Mohegan expands amid debt clouds

. May 31, 2011

Even though Moody’s Investors Service has downgraded the ratings of the Mohegan tribal casino operator on debt concerns, the tribe is expanding into New York with a casino in the Catskills.

The tribe plans on building a $600 million resort and it is scheduled to open in the spring of 2013. The NY casino is to include a 258-room hotel, a 75,000-square-foot casino with 2,100 video lottery terminals, up to 450 electronic table positions, five restaurants, retail space, harness race track, grandstand and simulcast, and 10,000 square feet of ballrooms and meeting space.

Police Searches of Smartphones

Law Technology News reports on the growing judicial controversy about police searches of smartphones incident to an arrest. The dispute focuses on the applicability of a line of U.S. Supreme Court cases decided long before smartohones came on the market. Traditionally, the justification for making a search incident to an arrest has been that it is permissible for the police to conduct a search of an arrestee’s person, clothing, and area of immediate control in order to find weapons or evidence that the person might try to destroy. Over the years, it has extended to cover wallets and handbags, and now, in a number of cases, to cell- and smartphones (the rationale being that information contained in these devices is similar to that which one would expect to find in a wallet or handbag.

Those objecting to the expansion of this doctrine argue that because of the vast amount of digital information they are able to store, the owner’s heightened interest in privacy outweighs the traditional justification of a search incident to an arrest.

As the article points out, as courts struggle with this issue, anyone carrying a smartphone runs the risk that a minor traffic stop could permit the police to search through his or her entire email.

Nursing Homes Seek Exemption from Federal Health Care Reform Law

According to a recent New York Times article, nursing homes and home health care agencies have begun extensive lobbying efforts seeking an exemption from the federal health care reform law’s health insurance coverage requirements. Starting in 2014, the law requires employers with 50 or more full-time employees to offer affordable health insurance coverage or pay a penalty. This penalty could exceed $200,000 a year for a midsize nursing home.

Because of the high costs associated with providing health insurance coverage, most nursing homes and home health care agencies either (1) do not provide health insurance to their workers or (2) pay wages so low that employees cannot afford the coverage they offer.

Industry representatives are pushing Congress to consider several options, including (1) giving nursing homes more time to comply with the coverage requirement, (2) waiving or reducing the penalties for nursing homes in financial distress because of the new mandates and fines, or (3) allowing nursing homes to take tax deductions for the penalties, which by law are nondeductible.

Regulators Investigating Banks for Credit Swaps

. May 27, 2011

The New York Times reports that European regulators are investigating some of the world’s largest banks for derivatives market antitrust violations. Specifically, the regulators are looking into whether banks shut out competitors to maintain high profit margins and used industry committees to influence credit default swap rules and pricing. Both European and American regulators are concerned that buyers are paying higher prices for derivatives, including credit default swaps, than they would if there was greater competition. The U.S. Department of Justice is conducting a similar investigation.

The article explains that paying higher prices for derivatives can impact products such as airline tickets that include the cost of hedged oil prices or local taxes that are based on the fees cities pay for management of the risk in interest rate fluctuation.

A credit default swap is a financial instrument that serves to protect against a default by a bond or security. They are unregulated and invented by Wall Street in the late 1990s as a form of default insurance. These swaps insure against the risk of borrowers being unable to pay off debts. Their purpose was to make it easier for banks to issue complex debt securities by decreasing the risk to buyers.

Fixing State Pensions Without Panic

A new study by the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities suggests that long-term, common-sense steps toward fixing state employee pensions will accomplish a lot more than the dire moves often talked about in the media.

The current unfunded pension liabilities are not the cause of the current state fiscal problems, and addressing them need not overwhelm state and local budgets now or reduce states’ ability to recruit and retain a high-quality workforce, according to the report released on May 12.

Instead, the report suggest "states should act now to make a few relatively straightforward legislative changes — increases in plan and employee contributions and sensible changes to pension eligibility rules and benefit levels — to remedy underfunding over time." If over the next five years states and localities boost their pension contributions to an average of 5% of their budgets (compared to the current level of 3.8%), they can make major progress in restoring plans to full health, the report advises.

