Provisional Ballots: the Next Hanging Chad?

. August 31, 2012

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette has an interesting article about how new voter ID laws could affect the 2012 presidential election, especially if it’s a close election.  Over the last couple of years, as the article discusses, several states have tightened their voter ID requirements.  Some election officials and experts predict that these new requirements will lead to a significant increase in the number of voters filling out provisional ballots.  Federal law requires every state to offer a provisional ballot to a voter:

  1. who is unable to provide proper identification;
  2. whose name does not appear on the official registry list; or
  3. whose eligibility to vote is challenged.  
But states have different procedures for verifying voter identity and deciding whether to count the ballots.  In a close election, those procedures could come under scrutiny.  (See OLR Report 2011-R-0372 for more information on states’ new voter ID laws.) 

Top 10 Consumer Complaints

A 2011 Consumer Federation of America survey lists the top 10 consumer complaints.  They are:

1. Auto: Misrepresentations in advertising or sales of new and used cars, lemons, faulty repairs, leasing and towing disputes;
2. Credit/Debt: Billing and fee disputes, mortgage modifications and mortgage-related fraud, credit repair, debt relief services, predatory lending, illegal or abusive debt collection tactics;
3. Home Improvement/Construction: Shoddy work, failure to start or complete the job;
4. Retail Sales: False advertising and other deceptive practices, defective merchandise, problems with rebates, coupons, gift cards and gift certificates, failure to deliver;
5. Utilities: Service problems or billing disputes with phone, cable, satellite, Internet, electric and gas service;
6. Services: Misrepresentations, shoddy work, failure to have required licenses, failure to perform;
7. Internet Sales: Misrepresentations or other deceptive practice, failure to deliver online purchases;
7. Landlord/Tenant: Unhealthy or unsafe conditions, failure to make repairs or provide promised amenities, deposit and rent disputes, illegal eviction tactics;
8. Fraud: Bogus sweepstakes and lotteries, work-at-home schemes, grant offers, fake check scams, the grandparent scam and other common frauds;
9. Real Estate: Timeshare sales and resales, retirement communities and assisted living facilities, real estate fraud;
10. Household Goods (tie): Misrepresentations, failure to deliver, faulty repairs in connection with furniture or appliances; and Home Solicitations (tie): Misrepresentations or failure to deliver in door-to door, telemarketing or mail solicitations, do-not-call violations

Pizza Boxes: They’re Not Always Recyclable

. August 30, 2012

Connecticut law requires cardboard to be recycled (Conn. Agencies Regs. § 22a-241b-1 et seq.). But many municipalities do not accept pizza boxes for recycling. Although generally made from recyclable corrugated cardboard, the boxes are often soiled with grease and cheese and not recyclable unless the tainted portions are removed.

According to Recyclebank, a private company that rewards people for environmentally friendly behavior, food and grease contaminates the paper recycling process. Paper is recycled through a slurry process where the paper is mixed with water. The paper fibers cannot separate from the oils during the pulping process, which can ruin the whole batch. Items such as paper plates and napkins are similarly not recyclable. Recyclebank suggests removing the soiled portions of the pizza box, trashing them, and recycling the rest. It can also be composted.

Hot Report: Online Purchase of Ammunition

OLR Report 2012-R-0390 explains (1) whether state or federal law prohibits online ammunition sales or purchases and (2) what, if any, eligibility criteria companies that sell ammunition online post on their websites for buyers and what checks they have in place to ensure that buyers meet the criteria.

Neither state nor federal law prohibits online ammunition sales or purchases. Several companies currently sell ammunition online.

Some companies post eligibility criteria for, and restrictions on, online ammunition purchases; others do not. Typically, those that post this information require purchasers to meet federal criteria for purchasing ammunition, which are the same as for firearm purchases. They require buyers to submit proof of age and “affirm” or “confirm” that they meet the criteria. The websites do not specify any other steps, if any, the companies take to verify that buyers are eligible.
For more information, read the full report.

UConn, Yale Rate Among the Nation’s Greenest Campuses

The Hartford Courant reports that UConn and Yale are among the greenest colleges in the country. Of the 96 four-year universities and colleges that entered the competition sponsored by Sierra magazine,  UConn was ranked fifth and Yale was ranked eighth — ahead of schools such as Cornell University (15); Harvard University (18); and the University of California, Berkeley (20). 

Richard Miller, director of UConn's office of environmental policy, said that the university had ensured that the heating and cooling systems in 13 buildings are working at maximum efficiency. In addition, it replaced lighting systems in 73 buildings. Those measures will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5,000 tons annually, the university says, and will save $1 million a year in energy costs. UConn also has a climate action plan with more than 200 "action items" for reducing UConn's carbon footprint.

Yale's standing was strong because of its commitment in 2005 to reduce carbon emissions by 43 percent by the year 2020 and for its 14 highly energy-efficient buildings.

Study Shows Childhood Cholesterol Lower, Obesity the Same

. August 29, 2012

A study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reveals that the proportion of children with high cholesterol has fallen over the past decade. The study, led by Dr. Brian Kit of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also showed that the childhood obesity rate remained the same over the same time period.

The national study assessed more than 16,000 children and adolescents over three time periods: 1988-94, 1999-2002, and 2007-2010. The number of children ages 6 through 19 with high cholesterol declined by approximately 28% from the first to the third time period (from 1 in 9 children to 1 in 12).

Some experts theorize that the cholesterol drop may be attributable to a nationwide decrease in trans fat intake, spearheaded by a ban on artificial trans fats in New York City in 2008 and a statewide ban in California in 2010.

USA Today has more information on the study.

Do You Want to Create Jobs, Stimulate Private Investment, and Boost Productivity? Repave Your Roads...

