auction to kill the rhino during Namibia’s hunting season and Namibia’s game managers selected an aged male rhino for this purpose. (Each year Namibia auctions off a limited number of permits to hunt designated rhinos.)

To get the USFWS permit, an applicant must show that (1) the rhino was killed for conservation purposes and (2) bringing the rhino into the United States furthers that cause. Supporters of granting these permits argue that this type of hunting helps fund conservation efforts. The auction proceeds help fund grants for rhino conservation, such as anti-poaching efforts. But opponents argue that the practice of killing endangered species to help save them attaches a high value to their death.

According to the article, the USFWS has approved these types of permits in the past and the permit requests generally receive little attention. But this specific case has received over 15,000 comments. The USFWS decision is expected soon. 

New Report: Evasion of Property Taxes on Motor Vehicles

. January 26, 2015

OLR Report 2014-R-0285 examines what Connecticut municipalities are doing to prevent people from registering their vehicles outside of their home towns to avoid paying property taxes on them. 

Motor vehicles in Connecticut are subject to property tax, generally in the municipality where the vehicle, in the normal course of operation, most frequently leaves from and returns to or in which it remains. The tax applies to unregistered vehicles; vehicles registered in Connecticut; and, under certain conditions, vehicles registered in other states. Connecticut municipalities assess motor vehicles and tax them at locally set rates. Consequently, some vehicle owners try to reduce their tax burden by registering their vehicle in another municipality or state with a lower tax rate.

Click here to read what municipalities are doing to address this issue.

Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Gilligan Records Case

Amy Archer Gilligan was suspected of committing two dozen murders in the early 20th century, and her story served as the basis for the film Arsenic and Old Lace. As reported in CT News Junkie, Gilligan was committed to Connecticut Valley Hospital after pleading guilty to one of the murders and remained there from 1924 until her death in 1962. More than 50 years later, the Connecticut Supreme Court is considering whether her treatment records are subject to disclosure under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

The case began when a journalist researching Gilligan requested her treatment records from the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS). In 2012, the Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC) ruled that some of Gilligan’s records were exempt from disclosure pursuant to a statutory psychiatrist-patient privilege, but that other Gilligan records must be released because they did not fall under this privilege. After DMHAS appealed, the Superior Court largely upheld FOIC’s decision, but ruled DMHAS could also withhold records of Gilligan’s physical and dental examinations because disclosure would be an invasion of personal privacy.

FOIC and DMHAS cross-appealed the Superior Court’s decision. The Supreme Court heard arguments on January 14.

Click here to read the full CT News Junkie article about the case.

Congress Reauthorizes Terrorism Insurance Law

. January 23, 2015

The CT Mirror reports that Congress has approved a bill to reinstate the federal Terrorism Risk Insurance Act (TRIA). The president is expected to sign the bill into law. TRIA, which expired on December 31, 2014, created a temporary program under which the federal government shares the risk of loss from foreign terrorist attacks with the insurance industry. The reauthorization bill extends the federal backstop for an additional six years. Without the bill, insurers were “unsure if they could continue to offer protection against terrorist attacks without hiking premiums, perhaps to a point where coverage was unaffordable.”

For more details about the reauthorization, read an A.M. Best article at: 

New Report: Military Retirement Income and State Income Tax

. January 22, 2015

Currently 14 of the 41 states that levy an income tax do not tax military retirement income. They include Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania in the Northeast. The others are Alabama, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Additionally, beginning in 2016, Missouri will also start fully exempting military retirement income.

By law, Connecticut exempts 50% of federally taxable military retirement income from the state income tax (CGS § 12-701(20)(B)(xvii)). According to the Department of Revenue Services, for the 2012 tax year, 9,157 veterans claimed the exemption.

Read the full OLR report here.

Teenage Smokers Underestimate Risks of Light and Intermittent Smoking

. January 21, 2015

Although most teenagers believe heavy smoking is dangerous, nearly one-quarter of adolescents believe intermittent smoking causes little or no harm, an article in Pediatrics reports this month.  The article reported on the results of a survey of nearly 25,000 U.S. adolescents. The survey found that boys, younger teens, Hispanics, and non-Hispanic blacks were more likely than their peers to view light and intermittent smoking as less harmful. 

The article’s authors considered heavy smokers as those who smoked more than five cigarettes a day; light smokers as those who smoked five or fewer daily. It considered intermittent smokers as those who smoked, but did not do so every day.  The study found that nearly 1 in 11 adolescents believes light smoking will cause little or no harm. “Intermittent smoking is viewed as even less suspect, with nearly one-quarter of all adolescents reporting nondaily smoking will cause little or no harm.”

The article said these beliefs are worrisome because light and intermittent smoking “carry health risks comparable to heavier smoking patterns.”

Click here to read the full article. 