New York City Sued for Medicaid Fraud

. May 26, 2011

The U.S. Attorney for New York’s Southern District filed suit against New York City in January, alleging that it had fraudulently billed Medicaid for hundreds of hours of unnecessary around-the-clock home health care services through its personal care program. In-home care has become an increasingly attractive alternative to more expensive nursing home care.

According to the complaint, the city improperly billed millions of dollars for these services, at a cost between $75,000 and $150,000 per year per client.  The complaint claims that in some cases the city’s Medicaid agency overruled health care providers’ recommendations for nursing home placement and in others acted without seeking medical opinions.  Some clients whose cases were audited did not need 24-hour services, while others could not receive enough care at home and should have been placed in appropriate facilities, the prosecution claims. 

The government suggests that the city’s pro-home care stance may be motivated by a desire to save money.  The federal Medicaid program splits the cost of home health services with the state, leaving the city with no financial liability.  Nursing home costs, on the other hand, are allocated among all three governmental agencies.

Robert Doar, the city commissioner in charge of the Medicaid services, takes the position that it is better for people to be allowed to stay in their own homes than to be forced to go into nursing homes, even if that means providing them with 24-hour care.

Salting Roads: Where There’s a Will, There’s Some Whey (and Beet Juice)

. May 25, 2011

Inside Science News Service reports that two factors are encouraging state transportation departments to find more efficient ways to de-ice roads. The first is cost. While salt doesn’t cost much, having to re-apply it frequently does cost a lot. The second factor is salt seeping into groundwater and streams. Tests in 2010 showed an increased level of chloride in 13 streams near cities in northern states (regular salt is composed of sodium and chloride).

Adding a carbohydrate to the salt, such as leftover whey from making cheese, or beet juice from farms – can make salt stick to the road longer. The beefed-up salt lasts between five to 10 days instead of just one day for plain salt.

Will People Flee States that Raise Taxes?

Probably not, according to a recent study by the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at UMASS Amherst, but higher taxes may influence whether people migrate to a state.

Studies have generally shown that taxes have relatively little impact on cross-state migration. Individuals and households that relocate to a different county or state cite employment, housing, and family-related reasons as the primary motivating factor.

The study’s findings suggest that taxes do not play a notable role in causing people to leave a state, but they do appear to influence the choice of which state to live in once a person has decided to move. The researchers also suggest that if states use the revenues from higher taxes to create jobs, reduce unemployment, and reduce property crime, they might mitigate the small negative impacts from the higher taxes.

Major Shift Proposed in Federal Homeownership Policies

. May 24, 2011

Who said:

“Adequate housing goes to the very root of well being of the family, and the family is the social unit of the Nation. The question involves important aspects of health, morals, education, and efficiency. Nothing contributes more to social stability and the happiness of our people than the surrounding s of their homes. …It should be possible in our country for any person of sound character and industrious habits to provide himself with adequate and suitable housing and preferably to own his own home”?
Franklin Roosevelt, you say. Close, in time anyway.

No, Herbert Hoover spoke those words in 1931 when he announced the President’s Conference of Home Building and Home Ownership. A year later, Hoover signed the Federal Home Loan Bank Act. Franklin Roosevelt expanded on Hoover’s effort, and homeownership became an article of American public policy.

But maybe not for long. A recent joint Treasury and HUD report recommends changes that could increase mortgage costs and push homeownership beyond the reach of some families, a February 11, 2011 New York Times story reports. Federal programs subsidized nine in 10 mortgage loans in 2010. Government-chartered corporations buy up bank mortgages and sell shares in these mortgages pools to investors, guaranteeing to repay them in exchange for a lower interest rate. In the meantime banks wipe the mortgages (and the risk) off their books and get a cash injection allowing them to make more mortgages.

The joint report proposes:

1. eliminating government guarantees for middle class mortgages,

2. offering the guarantees only during fiscal downturns, or

3. limiting the current guarantees to only those banks that agree to reduce the government’s risk of loan defaults by purchasing a guarantee from a private insurer.