…among other things. That’s the loud and clear message Haas School of Business professor Laura D’ Andrea Tyson heard in two recent reports on the state of the nation’s infrastructure. But the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness and the New American Foundation provide “sobering evidence of the growing deficiencies of infrastructure in the United States, which millions of Americans experience every day in traffic and airport delays, crumbling and structurally unsafe schools and unreliable train and public transit systems.”

All these deficiencies cost money—freight train bottlenecks costs about $200 billion a year and air traffic delays, about $33 billion per year. And this picture isn’t likely to change soon. The American Society of Civil Engineers documents a five-year gap of more than $1.1 trillion between the amount needed for maintenance and improvements of the nation’s infrastructure and the amount of public funds available for that purpose.

Pouring money into infrastructure improvements is a cost-effective way to create jobs according to the Congressional Budget Office ($1 billion spent on infrastructure creates between 4,000 and 18,000 jobs). But it takes time to plan, approve, and complete infrastructure projects.

But the problem is more basic than that. For example, state and local governments would rather spend money building new roads and bridges than fix existing ones “despite compelling evidence that repairs are more cost effective.”  Roads, for example, tend to deteriorate slowly at first, but then their deterioration rate picks up over time. Consequently, it’s cheaper to repair roads early when they’re still in good condition than when they fall into serious disrepair.

Tyson isn’t the only one weighing in on infrastructure. Michael Mandel agrees our infrastructure’s in bad shape, but frames the issue this way: Should we spend scarce resources on improving road links to a regional shopping mall or should we place top priority on infrastructure improvements that might entice foreign firms to locate manufacturing facilities in the U.S.?

“Bank on Connecticut” Pilot Programs Will Help Residents Without Bank Accounts

. August 28, 2012

State Treasurer Denise L. Nappier and the Connecticut Association for Human Services, a statewide anti-poverty nonprofit organization, recently announced the establishment of five “Bank on Connecticut” pilot programs across the state.

The pilot programs will help members of Connecticut’s 73,000 households without bank accounts learn to safely and effectively manage their personal finances. Program participants will attend an orientation class to learn (1) how to manage a household budget, (2) the value of having a bank account, and (3) how to maintain an account and avoid fees. Upon completing the class, each participant will open a bank account at a local partner bank.

The pilot programs will be held in Bridgeport, Derby, New Haven, Norwalk and Stamford.

Hot Report: OLR Backgrounder: Evolution of Model Policy for Police Responses to Family Violence Crimes

OLR Report 2012-R-0375 summarizes the state's efforts to establish a statewide police officer response policy for officers to follow in all cases involving family violence or related protective order violations. The goal of the policy is to ensure that family violence laws are enforced evenhandedly throughout the state.

A 1986 state law requires the State Police and local police departments to develop and implement operational guidelines for making arrests for family violence offenses. These are offenses that, in addition to their other elements (1) victimize family or other household members and (2) involve actual or credible threats of physical harm. The statute specifies general areas the guidelines must cover, but individual police departments otherwise have discretion in designing and implementing them and departments are under no obligation to review or update them.

Although not required by law, the Police Officer Standards and Training Council (POST), which is responsible for training local police officers, developed a model family violence response policy in 1991 to train police officers and help departments draw up their guidelines. But departments do not have to adopt this model policy and not all have done so.

Concerned about the lack of uniformity in police responses to family violence incidents, the legislature in 2011 created a task force to evaluate existing policies and procedures and develop a model policy and implementation plan. In February 2012, the task force submitted its model policy along with recommendations for further study. The policy is based on POST's 2006 model policy and covers (1) model policy and dual arrests, (2) training and data collection, and (3) protective orders and bail bonds. (We have not included information on the protective order and bail bond recommendations, as those are directed at the Judicial Branch rather than law enforcement.)

The Judiciary Committee incorporated the task force policy into HB 5548, which passed unanimously in both chambers. It also established the Family Violence Model Policy Governing Council to review and update the policy as needed. The task force policy becomes law October 1, 2012, unless the council adopts one that supersedes it.

For more information, read the full report.

USDA Imposing Tougher Sanctions on Food Stamp Retailers Who Defraud the Program but Allows More Flexibility for Minor Violations


Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced additional anti-fraud strategies for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called Food Stamps). The policy is aimed at retailers who accept the benefits.

The Farm Bill of 2008 authorized the USDA to tighten sanctions on retailers who defraud the program. In July 2012, the agency proposed rules that would (1) allow a civil penalty to be imposed in addition to program disqualification, (2) raise the allowable penalties per violation, and (3) give the agency greater flexibility for minor violations.

Trafficking is the exchange of SNAP benefits for cash and is considered the most serious violation of programs rules. Retailers engaging in this behavior can be permanently disqualified from the program.  Current program rules allow a civil penalty to be imposed instead of program disqualification; under the new rules, both penalties and disqualification could be levied.

Retailers who take SNAP benefits for “common ineligible” products (e.g., paper products) are also subject to program disqualification, although only temporarily. The proposed rules would provide the option to apply the disqualification only to repeat offenders. And first-time offenders would be subject to a civil penalty of $1,000 in lieu of disqualification. These rules would give retailers the ability to take corrective actions.

Number of Wiretaps Decreases Nationwide

. August 27, 2012

Nationally, the number of wire, oral, or electronic communication interceptions in 2011 fell 14% from 2010 levels.  This followed a 34% increase from 2009 to 2010.  Wiretaps operated an average of 43 days.  A wiretap order, on average, intercepted communications from 113 people, with 23% of communications considered incriminating.

This and other information about wiretaps is available in a report by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts.  Federal law requires this office to collect information from federal and state officials, although only 25 states provided information and thus it appears that the state data is incomplete. 

Is Cyberbullying Overhyped?

The answer is yes, says Swedish psychologist Dan Olweus, a leading authority on school bullying and the creator of a highly regarded anti-bullying program for schools. In a recently published paper, Olweus argues that, contrary to media reports and adult fears, “cyberbullying,” or bullying through the use of electronic media, has a relatively low incidence. Moreover, it is neither increasing nor greatly expanding the number of bullies and victims. Most cyberbullies and victims are also involved in “traditional” face-to-face bullying, so the expansion of electronic communications has not exposed vastly more students to bullying.