States Consider Banning Powdered Alcohol

. January 20, 2015

States are attempting to ban powdered alcohol (palcohol) before the product reaches stores.  Lawmakers cite public health concerns for such a ban, stating the product would increase alcohol abuse, particularly among teenagers.

Legislators in Colorado, Nebraska, and Utah want to join legislators in Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, and Vermont in prohibiting palcohol.

The powder comes in a sealable pouch with different flavors and dissolves in water.  One serving fills about a third of a standard glass tumbler and has the same amount of alcohol as a shot.

The federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau granted approval to product labels last April, but subsequently declared that the approval was in error.  The palcohol manufacturer states that the company voluntarily surrendered approval because of a mistake on the proposed label.

Read more about palcohol in Governing magazine.

Oregon Expands Medicaid Coverage for Transgender Recipients

. January 19, 2015

Starting January 1st, Oregon began covering reassignment surgery, hormone therapy, and puberty suppression for transgender Medicaid recipients. According to a related NPR article, “[b]y doing so, Oregon joins a handful of other states that have recently taken steps to help people with gender dysphoria, or the conflict between the gender people identify with and their physical gender.” According to estimates, in 2015, approximately 175 people will use the coverage.

According to the article, Medicaid plans in California, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Washington D.C. also cover medical treatment for gender dysphoria.

Click here to read the full article.

Higher Unemployment Rate for Older Veterans

. January 16, 2015

From 2000 to 2013, older veterans were more likely to be unemployed than their younger counterparts, according to a recent U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs report. Sixty per cent of the unemployed veterans were over age 45 and nearly a third served after 2001.
The report provided other measures of veteran unemployment. Veterans between 18 and 54 had similar or slightly lower unemployment rates than their civilian counterparts. And Gulf War veterans comprised over 50% of all unemployed veterans. The unemployment rate for the latest generation of veterans fell to 5.7% in November, down from 9.9% a year ago.  The national unemployment rate was 5.8% in November.

Connecticut has several programs to help veterans find jobs. For example, veterans can request an appointment with a state Department of Labor veterans’ specialist to obtain information about employment programs and workshops. Employment services include the Subsidized Training and Employment Program for Veterans (Step Up for Vets), which provides wage subsidies to employers who hire unemployed veterans. The Connecticut Post reports that 22 employers have participated in the program, providing jobs to 39 unemployed veterans.

New Report: Medicaid Managed Care in Connecticut and Other States

. January 15, 2015

OLR Report 2015-R-0010 examines several states' experiences with managed care delivery systems within their Medicaid programs.

For 15 years, Connecticut used managed care systems to serve most of its Medicaid beneficiaries, before switching back to fee-for-service in 2010. Connecticut is currently one of three states that deliver Medicaid services entirely through fee-for-service systems.

Most other states use some combination of managed care and fee-for-service delivery systems. New Hampshire recently converted much of its Medicaid program from fee-for-service to managed care. New York began experimenting with managed care in the 1960s, accelerated enrollment in the 1990s, and continues to expand its managed care programs through federal waivers and amendments to its state Medicaid plan. Rhode Island has used some form of managed care for at least 20 years. South Carolina has used it since 1996.

For more information, read the full report.

Virtual Courthouses

In many courthouses across the country today, court records are filed electronically (“e-filed”), dockets and document management systems are paperless, and, consequently, more and more file rooms are being converted to courtrooms. This recent shift to a virtual courthouse is a result of budget cuts made during the last recession that forced courts to find ways to cut costs and work more efficiently, a recent Pew Charitable Trusts Stateline magazine article states.

All 50 states have some kind of e-filing project in their court systems, which was not the case a year ago.  Today, at least 24 states have implemented statewide e-filing for attorneys, according to the article, which cited data from the National Center for State Courts. 

The article describes different approaches states have taken to create a paperless court system.  For example:
  1. Wisconsin and Nebraska mandated e-filing statewide for all civil and criminal cases,
  2. the Texas Supreme Court mandated e-filing statewide for all civil cases on a rolling basis,
  3. Utah’s Judicial Council adopted a rule requiring all attorneys to file civil and criminal cases electronically, and
  4. Florida’s legislature mandated e-filing and the state Supreme Court set the standards.
The courts have funded the cost of these changes in a number of ways, including legislative appropriations, increased filing fees, and partnerships with public and private vendors.  The challenges that states face as they convert to a paperless court system depends on the system’s structure.  When the state directly funds and runs the system, it is easier to create one electronic system. On the other hand, it is harder to create such a system when each court is independent and funded by the county (decentralized court system), the article stated.  The article cites Texas, Utah, and Florida as successfully converting to a paperless court system.