That’s not all. The report also noted that “policies like allowing homeowners to deduct mortgage interest payments from taxable income—an expensive pillar of the government’s housing campaign—encourage people to invest in housing rather than other parts of the economy, and deserve to be reconsidered.”

Promising Results Found in Statewide Study of CT After-School Programs

A study of Connecticut’s state-funded after-school programs (ASPs) found that students who attended such programs regularly for more than one year had higher reading, math, and writing proficiency rates on state mastery tests than students who did not attend. In each subject, the study found a statistically significant difference in performance of ASP students over that of students from the same district who did not participate in the programs. ASP students also had better school attendance and fewer behavior problems in school than students who did not attend the programs.

The study, by the University of Connecticut’s Center for Applied Research in Human Development, looked at 40 after-school programs funded by the state’s After School Program grant in 2010. The programs offered academic, enrichment, recreation, and wellness activities to 4,717 students at 60 sites in 26 school districts statewide.

New Benefits for Veterans’ Caregivers Slow in Coming

. May 23, 2011

According to a recent Auburnpub.com article, the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Health began hearings on March 11th concerning the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) slow implementation of the federal 2010 Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act. The law’s purpose is to provide additional services and support for caregivers of very ill and severely injured veterans, and an additional stipend to family members who care for post 9/11 veterans. The President signed the bill into law on May 5, 2010 and it took effect on January 30, 2011.

According to the article, Health Subcommittee Chairwoman, New York Representative Ann Marie Buerkle, has said that “… when VA finally released its initial implementation plan on February 9th, it was immediately met with consternation by lawmakers and stakeholders who raised serious concerns about the strict eligibility criteria and other issues, including the provision for respite care, mental health coverage, and in-home monitoring requirements."

David W. Gorman, executive director of the Washington Headquarters of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), said in a recent VA press release, “DAV is happy to hear that caregivers of Veterans are getting additional support and services to care for our nation’s heroes and unprecedented new services for our most recent severely ill and injured…[but] [w]e understand there are challenges to implementing the new law; including ensuring that critically ill and injured Veterans of all eras are similarly supported.”

Four Former Haven Health Nursing Homes to Close

A Superior Court judge has ordered the closure of four nursing homes, previously owned by the financially troubled Haven Health Care. The four homes—located in New Haven, West Hartford, West Haven, and Rocky Hill—had combined net losses of $6.5 million in 2009 and all four have been in receivership since January 2011.

The closures have some worried but others see it as an opportunity. Together the homes employ 575 people and these people will have to find new jobs. The closures also mean that 472 beds will be lost. The Department of Social Services, which provides most of the funding for the state’s nursing homes, asserts that there are enough beds to which the residents of the closing homes could be transferred. And the state’s nursing home ombudsman suggests that some of these residents may actually be able to move back into the community, which fits well with the state’s strategy for rebalancing the long-term care delivery system.

Workers’ Comp Decision from Manchester Shooting Redefines ‘Family’

. May 20, 2011

According to the Connecticut Law Tribune, a case recently decided by Middletown Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Daniel Dilzer redefines a “family” by stressing the nature of relationships over blood relationships. In the case, Commissioner Dilzer awarded workers’ comp benefits to Stephanie Lauren, the fiancĂ©e of William Ackerman, Jr., who was killed in the shooting spree at Hartford Distributors in Manchester last summer. Dilzer found that Lauren was eligible to collect Ackerman’s survivor’s benefits because she was his “dependant in fact,” despite not being married to him.

Study: Kids Age Three and Younger Are Able to Unbuckle Seat Belts

Researchers at the Yale University School of Medicine have published a study indicating that children are able to unbuckle their seatbelts at age three and younger. In the study, presented at a Pediatric Academic Societies meeting on May 1, Lilia Reyes, M.D., a clinical fellow in the Department of Pediatrics, Section of Emergency Medicine, sought to determine the age at which a child begins to self-unbuckle and also the frequency of children doing so when the car is in motion.