In support of his conclusions, Olweus cites three, multi-year studies, two in the U.S. involving a total of 453,474 students, and one in Norway involving 9,000 students. An average of 17.2% of these students reported being victims of traditional, verbal bullying in school while 4.5% reported experiencing cyberbullying. For bullies, the prevalence was 9.6% for traditional bullying and 2.8% for cyberbullying.

In the face of such data, Olweus cautions against shifting the main focus of anti-bullying efforts to technical responses to cyberbullying.  Such a redirection would leave the larger problem of traditional bullying unaddressed.  In addition, because many students involved in cyberbullying also experience traditional bullying, establishing effective school measures against traditional forms of bullying will likely reduce the electronic kind as well.  

Arizona Changes State Employees to “At Will”

. August 24, 2012

Stateline’s 2012 Legislative Review looks at various labor issues state legislatures addressed this year and highlights several new changes affecting public employees.  In particular, Arizona enacted new legislation moving its state employees from a civil service system to an “at will” system in which managers will have the flexibility to hire and fire employees as they choose and grant bonuses and pay increases without legislative approval.  

Historically, civil service systems were put in place to shield public employees from political influence and help maintain stability whenever a shift in political party control occurred.  However, opponents argue that the rules protect unproductive workers and make it difficult to hire and retain a talented workforce.

Under Arizona’s legislation, all new hires are ineligible for the civil service protections given to current state employees, including the ability to file grievances and appeal disciplinary actions.  Current employees will convert to “at will” status whenever they accept a raise, promotion, or transfer. 

Twenty-Three Connecticut Hospitals Face Medicare Penalties for High Readmission Rates

According to a recent Connecticut Health Investigative Team article, 23 of the state’s 31 hospitals will face Medicare penalties in fiscal year (FY) 13 for readmitting too many patients within one month of their discharge. Of the 23 hospitals, four will face the highest penalty allowed under federal law: (1% of their base Medicare reimbursements) (1) Hospital of St. Raphael in New Haven, (2) Griffin Hospital in Derby, (3) Masonic Home and Hospital in Wallingford, and (4) MidState Medical Center in Meriden.

The federal health care reform law allows the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to withhold part of a hospital’s Medicare payments if they have high 30-day readmission rates for patients hospitalized for pneumonia, heart attacks, and heart failure. Penalties are based on patient readmission data between July 2008 and June 2011. Up to 1% of a hospital’s Medicare payment can be withheld in FY 13, increasing up to 3% in FY 15.

The eight hospitals not facing any penalties include (1) Backus Hospital, (2) Hartford Hospital, (3) Hebrew Home and Hospital in West Hartford, (4) Manchester Memorial Hospital, (5) Middlesex Hospital, (6) Rockville General Hospital, (7) Sharon Hospital, and (8) Windham Community Memorial Hospital.

Hot Report: Penalties for Illegal Handgun Possession

. August 23, 2012

OLR Report 2012-R-0345 summarizes the criminal penalties in all states and the District of Columbia for illegal possession of handguns (pistols and revolvers), including the class of the crime, sentence range, and whether there is a mandatory minimum sentence.

States restrict handgun possession in a variety of contexts. For example, following federal law, most states restrict access to handguns by minors; people convicted of felonies or certain other crimes; and people with certain mental health adjudications. Some states also require a permit, license, or certificate for handgun possession. While the 2nd Amendment to the Federal Constitution protects the individual right to own firearms, that right is not unlimited, and can be subject to certain gun control laws (D.C. vs. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008); McDonald vs. Chicago, 130 S.Ct. 3020 (2010) (applying Heller to states)).

Penalties for illegal possession of handguns vary widely across states. For example, state law penalties for possession by convicted felons range from misdemeanors to felonies with mandatory minimums. Penalties for felons' illegal gun possession are generally higher than penalties for illegal possession in other contexts (such as possession without a required permit).

The report described penalties for illegal handgun possession in three contexts: (1) possession without a permit, license, or certificate in those states with such a requirement; (2) possession by minors; and (3) possession by convicted felons.

For more information, read the full report.

Air Quality Around Schools

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is testing the air quality around schools according to a recent article in USA Today. The initial findings are not heartening.

Testing has not found “dangerous levels of pollution” in any location. However, there were a number of schools where levels of toxic chemicals were found in higher concentrations than the federal government recommends for long-term exposure. The article details what chemicals were found at schools around the country.

In a May article published in Health Affairs, researchers found schools with the highest levels of air pollution had the lowest attendance rates and the highest proportion of students who did not meet state educational testing requirements. Researchers recommended that air quality be considered when choosing sites for new schools and that pollution levels around existing schools be examined and improved if necessary.

“Docs v. Glocks”

. August 22, 2012

On June 29, 2012, a federal judge permanently barred Florida from enforcing a law prohibiting doctors from asking patients if they own guns or have guns in their home. Under the law, doctors could face disciplinary action, including fines and license suspension or termination, if they recorded firearm information in a patient’s file that was “not relevant to the patient’s medical care or safety” or was unnecessarily harassing.” The judge ruled that the law, known as the Firearm Owners’ Privacy Act, violated the free speech protections of doctors and patients and was thus unconstitutional. (For a summary of the law, read OLR Report 2012-R-0328)

Where was the Mystic Whaler?

According to www.marinetraffic.com, at 12:52 p.m. on August 9, 2012, this 34-meter long sailing vessel was sailing northwest of Block Island, Rhode Island at 7.1 knots.

Marinetraffic.com is an academic website that provides real-time information about ship movement and ports on coastlines across the globe for research purposes. The website also maintains information such as vessel details, port conditions, vessel position history and tracks, and various statistics. The data is collected by using Automatic Identification System (AIS) technology which is a vessel tracking system that records and transmits identification, position, and movement. It is available in real-time on marinetraffic.com.