The Partnership for Stronger Communities Releases Report on Connecticut’s Housing Market

. January 14, 2015

The Partnership for Stronger Communities (PSC), a Connecticut affordable housing policy and advocacy nonprofit, recently released a report providing a snapshot of the state’s housing market and analyzing how it affects low- and middle-income families.  The report, titled “Housing in CT 2014: The Latest Measures of Affordability,” highlights a number of Connecticut-specific trends, including the following:
  • the share of households that rent increased from 30% in 2007 to 34% in 2013; 
  • the “housing wage,” what one must earn to afford a typical two-bedroom apartment, fell slightly from $23.22 per hour in 2012 to $23.02 per hour in 2013, but remained the 8th highest nationally; 
  • multifamily housing production returned to levels seen just before the 2008 housing market crash, but single-family production remained stagnant (see PSC’s table, below); and
  • overall homelessness declined between 2012 and 2013 by 4%, but the number of adult-only households experiencing chronic homelessness declined even more, by 10% (see PSC’s table, below).
The report notes that some of these statistics, such as the increase in renter households, may partly result from shifting demographics.  Much of today’s housing market is made up of millennials and downsizing baby boomers, both of whom often prefer multi-family housing to single-family housing.

Seniors’ Wait-time for Medicare Appeals Cut in Half

According to Kaiser Health News, the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals (OMHA) reduced by 50% the waiting time for seniors who request a hearing before a judge.

OMHA decided most of the 5,162 Medicare appeals filed in federal fiscal year (FFY) 14 in addition to 1,535 older cases. This is a significant improvement from FFY 13, where one-third of beneficiary cases remained undecided in addition to 50% of FFY 2012 cases.

According to Kaiser Health News, requesting an OMHA hearing is the third of four stages in the Medicare appeals process and the first chance for beneficiaries or health care providers to present their case before a judge.

Pew Report Compares States on Key Health Indicators

. January 13, 2015

A recent fact sheet from the Pew Charitable Trusts looks at how states compare in 20 health indicators. The indicators cover five categories:  (1) demographics and the uninsured, (2) residents’ health status, (3) vital statistics, (4) prevalence of disease and health risk factors, and (5) prevention and treatment. Most of the analysis is drawn from 2010 or 2011 data.

Here are some examples of how Connecticut compares to the country as a whole.

  • In 2010, 10.5% of Connecticut residents reported being in fair or poor health, lower than the national average of 14.1%.
  • In 2010 and 2011, the percentage of Connecticut residents age 12 and older reporting substance abuse in the previous year was slightly higher than the national average (9.0% vs. 8.4%).
  • The 2009 life expectancy at birth in Connecticut was 80.8 years, compared to a national average of 78.9 years.
  • In 2010, 84.1% of Connecticut women over age 50 reported having a mammogram in the previous two years, compared to a national average of 78.1%.

Recent National Labor Relations Board Decision Affects Unionization at Private Colleges and Universities

. January 12, 2015

Faculty members at private colleges and universities have traditionally had difficulty unionizing, thanks in large part to a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision that held that Yeshiva University’s faculty members were managerial employees under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) (National Labor Relations Board v. Yeshiva University, 444 U.S. 672 (1980)). However, a recent decision by the National Labor Relations Board potentially makes it easier for such faculty members to unionize. (Unionization in public colleges and universities is governed by state labor laws.)

The case involved a unionization effort by contingent faculty members at Pacific Lutheran University, which the university opposed. In a 3-2 decision, the board ruled that the university had not demonstrated that the contingent faculty members are managerial employees under NLRA.  The board also ruled that Pacific Lutheran did not qualify for a religious exemption from NLRA.

In the decision, the board also established a five-factor test for determining whether faculty members are considered managerial employees. The test examines the faculty members’ involvement in decision-making processes concerning academic programs, enrollment management, finances, academic policy, and personnel policies and decisions, with greater weight given to the first three factors.

Federal School Technology Funding Gets a Boost

. January 9, 2015

According to The Hechinger Report and U.S. News & World Report, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently approved an increase on telephone service fees to boost funding for the E-Rate program.  As explained in a previous OLR Report, 2013-R-0254, E-Rate provides subsidies to broadband Internet providers that offer discounted service to schools and libraries.  This tax increase is expected to generate an extra $1.5 billion each year for the program, which has not seen an increase in 16 years.

Photo by Laurie Sullivan/CC BY 2.0

The tax increase will add $1.90 in annual fees per phone.  The extra funding is meant to expand the use of computers and websites in classrooms with limited Internet bandwidth and unreliable connections.  This funding boost supports the executive branch initiative, known as ConnectEd, to provide almost every school with a high-speed Internet connection.

Two out of five commissioners voted against the fee increase, expressing concerns that the revenues raised may not benefit the neediest students or ensure equitable online access.  The FCC has estimated that nearly 70 percent of schools lack high-speed Internet connectivity, mostly in poor urban and rural school districts.

In addition to the fee increase, the FCC’s order will also help schools and libraries build their own high-speed broadband facilities where there is no local alternative.