Reyes and her co-authors surveyed sample families in pediatric offices in Connecticut. They found that children ranging in age from 12 to 78 months unbuckle their seatbelts themselves, with 75% of them under age three. Of the children self-unbuckling, 43% did so while the car was in motion; 29% were in a five-point restraint. The study’s findings include a recommendation for further study to assess the safest restraint device, particularly because motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death among four- to eight-year-olds.

DEP Wants No Child Left Inside®

. May 19, 2011

The Department of Environmental Protection’s No Child Left Inside® program began in 2006 as a way to help children connect with nature, inform the public about state park and forests’ recreational opportunities, and encourage environmental conservation. As part of the program, the department recently launched its 2011 Great Park Pursuit Outdoor Recreational Challenge. This challenge is a year-round family activity encouraging outdoor recreation at Connecticut’s state parks and forests. Related to the challenge, the department is also hosting themed Family Days around the state to promote specific outdoor recreational activities.

New Online Database Helps Consumers Avoid Unsafe Consumer Products

. May 18, 2011

The Department of Consumer Protection is encouraging consumers to use a new federal website to search for safety information on products they own or are considering buying. It allows consumers to get information about product safety and search for incidents involving the product.

The website was developed by the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, which reviews all online reports and transmits qualifying reports to the manufacturers for response. If requirements are met, the report and the manufacturer’s comments are posted on the website.

Study Critiques Banks’ Checking Account Policies

A recent study by the Pew Health Group’s Safe Checking in the Electronic Age Project identifies bank practices related to checking accounts that may expose consumers to high costs with little benefit.

For example, the study found that banks often fail to provide consumers with important policies and fee information in a concise and easily understandable format that would allow them to compare account terms among several banks. The median length of disclosures for key checking account information is over 100 pages, and banks often use different names for the same fee or service.

Much of the study focused on banks’ overdraft practices. It found that banks do not provide enough information about the respective cost of overdraft options, and impose penalty fees that are disproportionate to the size of the median overdraft amount. The median overdraft amount is $36, while the median penalty is $35. The study also found that banks’ policies often allow them to reorder transactions in a manner that maximizes overdraft fees.

The research is based on an analysis of more than 250 types of checking accounts offered online by the 10 largest banks in the country.

Retiring a Computer? What about the Data on the Hard Drive?

. May 17, 2011

So, your department is getting new computers. Great! The old computers are headed out the door but are they taking your data with them? They might be.

Recently, state computers headed for public auction in New Jersey were audited by the state’s comptroller. The audit revealed that 79% of the computers examined still had confidential information on them, including Social Security numbers and child abuse case information.

While the private sector takes a centralized approach, governments usually do this more department-by-department, according to an article in Government Technology. One expert suggests that by centralizing this process states could save a lot of money and provide a better outcome.

Insurance Institute Calls for Stronger Protections in Truck-Car Crashes

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is petitioning the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to require stronger “underride guards” on trucks to better prevent serious injuries and deaths that occur when a smaller vehicle slams into the rear of a tractor-trailer.

Steel underride guards are designed to stop smaller vehicles that crash into the back of tractor-trailers from sliding underneath the truck, compressing the passenger compartment and seriously injuring or killing the smaller vehicle’s occupants. But an IIHS study found that the guards don’t work as well as they should. The institute is asking NHTSA to require stronger underride guards and to require them on more large trucks and trailers.

NHTSA estimates that about 423 people in passenger vehicles die and more than 5,000 are injured each year when their cars strike the back of large trucks.

Charge It!

. May 16, 2011

The May 3 edition of the New Haven Register reports that four municipalities and a Fairfield County financial services firm will be installing electric vehicle charging stations provided by Connecticut Light & Power (CL&P) as part of a research project being conducted by the utility and its corporate parent, Northeast Utilities (NU).

Mansfield, Torrington, and Westport signed on to participate in the study on May 3 CL&P officials said, and West Hartford is expected to soon confirm its involvement as well. Those towns will be joined by the Stamford office of financial services firm UBS.

NU already has charging stations at company offices in Berlin and Hartford, Connecticut as well as in Springfield, Massachusetts and Manchester, New Hampshire. The utility is looking to add another 15 businesses and communities to join the study, according to Jeff Butler, CL&P’s president and chief operating officer.