On the website, moving ships are depicted by ship icons pointing in the direction that they are traveling. Stationary, anchored or moored, or ships moving at less that .5 knots are depicted by square icons. The icons are color-coded based on vessel type. Additional vessel information is obtained by clicking on the icons.

Now it is your turn: use Marinetraffic.com to find out where the Mystic Whaler is today?

Who Are the Uninsured Adults?

. August 21, 2012

A new health policy issue brief from the Urban Institute uses 2010 census data and economic modeling to pinpoint characteristics of the roughly 15.1 million uninsured adults who could gain coverage if the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion were fully implemented.  Distributions based on age, sex, parental status, race/ethnicity, and citizenship showed them to be a diverse group at both national and state levels.  Overall, the newly-eligible are more likely to be male, white, and U.S. citizens.

Hot Report: State Sales Tax

OLR Report 2012-R-0357 explains (1) many states impose a sales tax and (2) Connecticut's sales tax compares to other states.

The District of Columbia and all but five states (Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire, and Oregon) impose a state sales tax, ranging from 2.9% in Colorado to 7.25% in California. Connecticut imposes a 6.35% sales tax, which ranks as the 11th highest state sales tax rate.
At least two factors complicate comparisons of sales tax rates across states. The first is that many states allow counties and municipalities to levy sales taxes. Thus, the rates in these states vary across localities and, in some cases, the combined state and local rates are substantially higher than the state's base sales tax rate. When Connecticut is compared with other states based on combined state and local rates, its rank drops from 11th to 31st.

The other factor is that states levy the tax on different mixes of goods and services. Some states tax a broad range of goods and services, with few exemptions, while others tax relatively few. Connecticut's sales tax base is broader than that of surrounding states, but by one recent estimate, it is narrower than most states' sales taxes when taking into account its impact on the state's economic activity. A March 2012 State Tax Notes report estimates that 26.19% of Connecticut personal income is spent on goods and services subject to the state's sales tax, compared to the national median of 34.5% (Mikesell, John. “The Disappearing Retail Sales Tax,” State Tax Notes, March 5, 2012, pgs. 777-791).

While sales taxes across states differ widely, both in their rates and bases, they share several common features. In general, state sales taxes apply to all retail purchases of tangible personal property, except for those explicitly exempted, but only to specified services. States rely on vendors to consider the nature of the purchase, how it will be used, and the nature of the purchaser in determining the taxability of transactions. And all states that impose a sales tax also impose a use tax on taxable goods and services purchased in other jurisdictions for use in the home state.

For more information, read the full report.

ABA Task Force on Legal Education

The American Bar Association has recently established a task force to examine legal education. The task force will be chaired by retired Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard, and will consist of judges, practicing attorneys, legal educators, and others. 

The task force is expected to consider the cost of legal education, the legal job market, and how legal education meets the needs of employers.  It is expected to conclude in 2014.

As quoted in the press release announcing the task force’s creation, past ABA President Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III noted that “legal education must be evaluated in the context of the marketplace and the nation’s and world’s unprecedented challenges in an ever-more complex global economy.”

NTSB Provides Recommendations from Air Show Crash Investigation

. August 20, 2012

On September 16, 2011, a plane crash at a Reno, Nevada air show left 11 people dead and over 60 seriously injured. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigated the accident and recently made a number of safety recommendations to help prevent such an accident in the future. Recommendations were made to the (1) National Air Racing Group Unlimited Division, (2) Reno Air Racing Association, and (3) Federal Aviation Administration.

An Associated Press article explains that it appears the pilot in the Reno accident experienced a force of 9 gs, which incapacitated him and led to the crash. Several of NTSB’s recommendations focused on pilot safety during high g-force periods including providing high g-force training and evaluating the feasibility of wearing g suits when racing at air shows. Other safety recommendations included (1) developing a system to track pre-race technical inspection discrepancies and verify that the discrepancies are resolved, (2) changing course layout to protect spectators, and (3) requiring pilots to provide an engineering evaluation showing that any plane modifications are structurally sound.

Health Care Exchanges Explained

Under the Affordable Care Act, each state is charged with setting a minimum level of coverage in order for a health plan to be sold on the exchange — a requirement called "essential health benefits." Insurers may also offer plans with more generous benefits for a higher price. Health plans will be ranked based the quality and generosity of benefits, from platinum to gold to silver or bronze.
The July 13 Hartford Courant has an interview with Kevin J. Counihan, the chief executive officer of Connecticut’s health exchange, in which he explains the role of the exchange and how it will communicate with the state and federal agencies that offer Medicaid and other state health-care plans.

New FDA Food Safety Rules Delayed

. August 17, 2012

In 2011, President Obama signed into law the Food Safety Modernization Act, the first major overhaul of the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA)’s food safety laws in over 75 years. Among other things, the law authorizes the FDA to issue a mandatory, rather than voluntary, recall of contaminated food. According to the Pew Health Group, the FDA’s corresponding rules have been delayed by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for over eight months. Pew suggests, and the OMB denies, that the delay may be due to election-year politics.

From Owning to Renting

In an earlier post, we discussed Allison Arieff’s 2011 article about why the homebuilding industry must “stop thinking about the home as a decorative object and begin considering it as part of a larger whole.” A new Demand Institute study cited more reasons for the industry to change, primarily a shift in consumer preference from owning homes to renting them, especially among young people and immigrants.

But this shift isn’t limited to these demographic groups. As it turns out, baby boomers and younger workers, feeling their purchasing power slip, are looking to downsize. And as they do, their spending patterns will change. “For example, people who rent their home tend to own fewer cars, so demand for neighborhood rental cars should rise.” The shift to rentership may create opportunities for other industries to design new products and services addressing renters’ particular needs and concerns.

The shift could affect classrooms as well as neighborhoods. “The rentals can mean shifting student populations that present more challenges for schools, says Roger Freeman, superintendent of the Littleton Elementary School District in Avondale, Arizona… Half of the district’s 5,000 students are new this year, a far higher percentage than normal. Foreclosures are part of the reason, he says.”

What does the shift mean for public policy?

The Shifting Nature of U.S. Housing Demand, Demand Institute, May 2012 (http://www.demandinstitute.org/sites/default/files/blog-uploads/tdihousingdemand.pdf)

What Will the Expiration of Bush-Era Tax Cuts Mean to You?

. August 16, 2012

Take a look at the Tax Foundation’s recently updated interactive tax calculator.  By plugging in some basic information (filing status, number of dependents, and income), it will estimate your federal tax rate under three scenarios: (1) the full expiration of the Bush and Obama tax cuts, (2) the Republican plan to extend the Bush tax cuts, and (3) President Obama’s plan to partially extend them.

If you need a refresher on the Bush tax cuts and why they are expiring, The Tax Foundation breaks it down here.

Emerald Ash Borer Found in Connecticut

The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) and the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (CAES) recently announced that the emerald ash borer, an invasive destructive beetle, was detected in Prospect, Connecticut on July 16, 2012 by CAES staff.  This is the first time the insect has been recorded in Connecticut, which joins 15 other states where infestations have occurred.  According to DEEP, the emerald ash borer is responsible for the death and decline of tens of millions of ash trees from the mid-west to New York to Tennessee.  Connecticut has over 22 million ash trees and the insect’s presence represents an environmental threat to the state. 

DEEP and CAES have also announced steps to prevent the spread of the emerald ash borer, including a (1) quarantine zone that prohibits the movement of certain wood products out of New Haven county and (2) ban on the importation of firewood through New York or Massachusetts, unless it is properly certified or known to come from an area not infested.

Town vs. State Over ‘Fracking’ Regulations

. August 15, 2012

According to a recent Stateline.com article, at least 246 municipalities in 15 states have passed laws restricting oil and gas development.  Responding to what their proponents see as lax state laws, these regulations generally limit “fracking,” a controversial method of extracting oil and natural gas, by injecting millions of gallons of water and chemicals into deep underground wells.  While the process has helped unlock previously unobtainable resources, lower natural gas prices, and create economic booms, it has also raised fears of damaging the environment, property values, and local infrastructure.

With so many new local laws, state courts have become involved in determining how much local rule towns have.  But even at that level, there’s no widespread consensus on how to proceed.  In New York, the court upheld drilling bans passed by the small towns of Dryden and Middlefield.  In West Virginia, the court ruled against Morgantown’s fracking ban.  And in Pennsylvania, the state’s Commonwealth Court recently struck down a provision in state law that would have overridden local ordinances.  In response, Governor Corbett announced that the state would appeal the court’s decision.

Economic Development Policy’s Outer Limits

Much of the talk in economic development circles today is about making a place (a town, county, state, or country) more attractive to businesses by cutting taxes, regulations, and financing costs—the very things that drive up business costs and eat into profits. Public policy options generally include tax breaks; expedited permitting; and low-cost loans, state-guaranteed bank loans, and tax increment financing. But, a new book by business strategist Gary Hamel suggests that factors beyond public policy’s reach may have as much to do with business success as the traditional policy options.

In What Matters Now: How to Win in a World of Relentless Change, Ferocious, Competition, and Unstoppable Innovation, Hamel identifies five paramount issues that can make or break a business: (1) innovation, (2) adaptability, (3) passion, (4) ideology, and (5) values.

In 1994, the General Assembly took a step toward economic development policy’s outer limits when it directed the labor and economic development agencies to (1) give priority for state assistance to businesses that continuously improve their operations; (2) allow workers to participate in decision making; (3) use flexible, cross-functional teams; and (4) meet other specified “high performance work organization” criteria (PA 94-116).

Hot Report: Criminal Background Checks for Non-School-Sponsored Sports Coaches

. August 14, 2012

OLR Report 2012-R-0359 explains (1) if Connecticut law requires background checks for nonschool-sponsored sports program coaches and volunteers, (2) whether any other states or any national youth sports leagues require such checks, and (3) for information on any recent Connecticut proposals to require non-school-sponsored youth sports coaches and volunteers to undergo background checks. This report is an update of OLR 2004-R-0615.

Criminal Background Checks for Non-School-Sponsored Sports Coaches
Connecticut law does not require criminal records background checks of school volunteers or nonschool-sponsored sports coaches.

We found three states with laws on criminal background checks for non-school youth sports organization personnel. Two of the states, New Jersey and Oregon, expressly encourage or allow the checks. Florida's background checks are mandatory.

Several youth sports leagues, including Little League Baseball and Pop Warner Leagues, require annual background checks for all league employees and volunteers. The national leagues require local leagues to check the names of their volunteers against their state sex offender registry.

Since 2004, three bills were introduced to extend the law on sports-related criminal background checks to nonschool employees and volunteers. None became law.

For more information, read the full report.

Primary Day

Connecticut voters go to the polls today to choose their party nominees for a number of offices on the November ballot. The most prominent contests are those for U.S. Senate and the fifth congressional district, both of which are open and have primary races in both parties. However, there are a total of 19 races taking place, including one additional congressional contest (for the Republican nomination in the second district), three in the state Senate and 12 in the House of Representatives, two registrars of voters contests, and one for probate judge.

A press release from the secretary of the state’s office lists the primary contests taking place around the state. It also has the number of voters registered with each political party, broken out by congressional district, and the number of new voters registered since January 1.

Bankruptcy Filings Falling

. August 13, 2012

According to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, bankruptcy filings for the 12-month period ending March 31, 2012 fell 13% percent compared to the prior 12-months. Filings fell from 1,571,183 to 1,367,006 nationwide.