College Graduates Can Stay on Parents’ Health Plan

In past years, a college student's graduation could mean leaving behind not only the classroom but also health insurance coverage, since family plans often stopped covering dependent children once they left school, as Kaiser Health News reports. But the federal health care reform has changed that. Adult children can now stay on their parents’ health plan until age 26. The law applies to adult children whether or not they live at home, are financially independent, or married. The one exception is if the adult child takes a job that offers health insurance, then he or she cannot stay on the parents’ plan.

For more on the federal health care reform law, see OLR Research Report 2010-R-0255.

State Supreme Court Rules That State Can Shut Off Medical Assistance to Legal Aliens

. May 13, 2011

The State Supreme Court's decision means that the Department of Social Services (DSS) can now implement a 2009 state law that severely limited access to assistance under the State Medical Assistance for Noncitizens (SMANC) program.

Since 1996, noncitizens living in the U.S. legally for less than five years have been ineligible for federally funded public assistance. The state has offered state-funded assistance during this period, including SMANC.

PA 09-5, September Special Session, limited this assistance to noncitizens (1) receiving home care services or (2) receiving nursing home care as of September 8, 2009 and either receiving or had applied for state-funded assistance. Additionally, certain children and pregnant women could continue to get coverage. But DSS never implemented the legislation because Greater Hartford Legal Aid sued the department, claiming the law was unconstitutional on equal protection grounds, and the Superior Court agreed.

The Supreme Court disagreed. Governor Malloy’s FYs 13 and 14 budget assumed savings of about $9.5 million each year in anticipation of the court’s ruling.

Should Nonprofit Organizations “Share the Sacrifice?”

A recent report from the Lincoln Land Institute suggests that cities and towns facing revenue shortfalls are increasingly looking to nonprofits to make payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) as a substitute for paying property taxes. As the study points out, at least 117 municipalities in at least 18 states rely on PILOT payments from hospitals, colleges, and other nonprofits. These municipalities are mainly concentrated in the Northeast and in Massachusetts in particular.

The study examines the common pitfalls with PILOTs and suggests alternative revenue-raising measures that might better serve the mutual interests of municipalities and nonprofits.

V.A. Hospitals Reducing Deadly Infections

. May 12, 2011

An aggressive four-year effort to reduce the spread of deadly bacterial infections at veterans’ hospitals is showing impressive results, according to a recent New York Times article. This study of 153 Veterans Affairs hospitals across the country found a 62% decrease in the rate of infections caused by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in intensive care units over a 32- month period. These study results may have broad implications for medical centers nationwide.

Lack of Leaders a Problem in Charter School Creation

As 400 new charter schools open every year, the lack of leaders for those schools could slow that growth in the near future according to a Washington Post article.
Problems include:

• Not as many resources as public school districts, such as recruitment teams

• High turnover – the article cites a study saying that 71% of charter school leaders plan to leave their positions in five years

• Lack of training programs

Some charter school experts say the lack of leadership is the bottleneck holding up the creation of more charter schools, with some saying there would be two to three times as many charter schools if there were enough leaders.

Instead of Chasing Smokestacks, Chase Immigrants

. May 11, 2011

Economic development, like other policy areas, has its share of metaphors, and “smokestack chasing” is a popular one. In the old days, it conjured up images of state officials visiting plants in other states with hefty packages of grants, loans, tax breaks, government paid job training, and other benefits intended to lure them to their respective states. Successful smokestack chasing is economic development’s equivalent of baseball’s grand slam, which doesn’t happen too often.

An alternative to smokestack chasing is to look within your own backyard and cultivate the businesses and business opportunities that are there. The Brookings Institute Center for Technology Innovation recently focused on “high-impact” businesses, those whose products help other companies improve their productivity and give consumers new choices. The center was particularly interested in learning where the founders of these businesses came from.

Based on a nationally representative survey of such businesses, the center found that their founding teams included at least one immigrant, who on the average is well educated and lived in the U.S. for at least 25 years. Based on the role these founders play in developing businesses important to a state’s long-term growth, the center recommends policies clearing the green card backlog, easing the pathway from student visa to work visa to green card, and creating a point system for a limited number of unsponsored green card applicants (Issues in Technology Innovation, “Immigrant and High- Impact, High-Tech Entrepreneurship,” February 2011).

Report on Increasing Retention of Connecticut’s Foster Families

On May 10, Connecticut Voices for Children released a report on its examination of reasons parents leave the foster care system.

Under contract with the Department of Children and Families (DCF), the Connecticut Association of Foster and Adoptive Parents (CAFAP) conducted exit interviews of foster parents. Their survey results show that 74.4% of parents left for reasons such as adoption, retirement, or changes in family circumstances. Other reasons cited were a lack of respect by DCF (7.2%), inadequate DCF support (8.4%), inadequate DCF services to children (4.7%), and minimal request for placements (5.3%).

The report analyses the results of CAFAP’s exit survey based on a 55% response rate for FYs 2007 – 2010. The study includes DCF’s response to report findings and recommendations.

A point of interest to legislators in this report is the issue of sharing information on the child with the foster parent, which is addressed in SB 1043, currently on the Senate calendar. This bill would expand the list of parties to whom DCF must disclose otherwise confidential information so that prospective and actual foster parents have information useful for providing better care.

When Should An Employer No Longer Be Concerned About A Prospective Employee’s Criminal Record?

An on-going study funded by the National Institute of Justice attempts to actuarially estimate when a person with a criminal record is “redeemed” for employment purposes, or at no greater risk of committing another crime than others of the same age.

To do so, researchers examined criminal records for 88,000 people arrested for the first time in New York in 1980 and their criminal history for the following 25 years. They attempted to determine when their risk of recidivism is no greater than for people of the same age (1) in the general population or (2) who were never arrested. They considered the “hazard rate,” which is the probability over time that someone who has not been arrested will be. For a person previously arrested, the hazard rate declines the longer he or she goes without a subsequent arrest.

Among the preliminary May 2009 results, researchers found that the hazard rate for people 18 years old when first arrested for:

  1. robbery, declined to the same level as the arrest rate for the general population of same aged individuals 7.7 years after the 1980 arrest, after which the probability that the person would commit another crime was less that the probability of other 26 year olds in the general population;
  2. burglary, declined to the same rate as the general population after 3.8 years; and
  3. aggravated assault, declined to the same rate as the general population after 4.3 years.
For these crimes, they found that the younger the offender at the time of the first arrest, the longer it took for the hazard rate to decline to the rate of the general population.

Researchers plan to compare their results with data from other times and places, attempt to examine the types of second arrests that people have, and look to see if people who appear to have no prior arrests in the New York data had prior arrests in other states.

Fake Pot, Real Dangers

. May 10, 2011

The growing popularity of synthetic drugs, including “fake pot” and “bath salts” has led to concerns in many quarters. These drugs mimic the effects of real drugs and can lead to injuries, illness, and death. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, the use of bath salts led to 1,511 emergency room visits as of April, compared to 302 incidents in 2010.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that the widespread use of synthetic drugs has gained the attention of legislatures, which are adding two classes of them—synthetic cannabinoids and substituted cathinones—to controlled substance schedules. Synthetic cannabinoids, commonly known as “Spice” or “K2” are structurally similar to and mimic the effects of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Substituted cathinones, known as “bath salts,” have similar effects to ecstasy and methamphetamine. According to the report, as of April 15, 2011, 21 states have legislatively banned synthetic cannabinoids and 10 have outlawed substituted cathinones.

Tax Day Thoughts on the Complexity of the Federal Tax Code

Although people have different views on taxes, most people think the federal tax code is too complicated. To celebrate last month’s tax day, we offer two comments on the code written 90 years apart.

The blog tax.com quotes Chicago lawyer Charles Hamill, who railed against the code’s complexity in 1915, only two years after it was enacted. Hamill thought the law was “the worst piece of legislative draftsmanship I have ever seen placed upon a statute book anywhere. It is so complicated it is utterly impossible to understand its meaning save by consulting a palmist.”