Nonbusiness (i.e., personal) filings were also down 13% while business bankruptcy filings were down 14%. With 1,320,613 bankruptcy filings for the 12-month period ending March 31, 2012, that's the lowest level since 2009.

Beware of Utility Credit Scammers

The Department of Consumer Protection (DCP) is warning state residents to beware of telephone scammers offering them credits on their utility bills in return for their Social Security numbers and bank routing numbers.

The scammers claim they need the numbers so that consumers can take advantage of a federal utility payment assistance program. There is no such program.

DCP says people in a many states have fallen victim to the ploy, making it one of the most successful recent scams. Victims include 2,000 people in Tampa, Florida, and at least 10,000 people in New Jersey, according to the department. Other states reporting the same or similar scams include California, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Utah. At least two people in Connecticut have received such calls.

New Orleans’ “Sophie’s Choice”

. August 10, 2012

“You have a choice,” said David Gilmore, the private contractor the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development hired to oversee the New Orleans Public Housing Authority: “Do you serve 800 families in deplorable conditions or 300 in much better conditions?” Gilmore added, “I know what choice I would make.” Do you know what choice you would make?


Why does New Orleans have to choose? For a several reasons.  Before 2005, much of the public housing consisted of vintage 1930s units that had been deteriorating for decades, driving residents away. Then Hurricane Katrina came along, scattering even more residents from the projects. But, in doing so, Katrina created an opportunity for New Orleans to start over. The city’s 12,000 housing units were occupied by only 5,000 residents.

So the city reversed course—instead of continue to corral all government-funded housing in a few locations, it built new housing mixing subsidized and market-rate units in several different locations. Decaying projects have given way to town homes with ornate balconies and manicured lawns. Okay, so what’s the problem?

The problem is the city now has 3,500 fewer public housing units, and the waiting lists for the new units are very long. Normally, people who can’t get into public housing can get a rent voucher and live in a private unit. But the list for vouchers is long, too. Hence the Sophie’s Choice: “Shrinking budgets and lack of federal support have led housing authorities across the USA to partner with private developers and build mixed-income projects that are better for the community but lower the overall number of subsidized units.” 

Appeals Court Rejects Ruling on U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs Handling of Its Mental Health Care System

According to a May 7 Stars and Stripes article, “…a federal appeals court on Monday found that Congress, not the courts, is responsible for fixing the VA’s troubled mental health care system, overturning a previous court that found the program riddled with ‘unchecked incompetence.’”

The article states, “[i]n a 10-1 decision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a lawsuit that sought to force the Department of Veterans Affairs to overhaul the treatment program and reversed an earlier ruling that would have forced the government to speed up treatment requests and benefit claims.”

It goes on to say that , “the decision came in a lawsuit filed in 2007 by a veterans’ group that alleged the VA’s system could be blamed for suicides and other suffering because of its slow approach to treating returning soldiers.”

Writing for the court, Judge Jay Bybee stated “[The lawsuit] sounds a plaintive cry for help, but it has been misdirected to us.”

“As much as we may wish for expeditious improvement in the way the VA handles mental health care and service-related disability compensation, we cannot exceed our jurisdiction to accomplish it.”

The article notes that only one judge dissented, expressing concern that the ruling “…leaves veterans in a ‘Catch-22’ position because they can’t turn to the courts if the VA fails to respond to their cases.”

Study: Many Children Not Restrained When Riding in Cars

. August 9, 2012

A study that will be published in the September issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reveals which drivers aren’t placing children in child seats when riding in a car. The study also shows many parents are placing their children in the front seat, where they are much less safe if involved in a collision.
The researchers examined data from three years of the National Survey of the Use of Booster Seats, where the use of restraints was directly observed, and found that a driver who didn’t wear a seatbelt was 23 times more likely to leave a child unrestrained in a car than a driver who did wear a seat belt.

Researchers also found evidence that (1) non-whites were more likely to leave a child unrestrained and (2) drivers in the northeast are most likely to restrain a child, drivers in the south are least likely, and drivers from the west were most likely to place children in the front seat.

Using Landlords to Strike at Medical Marijuana Retailers

Reuters reports that federal prosecutors in California are trying to wipe out the state’s medical marijuana industry without turning pot shop owners and sick people into felons.  Although the California Legislature legalized medical marijuana sales in 1996, they still violate federal drug trafficking laws, thus putting sellers and their customers at risk of serving jail time and paying stiff fines.

Making novel use of a civil forfeiture statute traditionally used to seize property and assets from drug traffickers, prosecutors have sent out hundreds of letters in the past six months warning commercial landlords that they must either evict tenants who sell medical marijuana or risk losing their property. For-profit storefront shops, especially those (1) opposed by the cities where they operate or (2) located near schools or playgrounds, are the Justice Department's favored targets. 

Reuters estimates that the U.S. medical marijuana industry generates $1.7 billion in annual sales.

Hot Report: Death Penalty

. August 8, 2012

OLR Report 2012-R-0321 describes which states abolished the death penalty and how they did so, which countries have the death penalty, and the history of the death penalty in Connecticut.