And an essay on the late writer David Foster Wallace’s strange fascination with the tax code appearing in the April 17, 2011 New York Times Book Review quotes tax lawyer Stephen Lacy’s 2005 letter describing a passage from IRC § 509(a), “legendary as the most difficult sentence to understand in the tax code.” Lacy says: “I find that, although I never quite understand what it says, after I read it several times and concentrate, I can actually get a weird Zen-type meditation high! (Then again sometimes, it provokes a profound anxiety attack.)”

Exhibits A & B: A 1915 federal income tax form and the text of IRC § 509 (a).

Nuisance Species Found in the West Branch Farmington River

. May 9, 2011

The Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced that a highly invasive freshwater alga, Didymosphenia geminate, known as “didymo”, has been discovered in the West Branch Farmington River in northwestern Connecticut. The presence of didymo was first confirmed in the northeastern United States in 2007 and it has since spread to a number of northeastern states, including New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont. This is the first report of didymo in Connecticut. DEP provides more details on its website, as well as information on how boaters and fishers can minimize the spread of didymo and other invasive species.

Too Late to Catamount a Recovery Effort

Having been on the endangered species list since 1973 and not having a confirmed sighting since the 1930s, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) declared the eastern cougar extinct. Cougars are also known as ghost cats, catamounts, pumas, painters, panthers, and mountain lions.

Although there have been reported sightings, the USFWS believes upon reviewing the reports the sighted animals have been cougars of other species, including South American cougars that have escaped captivity or western cougars that have migrated into the area. Eastern cougars historically ranged from Ontario south to South Carolina and west to Tennessee, an area that includes Connecticut.

Prior to declaring cougars extinct, the service reviewed:

• a request for scientific information about the possible existence of the eastern cougar subspecies — 573 responses were received, all of which were reviewed;

• U.S. and Canadian scientific literature; and

• requested information from the 21 states within the historical range of the subspecies. No states expressed a belief in the existence of an eastern cougar population.

A Planner’s View of Political Unrest- From the Middle East to Wisconsin

. May 6, 2011

While media reports have stressed the role of social media in the political movements unfolding in the Middle East, planners are stressing the role of public spaces in these movements. Jay Walljasper at the Project for Public Spaces notes that from the Middle East to Madison, Wisconsin, people gather in public spaces to voice their discontent and celebrate their victories. Walljapser contends that, “the exercise of democracy depends upon having a literal commons where people can gather as citizens- a square, Main Street, park or other public space that is open to all.”

U.S. House Committee Votes to Cut Funding for Health Insurance Exchanges

On April 5th, the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee favorably voted on H.R. 1213, a bill to repeal mandatory federal funding to states to establish health insurance exchanges required under federal health care reform law (i.e., the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, PPACA).

PPACA requires states to create, by 2014, an “American Health Benefit Exchange” and a “Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) Exchange.” These exchanges will be online marketplaces where individuals and small businesses can compare and purchase qualified health plans. If a state fails to establish the exchanges or is not making adequate progress in doing so by January 1, 2012, the federal government can step in and organize a federally-run exchange.

Almost every state, including Connecticut, has applied for and received planning grants to establish the exchanges.

The bill passed the committee in a 31-20 vote.

NCSL’s Suggestions on Building a Strong Child Welfare System

. May 5, 2011

The National Conference of State Legislature’s (NCSL) State Legislatures April 2011 edition includes an article on foster care. “5 Things Lawmakers Need to Know” focuses on best practices in the states that have helped to reduce the number of children in foster care by 20% in the past decade. The five suggestions are:

• Prevent abuse and neglect by offering support to vulnerable families that avoids the eventual need for foster care.

• Give child protection workers flexibility in evaluating and responding to alleged mistreatment, which tends to keep more kids at home and out of foster care.

• Put effort into identifying and notifying relatives and place a child with family members rather than an unrelated foster family to provide a better option for kids and become eligible for federal subsidized guardianship funding.

• Establish programs that encourage family members’ participation in developing placement plans and resolving problems to minimize time in foster care.