Connecticut is one of 17 states without the death penalty. The other states are Alaska, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
In recent years, Connecticut and three other states abolished the death penalty.
  1. In 2007, New Jersey abolished the death penalty and legislatively resentenced death row inmates to life in prison without parole.
  2. In 2009, New Mexico abolished the death penalty prospectively, leaving two people on death row.
  3. In 2011, Illinois' legislature abolished the death penalty prospectively but the governor commuted the sentences of those on death row to life in prison without parole.
  4. In 2012, Connecticut abolished the death penalty prospectively, 10 inmates sentenced to death remain on death row, and anyone who committed a crime before April 25, 2012 can be charged with a capital felony and sentenced to death (PA 12-5).
According to Amnesty International, which tracks death penalty laws around the world:
  1. 97 countries have completely abolished the death penalty;
  2. 57 countries, including the United States, allow it;
  3. 36 countries allow it but in practice do not carry out the death penalty; and
  4. 8 countries only allow the death penalty in exceptional circumstances.
Connecticut's history with the death penalty stretches back to colonial times. The law changed many times over the years, generally narrowing the types of crimes eligible for the death penalty and later giving a judge or jury an alternative to sentencing a capital offender to death. The legislature also revised the state's death penalty statutes after the U.S. Supreme Court effectively ruled all state death penalty statutes unconstitutional in 1972. Finally, under PA 12-5, Connecticut abolished the death penalty prospectively by eliminating it as a sentencing option for crimes committed on or after April 25, 2012.
Based on information from the Death Penalty Information Center and The Day, Connecticut conducted 127 executions since 1639. The Connecticut State Library lists all executions since 1894 (http://www.cslib.org/executions.htm). In recent years, Connecticut's only executions occurred in 2005 and 1960.
Connecticut is one of 17 states without the death penalty. The other states are Alaska, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
In recent years, Connecticut and three other states abolished the death penalty.
  1. In 2007, New Jersey abolished the death penalty and legislatively resentenced death row inmates to life in prison without parole.
  2. In 2009, New Mexico abolished the death penalty prospectively, leaving two people on death row.
  3. In 2011, Illinois' legislature abolished the death penalty prospectively but the governor commuted the sentences of those on death row to life in prison without parole.
  4. In 2012, Connecticut abolished the death penalty prospectively, 10 inmates sentenced to death remain on death row, and anyone who committed a crime before April 25, 2012 can be charged with a capital felony and sentenced to death (PA 12-5).
 According to Amnesty International, which tracks death penalty laws around the world:
  1. 97 countries have completely abolished the death penalty;
  2. 57 countries, including the United States, allow it;
  3. 36 countries allow it but in practice do not carry out the death penalty; and
  4. 8 countries only allow the death penalty in exceptional circumstances.
Connecticut's history with the death penalty stretches back to colonial times. The law changed many times over the years, generally narrowing the types of crimes eligible for the death penalty and later giving a judge or jury an alternative to sentencing a capital offender to death. The legislature also revised the state's death penalty statutes after the U.S. Supreme Court effectively ruled all state death penalty statutes unconstitutional in 1972. Finally, under PA 12-5, Connecticut abolished the death penalty prospectively by eliminating it as a sentencing option for crimes committed on or after April 25, 2012.
Based on information from the Death Penalty Information Center and The Day, Connecticut conducted 127 executions since 1639. The Connecticut State Library lists all executions since 1894 (http://www.cslib.org/executions.htm). In recent years, Connecticut's only executions occurred in 2005 and 1960.
For more information, read the full report.

New Report Highlights Issues with Private Student Loans

A recent report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau highlights several issues with private higher education loans, some of which resemble those that surrounded subprime mortgages. According to the report, private student loan volume spiked from $5 billion in 2001 to $20 billion in 2008 before shrinking to $6 billion in 2011. It now represents $150 billion of the approximately $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt.

When You Have to Drop a Dime on Your Own Employee

. August 7, 2012

If you are in business long enough the chances a pretty good that one day you will discover that one of your employees has done something not just stupid, but possibly criminal.

The Connecticut Employment Law blog recently considered the subject of when an employer should report a crime by an employee. The Penn State child abuse scandal has brought this issue to light in stark terms.
Blogger Daniel Schwartz reminds us that some employers are, by law, mandated reporters for certain types of crimes. Other situations may fall in more of a gray area.

Schwartz cautions that employers should take seriously situations that suggest criminal activity – even if it is by your top salesman or a legendary football program.

Hot Report: Federal and State Law on Cable TV Competition

OLR Report 2012-R-0356 explains federal and state law on cable TV competition, specifically whether they permit more than one cable company to serve an area.

Urban Farms: A New Use for Vacant and Blighted Property

San Francisco joins a growing number of cities across the country that have created programs to encourage agriculture and gardening within city limits.  On July 17, San Francisco’s board of supervisors approved legislation that will make it easier for urban farming advocates and neighborhood organizations to install vegetable farms, chicken coops, and bee hives on vacant land and rooftops.

As part of the program, the city will create a central office dedicated to urban farming.  The office is designed to coordinate efforts among the city’s departments and provide residents, businesses, and organizations with a “one-stop shop” for urban farming information and technical assistance.  The city will also develop incentives for landowners to allow temporary urban farms on their property, particularly on vacant and blighted land. 

NCSL Website Tracks State Legislative Responses to Federal Health Reform

. August 6, 2012

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has created an online database tracking state legislation related to the federal Affordable Care Act.  The database provides information on the status of such bills, date of last action, a brief summary, the bill’s history, and more. 

Topics covered by the database include actions related to Medicaid, health insurance exchanges, health insurance reform, health information technology, prevention and wellness, providers and workforce, and state challenges and alternatives to the federal law.

Calculating a Superhero’s Income Tax Liability

In its Block Talk blog, tax preparation company H&R Block recently had a little fun comparing the lifestyles of two comic book superheroes, including calculating their estimated tax liability for 2012. The two are billionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne (“Batman”) and freelance news photographer Peter Parker (“Spider-man”).

Block estimates Wayne’s 2012 adjusted gross income (AGI) at $145 million, based on his $102 million salary as CEO of Wayne Enterprises and $43 million in capital gains from stock options. (Wayne ranks 8th on Forbes Magazine’s list of the 15 wealthiest fictional characters, with an estimated net worth of $6.9 billion.)  Parker’s estimated AGI of $50,000 comes from his work as a freelance news photographer.