• Reduce the number of kids in residential treatment facilities, group homes, and emergency shelters to produce a better outcome for children and save the state money.

The article refers to specific programs in other states that address reforms in state child welfare systems.

College Counselors See More Students with Severe Psychological Problems

. May 4, 2011

College counseling centers reported an increase in clients with severe psychological problems last year, but anxiety was students’ top complaint, according to an annual report by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors. The report, as discussed in an April 3, 2011 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, is based on a fall 2010 survey of 424 counseling centers. Anxiety surpassed depression as the leading student complaint for the first time since the association’s initial survey in 2006.

Supreme Court Skeptical of Global Warming Case

On April 19th, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in American Electric Power, et al., v. Connecticut, et al., a case in which Connecticut and five other states sued five power generating companies for threatening “abrupt and catastrophic change in the earth’s climate” by contributing about 10% of all carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from human activity in the U.S. The states asked the courts to order the power companies to cap and reduce their CO2 emissions, but the Supreme Court must first decide if federal law even allows states and private citizens to sue a company for contributing to global warming as a “public nuisance.”

According to Lyle Denniston of SCOTUSBlog.com, although the justices didn’t want to simply dismiss the case, they had a hard time imagining how the court system could actually manage it. Several justices also indicated that the EPA was much better suited than the federal court system to resolve the issue.

Federal Contractors May Face Increased Disclosure Requirements for Political Spending

. May 3, 2011

Last year’s Citizens United decision upheld disclosure requirements for political spending, but current federal law still permits anonymous contributions to certain groups that make political expenditures. Thus far, efforts to require disclosure of these contributions have been unsuccessful. After the DISCLOSE Act died last year in Congress, it appears President Obama may now turn to an executive order.

According to a recent Federal Times article, the administration is circulating a draft order that would require bidders for federal government contracts to disclose, for the two years prior to the bid, (1)contributions to or expenditures on behalf of federal candidates, parties, or party committees (including those by the bidder’s directors, officers, and affiliates or subsidiaries) and (2) contributions made to third party entities that would then be used for independent expenditures or electioneering communications.

Sleep Tight and Don’t Let the Bed Bugs Bite

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is warning consumers to be careful when looking for products touted as remedies or ways to prevent bed bug infection. A growing number of marketers are making unrealistic claims about their abilities to control or eliminate the pests.

The FTC provides tips on preventing bed bug infestations and avoiding deceptive practices on its webpage. These include:

1. Don’t treat bedding, clothing, or electronic items with pesticides; avoid using products made for outdoor use indoors.

2. Don’t spray pesticides in places occupied by children or pets.

3. Be wary of exterminators who show up uninvited, offer a free inspection, or put pressure on you to allow costly treatments.

4. Deal with qualified and licensed pest-management companies.

5. Gets bid from several companies, but don’t choose a company based on price alone.

AMBER Alerts Now Available Via Facebook

. May 2, 2011

AMBER (America's Missing Broadcast Emergency Response) alerts are now issued through a dedicated Facebook page. The AMBER Alert system issues media alerts when a law enforcement agency determines that a child has been abducted and is in imminent danger.

Facebook users can elect to receive alerts for their state, other states, or nationwide. In addition to the main AMBER Alert page, one Facebook page is dedicated to each state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The U.S. Office of Justice Programs, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and Facebook coordinated their efforts to develop this system enhancement.

Washington, D.C. First to Offer Internet Gambling

Washington, D.C. is becoming the first U.S. jurisdiction to allow Internet gambling. This provision was part of the 2011 federal budget, approved in part to offset budget cuts and help social service programs.

Historically, online gambling has been an unsettled area of law. In 2006, Congress effectively banned Internet gambling by passing a law prohibiting banks and credit card companies from processing payments from gambling companies to individuals. But, the law did not ban Internet gambling itself.

It is unclear how the federal government will respond. The U.S. Department of Justice, which has traditionally viewed Internet gambling as illegal, declined to comment. Because Washington, D.C. is a federal city, Congress had a 30-day period to object to the legislation, but did not do so.