Based on Block’s very simplified calculations, Wayne’s estimated 2012 federal tax liability is $17 million, an effective tax rate of 11.7%. Wayne’s liability is reduced by a charitable deduction of $72.5 million, based on total 2012 charitable donations of $279 million. (Block originally deducted the entire amount only to hastily revise its calculation after bloggers pointed out that the IRS limits annual charitable deductions to 50% of AGI.) Parker’s estimated federal tax liability is $6,250, an effective tax rate of 12.5%.

If the two lived in Connecticut instead of Gotham City and Forest Hills, N.Y., respectively, Wayne’s state income tax would be $9.58 million, while Parker would owe $2,070. Wayne’s effective Connecticut tax rate would be 6.6% and Parker’s, 4.14%. Neither would be eligible for the maximum $300 property tax credit. Wayne, though he owns an estate worth an estimated $600 million, doesn’t qualify because his CT AGI is too high. Parker would qualify based on AGI, but since lives with his Aunt May and doesn’t have a car, he doesn’t pay property tax. 

Designing Elections to Protect Votes

. August 3, 2012

A new Brennan Center report examines how design flaws in ballots, voting machines, and voter instructions led to thousands of lost votes in the 2008 and 2010 elections. The authors contend that technology (e.g., smartphones and computer tablets) has prompted large segments of the private and public sectors to employ design and usability research to improve customers’ ability to use their products. Yet within elections, progress has been slow, resulting in too many design defects. The report recommends that election officials take the following measures to cure these defects and protect votes in 2012:

  1. review lost vote data,
  2. create a checklist of design best practices,
  3. conduct usability testing, and
  4. make voters aware of potential problems.
In addition, the report provides a:
  1. ballot design checklist,
  2. primer on how ballots are commonly lost (e.g., overvotes and undervotes), and
  3. summary of common design and usability issues in 2008 and 2010.

Health Insurance Rebates Expected in Connecticut

The Hartford Courant recently reported that Connecticut employers and individuals will receive $12.95 million in health insurance rebates by August 1, 2012 resulting from the federal health care reform act.  Across all types of health plans, rebates are due to 137,452 Connecticut consumers and the average rebate check will be $168.  Nationally, $1.1 billion in rebates is due on health plans representing 12.8 million Americans, resulting in an average payment of $151.

Under the federal Affordable Care Act, insurers that do not spend a required amount on medical expenses must pay rebates to consumers. For every premium dollar an insurance company receives in revenue for individual and small-group plans, the company must spend 80 cents for medical expenses for customers in those plans. For large groups, the insurer must spend 85 cents of each premium dollar.  This is called the medical loss ratio rule. 

Avoid Scam Promising to Pay Utility Bills

. August 2, 2012

The Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection (DCP) recently warned consumers to steer clear of scammers pretending to represent a federal program that helps people pay their utility bills. These scammers tell consumers that they must provide their social security numbers and bank routing numbers over the phone in order to process the payment to the utility company. Consumers are then given a fraudulent bank routing number to pay their utility bill through an automated phone service. Until the utility company recognizes the fake account number, the payment is initially credited to the consumer (who will also receive a payment confirmation notice).  Generally, consumers only realize they have been scammed after the false payments are rescinded.

Blue Lobsters for Dinner?

A recent Associated Press (AP) article reported on an increase in accounts of odd-colored lobsters found in New England and Atlantic Canada fishing grounds. According to the AP, reports of blue, orange, yellow, calico, white, and split lobsters occur each month, but such reports used to be rare. According to Michael Tlusty, the New England Aquarium’s research director, the reason for the increase in colorful lobsters is unknown, but may be due to (1) advances in technology such as cell phone cameras and social media which make sharing pictures easier and (2) an increase in the overall lobster harvest, resulting in the capture of a greater number of these lobsters. The executive director of The Lobster Conservancy, Diane Cowan, also explained that the population of uniquely colored lobsters may have increased because of a decline in predators. These lobsters are unable to blend into the ocean floor like normal colored lobsters and are generally more likely to be a predator target.

Saving Energy (And Money) In State And Municipal Buildings

. August 1, 2012

In July 2012, the departments of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) and Administrative Services (DAS) submitted their report to the legislature on the Lead by Example program. The program is designed to help Connecticut reduce energy use in state facilities by 10% by January 1, 2013 and provide support for municipalities to achieve energy reductions in their buildings. The program is supported by a partnership between DEEP, DAS, the Department of Construction Services, Office of Policy and Management, Board of Regents, Office of the Treasurer, Attorney General’s Office, and the program administrators of the Connecticut Energy Efficiency Fund; no funds are available for outside consultants.

Under the program, $8.3 million in bonding has been committed to 37 energy efficiency projects across the state, with an average payback of 5.45 years. An estimated 75% of these projects, plus additional projects the program funds in the coming months, will be completed by January 2013. These projects will achieve energy reductions that are the annual equivalent of 358,700 fewer gallons of gasoline, 3.5 million pounds of coals, and 322,900 fewer gallons of home heating oil used.

Among other things, the report also describes progress in energy performance contracting, which enables state agencies and municipalities to implement multi-million dollar retrofit projects that are paid through future energy savings and structured to require no upfront capital investment.

Apocalypse Now! (Or How Mexico Has Connecticut Beat When It Comes To “End-Of-The-World“ Tourism Destinations)

Clearly all economic growth would end when the world ends. But that’s not going to stop Mexico from making a buck before December 21, 2012, the day marking the end of the current cycle of the Mayan “Long Count Calendar.” Tapachula, located on Mexico’s border with Guatemala, installed a big digital clock that counts down to that date. The town is not far from Izapa, the archeological site where the “Tree of Life Stone” was discovered during the 1950s.

Cancun and Playa del Carmen already hold their own as top tourist destinations, but that’s not stopping them from cashing in on the end-of-the-world act. If you go these spots, you can put messages and pictures in time capsules that will be buried for 50 years. Looking for a more collective experience? Try the ruins at the large ceremonial centers at Tulum, Palanque, and Chichen, where officials are busy prepping things for the arrival of thousands of expected “apocalypse tourists.”